March 22, 2009 § 1 Comment
Death has been on my mind. Natasha’s Richardson’s accident was heartbreaking; a close friend of mine was working with a member of her family, which is not much of a connection but it lit up my own memories of her performances. I also saw Liam Neeson on Jon Stewart a few months ago, and went through the requisite envy—Natasha Richardson has everything—that one remembers at moments like this.
The flip side of that is I’ve been feeling desperately unhappy about my own life: a stalled career, no money, a 9 year love affair that is a perpetual misery machine shot with moments of transcendent joy, hours of quiet happiness—the seductions that keep one from turning off the machine.
I have health, loving friends and family, brains and talent. Nonetheless, there’s a part of me that thinks: I know nothing of Natasha Richardson’s inner life, but if it matched what one saw from the outside, 45 years of that seems better than 145 of my own life.
This isn’t about fame or a sexy movie star husband. It’s about depression, which has systematically wrecked the many opportunities I’ve had. It’s about my father, who taught me that the way you deal with severe pain is to kill yourself. My mother taught me that you deal with it by tapping your inner strength, and that’s what I’ve been doing for 54 years. The appeal of my father’s way is you don’t have to keep doing it over and over. I remember a little wooden placard he had, the kind you buy at a tacky gift shop. Written on it was, “If at first you don’t succeed, to hell with it.”
I was struck by that not just because it appealed to a kid’s natural anti-piety, but because it seemed so in character for him, and I hadn’t consciously recognized that part of his character before. My father rarely talked to me so any tidbit I learned about him was powerful. Any connection was powerful. I didn’t believe in that slogan, and still don’t: I’m more of the school that if you don’t succeed after trying for 54 years, you should strongly consider saying to hell with it.
I’m not talking about my particular goals. I know I didn’t try hard enough in my career, didn’t do what people told me to do and what I told myself to do. I didn’t try hard enough to walk away from a hopeless romance. (No, not hopeless. I can’t even say that now. Seemingly hopeless.) But the reason I didn’t wasn’t laziness, though I have more than my share of that, but depression. I’ve never liked that word, but none of the good words—despair, anguish, terror—carry the same implication of longlastingness. I have to trust you know the ferocity and multi-dimensional nature of the beast. I’ve spent at least half my life’s energy fighting it. When I read about women juggling family and career, I relate. Tending to the demands of relentless needy creatures is wearying.
Everybody’s beast is different, though, and what I can say about mine is that it’s never been that flat, affectless grey goo that so many people describe. I’ve been in that place, now and then. It was restful. Not pleasant, but restful. But I can see why it results in suicide so often. If nothing is reliably differentiated from any other thing, even death loses its mystique and becomes as harmless-looking as a sleeping pill.
Death has never looked harmless to me. I first encountered it as a murderer taking those I loved. I’ve never gone a week without moments of joy or contentment, without appreciation of the beauty of the world that death will steal from me, sooner or later. So I have to do things my mother’s way and manage to enjoy life even though the demonspawn upstairs are going crazy and may soon erupt.
You know language is inadequate when this translates as ‘hope.’