Sadness. Regret. Grief.
In the old days, I’d have called this state of mind depression. But that word refers to a mental illness, and this doesn’t feel pathological. Rather, it seems utterly normal to feel down after everything that’s happened.
As March draws to a close, I look back on a six month run of painful events that started with my sister’s death from alcoholism on October first. The last three months of 2011 were shadowed by that loss. My first holiday season with no one else alive from my family of origin felt especially mournful. As the days shortened and darkened around my bereavement, I continued to face one disappointment after another on the acupuncture front. And just as my hopes of once again earning an income began to flicker out, the company that pays me disability insurance threatened to cut me off on false pretenses.
With all that stress, perhaps it’s no surprise that in mid-January I suffered my ruptured aneurysm and two hospitalizations. This bodily malfunction caused pain of greater severity for longer periods than I’d ever endured before, not to mention tsunamis of nausea and a twelve hour stint of nearly non-stop vomiting. Because of intestinal obstruction, I was fed intravenously for several weeks after seven days of flat-out starvation. Today, despite six weeks of normal eating and living, I still feel sorely depleted.
Not long after the internal hemorrhage, a friendship that has been important to me for years ended in a big, angry blowup that appears final. Also, during the past few months my spinal problems worsened, and now my left arm is afflicted by nerve root compression that causes stabbing pain. As a result, I can’t use that hand to carry anything much heavier than a glass of water. And the abdominal discomfort that’s plagued me for a year (and that we now know was caused by the same vascular insufficiency that created the aneurysm) is bothering me more than ever.
And of course there’s the letdown after the major manic episode that swelled, crested, and broke as my world seemed to be falling to pieces. Inevitably, it seems, energetic and euphoric states are followed by their opposites.
At the tail end of all this chaos, my cousin came to town and we held an informal ceremony for my sister at the western edge of San Francisco, where the city meets the Pacific Ocean. My wife and I owned a beautiful vintage house near that beach until December 1999. My sister visited us often there, and she loved to walk along the shore and collect sand dollars.
The memorial at Ocean Beach felt painful. First and foremost, of course, there was my grief about my sister’s passing, which I’ve had trouble facing before now: the pain has seemed too overwhelming.
But that neighborhood often makes me uneasy just by itself, because it brings to mind difficult memories. For instance, very near the spot where we spread a few teaspoonfuls of Janice’s cremains, in 1996 my wife and I watched in horror as an enormous Akita grabbed our beloved three-pound Pomeranian, biting hard and killing her almost instantly. The resulting emotional devastation ruined our weekly walks along the beach and probably fed into my hastiness in abandoning the area a few years later (see below).
Going to that beachside neighborhood feels especially poignant because before Mickey’s death I was enjoying some of the most satisfying years of my life. We lived in a wonderful city just a few blocks from the surf. I was a respected surgeon who drove to work every day along one of the most beautiful routes in California. My avocation as a figurative sculptor kept me occupied during my free time. I felt happy and proud of myself.
So much has changed since then. My neck disease ended both my surgical career and my sculpting. My mental health collapsed. We left San Francisco after I sold our beach house with little forethought during the rising phase of an extremely intense manic episode. As years passed, I tried many new careers but wasn’t able to sustain any of them. Our financial situation gradually deteriorated. And now I’m faced with many new losses that seem to echo all that escaped my grasp twelve years ago. My sister’s memorial on the sand wove my unraveled dreams into a tapestry of regret.
But change and eventual decay are what life promises, yes? Earlier tonight I was looking at a book we bought long ago, back when we lived in that unique house near the beach. It shows photos of the neighborhood and coastline dating from the mid 1800’s through the 1950’s. In one 1936 aerial photo of the amusement park that used to line the shore you can even see the house we once owned; it would have been eleven years old at that time.
What struck me in looking at those photos was how the people looked so ordinary in their happiness. Gazing out from those images were romantic couples strolling along the esplanade, boisterous families gawking at the amusements, and robust men racing out of the surf. One photograph showed a group of young women wearing swimsuits that looked like today’s scuba diving outfits; the hand-pencilled caption read: Bathing Beauties. Most of these young people were posing self-consciously for the cameras, but they all looked excited to be spending a day at the beach. We can only imagine what happened as they grew older. What joys, adventures, and successes did they find in life? What disappointments, illnesses, and tragedies did they eventually suffer? Could they have guessed that their innocent pleasure would be captured in a souvenir book and viewed a century later, long after their death? Did they ever think they would be reduced to anonymous images, historically interesting but otherwise nearly forgotten?
This is the nature of life. It buds, blossoms, fruits, and falls. As I survey the wreckage of the past six months it seems like nothing more than ordinary human history. I don’t feel sorry for myself. It would be isolating and self-pitying to call my natural sadness a mental illness. Loss and grief connect me with the global family of humankind. They pull me into the passion play that repeats itself generation after generation. The actors and scenery change, but hope, fear, joy, and grief cycle forever through their seasons, as humanity lives and loves.