Blood Narratives

In the space of exactly twelve months, from August 2013 to August 2014, I suffered from cancer, had a heart attack followed by a debilitating depression, I was laid off from a job I had had for 16 years (my company's genteel way of eliminating an older worker), and I was abruptly told by my wife that she wanted a divorce.  Poor little me.

But I am an adult.  The real victims of all this trauma were my children; a boy of 14 (at the beginning) and a girl of 11.  The boy was particularly hurt.  He is one of those people who has trouble with change and transitions and in the course of that year he saw his whole world collapse entirely beyond his control.  This triggered in him a severe clinical depression which was not, for reasons I won't go into, properly diagnosed for six months.  During this six months, some upper classman school bullies zeroed in on him and tormented him until one day he found the strength to report them and his school came down on them like a large rock.  But the stress of that event caused him to have a mental breakdown, which in retrospect was a blessing, since it revealed what had been going on with him.  I had him treated by a psychiatrist and a psychologist and he fairly quickly began to recover from the purely physical effects of the depression.

People recover from depressions in different ways.  In the case of my son, he went (and is still going though) something that I found very familiar.  (Not a surprise; why shouldn't his depressions be like mine?)  Having been depressed for so long, he developed what I call the habits of a depressed person.  He had lost touch with the patterns of his prior life and worse, all of the things that he used to love to do.  This continued after the drugs and counseling took effect and he began to feel better physically.

I had been through this myself and in fact more than once.  But there was a huge difference between us.  I knew the routine.  I knew that after my depression went into remission I would have to recover my past life and the activities that gave it meaning.  In this case, I would have to try to teach my son to do the same. For although he had a very good therapist, he trusted me to give him personal insights that the no therapist could have given him.  I was up to this, except that during my last depression (which overlapped his) something new had happened to me. And now I had a very major problem in trying to help my son.

In the past, I had recovered my routine after a depression by attempting to recover the narrative of my life.  I think that we all think of our lives as narratives, as stories in which we are the heroes.  There is a standard American narrative where we grow up, get married, get a job, have relationships, accumulate possessions and experiences, grow old, and die, preferably at a great age and in our sleep.  Things may happen to disrupt this narrative of course.  It's inevitable.  But generally the narrative has some parts that are not disrupted. So we fit the unforeseen event into the narrative and continue.

My son was young and inexperienced and just at the beginning of his narrative.  He had no experience of a developed pattern that he could continue.  He did not know that while a depression will wipe out all feelings of joy and the pursuit of joy, one can recapture these (with work and after a time). I found in my discussions with him, that I discussed narratives with him frequently.  I discussed mine and the narratives of our relatives.  One thing that these had going for us was that most of the events and people were familiar to him.  He could relate to them.  And being that the people were familiar, he could see within his own family that people had survived, rebuilt their lives, and then thrived.

I will admit that since I was coming out of a depression myself, that my conversations with him were also helpful to me.  In a way, we were going through recovery together.  But it was here that I discovered that something different had happened to me.

In the list of woes I outlined at the beginning of this article, I discovered that the narrative of my own life (in the sense of some undamaged thing that I could hold onto and use as a base to recover the whole) had been destroyed.  I had lost my health, my family, my home, my job, and I too had lost my old patterns of joy and meaning.  While trying to explain the narrative of life to my son, so that he could recapture what he had lost and begin to think of the future as something that he could have some control over and something he could plan, I had come to the conclusion that life was not a narrative; that narrative itself was an illusion.

In fact, the more I thought about it (and the more I started to read about it, relying on spiritual works that I had read before but had gotten a completely different meaning from) life could also be viewed as a series of discrete, separate events in time. The connections between them was a contrivance of the mind.  The connections were an attempt to apply "meaning" to the overall course of our life in order to reassure ourselves.

I have always been a story teller.  And I have always suffered from the talent or the vice of looking at the people around me in terms of them having a "story".  But I now saw in my tangible memories of people a series of discrete moments in time.  The best moments were when I was most truly "with them", when the moments were most intimate.  When I looked back at my own life, it started to look the same.  The best parts of my life, the most vivid and valuable parts, where when I was involved with some kind of engagement with life that was actually (at the time) timeless and which I only connected to the other parts of my life later. I could see now that this was how my children and friends would remember me.  In moment in time and not as a story in time.

We only live in the moment.  We only can live in the moment.  And I have come to believe that the ability to do this is what we must develop to become fully human.  I can easily invent a narrative about how I got from there to here.  But "here" seems to be a place where narrative collapses.  As I think it should.  It is the secret of the mystic.

For my son, right now, in his anger, confusion, and fear, I think he needs a structure.  He is at an age where he needs a narrative desperately so that he can think in terms of having some path to follow.  So I will continue to tell him the narratives of our blood; of mine and his mother's and his relatives.  I will incorporate the familiar things about them into a narrative for him that he can feel and believe in.  And I hope that, at his age, he will take up again his own narrative and aspire to build his own story.

But I think and hope that one day he will be able to put this aside.  He won't be able to put it aside until he has something to put aside.  And I won't be there to see it.  But perhaps I can leave him some clues.  I pray that I can.

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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