A Good Skill Set For Depressives (With or Without Drugs)

I’ve been living with clinical depression for a couple of decades now.  It can be challenging terrain…lots of sheer cliffs and deep canyons that are way too easy to get lost in, especially in the beginning when they can feel inescapable..but after twenty years I’ve learned how to get around.  Mapped out the local territory, made friends with the natives, and built a beautiful life there that I really love and am deeply grateful for.

I’ve done it without antidepressants.  And before anyone gets their panties all in a bunch, I’m not opposed to pharmaceutical treatment. (I so dislike that whole battle.  It’s divisive, distracting, and a waste of precious resources.)  It’s just that, back when I slipped into my first severe episode, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  Depression wasn’t the by-word it is today.  It took a while just to figure out what I was dealing with and, once that became clear, I still couldn’t afford long-term, continued access to drugs.

So it was fortunate I’d already pieced together an alternate treatment plan that was working for me.  It’s complex, eclectic, and tailored specifically to my life and strengths, so there’s no point in going into detail here.  But there were a handful of important skills I had to develop in order to make the whole thing work and I suspect they might be helpful no matter what treatment plan a person turns to.  So just in case that’s true, here they are:


1)  Develop emotional endurance.  A lot of it.  Do exercises.

2)  Trust your instincts, you’re not crazy.  Some studies have suggested that depressives actually have a more realistic view of the world than non-depressives.

3)  Question your conclusions.  Depressives can take that aforementioned realistic view (especially in a severe episode) and translate it to mean everything is futile and unbearable when it’s not.

4)  Develop emotional endurance.  Really.

5)  Depression annihilates confidence so cultivate stubbornness instead.  (Desperation is also a surprisingly effective motivation for short hauls but it’s tough on the adrenals.)

6)  Did I mention develop emotional endurance?

And 7)  Look for light.  It’s a discipline that can save you.  If you can’t find any immediately, then hang on to memories of old light until you can.  Living with depression is a lot like living at night.  Colors fade out and disappear during a descent, and the whole world falls into shades of gray.  But once you figure out where to look and start to see them, the stars in there will knock your socks off.

The Pillars of Creation

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Incurable Miracles

One of the most common responses I used to get from people when they found out I worked with hospice was, That must be depressing. I was never quite sure how to answer that.

Because it wasn’t depressing at all.  It was a whole lot of other things; hard, heartbreaking, inspiring, curious, overwhelming, humorous, wonderful, challenging, exhausting, transformative, and ultimately very, very uplifting.

But never depressing.  Not once.  And I’m a depressive.

I’ve been riding the cycles of major depressive episodes for almost two decades but, far from aggravating the symptoms, hanging around with dying people actually helped.  They showed me what it can look like, living in the world of no-cure.  How being incurable in no way limits the ability to make your miracles.

I’d always thought the dying were about-as-good-as-dead, so imagine my surprise to discover they’re actually still very much alive.  In some ways more than most people.  Dying didn’t suppress their ability to live, it enhanced it.  They still felt everything we all do, only times a million.  They were throbbing with life.  Writhing and radiant from it.  The fact that some of that life was transcendent love and some was sheer hell was incidental.

Life has always been a package deal.

So anyway, I’ve never been able to explain this beautiful side of dying with words.  But here’s a video called The Unseen Sea by Simon Christen that captures the essence of it.  This is how it felt during the hours I spent with them, turning and toileting, bathing and dressing, capturing all the last whispered, aching, illuminated stories of their lives.  It often felt like floating on an ocean, carried along by some timeless, perpetual current that ebbed and flowed, swirling around us, filmy and comforting and soft.

This is some stunning time lapse photography of the changing skies around San Francisco.  Just make sure you turn up the sound because the music is exquisite, too.

The Unseen Sea from Simon Christen on Vimeo.

You can find the original posting of this video at Simon Christen’s Vimeo site here.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Parrot’s Grief

We once had two dogs.  They joined the family two years apart, lived most of their lives together frisky and inseparable, then died at the end, also two years apart.  Our big guy died first.  Swift and unexpected.  He was fine and healthy for years and years, and then one day got sick and three days later died.  Just like that.

Our second dog was lost without him.  For a month following his death she withdrew.  She’d still come to us if we called and try to look happy to see us, but as soon as her duty was done she’d slip away to the corner where they used to sleep together and lie down again, eyes open and unfocused and numb.

We were heartbroken for her and heartbroken for ourselves.  We all missed him terribly.

But time worked its magic and one day, for no particular reason, she returned.  She followed me around the house that morning, trying to flip my hand up on her head with her nose again, and my heart eased knowing she’d be okay.  We had two more wonderful years together before she, too, eventually died.

There’s a lot of controversy on whether animals experience emotions, but the suggestion that they can’t feel things like simple grief makes me angry.  I usually try to respect the beliefs of others but, because this particular belief is so often used as a justification for exploitation, neglect, or abuse, I don’t respect it.  I find it suspect.  The claim is far too riddled with conflicts of interest to take at face value.  Besides, in five decades of living, every interaction I’ve personally had with animals and birds, (and reptile, fish, and even a few insects believe it or not) has confirmed that these other strange and wonderful companions I share my world with feel a great deal, even if most of the time I don’t understand what exactly that is.

A case in point:

One of my first hospice patients had a parrot she said she’d smuggled over the border from Mexico twenty years earlier.  She was a wild, untamed kind of woman and her parrot was just like her.

I don’t remember now what kind he was, but he was smallish, maybe a little bigger than Snowball the dancing cockatoo, and he spent most of his time in those final days perched on the valance above the window next to her bed.  I was a little nervous at first because family members warned me that sometimes he flew down on people, swooping at them again and again, testing to see if they would duck and run.  He was a fierce little thing, tolerating only a handful of people and attacking the rest, but he clearly loved and needed that woman lying on the bed and was made achingly vulnerable by her approaching loss.

He never flew down on me.  I used to speak to him gently when I was on that side of the bed, changing her sheets or dressing or incontinence pad, and he’d closely monitor everything I did, anxious and curious, sometimes fluffing up into a ball of down and shaking his head rapidly, raising his wings for a moment like he just couldn’t stand the uncertainty anymore, then settling back down to watch and wait again anyway.  He’d sidle back and forth along the length of the valance, first to the left, then to the right, over and over again like a loved one pacing the corridors of a hospital.  He knew something was wrong and it seemed to fill him with unease.

Once I saw him fly down to the bed while I was in and out of the room, doing laundry.  She was asleep and he seemed to want to just be next to her, to touch her.  He awkwardly waddled up next to her head, curling into the warmth still emanating from her.  He bent his head over next to her mouth as though checking for breath and just stayed there for a long time, frozen, his feathers brushing her lips.  My heart broke for him and I wanted to pick him up, cradle and croon to him, but I knew he’d bite me if I so much as extended my hand.

First her sister told me and then her daughter.  How he wept on her body when she died.  He flew down from the valance to her chest and started nuzzling and nipping at her, trying to make her respond.  Stroke him.  Yell at him.  Anything.  But when she didn’t move he went still and stunned, and it was then that he started making the strange, small noises, noises unlike anything they’d ever heard him make before, like sobs.  His head bobbed slowly up and down to the rhythm of the sounds, and her family just stood there around the bed, surprised and stricken by his grief.

Later, when the men from the funeral home came to remove her body from the room he attacked them.  Viciously.  Angry and hysterical, he dive bombed at their heads repeatedly until one of the men ran  in the bathroom to hide.  The family finally captured him and put him in his cage while they took her body away.

I’ve often thought about him over the years and hoped that he eventually found someone else he could trust, someone he’d allow to love him, to bring him back in healing and wholeness.

Like just about every other person I’ve ever known, the deep emotional bonds I’ve shared with animals over the years have provided me with a well of strength, beauty, unconditional love, and hope.  My ties to these companions have helped shape me, often healed me, and even saved me, more times than I can count.  I really, really hope that some day soon we’ll grow past the economic and scientific need we have to deny the depth of their vulnerability to us, and instead forge a higher, kinder relationship based on mutual respect.  They’ve already given us all so much.  They deserve something far better than what they’ve gotten in return.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

When in Maine…

Up until seven months ago, Maine was the last state in the union that I’d never been to.  Living a nomadic lifestyle into my forties, I’d at least stopped to get gas in each of the other forty-nine.  But Maine had eluded me.  Maine is not a just-passing-through kind of place.  If one plans to ever step foot in the state, one must intend to go there.

So finally, last October, my husband and I took a vacation and spent ten, solid days there, decisively ending my lifelong quest to bag the Big Fifty.

And I couldn’t have picked a better place to finish.  Maine is drop-dead gorgeous and the people who live there are as solid and generous as their land.  I even found myself thinking about moving there a few times during the trip which was surprising since 1) I have no desire to abandon my children and family on the other side of the continent, 2) I’ve become a high desert creature and at my age probably wouldn’t adapt well and, 3) I don’t much care for lobster.

Not that I knew this last about myself before we went.  I’ve lived landlocked and relatively poor most of my adult life so lobster as a cuisine choice was never an option.  Not so in Maine, however.  No, no, madames et monsieurs.  You see in Maine, in October, it’s lobster high season and during this time period the little bottom dwellers are readily and cheaply available to everyone, high or low.

And I was ready for it.  I was eager.  I was all about putting on a bib and whacking a little, orange carcass to pieces with a wooden mallet.  (Although it turns out that’s crab.  For lobster, one uses a nutcracker.)

We stayed with a couple of natives (Mainers in the local vernacular), foodie friends who were excited to deflower the lobster-virgin.  They decided to initiate me Maine style with whole boiled lobster to be dismembered by hand, and a hot butter dip.  We went down to the famous and fabulous Harbor Fish Market to select our critters…which is where I made my first big mistake.

While the others shopped for chowder ingredients to round out the meal I stood near the giant tank where the fresh catch is held, watching the store-guy fish lobsters out of the dark water for customers.  He held them up in the air, turned over on their backs, while their claws, legs, and little antenna waved helplessly in the air, groping for something familiar from their own ocean world.  They were bewildered, not realizing yet that their old life was gone forever.  I felt a pang of kinship.

That feeling of dislocation is familiar to me.  Back when I made my first descent into a major depressive episode, I too felt disoriented and frightened by the foreign (albeit internal) landscape I landed in.  I did a lot of waving and groping of my own back then, trying to return to the familiarity of my old life.  It took me a while to figure out that I could never go back, and even longer to realize (unlike the lobsters) that I didn’t really want to.  The Woman I Was had grown up on too many secrets.   Turns out she needed to go if I was ever to achieve a sense of wholeness.

But I digress.  Back in the fish market I shook off my brief unease and, determined to enjoy the whole experience, joined the others as they returned to the car, lobsters tucked away in a cooler, packed in ice.  By the time evening rolled around they were still very much alive and waving away at us.  Our hostess was busy in the kitchen, preparing to cook them, and I was busy up in my head, preparing mentally for the sacrifice to come.  I take dying seriously, no matter what kind of life is engaged in doing it.  I always have.  It’s not that I see anything wrong with life coming to an end.  I don’t.  To me it’s a law of nature that stands tall and respected along with the rest.  It’s something that’s happening all the time, everywhere, all around us and there’s nothing that we see, touch, eat, smell, use, value, wear, want, hold, or love that isn’t at some point, somewhere in the chain of it’s existence, touched by, involved in, or responsible for the dying of something else.  Nothing.

And that’s comforting to me.  It’s how I know that nothing’s going wrong.  Dying is supposed to happen.  That knowledge helps anchor me, whenever I come up against it myself.  I use it to brace for the maelstrom that always accompanies dying, by remembering oh yeah, it’s just time.

It was always going to be time.

That evening, in the home of our friends, it was those lobsters’ time and I didn’t have a problem with that.  But I was also responsible for it, they were being killed in my honor, and that was a big deal to me.  So in return, out of gratitude and respect, I wanted to make sure that their dying went as smoothly as possible.  It seemed like the least I could do.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t understand about the process involved in killing them was a lot.

Our hostess was tolerant, respectful, and perhaps a little amused as I knelt by the cooler and said last rites over them.  Then, after studying her method as she transferred a couple to the pot, I picked one up myself, walked over and, with one last quick prayer, pushed it headfirst into the boiling water after which I stood back to watch.

Enter:  The maelstrom.

The lobster mythology that I’d heard over the years said they die the instant they hit the water.  That’s what I figured was going to happen.  Too late I realized that, having lived most of my life among inland people who had no easy access to lobster as a recipe ingredient, the stories I’d heard about how to cook them all came from others like myself who knew nothing about it.

Turns out they don’t die instantly.  At least this one didn’t.  I stood staring in horror as his limbs and antenna continued to wave around under the surface of the boiling water for an unconscionable period of time.  It’s not that he appeared to be in acute pain.  At least not that I could tell.  He wasn’t screaming for help or trying to climb out of the pot or anything.  But he was clearly conscious and experiencing all the sensations that go along with full body immersion in boiling water and, as that realization dawned, my prayers did an abrupt reversal in tone from blessings and thanks to something more along the lines of Dear holy God, what have I done?

I couldn’t move.  I kept saying But it’s still moving…it’s still moving over and over until finally our hostess walked over and gently, compassionately put the lid back on the pot so I couldn’t see inside anymore.  It broke the spell and I fell away from the stove, badly shaken.  Needless to say my appetite was gone.  Obliterated.  It had been replaced by a low grade nausea which I did everything in my power to hide.  After all, I was the one who had asked for this and they’d knocked themselves out to give it to me.

I was now facing a dilemma.  I discovered I no longer wanted to eat a lobster.  The allure was definitely, definitely gone.  However, there was a whole potful of the little guys who had just been boiled to death for my edification and there was no way in hell I could walk away now.  I had to eat one.  In fact, I had to eat every last shred of anything conceivably edible I could rip off its little carcass, because I couldn’t let it go to waste.  Not after what I’d just seen.

Whoops…I went way too long again.  I’ll have to stop here and finish next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn