Dear Woody Paige: thank you for saving my life
I’ve been posting the poems from my latest book to Ello lately – one per day – and this morning’s entry was “Old Ethan’s Quantum Diary.” It’s an especially difficult and painful piece of a larger work that is, in many ways, the most tortured effort of my 35-year creative writing journey.
As I explained in the preface to the post, there was a time a few years ago when I thought I had very little time left. Since I do not believe in any kind of afterlife, I found myself thinking a lot about what science has to say on the subject. It tormented me that it would all just be over. Fade to black. The void, and not even an awareness of the void. As hard, as painful, as frustrating and unfulfilling as the low spots have been, I love life and the thought of losing it terrified me.
Various areas of scientific inquiry (including Quantum Mechanics) ask intriguing questions with implications for the “soul,” and while none of them suggest that I should expect to wake up in Heaven, or Nirvana, or the Summerlands, or reincarnated as a Hollywood celebrity, there are at least opportunities to consider whether maybe it’s not exactly all over when it’s over. Energy cannot be destroyed, right? And matter is energy, and you see where I’m going here, I hope.
When an artist whose life is in a shambles begins thinking about dying and whether science holds any hope for him, I guess what results can be a bit desperate and disjointed. My work sometimes dives into very dark places – and by “sometimes” I mean “almost always” – but in the end it usually emerges looking upward and outward, hopeful if not fully optimistic, and this book is no different. It ends in affirmation, but it’s always darkest before the dawn, they say, and “Old Ethan’s Quantum Diary” is where the book hits bottom.
The poem elicited some comments, and one thread wound up with me explaining some of the backstory. I noted that a major problem through that period was depression, which was crippling me in ways I didn’t even see.
The journey back into the light, Woody, began the day I tripped across your suicide column. That was the moment when I first made the diabetes/depression connection. That was the moment I understood that the despair was being fueled by my Type 2. I didn’t learn this from my physician, but from a freakin’ sports column. After I finished reading it, I went and started doing some research of my own and quickly confirmed the thing that I wish my doctor had bothered mentioning.
It’s hard to say for sure how things would have played out, but at that point in time I was deeply into the planning process. I was spiraling and I saw no way out. The only real questions left in my mind were when and how. Like you, I wanted to spare my friends and family the anguish, and the way you had planned your end so as to spare those you loved, that hit home. That was the moment where your column held a mirror up and let me see myself more clearly than I had in months, maybe years.
It’s entirely possible that you saved my life. I had very real problems I was struggling with – divorce, money, etc. – but the diabetes was undercutting my ability to see things clearly and deal with them productively. I have always been strong in the face of adversity, but the disease made me weak.
Making the connection between diabetes and depression didn’t magically solve all my problems, of course. The external, real-world issues didn’t go away all by themselves, and my body didn’t stop messing with me. It still does – as in, this morning. I woke up bummed and anxiety-ridden for no good reason.
But now I can catch myself. I can stop, step back and say “wait – this isn’t real.” Yes, I may still feel bad, but the rational recognition that it’s body chemistry means that life is not actually hopeless. It just means that my view is temporarily warped. I’ll have to fight a little harder to compensate for the fact that I’m not automatically generating the kind of positive energy needed to succeed at whatever is before me at the moment, maybe, but that’s okay – we all have our challenges.
This recognition – that I can stop and understand that it isn’t real – has made more difference in my life than I can possibly describe.
There’s no telling how many lives you saved when you mustered the courage to publish that column. I should have written to you a long time ago, and am a little disappointed with myself for not doing so. But finally I’m here, and all I can do is say thank you, a million times thank you.
There is no calculating the debt I owe you and no way I can ever pay you back. But if you can think of any way I might pay off at least a small part of the bill, I’m at your service.
Old Ethan’s Quantum Diary
When you turn your back on a god it does not cease to exist. – Myshel Prasad
I do not want to die.
The soul is energy.
Energy is matter.
Matter can be neither created nor destroyed.
When I am cold as a gurney,
will I cohere? Or will death
diffuse me, nebula of soul-bits,
toward the covert stair of time?
. . .
Light is particle and wave,
both and neither,
until we conspire to classify.
We are fish counting the water.
A god is born every time we
invent a gauge.
. . .
A woman I met on the computer asks
what is my favorite movie.
She types like a bear trap.
I like Eastern European
cinema, no subtitles.
Dialogue imposes obligation.
Once I understand words
I’m compelled to judge,
the act of hearing
splitting the universe in two.
Blade Runner, I say.
. . .
The sky is full of
radios. Music drenches
me like winter rain.
. . .
Schizophrenia, autism and temporal lobe epilepsy are
inclinations of divinity, the psychotropic
bliss of selves wedding.
Surge me with endorphins, an
ampule of atropine plunging the lizard brain
as nerve gas fills the ward.
. . .
poetry for arsenic
days, rupturing sieves.
. . .
I read the story where
Dr. Heisenberg drives a stake through the heart of causality,
then rides to kitsune with Mr. Siddhartha.
I hum the lullaby about the cat
that was and wasn’t.
Sang a song about a hill that was a sea.
Heard a story ’bout a house that was a tree.
Read a book about a secret girl
Who lives inside of me.
. . .
The curtain is thinnest here,
as on Samhain, homecoming
of the dead.
I relate to this much more than you might suspect, Sam. I had similar conflicts emotionally decades ago. The advice I received was this: “If you kill yourself, how will things get better?” That logic kept me sane through insane times.
Here’s to better mental health for both of us.
There’s a detective series with a manic-depressive heroine. One point she’s talking about taking her meds at the onset of mania, a common problem since once the mania phase picks up steam, no bipolar person wants to come down.
Says something to the effect, “Self awareness is the only real treatment.” Or something to that effect. Amazing how powerful it can be to know that what’s happening to you isn’t real.
My all time favorite poem, which causes my poet friends to groan, is Kipling’s If, specifically for the line about success and failure both being impostors. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve avoided overreaching or avoided despair by reciting that and remindng myself, “this ain’t real.”
It’s interesting, this bit. In the past I have told people how it helps to be able to say this isn’t real. And not everybody gets it. I think for some, it seems like if you hurt, you hurt, period. Kinda like phantom pain from a lost limb, maybe.
So there may be people reading this for whom I sound like I’m nuts. All I can tell you is that it works for me.
“Yes, I am getting ungrateful, and I am getting so in a state of coma, which make this illness irremediable. ….Is it the country, is it the weight of my fifty years that makes me as heavy and as disgusted as I am? They think I am jolly because I smile stupidly, in a resigned way. I am reading Don Quixote. Ah! happy man and what a beautiful death.’
‘Why did I not write you, before your departure, and after having received the box of sugared almonds, really I hardly know. If you were single, 50 years of age (for the last month) you would know similar moments when a door shuts inside one and not only on one’s friends. One suppresses everything around one and once all alone one finally kills oneself out of disgust.
I thought there would always be enough time. Whatever I was doing, whatever I was prevented from doing, in the midst of all my enemies and in spite of my infirmity of sight, I never despaired of getting down to it some day…..I’ve stored up all my plans in a cupboard and always carried the key on me. I have lost that key. In a word I am incapable of throwing off the state of coma into which I have fallen.” – Edgar Degas in 1884….lived 1834 – 1912
Not a new issue for artists…Degas suffered with severely bad eyesight well before he did possibly his most revered works – the dancers..
One thing that he says which I have found to be key when the blackness began to wrap around and pull me down – “Yes, I am ungrateful.” – changing the focus from what you lack, have lost, etc. to being thankful for what you do have – even if it’s just that first cup of coffee in the day.
Now, THIS is a comment. Well done, leasartwork.
This jibes with what I suspected about my dad–but never asked him. The last few years of his life he became very interested in Quantum Mechanics and was always searching for books that would allow him to understand it better. He even brushed up on his calculus so he would be better able to comprehend the explanations. I intuitively concluded that he was looking for an answer to “what comes next?” I would love to think of my dad sitting in some version of “School of Athens” where Einstein Explains Everything.
This also hits home with my mom–who has been Type 2 borderline for years and has suffered from depression for most of her life.
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