Excerpts from Must Read Books & Articles on Mental Health
Books, Part I
An Unquiet Mind
Kay Redfield Jamison, pp. 67-89
There is a particular kind of pain, elation, loneliness
and terror involved in this kind of madness. When you're high, it's
tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and
you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes, the right
words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt
certainty. There are interests found in uninteresting people. Sensuality is
pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced irresistible. Feelings of ease,
intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence and euphoria pervade one's
marrow. But, somewhere, this changes. The fast ideas are far too fast, and
there are far too many; overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Memory goes.
Humor and absorption on friends' faces are replaced by fear and concern. Everything
previously moving with the grain is now against--you are irritable, angry, frightened,
uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of the mind. You never
knew those caves were there. It will never end, for madness carves its own reality.
It goes on and on and finally there are only other's recollections of
your behavior--your bizarre, frenetic, aimless behaviors--for mania has at least some
grace in partially obliterating memories. What then, after the medications,
psychiatrist, despair, depression and overdose? All those incredible feelings to
sort through. Who is being too polite to say what? Who knows what? What
did I do? Why? And most hauntingly, when will it happen again? Then, too, are
the bitter reminders--medicine to take, resent, forget, take resent and forget, but always
to take. Credit cards revoked, bounced checks to cover, explanations due at work,
apologies to make, intermittent memories (what did I do?), friendships gone or drained, a
ruined marriage. And always, when will it happen again? Which of my feelings
are real? Which of the me's is me? The wild, impulsive, chaotic, energetic and
crazy one? Or the shy, withdrawn, desperate, suicidal, doomed and tired one?
Probably a bit of both, hopefully much that is neither. Virginia Woolf, in her dives
and climbs, said it all: "How far do our feelings take their colour from the dive
underground? I mean, what is the reality of any feeling?"
I did not wake up one day to find myself mad. Life should be so
simple. Rather, I gradually became aware that my life and mind were going at an ever
faster and faster clip, until finally over the course of my first summer on the faculty,
they both had spun wildly and absolutely out of control. But the acceleration from
quick thought to chaos was a slow and beautifully seductive one. In the beginning,
everything seemed perfectly normal. I joined the psychiatry faculty in July of 1974
and was assigned to one of the adult inpatient wards for my clinical and teaching
responsibilities. I was expected to supervise psychiatric residents and clinical
psychology interns in diagnostic techniques, psychological testing, psychotherapy, and,
because of my background in psychopharmacology, some issues related to drug trials and
medications. I was also the faculty liaison between the Departments of Psychiatry
and Anesthesiology, where I did consultations, seminars and put into place some research
protocols that were designed to investigate psychological and medical aspects of pain,
My own research consisted primarily of writing up some of the drug studies I had
carried out in graduate school. I had no particular interest in either clinical work
or research related to mood disorders and as I had been almost entirely free of serious
mood swings for more than a year, I assumed that those problems were behind me.
Feeling normal for any extended period of time raises hopes that turn out, almost
invariably, to be writ on water.
I settled into my new job with great optimism and energy. I
enjoyed teaching and, although it initially seemed strange to be supervising the clinical
work of others, I liked it. I found the transition from intern to faculty status far
less difficult than I had imagined; it was, needless to say, one that was greatly helped
along by an invigorating difference in salary. The relative freedom I had to pursue
my own academic interests was intoxicating. I worked very hard and, looking back on
it, slept very little. Decreased sleep is both a symptom of mania and a cause, but I
didn't know that at the time, and it probably would not have made any difference to me if
I had. Summer had often brought me longer nights and higher moods, but this time it
pushed me into far higher, more dangerous and psychotic places than I had ever been.
Summer, a lack of sleep, a deluge of work, and exquisitely vulnerable genes
eventually took me to the back of beyond, past my familiar levels of exuberance and into
The chancellor's garden party was given annually to welcome new faculty
members to UCLA. By coincidence the man who was to become my psychiatrist also
happened to be attending the garden party, having himself just joined the adjunct medical
school faculty. It proved to be an interesting example of the divide between one's
self-perception and the cooler, more measured observations of an experienced clinician who
suddenly found himself in a social situation watching a somewhat wild-eyed and frenzied
former intern that he, as the recent chief resident, had supervised the preceding year.
My recollection of the situation was that I was perhaps a bit high, but primarily I
remember talking to scads of people, feeling that I was irresistibly charming and zipping
around from hors d'oeuvre to hors d'oeuvre and drink to drink. I talked with the
chancellor for a long time; he, of course, had absolutely no idea who I was, but he was
either being exceedingly polite by talking to me for so long or simply holding true to his
reputation as having a penchant for young women. Whatever he actually felt, I was
sure he was finding me captivating.
I also had an extended and rather odd conversation with the chairman of
my department--odd, but a conversation I found delightful. My chairman was himself a
not unexpansive person and he harbored a very imaginative mind that did not always keep
within the common grazing lands of academic medicine. He was somewhat notorious
within psychopharmacology circles for having accidentally killed a rented circus elephant
with LSD--a complicated, rather improbable story involving large land mammals in must,
temporal lobe glands, the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on violent behavior and
miscalculated volumes and surface areas--and we started a long, dendritic discussion about
doing research on elephants and hyraxes. Hyraxes are small African animals that bear
no resemblance whatsoever to elephants but, based on the patterning of their teeth, are
thought to be their closest living relatives. I cannot begin to remember the
detailed arguments and common interests underlying this strange and extremely animated
conversation--except that I immediately, and with great gusto, took upon myself the task
of tracking down every article, and there were hundreds, ever written about hyraxes.
I also volunteered to work on animal behavior studies at the Los Angeles Zoo, as
well as to co-teach a course in ethology and yet another one in pharmacology and ethology.
My memories of the garden party were that I had had a fabulous, bubbly,
seductive, assured time. My psychiatrist, however, in talking with me about it
much later, recollected it very differently. I was, he said, dressed in a remarkably
provocative way, totally unlike the conservative manner in which he had seen me dressed
over the preceding year. I had on much more makeup than usual and seemed to him to
be frenetic and far too talkative. He says he remember thinking to himself, Kay
looks manic. I, on the other hand, had thought I was splendid.
My mind was beginning to have to scramble a bit to keep up with itself,
as ideas were coming so fast that they intersected one another at every conceivable angle.
There was a neuronal pileup on the highways of my brain and the more I tried to
slow down my thinking, the more I became aware that I couldn't. My enthusiasms were
going into overdrive as well, although there often was some underlying thread of logic in
what I was doing. One day, for example, I got into a frenzy of photocopying: I made
thirty to forty copies of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, an article about religion and
psychosis from the American Journal of Psychiatry and another article, "Why
I Do Not Attend Case Conferences," written by a prominent psychologist who had
elucidated all of the reasons why teaching rounds, when poorly conducted, are such a
horrendous waste of time. All three of these articles seemed to me, quite suddenly,
to have profound meaning and relevance for the clinical staff on the ward. So I
passed them out to everyone I could.
What is interesting to me now is not that I did such a typically manic
thing; rather, it's that there was some prescience and sense in those early days of
incipient madness. The ward rounds were a complete waste of time, although
the ward chief was less than appreciative of my pointing it out to everyone (and even less
appreciative of my circulating the article to the entire staff). The Millay poem,
"Renascence," was one I had read as a young girl and as my mood became more and
more ecstatic, by mind started racing ever and ever faster. I somehow remembered it
with utter clarity and straightaway looked it up. Although I was just beginning my
journey into madness, the poem described the entire cycle I was about to go through: it
started with normal perceptions of the world ("All I could see from where I stood /
Was three long mountains and a wood") and then continued through ecstatic and
visionary states to unremitting despair and, finally, reemergence into the normal world,
but with heightened awareness. Millay was nineteen years old when she wrote the poem
and, although I did not know it at the time, she later survived several breakdowns and
hospitalizations. Somehow, in the strange state I was in, I knew that the poem had
meaning for me; I understood it totally. I gave it to the residents and interns as a
metaphorical description of the psychotic process and the important possibilities in a
subsequent renewal. The residents, unaware of the internal flurry that propelled the
readings, seemed to respond well to the articles and, almost to a person, expressed
pleasure in the break from their regular medical reading.
During this same period of increasingly feverish behavior at work, my
marriage was falling apart. I separated from my husband, ostensibly because I wanted
children and he didn't--which was true and important--but it was far more complicated than
that. I was increasingly restless, irritable and I craved excitement; all of a
sudden, I found myself rebelling against the very things I most loved about my husband:
his kindness, stability, warmth and love. I impulsively reached out for a new life.
I found an exceedingly modern apartment in Santa Monica, although I hated modern
architecture; I bought Finnish Furniture, although I loved warm and old-fashioned things.
Everything I acquired was cool, modern, angular and I suppose, strangely soothing
and relatively uninvasive of my increasingly chaotic mind and jangled senses. There
was, at least, a spectacular--and spectacularly expensive--view of the ocean.
Spending a lot of money that you don't have--or, as the formal diagnostic criteria so
quaintly put it, "engaging in unrestrained buying sprees"--is a classic part of
When I am high I couldn't worry about money if I tried. So I
don't. The money will come from somewhere; I am entitled; God will provide.
Credit cards are disastrous, personal checks worse. Unfortunately, for manics
anyway, mania is a natural extension of the economy. What with credit cards and bank
accounts there is little beyond reach. So I bought twelve snakebite kits, with a
sense of urgency and importance. I bought precious stones, elegant and unnecessary
furniture, three watches within an hour of one another (in the Rolex rather than the Timex
class: champagne tastes bubble to the surface, are the surface, in mania), and totally
inappropriate sirenlike clothes. During one spree in London I spent several hundred
pounds on books having titles or covers that somehow caught my fancy: books on the natural
history of the mole, twenty sundry Penguin books because I thought it could be nice if the
penguins could form a colony. Once I think I shoplifted a blouse because I could not
wait a minute longer for the woman-with-molasses feet in front of me in line. Or
maybe I just thought about shoplifting, I don't remember, I was totally confused. I
imagine I must have spent far more than thirty thousand dollars during my two major manic
episodes, and God only knows how much more during my frequent milder manias.
But then back on lithium and rotating on the planet at the same pace as
everyone else, you find your credit is decimated, your mortification complete; mania is
not a luxury one can easily afford. It is devastating to have the illness and
aggravating to have to pay for medications, blood tests and psychotherapy. They, at
least, are partially deductible. But money spent while manic doesn't fit into the
Internal Revenue Service concept of medical expense or business loss. So after mania
when most depressed, you're given excellent reason to be even more so.
Having a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in no way prepared my brother
for the sprawling financial mess he saw on the floor in front of him. There were
piles of credit card receipts, stacks of pink overdraft notices from my bank and duplicate
and triplicate billings from all of the stores through which I had so recently swirled and
charged. In a separate, more ominous pile were threatening letters from collection
agencies. The chaotic visual impact upon entering the room reflected the
higgledy-piggledy, pixilated collection of electric lobes that only a few weeks earlier
had constituted my manic brain. Now, medicated and dreary, I was obsessively sifting
through the remnants of my fiscal irresponsibility. It was like going on an
archaeological dig through earlier ages of one's mind. There was a bill from a
taxidermist in the Plains, Virginia, for example, for a stuffed fox that I for some reason
had felt I desperately needed. I had loved animals all of my life, had at one point
wanted to be a veterinarian: How on earth could I have bought a dead animal?
I had adored foxes and admired them for as long as I could remember; I thought them
fast and smart and beautiful; how could I have so directly contributed to killing one?
I was appalled by the grisly nature of my purchase, disgusted with myself and
incapable of imagining what I would do with the fox once it actually arrived.
In an attempt to divert myself, I began pawing my way through the
credit card slips. Near the top of the pile was a bill from the pharmacy where I had
gotten my snakebite kits. The pharmacist, having just filled my first prescription
for lithium, had smiled knowingly as he rang up the sale for my snakebite kits and the
other absurd, useless and bizarre purchases. I knew what he was thinking and, in the
benevolence of my expansive mood, could appreciate the humor. He, unlike me,
however, appeared to be completely unaware of the life-threatening problem created by
rattlesnakes in the San Fernando Valley. God had chosen me, and apparently only
me, to alert the world to the wild proliferation of killer snakes in the Promised Land.
Or so I thought in my scattered delusional meanderings. In my own small way,
by buying up the drugstore's entire supply of snakebite kits, I was doing all I could do
to protect myself and those I cared about. In the midst of my crazed scurrings up
and down the aisles of the drugstore, I had also come up with a plan to alert the Los
Angeles Times to the danger. I was, however, far too manic to tie my thoughts
together into a coherent plan.
I kept on with my life at a frightening pace. I worked
ridiculously long hours and slept next to not at all. When I went home at night, it
was to a place of increasing chaos. Books, many of them newly purchased, were strewn
everywhere. Clothes were piled up in mounds in every room and there were unwrapped
packages and unemptied shopping bags as far as the eye could see. My apartment
looked like it had been inhabited and then abandoned by a colony of moles. There
were hundreds of scraps of paper as well; they cluttered the top of my desk and kitchen
counters, forming their own little mounds on the floor. One scrap contained an
incoherent and rambling poem; I found it weeks later in my refrigerator, apparently
triggered by my spice collection, which, needless to say, had grown by leaps and bounds
during my mania. I had titled it, for reasons that I am sure made sense at the time,
"God is a Herbivore." There were many such poems and fragments and they
were everywhere. Weeks after I finally cleaned up my apartment, I still was coming
across bits and pieces of paper--filled to the edges with writing--in unimaginably
My awareness and experience of sounds in general and music in
particular were intense. Individual notes from a horn, an oboe or a cello became
exquisitely poignant. I heard each note alone, all notes together and then each and
all with piercing beauty and clarity. I felt as though I were standing in the
orchestra pit; soon, the intensity and sadness of classical music became unbearable to me.
I became impatient with the pace, as well as overwhelmed by the emotion. I
switched abruptly to rock music, pulled out my Rolling Stones albums and played them as
loud as possible. I went from cut to cut, album to album, matching mood to music,
music to mood. Soon my rooms were further strewn with records, tapes and album
jackets as I went on my way in search of the perfect sound. The chaos in my mind
began to mirror the chaos of my rooms; I could no longer process what I was hearing; I
became confused, scared and disoriented. I could not listen for more than a few
minutes to any particular piece of music; my behavior was frenetic and my mind more so.
Slowly the darkness began to weave its way into my mind and before long
I was hopelessly out of control. I could not follow the path of my own thoughts.
Sentences flew around in my head and fragmented first into phrases and then words;
finally, only sounds remained. One evening I stood in the middle of my living room
and looked out at a blood-red sunset spreading out over the horizon of the Pacific.
Suddenly I felt a strange sense of light at the back of my eyes and almost immediately saw
a huge black centrifuge inside my head. I saw a tall figure in a floor-length
evening gown approach the centrifuge with a vase-sized glass tube of blood in her
hand. As the figure turned around I saw to my horror that it was me and that there
was blood all over my dress, cape and long white gloves. I watched as the figure
carefully put the tube of blood into one of the holes in the rack of the centrifuge,
closed the lid and pushed a button on the front of the machine. The centrifuge began
Then, horrifyingly, the image that previously had been inside my head
now was completely outside of it. I was paralyzed by fright. The spinning of
the centrifuge and the clanking of the glass tube against the metal became louder and
louder, and then the machine splintered into a thousand pieces. Blood was
everywhere. It spattered against the windowpanes, against the walls and paintings
and soaked down into the carpets. I looked out toward the ocean and saw that the
blood on the window had merged into the sunset; I couldn't tell where one ended and the
other began. I screamed at the top of my lungs. I couldn't get away from the
sight of the blood and the echoes of the machine's clanking as it whirled faster and
faster. Not only had my thoughts spun wild, they had turned into an awful
phantasmagoria, an apt but terrifying vision of an entire life and mind out of control.
I screamed again and again, Slowly the hallucination receded. I
telephoned a colleague for help, poured myself a large scotch and waited for his arrival
Fortunately, before my mania could become very public, this
colleague--a man whom I had been dating during my separation from my husband and someone
who knew and understood me very well--was willing to take on my manic wrath and delusions.
He confronted me with the need to take lithium, which was not a pleasant task for
him--I was wildly agitated, paranoid and physically violent--but it was one he carried out
with skill, grace and understanding. He was very gentle but insistent when he told
me that he thought I had manic-depressive illness and he persuaded me to make an
appointment to see a psychiatrist. Together we trekked down everything we could find
that had been written about the illness; we read as much as we could absorb and then moved
on to what was known about treatment. Lithium had been approved for use in mania
only four years earlier, in 1970, by the Food and Drug Administration and was not yet in
widespread use in California. It was clear from reading the medical literature,
however, that lithium was the only drug that had any serious chance of working for me.
He prescribed lithium and other antipsychotic medications for me, on a very
short-term, emergency basis, only long enough to tide me over until I saw my psychiatrist
for the first time. He put the correct number of pills out for me to take each
morning and evening, and he spent hours talking with my family about my illness and how
they might best handle it. He drew blood for several lithium levels and provided
encouragement about the prognosis for my recovery. He also insisted that I take a
short time off from work, which ultimately saved me from losing my job and my clinical
privileges and arranged for me to be looked after at home during those periods when he was
I felt infinitely worse, more dangerously depressed during this first
manic episode than when in the midst of my worst depressions. In fact, the most
dreadful I had ever felt in my entire life--one characterized by chaotic ups and
downs--was the first time I was psychotically manic. I had been mildly manic many
times before, but these had never been frightening experiences--ecstatic at best,
confusing at worst. I had learned to accommodate well to them. I had
developed mechanisms of self-control to keep down the peals of singularly inappropriate
laughter and set rigid limits on my irritability. I avoided situations that might
otherwise trip or jangle my hypersensitive wiring and I learned to pretend I was paying
attention or following a logical point when my mind was off chasing rabbits in a thousand
directions. My work and professional life flowed. But nowhere did this or my
upbringing, or my intellect, or my character, prepare me for insanity.
Although I had been building up to it for weeks and certainly knew
something was seriously wrong, there was a definite point when I knew I was insane.
My thoughts were so fast that I couldn't remember the beginning of a sentence halfway
through. Fragments of ideas, images, sentences raced around and around in my mind
like the tigers in a child's story. Finally, like those tigers, they became
meaningless melted pools. Nothing once familiar to me was familiar. I wanted
desperately to slow down, but could not. Nothing helped--not running around a
parking lot for hours on end or swimming for miles. My energy level was untouched by
anything I did. Sex became too intense for pleasure and during it, I would feel my
mind encased by black lines of light that were terrifying to me. My delusions
centered on the slow painful deaths of all the green plants in the world--vine by vine,
stem by stem, leaf by leaf they died and I could do nothing to save them. Their
screams were cacophonous. Increasingly, all of my images were black and decaying.
At one point I was determined that if my mind--by which I made my
living and whose stability I had assumed for so many years--did not stop racing and begin
working normally again, I would kill myself by jumping from a nearby twelve-story
building. I gave it twenty-four hours. But, of course, I had no notion of time
and a million other thoughts--magnificent and morbid--wove in and raced by. Endless
and terrifying days of endlessly terrifying drugs--Thorazine, lithium, valium and
barbiturates--finally took effect. I could feel my mind being reined in, slowed down
and put on hold. But it was a very long time until I recognized my mind again and
much longer until I trusted it.
I first met the man who was to become my psychiatrist when he was chief
resident at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. He was tough, disciplined, knew
what he was doing and cared very much about how he did it. He genuinely loved being
a doctor and he was a superb teacher. During my year as a predoctoral clinical
psychology intern he had been assigned to supervise my clinical work on the adult
inpatient service. In our first meeting he asked how many hours of sleep had I been
getting? Did I have any problems in concentration? Had I been more talkative
that usual? Did I talk faster than usual? Had anyone told me to slow down or
that they couldn't make sense out of what I was saying? Had I felt a pressure to
talk constantly? Had I been more energetic than usual? Were other people
saying that they were having difficulty keeping up with me? Had I become more
involved in activities than usual, or undertaken more projects? Had my thoughts been
going so quickly that I had difficulty keeping track of them? Had I been more
physically restless or agitated that usual? More sexually active? Had I been
spending more money? Acting impulsively? Had I been more irritable or angry than usual?
Had I felt as though I had special talents or powers? Had I had any visions
or hear sounds or voices that other people probably hadn't seen or heard? Had I
experienced any strange sensations in my body? Had I ever had any of these symptoms
earlier in my life? Did anyone else in my family have similar sorts of problems?
I realized that I was on the receiving end of a very thorough
psychiatric history and examination. The questions were familiar; I had asked them
of others a hundred times, but I found it unnerving to have to answer them, unnerving not
to know where it all was going and unnerving to realize how confusing it was to be a
patient. I answered yes to virtually all of his questions including a long series of
additional ones about depression and found myself gaining a new respect of psychiatry and
professionalism. Gradually, his experience as a physician and self confidence as a
person began to take effect much in the same way that medications gradually begin to take
hold and calm the turmoil of mania. He made it unambivalently clear that he thought
I had manic-depressive illness and that I was going to need to be on lithium, probably
indefinitely. The thought was very frightening to me--much less was known then than
is known now about the illness and its prognosis--but all the same I was relieved;
relieved to hear a diagnosis that I knew in my mind of minds to be true. Still, I
flailed against the sentence I felt he had handed me. He listened patiently.
He listened to all of my convoluted, alternative explanations for my breakdown--the stress
of a stressed marriage, the stress of joining the psychiatry faculty, the stress of
overwork--and he remained firm in his diagnosis and recommendations for treatment. I
was bitterly resentful but somehow greatly relieved. And I respected him enormously
for his clarity of thought, his obvious caring and his unwillingness to equivocate in
delivering bad news.
Over the next many years, except when I was living in England, I saw
him at least once a week; when I was extremely depressed and suicidal I saw him more
often. He kept me alive a thousand times over. He saw me through madness,
despair, wonder and terrible love affairs, disillusionments and triumphs, recurrences of
illness, and almost fatal suicide attempt, the death of a man I greatly loved and the
enormous pleasures and aggravations of my professional life--in short, he saw me through
the beginnings and endings of virtually every aspect of my psychological and emotional
life. He was very tough, as well as very kind and even though the understood more
than anyone how much I felt I was losing--in energy, vivacity and originality--by taking
medication, he never was seduced into losing sight of the overall perspective of how
costly, damaging and life threatening my illness was.
At this point in my existence, I cannot imagine leading a normal life
without both taking lithium and having had the benefits of psychotherapy. Lithium
prevents my seductive but disastrous highs, diminishes my depressions, clears out the wool
and webbing from my disordered thinking, slows me down, gentles me out, keeps me from
ruining my career and relationships, keeps me out of a hospital and makes psychotherapy
possible. But, ineffably, psychotherapy heals. It makes some sense of the
confusion, reins in the terrifying thoughts and feelings, returns some control and hope
and possibility of learning from it all. Pills cannot, do not, ease one back into
reality; they only bring one back headlong, careening and faster than can be endured at
times. Psychotherapy is a sanctuary; it is a battleground; it is a place I have been
psychotic, neurotic, elated, confused and despairing beyond belief. But, always, it
is where I have believed--or have learned to believe--that I might someday be able to
contend with all of this.
No pill can help me deal with the problem of not wanting to take pills;
likewise, no amount of psychotherapy alone can prevent my manias and depressions. I
need both. It is an odd thing, owing life to pills, one's own quirks and tenacities
and this unique, strange and ultimately profound relationship called psychotherapy.
That I owed my life to pills was not, however, obvious to me for a long time; my lack of
judgment about the necessity to take lithium proved to be an exceedingly costly one.
William Styron, pp. 36-50.
When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the
disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word
"depression." Depression, most people know, used to be termed
"melancholia," a word which appears in English as early as the year 1303 and
crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its
pathological nuances. "Melancholia" would still appear to be a far more
apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun
with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe
an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major
illness. It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in
modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated--the
Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer--had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and
therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering
"depression" as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease.
Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through
the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and
preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the
disease when out of control.
As one who has suffered from the malady in extremis yet returned to
tell the tale, I would lobby for a truly arresting designation.
"Brainstorm," for instance, has unfortunately been preempted to describe,
somewhat jocularly, intellectual inspiration. But something along these lines is
needed. Told that someone's mood disorder has evolved into a storm--a veritable
howling tempest in the brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like
nothing else--even the uninformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard
reaction that "depression" evokes, something akin to "So what?" or
"you'll pull out of it" or "We all have bad days." The phrase
"nervous breakdown" seems to be on its way out, certainly deservedly so, owing
to its insinuation of a vague spinelessness, but we still seem destined to be saddled with
"depression" until a better, sturdier name is created.
The depression that engulfed me was not of the manic type--the one
accompanied by euphoric highs--which would have most probably presented itself earlier in
my life. I was sixty when the illness struck for the first time, in the
"unipolar" form, which leads straight down. I shall never learn what
"caused" my depression, as no one will ever learn about their own. To be
able to do so will likely forever prove to be an impossibility, so complex are the
intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behavior and genetics. Plainly, multiple
components are involved--perhaps three or four, most probably more, in fathomless
permutations. That is why the greatest fallacy about suicide lies in the belief that
there is a single immediate answer--or perhaps combined answers--as to why the deed was
The inevitable question "Why did he (or she) do it?" usually
leads to odd speculations, for the most part fallacies themselves. Reasons were
quickly advanced for Abbie Hoffman's death: his reaction to an auto accident he had
suffered, the failure of his most recent book, his mother's serious illness. With
Randall Jarrell it was a declining career cruelly epitomized by a vicious book review and
his consequent anguish. Primo Levi, it was rumored, had been burdened by caring for
his paralytic mother, which was more onerous to his spirit than even his experience at
Auschwitz. Any one of these factors may have lodged like a thorn in the sides of the
three men, and been a torment. Such aggravations may be crucial and cannot be
ignored. But most people quietly endure the equivalent of injuries, declining
careers, nasty book reviews, family illnesses. A vast majority of the survivors of
Auschwitz have borne up fairly well. Bloody and bowed by the outrages of life, most
human beings still stagger on down the road, unscathed by real depression. To
discover why some people plunge into the downward spiral of depression, one must search
beyond the manifest crisis--and then still fail to come up with anything beyond wise
The storm which swept me into a hospital in December began as a cloud
no bigger than a wine goblet the previous June. And the cloud--the manifest
crisis--involved alcohol, a substance I had been abusing for forty years. Like a
great many American writers, whose sometimes lethal addiction to alcohol has become so
legendary as to provide in itself a stream of studies and books, I used alcohol as the
magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination.
There is no need to either rue or apologize for my use of this soothing, often sublime
agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing; although I never set down a line while
under its influence, I did use it--often in conjunction with music--as a means to let my
mind conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to. Alcohol was
an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I
sought daily--sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread
that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.
The trouble was, at the beginning of this particular summer, that I was
betrayed. It struck me quite suddenly, almost overnight: I could no longer drink.
It was as if my body had risen up in protest, along with my mind, and had conspired
to reject this daily mood bath which it had so long welcomed and, who knows? perhaps even
come to need. Many drinkers have experienced this intolerance as they have grown
older. I suspect that the crisis was at least partly metabolic--the liver rebelling,
as if to say, "No more, no more"--but at any rate I discovered that alcohol in
minuscule amounts, even a mouthful of wine, caused me nausea, a desperate and unpleasant
wooziness, a sinking sensation and ultimately a distinct revulsion. The comforting
friend had abandoned me not gradually and reluctantly, as a true friend might do, but like
a shot--and I was left high and certainly dry, and unhelmed.
Neither by will nor by choice had I became an abstainer; the situation
was puzzling to me, but it was also traumatic, and I date the onset of my depressive mood
from the beginning of this deprivation. Logically, one would be overjoyed that the
body had so summarily dismissed a substance that was undermining its health; it was as if
my system had generated a form of Antabuse, which should have allowed me to happily go my
way, satisfied that a trick of nature had shut me off from a harmful dependence.
But, instead, I began to experience a vaguely troubling malaise, a sense of something
having gone cockeyed in the domestic universe I'd dwelt in so long, so comfortably.
While depression is by no means unknown when people stop drinking, it is usually on a
scale that is not menacing. But it should be kept in mind how idiosyncratic the
faces of depression can be.
It was not really alarming at first, since the change was subtle, but I
did notice that my surroundings took on a different tone at certain times: the shadows of
nightfall seemed more somber, my mornings were less buoyant, walks in the woods became
less zestful, and there was a moment during my working hours in the late afternoon when a
kind of panic and anxiety overtook me, just for a few minutes, accompanied by a visceral
queasiness--such a seizure was at least slightly alarming, after all. As I set down
these recollections, I realize that it should have been plain to me that I was already in
the grip of the beginning of a mood disorder, but I was ignorant of such a condition at
When I reflected on this curious alteration of my consciousness--and I
was baffled enough from time to time to do so--I assumed that it all had to do somehow
with my enforced withdrawal from alcohol. And, of course, to a certain extent this
was true. But it is my conviction now that alcohol played a perverse trick on me
when we said farewell to each other: although, as everyone should know, it is a major
depressant, it had never truly depressed me during my drinking career, acting instead as a
shield against anxiety. Suddenly vanished, the great ally which for so long had kept
my demons from beginning to swarm through the subconscious, and I was emotionally naked,
vulnerable as I had never been before. Doubtless depression had hovered near me for
years, waiting to swoop down. Now I was in the first stage--premonitory, like a
flicker of sheet lightning barely perceived--of depression's black tempest.
I was on Martha's Vineyard, where I've spent a good part of each year
since the 1960s, during that exceptionally beautiful summer. But I had begun to
responding indifferently to the island's pleasures. I felt a kind of numbness, an
enervation, but more particularly an odd fragility--as if my body had actually become
frail, hypersensitive and somehow disjointed and clumsy, lacking normal coordination.
And soon I was in the throes of a pervasive hypochondria. Nothing felt quite
right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often
seemingly constant, that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities. (Given
these signs, one can understand how, as far back as the seventeenth century--in the notes
of contemporary physicians, and in the perceptions of John Dryden and others--a connection
is made between melancholia and hypochondria; the words are often interchangeable, and
were so used until the nineteenth century by writers as various as Sir Walter Scott and
the Brontes, who also linked melancholy to a preoccupation with bodily ills.) It is
easy to see how this condition is part of the psyche's apparatus of defense: unwilling to
accept it own gathering deterioration, the mind announces to its indwelling consciousness
that it is the body with its perhaps correctable defects--not the precious and
irreplaceable mind--that is going haywire.
In my case, the overall effect was immensely disturbing, augmenting the
anxiety that was by now never quite absent from my waking hours and fueling still another
strange behavior pattern--a fidgety restlessness that kept me on the move, somewhat to the
perplexity of my family and friends. Once, in late summer, on an airplane trip to
New York, I made the reckless mistake of downing a scotch and soda--my first alcohol in
months--which promptly sent me into a tailspin, causing me such a horrified sense of
disease and interior doom that the very next day I rushed to a Manhattan internist, who
inaugurated a long series of tests. Normally I would have been satisfied, indeed
elated, when, after three weeks of high-tech and extremely expensive evaluation, the
doctor pronounced me totally fit; and I was happy, for a day or two, until there once
again began the rhythmic daily erosion of my mood--anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread.
By now I had moved back to my house in Connecticut. It was
October, and one of the unforgettable features of this stage of my disorder was the way in
which my old farmhouse, my beloved home for thirty years, took on for me at that point
when my spirits regularly sank to their nadir an almost palpable quality of ominousness.
The fading evening light--akin to that famous "slant of light" of Emily
Dickinson's, which spoke to her of death, of chill extinction--had none of its familiar
autumnal loveliness, but ensnared me in a suffocating gloom. I wondered how this
friendly place, teeming with such memories of (again in her words) "Lads and
Girls," of "laughter and ability and Sighing, / And Frocks and Curls,"
could almost perceptibly seem so hostile and forbidding. Physically, I was not
alone. As always Rose was present and listened with unflagging patience to my
complaints. But I felt an immense and aching solitude. I could no longer
concentrate during those afternoon hours, which for years had been my working time, and
the act of writing itself, becoming more and more difficult and exhausting, stalled, then
There were also dreadful, pouncing seizures of anxiety. One
bright day on a walk through the woods with my dog I heard a flock of Canada geese honking
high above trees ablaze with foliage; ordinarily a sight and sound that would have
exhilarated me, the flight of birds caused me to stop, riveted with fear, and I stood
stranded there, helpless, shivering, aware for the first time that I had been stricken by
no mere pangs of withdrawal but by a serious illness whose name and actuality I was
finally to acknowledge. Going home, I couldn't rid my mind of the line of
Baudelaire's dredged up from the distant past, that for several days had been skittering
around at the edge of my consciousness: "I have felt the wind of the wing of
Our perhaps understandable modern need to dull the sawtooth edges of so
many of the afflictions we are heir to has led us to banish the harsh old-fashioned words:
madhouse, asylum, insanity, melancholia, lunatic, madness. But never let it be
doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness. The madness results from
an aberrant biochemical process. It has been established with reasonable certainty
(after strong resistance from many psychiatrists, and not all that long ago) that such
madness is chemically induced amid the neurotransmitters of the brain, probably as the
result of systemic stress, which for unknown reasons causes a depletion of the chemicals
norepinephrine and serotonin, and the increase of a hormone, cortisol. With all this
upheaval in the brain tissues, the alternate drenching and deprivation, it is no wonder
that the mind begins to feel aggrieved, stricken, and the muddied thought processes
register the distress of an organ in convulsion. Sometimes, though not very often,
such a disturbed mind will turn to violent thoughts regarding others. But with their
minds turned agonizingly inward, people with depression are usually dangerous only to
themselves. The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of
violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the
slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero.
Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.
That fall, as the disorder gradually took full possession of my system,
I began to conceive that my mind itself was like one of those outmoded small-town
telephone exchanges, being gradually inundated by floodwaters: one by one, the normal
circuits began to drown, causing some of the functions of the body and nearly all of those
of instinct and intellect to slowly disconnect.
There is a well-known checklist of some of these functions and their
failures. Mine conked out fairly close to schedule, many of them following the
pattern of depressive seizures. I particularly remember the lamentable near
disappearance of my voice. It underwent a strange transformation, becoming at times
quite faint, wheezy and spasmodic--a friend observed later that it was the voice of a
ninety-year-old. The libido also made an early exit, as it does in most major
illnesses--it is the superfluous need of a body in beleaguered emergency. Many
people lose all appetite; mine was relatively normal, but I found myself eating only for
subsistence: food, like everything else within the scope of sensation, was utterly without
savor. Most distressing of all the instinctual disruptions was that of sleep, along
with a complete absence of dreams.
Exhaustion combined with sleeplessness is a rare torture. The two
or three hours of sleep I was able to get at night were always at the behest of the
Halcion--a matter which deserves particular notice. For some time now many experts
in psychopharmacology have warned that the benzodiazepine family of tranquilizers, of
which Halcion is one (Valium and Ativan are others), is capable of depressing mood and
even precipitation a major depression. Over two years before my siege, an insouciant
doctor had prescribed Ativan as a bedtime aid, telling me airily that I could take it as
casually as aspirin. The Physicians' Desk Reference, the pharmacological
bible, reveals that the medicine I had been ingesting was (a) three times the normally
prescribed strength, (b) not advisable as a medication for more than a month or so, and
(c) to be used with special caution by people of my age. At the time of which I am
speaking I was no longer taking Ativan but had become addicted to Halcion and was
consuming large doses. It seems reasonable to think that this was still another
contributory factor to the trouble that had come upon me. Certainly, it should be a
caution to others.
At any rate, my few hours of sleep were usually terminated at three or
four in the morning, when I stared up into yawing darkness, wondering and writhing at the
devastation taking place in my mind, and awaiting the dawn, which usually permitted me a
feverish, dreamless nap. I'm fairly certain that it was during one of these
insomniac trances that there came over me the knowledge--a weird and shocking revelation,
like that of some long-beshrouded metaphysical truth--that this condition would cost me my
life if it continued on such a course. This must have been just before my trip to
Paris. Death, as I have said, was now a daily presence, blowing over me in cold
gusts. I had not conceived precisely how my end would come. In short, I was
still keeping the idea of suicide at bay. But plainly the possibility was around the
corner, and I would soon meet it face to face.
What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are
totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression
take on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable
pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing
to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble
the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely over-heated room. And
because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering
confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of
Drinking: A Love Story
Caroline Knapp, pp. 79-100
One morning you wake up and open your eyes. Your head feels like it
weighs way too much, so much it hurts to move: you feel a throbbing behind one of your
eyes, or in your temple. A sharp pain, a steady ache. Your brain hurts, as though the
fluid between your brain and skull is thick and inflamed. You feel mildly nauseated and
you can't tell if you need to eat or if eating would make you sick. Inside, everything
feels jittery and loose, like a car with bad wiring.
Next to you in the bed is a man. Perhaps you know him, perhaps you
don't. You experience a moment of disoriented panic-what happened? exactly what
happened?--and you take a quick inventory. Are you naked? Clothed? Is there any evidence
of birth control? An empty condom wrapper, your diaphragm case lying on the floor? You
close your eyes: you want to pretend to be sleeping in case he stirs; mostly, though, you
want to collect your thoughts, try to patch the evening back together. Bits and pieces
come back to you. You remember the early part of the evening clearly, the first few
drinks, the way you started to loosen up. Perhaps you remember dancing, or sitting in a
corner with this man, somewhere dark--a bar, a restaurant, a quiet room away from the main
party. Then things start to get a little blurred. You remember laughing: you were making
jokes, or laughing at his jokes. You felt giddy and light and you had a sense of freedom,
as though some secret part of you were rising up, a part you rarely have access to when
you're not drinking. This felt like a kind of relief: sober is dry and uptight; drunk is
fluid and liquid and loose. There are more drinks; things get blurrier. At some point
there was touch: he put his hand on your arm, or you put your hand on his arm. You looked
at each other, smiling, and you felt attractive, and that feeling gave you a sense of
power and possibility.
Your head pounds; you lie still in bed. The clear memories stop there
and all you have is snippets. You were telling him things: things that felt important,
deep things. What were they? Something about your mother. Some elaborate theory about
human nature you had one day on the bus. Some . . . some story, some detail. You strain to
remember and lying there in bed this makes you cringe, this wondering what you said, how
intimate it might have been. Other snippets: you remember leaning against him, or walking
down the street with your arm around him, trying semiconsciously not to stumble on the
sidewalk. You have a dim sense that that powerful feeling merged with a needy feeling, a
wish for reciprocation. Does he find you attractive? How attractive? Are you attractive?
The sex, if you remember it, was disconnected and surreal. Your body
did what it was supposed to do, or at least you think it did: all you have are tiny,
discrete images--legs moving apart, legs wrapped around his hips, arms around his back.
You remember sliding into sexuality in an almost instinctive way, mimicking what seemed
like the appropriate behaviors: kissing him, holding on to him, throwing your head back in
pleasure even though you didn't really feel pleasure, even though you didn't really feel
much at all. And then your mind goes blank. You don't remember the rest. You just have
questions, and they gnaw at you. Was he as drunk as you were? Did he notice how drunk you
were? How much will he remember? Were you a lunatic? Are you a lunatic? You lie there with
your eyes closed. All you want to do is get out, just get out and go home and take a
shower and get all of this out of your mind, shove it straight back into history.
In 1993 Katie Roiphe's book The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and
Feminism came out, and for a few weeks the radio talk shows and the op-ed pages were
filled with commentary about the word no. Was there a serious date-rape crisis on college
campuses? Roiphe said the issue was contrived, that it represented overhyped feminist
paranoia and a misguided attempt to regulate the rules of sexual conduct, that today's
women are strong and capable, that we are masters of our own "sexual agency."
Roiphe's critics charged her with antifeminist rhetoric, with participating in a backlash
against attempts to address the realities of women's lives, with deliberately ignoring the
fact that women always have been, and continue to be, victims of sexual violence. I
remember listening to the arguments and counterarguments and thinking: They're all
missing the boat. No one here is really talking about booze. Alcohol was trotted out
now and then as a complicating factor--Roiphe herself writes about thinking back on
complicated nights, on too many glasses of wine, on strange and familiar beds." But
by and large, excessive drinking was discussed as an accessory to the fact, mixed with the
rhythm of the music and gave me a sense of connection to my own body, gave it permission
to move, and as the music shifted from fast to slow I found myself leaning against Bruce,
my face against his neck, his arms around my waist and back. There was a sense of
surrender, a melting into the shape of his body and a sense of myself as pretty and giddy
Years later I would be reminded of this watching Meg Ryan in When a
Man Loves a Woman, in a scene early in the movie when she and Andy Garcia are out at
dinner on their anniversary and she's drunk and dancing with him that same way, draped all
over him, laughing, just a tiny bit out of control. That's how I felt dancing at the
party, as though the alcohol flipped some switch and --click!--worked its familiar magic,
turned me into someone who laughed and danced and felt sexual.
Flash forward an hour or two later. No memory of what happened. None at
all. Somehow, we ended up in bed in his dorm room, his roommate in the next bed. I had
only the most dazed sense of this--a narrow twin bed; a fuzzy drifting in and out of
consciousness; the briefest shock of recognition when it hit me that a penis, this man's
penis, was pressing into me. After that I guess I passed out. In the morning I gathered up
my clothes while Bruce was still asleep, put my black dress back on, and wobbled up the
street toward my own dorm. It was seven o'clock on a Sunday. The campus was deserted. I
had a feeling of shame.
Yes, no, maybe. Yes on one level, no on another, yes--and no on yet
another. Truman Capote once wrote that he saw in Elizabeth Taylor an "emotional
extremism, a dangerously greater need to be loved than to love." Me, I was too
cautious and inhibited and scared to give in to extremism of any kind in sobriety,
emotional or otherwise. But when I drank, it happened. When I drank, the part that felt
dangerous and needy grew bright and strong and real. The part that coveted love kicked
into gear. The yes grew louder than the no.
The first time Meg had sex, her best friend advised her: "Just get
drunk. It'll be easy." So that's exactly what she did. She got drunk then, and she
got drunk the next time and the time after that, and after a while the idea of having sex
with a man without getting drunk first seemed pretty much impossible. Meg grew up the same
time I did, coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, long before people talked
about things like safe sex, or even contraception, and many years before women's health
organizations and magazines began encouraging women to "take charge" of their
sexuality, to learn about sex and enjoy their bodies. The picture of female sexuality she
acquired came from movies and TV, a little Marilyn Monroe here, a little Mary Tyler Moore
there. Sex bomb; good girl. Those were really the only two options and even if you strove
to emulate one of those, no one really told you how: how to be a sex bomb, how to be a
good girl. How did these ideals translate into practical behavior? Meg was scared of her
own body, and she was scared of men's bodies, and so most of the time she'd just lie there
with her drunkenness and her doubts. She felt as though she'd missed some key set of
instructions, as though she was supposed to know instinctively how to move her body in
ways that would be pleasing to herself and her partner, as though her lack of information
on this subject signaled some fundamental weakness or failure on her part.
So she drank and the drink loosened her up enough to act sexual. Way
inside, being female seemed like a painful thing--Meg felt mute, objectified,
frightened-and alcohol took all of that away, just washed it away like the sea against
sand. Meg often slept with men she didn't want to sleep with: she didn't know how to say
no. More precisely, she didn't know she was allowed to say no. She figured that flirting
was a slippery slope: once you've given a man the signal that you're available, you're not
allowed to go back, not allowed to change your mind. Meg is a beautiful woman in her late
thirties, with olive skin and dark eyes. She's also a wonderfully direct person who's
taught herself in four years of sobriety to say exactly what's on her mind, so it's very
hard to imagine her in that position, unable to make her own desires and limits clear,
incapable of acting in a way that would preserve her own dignity.
At the same time Meg's story--her shyness and shame and confusion--is
achingly familiar. Bad, semiconsensual, drunken sex: so many women I know did this. So
many still do. At least one quarter of the 17,592 students surveyed in a 1995 Harvard
School of Public Health study on campus drinking said they had suffered an unwanted sexual
advance as a result of drinking; that same year, a Columbia University study reported that
alcohol plays a role in ninety percent of rapes on college campuses. So Meg is typical.
She did it, I did it: we lay there staring at the ceiling and just wanting it to end; we
woke up in a haze some morning in some man's bed not really remembering how we got there
or what happened next; we found sex compelling and terrifying and foreign, and drank to
deal with it, just drank our way through.
I had done that all through adolescence, drinking to numb fear and
feelings of inadequacy. The first guy I ever made out with was a big lug of a hockey
player from my ninth-grade class named Henry, who had bad skin and long hair and played
the drums in a band. We were at a party, drinking a lot of beer, and at some point Henry
and I ended tip alone in the basement and he started to kiss me. It felt like we were down
there for hours. Henry's kisses were wet and foreign-feeling, and I let him put his hand
under my shirt and then under my bra because I didn't know what else to do. It felt
invasive--an alien hand on something I barely touched myself--but the beer worked: it
allowed me to feel a man's hand on my thigh or my breast without feeling afraid.
Drinking continued to work, diluting the discomfort, making things
bearable. All through high school I could go to a party or drink at a bar with a group of
friends and then I could drive home with whatever hulk of a boy I happened to be
seeing--Henry that year, then a football player named Will, then a wrestler named John,
all interchangeable more or less because I never quite felt close to or comfortable with
any of them--and I could lean back in the car and be kissed and touched, hands groping and
probing where I didn't want them, and it wouldn't really matter; I wouldn't really feel a
thing. At my senior prom I got blackout drunk, lost a white sandal somewhere on the dance
floor at the Hyatt Hotel in Cambridge, and ended up making out in a car by the Charles
River with a guy named Mike. I have no memory, no conscious memory, of what that felt
like, and I suppose that was precisely the point.
So I can imagine exactly how Meg ended up lying there in a man's bed,
staring at the ceiling like that, wanting the failed foray into intimacy to end. It's a
classic story, and I can see myself reading from the same script over and over. I can see
myself being groped by a boy in high school, feeling that combination of shock and
curiosity--and drinking to counter the feelings. I can see myself in college, reeling up
the stairs toward Bruce's dorm room, out of control-too drunk to have feelings. I can see
myself flirting at a party, not knowing how to stop the flirting from escalating, not
knowing how to turn off what I've seemed to turn on--and drinking to shut down the
confusion this generates, drinking to keep myself going. I can almost feel the drink, feel
how central it was to such experiences. Deaden the shock; facilitate the exploration. Voila:
No problem; I can do this.
Drinking, drinking. Drinking and loving men, drinking and loving men who
drink. I never once went out with a man who didn't like to get drunk. Never. Right from
the start the idea of going out with a man who didn't like to tie one on was unthinkable
to me, and would be for many years. This seemed perfectly reasonable, to choose drinking
men. Alcohol can numb fear, and allow you to fake it, and take you places you literally
don't want to go: strange beds. But it can also give you access to romance, a bridge to
the positive sides of sexuality. Alcohol felt like the cement in female sexuality, at
least it did to me: over the years the two would become so deeply linked that for the
longest time I simply couldn't imagine one without the other. A first kiss without drinks?
Forget it. Sex without liquor? No way. Drinking was as integral to my sense of sexuality
as a body part: no more, no less. And sometimes that form of integration was effective,
A snapshot: I am nineteen, sitting in a fancy restaurant in Santa Fe,
New Mexico, with my boyfriend, David. We are both dressed up. He is wearing a tan suit, I
have on a flowered sundress, we are both tan and healthy. We order a round of
drinks-margaritas-and, with dinner, a bottle of red wine, a California Cabernet. I am
supremely happy in this picture. I feel wonderfully protected, cocooned by the wine and
the sense of romance, and together David and I are the perfect image of young love,
clinking wineglasses above the pink linen at our table.
Wine and that melting ease; wine and that sense of yielding to
sensuality. When I was with men I loved, drinking felt like the most natural ally, the
most reliable route to a kind of internal softening. A naturally inhibited person, someone
who grew up feeling mystified and insecure about what it meant to feel sexual, I turned to
liquor the way a dancer turns toward music: it felt central to the process, central to my
ability to shut down the voices of self-criticism in my own head and simply let go, move
to a different kind of music. Pop! Clink! Ahhh.
David was the first man I'd fallen in love with. He was a friend of a
friend who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I met him there during spring vacation my
senior year of high school, and we stayed together through college and for several years
after that. Big and uncomplicated and beautiful in a rugged way: that's how he struck me
from the start, like the Southwestern landscape, as different from the men I'd known
before as Boston was from Santa Fe. He was originally from Montana and he had the chiseled
good looks of a mountain boy: dark hair and jade-green eyes and. teeth so straight and
white my mother said he looked like a model in a toothpaste commercial. I loved him almost
Alcohol, of course, coursed through our romance like a river, providing
the undercurrents. I wasn't aware of this at the time, but one of the things that
attracted me so deeply to David was the role liquor occupied in his life. The day we met,
we drank tequila sunrises at a bar in Santa Fe, and I remember the particular giddy high
you get from tequila, and I remember the way David's hair fell against his forehead, a
single dark curl. That was such a powerful combination, the giddy high and the sight of
him. I was drunk the first time he kissed me, drunk the first time we slept together,
drunk the first time I told him I loved him. I don't think David was an alcoholic--he was
one of those people who simply liked to drink and knew how and when to stop when he'd had
too much--but he managed to keep a steady supply of drink around him and I grew to depend
on its presence: bottles of beer in the refrigerator at the end of the day; bottles of
tequila on the shelves to mix with lime and grenadine; cases of beer in the backseat of
his car for day trips to the mountains. It was always there, liquor was, helping us to
blur the boundaries and deaden the fear, helping us protect ourselves from one another.
I was by no means a raging alcoholic when I fell in love with David,
but I suppose you could say the predilection was there, that I was on the road to becoming
one. Part of this was reflected simply in my behavior. I have a lot of good drinking
memories from those days drinking Coors beer under the sun by a Santa Fe swimming pool;
sipping wine in the back of David's pickup truck at night on a New Mexico Mountainside;
drinking champagne under the stars in the high desert--but I also have a lot of unpleasant
memories: memories of blackouts; memories of explosive, liquor-laced fights; a
particularly embarrassing memory of drinking an entire gallon of cheap white wine during a
drive from New Mexico to Colorado, en route to visit my sister at a summer camp where she
was working, then staggering out of the car when we arrived, loud and obnoxious and
falling-down drunk. I was eighteen then; my sister was appalled. More to the point, I
think my relationship with alcohol began to deepen and shift around that time, my college
years, moving from a simple toot of self-transformation--a way to relax and feel less
inhibited, a way to be more sexual and open and light--into something more complicated, a
more deeply ingrained way of coping with the world. Looking back I can see how certain
patterns were beginning to develop, certain classically alcoholic ways of managing
feelings and conflicts in relationships that would grow more entrenched and complicated
Almost by definition alcoholics are lousy at relationships. We melt
into them in that muddied, liquid way, rather than marching into them with any real sense
of strength or self-awareness. We become so accustomed to transforming ourselves into new
and improved versions of ourselves that we lose the core version, the version we were born
with, the version that might learn to connect with others in a meaningful way. We are
uncomfortable, often desperately uncomfortable, with closeness, and alcohol has the
insidious dual effect of deadening the discomfort and also preventing us from ever realty
overcoming it: we become too adept at sidestepping the feelings with drink to address them
directly. Feel conflicted? Drink. Insecure? Have a drink. Angry? Drink.
In fact, as much as I loved David, my feelings for him confused and
scared me. I'd found in David another antidote to my family style--a nice, uncomplicated,
loving man, a regular guy unburdened by insight and self-analysis--and I found my own
attraction to him disturbing: did it reflect badly on me somehow, this choice of a tall,
dark, slightly goofy, nonintellectual boyfriend? Was there something wrong with me, for
needing someone so different from the people I'd grown up with? Were my own appetites--for
hugs and sexuality and liquor--inappropriate?
Geography protected me from those questions for a long time: the summer
after I met David, I went off to college, to Brown, he stayed in Santa Fe, in school, and
we conducted the relationship over three thousand miles for the next three years, bingeing
on intimacy during periodic reunions, then retreating from it during separations. But that
strategy fell apart my senior year of college, when David, who'd graduated by then, moved
to Rhode Island to live with me. The dynamic suddenly changed and so, in turn, did my
relationship with liquor.
David and I lived in an apartment together off campus and I felt
conflicted by his presence almost immediately, as though he wouldn't fit in, as though
there was something wrong with me for trying to merge these two lives, my Brown life and
my David life. So without really being aware of it I split my life in two that year, going
to classes and working obsessively at the library during the day, returning to David,
who'd gotten a job with a small marketing firm, in the evening. At night we drank--every
night, as I recall and I spent that year feeling tense, as though I had to work hard to
keep the two worlds apart. We didn't go out with my college friends; for the most part we
kept to ourselves.
Alcoholics compartmentalize: this was classic behavior, although I
wouldn't have known that back then. I've heard the story in AA meetings time after time:
alcoholics who end up leading double lives--and sometimes triple and quadruple
lives--because they never learned how to lead a single one, a single honest one that's
based on a clear sense of who they are and what they really need. I once heard a
woman at a meeting define alcoholism as a fundamental inability to be honest, not so much
with other people but with the self. She talked about attaching herself to lovers all
through college and graduate school as a way of avoiding the messy, fearful business of
growing up, as a way of cashing in the chips of her core being by simply handing them over
to someone else, letting others define her. Lots of people do this--you don't have to be
an alcoholic in order to surrender your sense of self to someone else--but alcoholics do
it with particular zeal and precision. We can be ace chameleons, twisting ourselves into
two, three, four versions of ourselves and using drink to lubricate the transformations.
You tell me who to be. And you, and now you. When she described this, I flashed
immediately onto that year with David, onto the way I split myself into two separate
people, playing distinct roles in each life: the David life, which was social and sexual
and awash in drink and hidden conflict, and the academic life, which was disciplined and
cerebral and restrained.
The academic life, appropriately enough, was also defined by a man.
Brown was famous for its lack of distribution requirements and I'd floundered there for my
first few years, taking an absurdly random, disconnected collection of courses before
settling into a combined major in English and History, and choosing that not because it
tapped into some deep reservoir of intellectual interest on my part but because it was a
small, new program in which I could stand out. A man named Roger headed that program. He
was in his forties, an immensely popular member of the English department, and he had a
razor-sharp intellect, and he was the first professor at Brown who made me feel special.
I'd wanted that feeling desperately-it's another classic impulse among
alcoholics, to seek validation from the outside in--and I hadn't found it in college. The
school was too big: I didn't have an instinctive sense for how to fit in, and I didn't
have a clue about what I wanted to study. Academic achievement was something I'd always
sought as a form of reward: good grades pleased my parents, good grades pleased my
teachers; you got them in order to sew up approval.
Roger, whom I met as a junior, gave me precisely that brand of
approval, and I'd found it familiar and reassuring: he gave me a purpose, someone to
please. In my senior year I narrowed my major down to eighteenth-century British
literature and history because those were his areas of expertise. He became my advisor,
and under his direction I wrote a prizewinning thesis, graduating from Brown with honors.
Two days after my graduation I went out to lunch with Roger, a
celebratory gesture on his part. He'd suggested this after the graduation
ceremony-"Let me take you to lunch!"--and he'd called the next day and arranged
to pick me up at my apartment. We drove to a small, sunny restaurant about ten minutes
away from campus, and he ordered us martinis. Then he ordered wine with lunch. We ate
lobster salads and talked about writing. After lunch, in his car, Roger leaned over
suddenly and kissed me on the mouth. I was startled and scared and confused when he kissed
me, but I was also drunk, so I let him. I let him keep kissing me, and I let him put his
hand on my breasts, and when he called me on the phone a few days later and asked me to
have lunch with him again, I agreed because I didn't know what else to say.
I must have gotten drunk with Roger six or seven times that summer.
We'd drive to a different restaurant each time and we'd have many drinks--usually
martinis, like I'd had with my father--and after lunch, blind drunk in the daylight, we'd
sit in his car and I'd let him kiss me again. I'd close my eyes, panicked inside but numb,
very numb, and I'd feel his breath on my neck and his tongue in my mouth and just sit
there, not knowing how I'd gotten into the situation and not knowing how in the world to
I couldn't have done this without drinking. David would go off to work
in the morning and I'd go off to lunch later in the day with Roger, and I'd sit in the car
while he kissed me and worry drunkenly about getting home, getting home before David got
home and sobering up and trying to keep the anxiety out of my eyes. One day Roger asked me
about David, and I told him he was moving to Chicago at the end of the summer to go to
graduate school. Roger smiled. "Oh, good," he said. "Then we can become
lovers." Lovers? I'd graduated that spring without a clue about where I was headed.
Writing loomed as an ill-defined but daunting possibility; so did medical school,
psychiatry. But honestly, I hadn't so much as sent out a resume; like I said, I didn't
have a clue. "Oh, good. Then we can become lovers. " We were at an outdoor
restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, when he said that, and I remember vividly that I
picked up my glass and gulped down the rest of my drink. A breeze was blowing, the sun was
in my eyes. I thought I was going to throw up.
For the next decade I rarely talked to friends about the relationship
with Roger and when I did, I described it the easy way: he was the villain and I was the
victim. There's truth in that, but it's also true that I put myself in his path, that I
made myself an easy target, and that drinking facilitated that process. We'd had one lunch
before the one where he kissed me, several weeks before my graduation. We'd walked
downtown to a tiny basement restaurant called Pot au Feu, a cozy place with brick walls
and wooden tables. We drank martinis that time, too, and I could tell that Roger found me
attractive. I also understood, however abstractly, that the martinis allowed me to indulge
in that attraction, to flirt with it, to tap in to a feeling of power I was otherwise too
self-conscious and fearful to acknowledge. After the second or third drink I know that I
was leaning across the table, interest in my eyes, asking questions, drawing him out. I
asked him about writing, and about his career and his background. I smiled demurely at all
the right moments, maintained the right amount of eye contact, cultivated that particular
ego-stroking blend of vulnerability, reverence, and detachment.
I don't remember how I really felt about him at the time--in purely
objective terms, was he a nice person? An asshole? I don't know. Nor do I remember feeling
physically attracted to him in any genuine way. Feelings of lust-if I'd had any at
all-would have seemed shameful and incestuous to me: Roger was a father figure to me, and
I wanted the kind of adoration and esteem from him that a little girl wants from her dad.
But that wish gets complicated when you're a young woman who's had too many drinks. What I
remember from that lunch is the drive: to please, to generate approval, and to do that by
somehow sexualizing the relationship, because that's the only way I knew how.
This is an instinctive way of responding to someone whose affection and
validation you covet--I'd seen women in college do it for years, smiling up coyly at
professors or older boys in fraternities; I'd seen it done in movies and on TV all my
life; in some barely labeled corner of my soul I, like most women I know, had come to
appreciate sexuality as an ill-defined but very real path to female power, and I acted on
that appreciation without really knowing it. I could feel it. So when Roger took me out to
lunch a few weeks later, and when he kissed me in the car afterward, I felt shocked and
confused and appalled but also, oddly, victorious. The feeling was: I got what I wanted; I
won. And because I understood I'd participated in the game, because I knew I'd worked on
some semiconscious level to draw him in, I somehow deprived myself of the ability to get
out cleanly. How can you say no when you've worked to make someone else say yes?
Alcohol puts you in such a box, leaves you with such an impossible
equation: you have to sexualize the relationship in order to feel powerful, and you have
to drink in order to feel sexual, and on some level you understand it's all fake, that the
power is chemical, that it doesn't come from within you. So I'd sit there in the car with
Roger, and I'd let him touch me and I'd feel completely stuck, just the tiniest stirring
of inexpressible rage--at him, at myself--bubbling inside. The drink of deception: alcohol
gives you power and robs you of it in equal measure.
I never told David about the episodes with Roger, but they inserted
themselves into our relationship, creating another kind of distance. He'd come home and
ask me about my day. "Oh, it was fine," I'd say and then I'd fall silent. I felt
like I was carrying around a huge secret (which, of course, I was) and I jumped every time
the phone rang, worried it would be Roger calling to set up another lunch.
David and I drank that summer, a lot. We took to buying vodka by the
gallon jug, and large bottles of tequila, and we'd have a drink before dinner, then wine
while we ate, then more after dinner: vodka-and-tonics, or tequila sunrises. On the days I
met Roger, I felt unbearably guilty, partly because I'd seen him, partly because I knew I
was complicit in maintaining the relationship, and partly because I understood that my
ambivalence toward David was a factor in the whole equation too. There in Providence, with
my own ill-formed future looming ahead, our differences worried me, gnawed at me. I'd sit
there at dinner and look at him and compare him to the other men in my life, namely, to
Roger and my father: Was David smart enough? Introspective enough? Ambitious enough? Was
it enough just to love him, or should I attach myself to someone who seemed farther ahead
of me, someone smarter and more ambitious than me, who'd be sure to carry me along into
the version of adulthood I thought I should be striving for? These were tough questions,
complicated feelings, but I never addressed them with David, not once. I drank instead and
the questions running through the back of my mind faded away, just faded out of
Alcoholics are masters at deflecting blame: it's one of the hallmarks
of the personality, the way we explain our own feelings by attaching them to someone or
something outside ourselves, the way we refuse, without even being aware of it, to take
responsibility for our own part in troubled relationships. All that summer I'd sit there
at the dinner table and look critically at David, feeling something was missing, something
was awry. It never occurred to me, not once, that something might have been wrong with me,
with my own capacity to accept people's limits, with my own neediness, with my own wish to
be validated and defined by other people. But that sort of honesty--with the self,
with others--is impossible when you're drinking. The liquor numbs the real feelings and
the real fears and the real doubts; it deprives you of the courage it takes to be honest.
You lose your hold on who you really are and you just find yourself in bad situations:
sitting in some professor's car, being groped; sitting at dinner with your boyfriend,
Keeping secrets. My father kept secrets too. At the end of that
summer, the Roger summer, my mother called me on the phone and said she had something she
wanted to talk to me about. It was a weekend morning in late August, and I remember
sitting down at the kitchen table, tracing the red-and-white checks on the tablecloth and
thinking, Someone's died. My mother never called to talk about anything serious and there
was an unfamiliar strain in her voice. "I'm thinking of leaving your
father," she said. "You are?" She sounded embarrassed and edgy, as
though explaining this was going to be exhausting. "Oh, sweetie," she said.
"It's such a complicated business." Then she told me that my father had been
having an affair. The relationship had been going on for seven years and she couldn't
tolerate the betrayal anymore; she was about to go off to Martha's Vineyard for a few days
to think things over.
This was stunning news. You never would have known, just never.
Thinking about my parents that afternoon, I couldn't remember one argument, one moment of
overt tension, one episode that might have suggested anything so dramatic as an affair,
and as I learned more I would be astonished at the lengths my parents had gone to protect
us from their problems. My father had actually moved out for a few weeks while I was in
college; I came home for a weekend during that time and he moved back in for the two days
I was there so I wouldn't know.
I saw my parents as model grown-ups, and their manner, their silence,
informed my sense of what adulthood looked and felt like. Grown-ups behaved rationally and
calmly. Grown-ups worked during the day and came home at night and sat down for drinks and
passed the evening quietly. After dinner my father usually disappeared into his office for
a few hours; my mother sat in the living room with her knitting, watching programs on
public television or talking on the phone. I saw them as beyond conflict, way beyond the
kind of mess I'd found myself in that summer. Years ago, I believed, in the privacy of
their therapists' offices, they'd transcended all that.
My instinctive reaction was to side with my mother, to react with
horror and shock, but I also remember breathing a small sigh of relief at the news. It
made my father a little less mysterious, helped put some of his remoteness and
preoccupation in context. When I sat with him in those strained silences in the firmly
living room, I had thought there was some inadequacy on my part that ground the
conversation to a halt. I'd seen him all my life on such --in epic scale--lost in his own
grand thoughts, above me and my small concerns, possibly even frustrated or bored with me
and the news of his affair shifted the burden for the first time away from me and onto
something else. Of course he was preoccupied; he was leading a double life. And of course
he relied on that martini every evening: coming home was a painful thing, an exercise in
guilt and betrayal that needed easing daily. The information might have been shocking but
it also made him human.
A few days after my mother's call I drove up to Cambridge and met my
father at the house. He seemed tense and tortured and he tried in the most awkward way to
explain. We sat outside on the patio. He made martinis and he gulped his first one down
and when he spoke his language was so ambiguous and abstract it was nearly impossible to
ask questions. He said, "There have been a lot of troubles," and I can barely
recall another word he said.
The evening was clear ' and quiet, the primary sounds coming from the
whisper of trees around our house, and I remember that my father looked old all of a
sudden, worried and far away. I know he made a reference to "sexual problems"
between my mother and him. I know he made a reference to his "complicated
relationship" with his own mother, as well as several references to anger and
ambivalence, deep currents of both. But mostly I remember looking at him with a feeling
I'd had since childhood: that he held something dark and conflicted and unknowable inside,
something I shared but couldn't yet put words to; that he'd remain a .mystery to me until
Years later, after my father's death, I had occasion to meet with one
of the few people who understood him intimately, a psychologist named Jack, and he filled
me in on the source of some of that conflict: apparently my father's own father had had
affairs, lots of them, and he'd humiliate his wife, publicly and regularly, by talking
about them in front of other people, flaunting them. She would retaliate, not by having
affairs of her own, but by acting seductive and flirtatious to anyone who happened to be
handy, including my father. Jack told me all this by way of explaining how conflicted my
father had become, how the concepts of sexuality and humiliation got welded in his soul
from the earliest age, how on the deepest level he couldn't experience sexual love for
someone without also feeling shame. My father was kind and empathic and deeply sensitive
and as a young man, the model his parents offered put him in a terrible bind: to identify
with his mother was to yield to her seduction; to identify with his father was to condone
In the end, Jack told me, my father wouldn't humiliate my mother by
flaunting his affair as his own father had done, so he'd struggled to keep it secret. The
affair had ended after a year or two and then he'd confessed. But some time passed and
he'd started it again, then ended it again, then confessed again. From what I gathered,
the affair had continued like that--on and off, promises made then broken--and that
summer, after the last confession, my mother had had enough.
Although I couldn't quite say how at the time, my father's affair
explained things to me, provided some central piece of the quiet puzzle that was our home.
Sitting with him on the patio that evening, I thought: that's what the silence was about;
that's where the veils of sadness and tension came from; that's why I never saw my parents
hug, or explode with passion or emotion or rage: all the energy went into hiding thing;,
keeping the lid on feelings. I found the story of my father's affair utterly surprising
and utterly validating at the same time, and I remember sipping my drink on the patio and
saying, simply, "Oh."
I didn't know what else to say, really. Sexual conflicts! Lust and
adultery? My parents?
"Oh." It explained things, but I couldn't react past that.
They broke up for about three days. My mother went to the Vineyard, and
my father moved in with the other woman, and then, finally, something shifted and he
decided he couldn't follow through, couldn't leave my mother. He called her and over the
next week they patched things back together. Years later he told my sister that he drank
almost the entire time he was there: drank vodka and drank gin and drank and drank.
Drinking was his solution, the medication for sexual conflict.
The amazing thing, of course, is that you do all this--all this
drinking, all the keeping of secrets and withholding of information, all the
self-medicating without making the connection between the drink and the outcome. My father
drank, and he stayed stuck in the relationship with the other woman, and stuck in the
secrecy, and stuck in the feeling of ambivalence, and he didn't understand until it was
way too late that all those actions were related, that the drink fostered the secrecy and
the secrecy fostered the stuck feeling, that drink and dishonesty and clouded vision were
ultimately one and the same, weaving through each other like the threads of a tapestry.
That summer with David and Roger I picked up the threads of that same tapestry, drinking
and weaving myself into a life that felt woefully overcomplicated, and I couldn't make the
connection either. I wouldn't for many years.
The hard things in life, the things you really learn from, happen with
a clear mind. About six weeks after that first lunch with Roger, I finally couldn't stand
it, couldn't stand sitting in his car and letting him touch me like that anymore, so one
day I summoned up all my nerve and went over to his office. I told him, tentatively but
very soberly, that I couldn't see him anymore, and that was the end. I said, "I'm
just too uncomfortable with this." He was sitting at his desk and he just stared at
me. I stammered, "I hope-I mean, I hope we can still be friends." Silence.
Finally, he looked at me and said, "Well. If we're not going to be lovers, I don't
see the point." I didn't see him again, or even talk to him again, but from that
point on, I could hate him, instead of merely fear him. Years later, I heard he had died,
dropped dead of a heart attack while jogging on the East Side of Providence. I didn't feel
Tuesdays with Morrie
Mitch Albom, pp. 169-179.
"I've picked a place to be buried."
Where is that?
"Not far from here. On a hill, beneath a tree, overlooking a pond. Very
serene. A good place to think."
Are you planning on thinking there?
"I'm planning on being dead there."
He chuckles. I chuckle.
"Will you visit?"
"Just come and talk. Make it a Tuesday. You always come on
We're Tuesday people."
"Right. Tuesday People. Come to talk, then?"
He has grown so weak so fast.
"Look at me," he says.
"You'll come to my grave? To tell me your problems?"
And you'll give me answers?
"I'll give you what I can. Don't I always?"
I picture his grave, on the hill, overlooking the pond, some little nine-foot piece of
earth where they will place him, cover him with dirt, put a stone on top. Maybe in a
few weeks? Maybe in a few days? I see myself sitting there alone, arms across
my knees, staring into space.
It won't be the same, I say, not being able to hear you talk.
"Ah, talk. . ."
He closes his eyes and smiles.
"Tell you what. After I'm dead, you talk. And I'll listen."
The Thirteenth Tuesday: We Talk About the Perfect Day
Morrie wanted to be cremated. He had discussed it with
Charlotte, and they decided it was the best way. The rabbi from Brandeis, Al
Axelrad--a longtime friend whom they chose to conduct the funeral service--had come to
visit Morrie, and Morrie told him of his cremation plans.
"Make sure they don't overcook me."
The rabbi was stunned. But Morrie was able to joke about his body
now. The closer he got to the end, the more he saw it as a mere shell, a container
of the soul. It was withering to useless skin and bones anyhow, which made it easier
to let go.
"We are so afraid of the sight of death," Morrie told me when
I sat down. I adjusted the microphone on his collar, but it kept flopping over.
Morrie coughed. He was coughing all the time now.
"I read a book the other day. It said as soon as someone
dies in a hospital, they pull the sheets up over their head, and they wheel the body to
some chute and push it down. They can't wait to get it out of their sight.
People act as if death is contagious."
I fumbled with the microphone. Morrie glanced at my hands.
"It's not contagious, you know. Death is as natural as life.
It's part of the deal we made."
He coughed again, and I moved back and waited, always braced for
something serious. Morrie had been having bad nights lately. Frightening
nights. He could sleep only a few hours at a time before violent hacking spells woke
him. The nurses would come into the bedroom, pound him on the back, try to bring up
the poison. Even if they got him breathing normally again-- "normally"
meaning with the help of the oxygen machine--the fight left him fatigued the whole next
The oxygen tube was up his nose now. I hated the sight of it.
To me, it symbolized helplessness. I wanted to pull it out.
"Last night . . ." Morrie said softly.
Yes? Last night?
". . . I had a terrible spell. It went on for hours.
And I really wasn't sure I was going to make it. No breath. No end to the
choking. At one point, I started to get dizzy . . .and then I felt a certain peace,
I felt that I was ready to go."
His eyes widened. "Mitch, it was a most incredible feeling.
The sensation of accepting what was happening, being at peace. I was thinking
about a dream I had last week, where I was crossing a bridge into something unknown.
Being ready to move on to whatever is next."
But you didn't.
Morrie waited a moment. He shook his head slightly.
"No, I didn't. But I felt that I could. Do you understand?
"That's what we're all looking for. A certain peace with the
idea of dying. If we know, in the end, that we can ultimately have that peace with
dying, then we can finally do the really hard thing."
"Make peace with living."
He asked to see the hibiscus plant on the ledge behind him. I
cupped it in my hand and held it up near his eyes. He smiled.
"It's natural to die," he said again. "The fact
that we make such a big hullabaloo over it is all because we don't see ourselves a part of
nature. We think because we're human we're something above nature."
He smiled at the plant.
"We're not. Everything that gets born, dies." He
looked at me.
"Do you accept that?"
"All right," he whispered, "now here's the payoff.
Here is how we are different from these wonderful plants and animals.
"As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of
love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is
still there. All the memories are still there. You live on--in the hearts of
everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here."
His voice was raspy, which usually meant he needed to stop for a while.
I placed the plant back on the ledge and went to shut off the tape recorder.
This is the last sentence Morrie got out before I did:
"Death ends a life, not a relationship."
There had been a development in the treatment of ALS: an experimental
drug that was just gaining passage. It was not a cure, but a delay, a slowing of the
decay for perhaps a few months. Morrie had heard about it, but he was too far gone.
Besides, the medicine wouldn't be available for several months.
"Not for me," Morrie said, dismissing it.
In all the time he was sick, Morrie never held out hope he would be
cured. He was realistic to a fault. One time, I asked if someone were to wave
a magic wand and make him all better, would he become, in time, the man he had been
He shook his head. "No way I could go back. I am a
different self now. I'm different in my attitudes. I'm different appreciating
my body, which I didn't do fully before. I'm different in terms of trying to grapple
with the big questions, the ultimate questions, the ones that won't go away.
"That's the thing, you see. Once you get your fingers on the
important questions, you can't turn away from them."
And which are the important questions?
"As I see it, they have to do with love, responsibility,
spirituality, awareness. And if I were healthy today, those would still be my
issues. They should have been all along."
I tried to imagine Morrie healthy. I tried to imagine him pulling
the covers from his body, stepping from that chair, the two of us going for a walk around
the neighborhood, the way we used to walk around campus. I suddenly realized it had
been sixteen years since I'd seen him standing up. Sixteen years?
What if you had one day perfectly healthy, I asked? What would
"Let's see . . . I'd get up in the morning, do my exercises, have
a lovely breakfast of sweet rolls and tea, go for a swim, then have my friends come over
for a nice lunch. I'd have them come one or two at a time so we could talk about
their families, their issues, talk about how much we mean to each other.
"Then I'd like to go for a walk, in a garden with some trees,
watch their colors, watch the birds, take in the nature that I haven't seen in so long
"In the evening, we'd all go together to a restaurant with some
great pasta, maybe some duck--I love duck--and then we'd dance the rest of the night.
I'd dance with all the wonderful dance partners out there, until I was exhausted.
And then I'd go home and have a deep, wonderful sleep."
It was so simple. So average. I was actually a little
disappointed. I figured he'd fly to Italy or have lunch with the President or romp
on the seashore or try every exotic thing he could think of. After all these months,
lying there, unable to move a leg or a foot--how could he find perfection in such an
The I realized this was the whole point.
Before I left that day, Morrie asked if he could bring up a
"Your brother," he said.
I felt a shiver. I do not know how Morrie knew this was on my
mind. I had been trying to call my brother in Spain for weeks, and had learned--from
a friend of his--that he was flying back and forth to a hospital in Amsterdam.
"Mitch, I know it hurts when you can't be with someone you love.
But you need to be at peace with his desires. Maybe he doesn't want you
interrupting your life. Maybe he can't deal with that burden. I tell everyone
I know to carry on with the life they know--don't ruin it because I am dying."
But he's my brother, I said.
"I know," Morrie said. "That's why it hurts."
I saw Peter in my mind when he was eight years old, his curly blond
hair puffed into a sweaty ball atop his head. I saw us wrestling in the yard next to
our house, the grass stains soaking through the knees of our jeans. I saw him
singing songs in front of the mirror, holding a brush as a microphone, and I saw us
squeezing into the attic where we hid together as children, testing our parents' will to
find us for dinner.
And then I saw him as the adult who had drifted away, thin and frail,
his face bony from the chemotherapy treatments.
Morrie, I said. Why doesn't he want to see me?
My old professor sighed. "There is no formula to
relationships. They have to be negotiated in loving ways, with room for both
parties, what they want and what they need, what they can do and what their life is like.
"In business, people negotiate to win. They negotiate to get
what they want. Maybe you're too used to that. Love is different. Love
is when you are as concerned about someone else's situation as you are about your own.
"You've had these special times with your brother, and you no
longer have what you had with him. You want them back. You never want them to
stop. But that's part of being human. Stop, renew, stop, renew."
I looked at him. I saw all the death in the world. I felt
"You'll find a way back to your brother," Morrie said.
How do you know?
Morrie smiled. "You found me, didn't you?"
I heard a nice little story the other day," Morrie says. He
closes his eyes for a moment and I wait.
"Okay. The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in
the ocean, having a grand old time. He's enjoying the wind and the fresh air--until
he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore.
"'My God, this is terrible,' the wave says 'Look what's going to
happen to me!'
"Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave,
looking grim, and it says to him, 'Why do you look so sad?'
"The first wave says, 'You don't understand! We're all going to
crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn't it terrible?'
"The second wave says, 'No, you don't understand. You're not
a wave, you're part of the ocean.'"
I smile. Morrie closes his eyes again.
"Part of the ocean," he says, "part of the ocean."
I watch him breathe, in and out, in and out.