Escaping the Cabin
One January night before starting the anti-depressant Paxil, I had a dream: I am in a log cabin, an infant strapped to my chest. Outside a swirling snowstorm howls through a conifer forest. Sentries in fur coats stand knee deep in the snow guarding the cabin. They have no weapons. There is a civil war. Our side has lost. The victors will kill us. A woman sentry advises us not to leave the cabin or let the victors enter. We have no weapons. If we stay in the cabin the invaders will burn it. If we fight, they will kill us. I decide to leave. I trudge through the snow and think that if the choice is survival or a lost cause, I'll leave and survive.
My dream clawed its way to consciousness during a winter of broken fertility and blocked creativity. That same winter my therapist decided I was depressed, in need of her and medication to guide me. I was in a crisis but not one either of us understood.
Three years earlier, a routine internal exam had lead to an unexpected diagnosis of endometriosis, a reproductive system disease. Surgery revealed a diffuse, murky mass spread across my uterus and one remaining ovary. In order to protect what remained of my fertility, I went on a six month hormone regime which induced a temporary, artificial menopause. In the three years that followed I traveled across oceans and within myself, started a business, parted with lovers and explored new ones, all the while shedding skin, identities, certainties. Questions haunted me. How could I have been so sick for so long and not know it? What else didn¹t I know about myself?
All you come back with is a story. The words flared in my mind before going on the Paxil. A well-published nature writer, I needed to return to my tales of urban peregrines and autumn migrations. A New York City literary agent was waiting for the first chapter of a book that would restart a career stalled by illness. The well-traveled streams of my imagination went bone dry. All you come back with is a story. I clamped my jaws shut on those words, broke pens, gnashed teeth, cried during the night and day.
Until that January, I believed I could triumph over the changes forced on me. If only from sheer will, I could have the child I wanted. If only because I wanted to, I could continue to write within the known, safe realms of salmon and cedar. I dreamt of being the only survivor on the Titanic. I dreamt of meeting crones by a hearth fire. My dreams were prophecies that the story I came back with would not be the one I wanted. I didn¹t understand my dreams. Neither did my therapist.
This pain is not what you think, my therapist would say. We sat in a narrow room. Between us was a mahogany coffee table with a clock gleaming red digits, a bouquet of purple statice in a Mexican vase, and the requisite box of tissues. Look to your past for its reasons, she would say, her eyes soft, sad behind gold rimmed glasses.
After each session I would walk through a nearby park. Everywhere were mothers pushing strollers, their infants and toddlers alert to a brave new world of Douglas Fir trees and inline skaters. My scar tugged with each step, a crimson marker of illness and broken faith in my body. To mother a child. An essential part of humanity, of myself, I longed to experience. Returning home I¹d force myself to lift pen to empty page and write line after repetitious line about sockeye salmon returning to local creeks to mate, lay their eggs, and die before their young are born. Day after day, page after page of crossed out words, between ringing phones and glimpses of cedar waxwings in barren Japanese maples, unanswered questions stalked me. How could I live if I couldn¹t create, not in words, not in children? Why had I worked so hard for either only to lose both? How was I to live now and for the rest of my life?
My therapist had her own answers. Therapy's core dogma is that the therapist sees what the client cannot. Like all dogma, it rests on faith alone. My therapist would lean back into a fluted armchair embroidered with faux floral needlepoint, her zaftig body draped in brown drawstring pants, bulky tan pullovers and Birkenstocks. She would shake her head. No, I was not feeling grief over being childless. It was not even a child I wanted. Rather, my inner child was reacting to the inadequate mothering I had received. Never mind my national publications and writing awards. Your creativity is at the stage of a 6 month old, she would coo. You¹re really just a child. A child. I will love that vulnerable, inner child even if you can¹t. I will defend her.
"We cannot live in a world interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not home..." pleaded Hildegard von Bingen centuries earlier. To my therapist, there was always another fragmented recollection, another half-recalled, distant conversation that was more important than my present life challenges. Elusive, omnipotent, shadowy, the past eclipsed without illuminating my daily crisis of meaning. The more immersed I became in her interpretations of my past, the more alienated I became from the power -- imperfect, limited -- which only exists in the present. As the weeks progressed my doubts grew.
One day, I told my therapist how during Shabbat services the rabbi had asked the congregation to close our eyes and see ourselves as God sees us. A vision had flared behind my closed eyes: I stood ankle deep in a vast, glimmering turquoise ocean, my body bathed in light, in joy, swollen in pregnancy. My therapist leaned towards me, looked deeply into my eyes and said: This vision is of your inner child, your innocent child self, waiting to come into the light. I was stunned. I wanted a child. My story silenced, I cried without words, without sounds.
There were other days when I sank into the love seat and said, This is making my life worse, not better. I wanted to write again. I wanted to re-establish the trust in my body, in myself, that had been ruptured by illness. I am a grown woman, I would insist, my teeth gritted. No, my therapist would respond. You¹re really just a child. Try drawing with crayons. Try cooking the foods you ate as a child, tapioca pudding or spaghetti and meatballs. I will keep speaking up for your child self even if you won¹t. Let her thrive.
I don¹t want this to continue, I finally said, pushing aside the offered box of tissues. I want to end the therapy.
She agreed. The therapy wasn¹t working. She had tried everything she knew. Somatic releasing. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Talking. Process Therapy. All the things that worked for her. If the old joys of words and nature brought no pleasure, if I could see find no meaning in my life, if I wasn¹t responding to therapy, there was only one explanation.
Depression, she said. She leaned back against the armchair's wide, padded back and smiled. Her index finger tapped-tapped-tapped her thigh. Depression. There are medications. They only help. There¹s no harm.
Depression. I tried to fit that word into my mouth as if it came from behind my tongue. Depression. A biochemical disturbance in the brain. A too fast, too complete synaptic absorption of serotonin. A synthesis of trauma and neurotransmitter imbalance. Depression isn't sadness or grief, but the loss of the ability to feel sadness or grief, bittersweet longing, frivolous joy, even impetuous gratitude at simply being alive. Yet my feelings were closer than I wanted.
Underneath my dream cabin rolled a turbulent river. Seeping through layers of earth, firmament, bone, skin, self were emotions, raw, unwanted, uncontained. I woke sobbing over griefs I thought long forgotten. I tore editors' brief rejection letters into tiny, jagged shreds. While meditating, my mind filled with images of crimson snakes uncoiling from my ankles, slinking up my crossed legs, my naked chest, my shoulders, their quick, forked tongues cleaning my ears. Snakes: consorts of the mother goddess, symbols of wisdom and rebirth.
I want my own freedom, I wrote one gray morning in my journal, freedom from my own rules, my limits, my shoulds. Then came the words: All you come back with is a story. I slammed the journal shut. I refused to make this story real by writing it down. No other stories came.
"...part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see with our own light..." wrote von Bingen long ago. The more I heard my therapist's voice, the harder it became to hear my own. The more I tried to dam that underground river, the more it jumped its channels to rise in sobbing, in desperate urges for solitude, in the first incoherent stammering of my unwanted story, in sharp, sudden rages. The angrier I became, the more my therapist gripped her chair¹s armrests and said: Go on the medication. You are depressed.
Depression. Not a diagnosis. Not a description. A name: power's stubborn, gripping root. Naming assigns identity, essence, self. Like most Jews, I have an innate regard for names. Jews have no name for God, that source behind creation. Instead, there are many designators, perhaps the most common being HaShem: The Name.
Depression. This name gave me a reason not to make cold calls to revive my floundering business, not to put on a red dress for a swing dance, not to heed my dream¹s warning, not to decipher my sorrow's rejected message. It gave me a reason not to listen to what I didn¹t want to hear: a sibilant whisper that I would be childless, a frightening, seductive roar behind my creative silence.
Could I really say this wasn¹t my name? Once I had thought I was well only to have the endometriosis silently ravage my body. Could I trust myself to know when I was sick, when I was well? Perhaps this strange crisis was another hidden darkness. In the end, it was the endometriosis that convinced me I had to at least try the anti-depressants.
The Paxil took effect immediately although not in any way my doctor or therapist had mentioned. Nausea began on my second day. Bitter vomit would rise up my throat gagging me. Dry mouth followed. I could hardly eat yet my body bloated.
Sheer exhaustion came next. I pushed fingernails in my palms to keep from falling asleep at client meetings and discussion groups.
Erotic desire died. The flesh between my legs became wooden, inert, an uprooted tree.
Much later, I would learn I was experiencing routine side-effects of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, such as Paxil and Prozac. Neither my doctor nor therapist warned of other common side effects such as the inability to think or remember clearly, apathy, a loss of spontaneity and, ironically, other conditions quite common to depression.
Stay on the Paxil, my therapist urged. It will only help you. I refused. It was my first small step into those snowy woods. Another drug was found: Wellbutrin. Then came another tentative step towards whatever was beyond that blinding snowstorm. I left therapy.
At first the Wellbutrin was benign. I could stay awake. I could talk coherently to clients. I could feel erotic joy, if not desire. I could find myself in my body. Shortly after beginning the drug, I spent a weekend at an ecstatic dance workshop. My body, free to follow its own moves, flowed me through chaos, joy, stillness. My body spoke. An inner command for silence fell quiet. Censorship gone, in its place was a void waiting for creation.
The following Monday I had to get away. From my cobwebbed office, my darkened basement rooms, from this looming vastness, from whatever was fast approaching the cabin in my dream.
I drove hard and fast north to the Skagit Valley. Beauty never failed me there no matter how harsh or predatory. Interstate-5 was slick with winter rain. Stars, moon, clouds, sunlight, glory rays were hidden by a brooding sky. The highway curved on to country roads. I drove past red-tailed hawks atop telephone poles, wind bitten barns, fields of winter cabbage.
Mud and gravel roads led to a wildlife refuge. I tramped across black mud, past the sun-worn bones of long gone forests. A harrier hawk flew a clipped, swooping patrol over gold grass. An immature eagle, all speed and brown-feathered death, skimmed across the bay. I sat butt cold on a moss-covered log. I screamed to the silence, to the wind, to God: Why this world?
Why this world of empty wombs, unwanted stories. I cried what I still couldn't say but already knew. No matter how deep my desires, how strong my hopes, there would be no children in my life.
If I couldn't have children, I could still write. Except my beloved world of tawny winged owls swooping into twilight was no longer whispering in my ear. A new world was; a still unknown tongue. All you come back with is a story. If I wanted to write, I would have to put the old pens down, follow my creative intuition as it cut tracks across new landscapes of eroticism, spirituality, family.
I screamed. Why? Why? Why? My tears streaked with rain. Why? Why? Why? until I felt a primal, irrational gratitude to be alive in this world of coyote tracks, snow geese rising from mud like white camellias, a great blue heron¹s stillness a Buddha would envy. To live in this numinous, ineluctable world was to admit pain, to find meaning in broken dreams, joy in an unwanted fate.
Rain gave way to night. Orion rose. Wind chilled me but only skin deep. Trumpeter swans flew with moonlight between their feathers. Wing beats and their calls broke the silence.
There were no more days like that once the Wellbutrin took effect. I slept free from dreams. I never knew if crones confronted me before I woke, if besieged cabins were finally destroyed. "The unconscious wants truth," writes poet Adrienne Rich. "It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth."
I spent hours staring into my computer screen's glare, stabbing keys with slow fingers, trying and failing to write grants for my withering business. My notebooks were filled with blank pages, my writing table covered with jackets and junk mail. Words backed up in my throat, quicksilver fish quivering behind a logjam. I felt no sorrow when I looked at my scar, no sudden happiness at white blossoms on cherry tree branches. Tears dried up. Anger shriveled. Exhaustion remained. A slowness of body and mind left me without spirit to dance, concentration to read. Recipes and shopping lists confounded me no matter how often I had them repeated.
Each day I swallowed a yellow, fingernail-sized pill of self-doubt. What was wrong with me that I needed these pills? Did I even need them at all? Were they really helping? Days became weeks. I remained calm in my despair as if my life was an abandoned town I visited from time to time.
The Wellbutrin was doing all an anti-depressant can do: altering my mood while leaving the conditions of my life unchanged. Like the soma-laden workers in Brave New World, I adjusted to a stunted life. Compared to this, the crying and rages, the raw gratitude to be alive, the enigmatic dreams were gifts from my deepest mysteries and desires.
One late March morning, I left the orange vial of pills in my medicine cabinet. The next morning the Wellbutrin remained tucked behind aspirin and moisturizing cream. It stayed there the next morning. I stepped further into the woods only now the wind was abating, the snow no longer falling.
Days turned into weeks. Dreams returned. I could cry again. I didn¹t try to stop the tears. I was starved for feelings. Slowly, I could act again. I made the cold calls needed to restore my business. Clients returned. I moved from my basement rooms to a sunlit apartment. I fell in love.
One spring afternoon on a Whidbey Island beach, my back against a wind-peeling log, my feet in the sand, I squinted hard at harlequin ducks and common loons in the sun-dappled sound, and wrote a letter to God. God, I wrote, you fucked up, pain and meshugaas and for what? Once I accepted my sorrow as real and not a phantom from my past, I could discover its lesson, express it¹s meaning in my own words. Pain no longer mastered me. The world¹s inevitable beauty returned.
Faith, I wrote, I'd like that, to believe there's more than what I can know. A poem. A prayer. The first soundings of a newly burnished voice.
In the weeks that followed, I wrote without grace, without gratitude of the last three years. What my therapist had quickly labeled depression, I slowly came to see were life¹s inevitable sorrows, its unfairness and randomness, its spiritual challenges. Perhaps depression can be cured with a pill, but life cannot. When suffering is gone, so too is the unexpected freedom to go beyond what life is supposed to be and on to a greater appreciation of what life is. "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering" wrote psychologist and Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl. "...everything can be taken but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one's own way."
The lost hours in the therapist's white-walled office, the dazed months on drugs had been an initiation: silence was no longer possible. If you refuse to speak your story, someone else will put the words in your mouth. My words revealed a deeper wisdom of my body, an appreciation of myself as a woman independent of whether I could have children. My words revealed a restored trust in myself, a more intimate, problematic relationship with HaShem. When therapy denies story, it silences the power to see, to imagine, to contribute a genuine if broken presence to humanity¹s common ground. My story became home; my walking ground; my power. The last three years became an unwanted lesson, one worth learning.
copyrightAdrienne Ross 2003