Day 115: at bay

Therapy has helped me become more attentive to the physical symptoms of emotions. So I know, for example, that there’s a certain kind of mental pain – one I associate with sadness, or hurt, or grief – that is accompanied by a sharp needle like pain that every now and then shoots through the tips of my fingers and a more steady ache in the roof of my mouth.

When I am tired of these sensations there are various remedies that alleviate them: lorazepam, alcohol, dancing, and writing this blog are my most favored methods. Writing is the one I employ the most and lorazepam is the one I employ the least. Dancing is definitely the most effective (it doesn’t work, unfortunately, if I just get up and dance around in my sitting room; I have to actually go to a class), and I think the high lasts the longest. Alcohol is probably the least effective. Lorazepam is effective but in a deadening kind of way.

Writing this blog is the pain relief method I find most mysterious.

If dancing is enlivening, drinking is relaxing, and Lorazepam is numbing, writing this blog bestows, albeit briefly, a feeling of connectedness. It’s effective, often, when I’m feeling lonely; as with exercise or drinking, the good feeling only lasts so long. Usually when I write a post, I get a heady rush when I post it and when I look at the statistics page and see that people are reading it; the high fades, gradually, as the satisfaction of writing the post recedes from my memory and as I see fewer and fewer people going to the site to read it. So then I have to write another. And another.

You get the idea.

Another more obvious strategy for alleviating melancholy and bestowing a sense of connectedness, one I think of as the Humean method, is spending time with other people. I’m not dating anyone but I’m making a deliberate effort to be merry with friends. I go out; I entertain at home; and I make liberal use of the wide range of communication methods that the digital age affords.

The times when I write here are when I long for a sense of connection, and feel that I’ve exhausted all my other options: I’ve emailed, I’ve texted, I’ve cuddled my children.

Although I, to state the bleeding obvious, have a strong impulse towards disclosure, I understand and respect that this impulse is not universal. And, indeed, maybe it is sometimes an impulse that would be better resisted than indulged. Or maybe it’s a matter of temperament or etiquette. I suspect many people think it’s an imposition to tell someone else when they feel sad, and maybe some people do feel burdened when a sad friend confides in them.

Speaking for myself, I feel deeply flattered when someone chooses to share something painful and intimate with me. Also—and maybe this doesn’t reflect too well on me—it’s not that I’m happy to discover that my friends are sad, but I do find it enormously reassuring to discover that others are struggling too. I think that’s why I love Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas more and more the older I get: because it attests to the universality of melancholy.

But maybe this feeling of relief in bearing witness to others’ troubles is less a general truth of human nature than a particular trait of mine. In grad school I worked for a counseling hotline; it was run by the university and aimed at grad students, and, honestly, we didn’t get that many calls. I must have only talked to a handful of people the whole time I volunteered there. But there was one regular caller, not a grad student, a middle aged woman not connected to the university, who called every night without fail. It clearly meant a lot to her that she could call us every night and that someone would be there, night after night, simply to listen without judgment.

I don’t think there is really a talking “cure”; I believe, with Johnson, that melancholy is here to stay; but I also believe, with Johnson, that (both literally and figuratively) you can’t take it lying down. That would be like sleeping with the enemy. No, as Johnson says, melancholy “shrinks from communication”; this blog avows my faith that disclosure may keep it at bay.

But just as, earlier today, my son was all out of tears, I find myself, now, all out of words. Neither woman nor duck-rabbit cannot live by words alone. And in support of that maxim, I’m now, finally, going to pick my arse off the sofa and go running.


Day 79: Doctor’s orders

On Monday I went to see my GP, Dr. S., for a physical exam. Nothing in particular prompted the visit; it just seemed like the sort of thing one should do after one turns 40.

Doctor S. is in her late forties, I would guess. She is friendly and seems intelligent but a little scatter-brained (“what was that other test I said I’d order for you? It’ll come back to me … oh, thyroid! [pause] Was it thyroid?” she’ll ask, looking at me searchingly). She looks perennially exhausted, which she probably is, and I sometimes worry that this fatigue might cause her to misdiagnose me with something, or to accidentally schedule the surgical removal of one of my more vital organs.

“So, what’s new?” she asked when she walked into the examining room.

Since she’s my doctor, I decided to tell her the truth instead of replying with an innocuous, “not much!”

“Everything’s new!” I declared. “My book came out, I got tenure, my husband and I separated, and I moved house!”

She was suitably impressed by my Number-Of-Major-Life-Events-To-Time-Elapsed-Since-Last-Visit-Ratio and went on to ask me a series of questions about whether and how these changes were impacting my health.

At a certain point, inevitably, the topic of alcohol consumption came up. In fact, I raised it by mumbling that I was possibly drinking too much. When I described my not-actually-terribly-excessive drinking habits she agreed that it was a bit much and told me that the recommendation for women was an upper limit of (in the case of wine, which is what I usually drink), seven servings of 5 fluid ounces per week. Moreover, she added, it was also best to have at least 2 days of no drinking at all.

What a bummer, right? When I looked crestfallen at that prospect she said that on those days I should go out for a run, or something, instead of drinking, because exercise would produce a similarly relaxing effect. “And then when you get home from your run,” she went on, “instead of having a glass of wine, have a cup of alcohol.”

I frowned. “A cup of pure alcohol?” I asked, deadpan.

She caught my eye, only then realizing she had misspoken (do you see why I’m worried she’s going to schedule me to have a mastectomy instead of a mammogram?) and then replied, equally deadpan, “no actually, on those days, replace the wine with heroin, pure heroin.” [1]

I nodded sagely and then we both cracked up.

When we’d stopped laughing she clarified. “I meant a cup of herbal tea, not a cup of alcohol.”

“Ah,” I said. “Well, I think I can do that. I’m good at following those sorts of rules. So five days a week I can have five fluid ounces of wine a week—”

She interrupted me, “well, that’s the upper limit—

“No, no, that’s my dosage,” I insisted, interrupting her. “If that’s what I’m allowed, then that’s what I’m having.”

“OK, fine, that’s your dosage,” she conceded wearily, sensing that there was no point in arguing with me about this, which there wasn’t.

That night, I was pleased to discover that five ounces of wine is actually slightly more than I would usually pour myself. “But five ounces is my dosage!” I said gleefully to myself, “this is, for all intents and purposes, what Dr. S prescribed!”

My capacity for deceiving myself is truly marvelous.

If further evidence is required, I have plenty. The very next day some kindly graduate students took me out for tenure-celebration-cocktails. Uncharacteristically, by the time of the cocktail hour, I had eaten precisely zero vegetables that day. I’m not being facetious; it really is uncharacteristic for me to get that far into a day without eating vegetables; as anyone who knows me well is aware, I really love salads, and not in an ascetic way; I just think a nicely composed salad with a well-made vinaigrette is one of the most delicious things to eat. But anyway, due to a series of unfortunate decisions, all I had eaten that day was a piece of toast (plus the younger’s toast crusts, obviously – fibre!); a disgusting vegan cookie, which was really just a bunch of bran glued together with brown rice syrup in a deceptively cookie-like shape (way too much fibre), and then, following my enragement at the cookie’s unpalatableness, a brownie. [2]

By the time I got to the bar, I was craving something green, or, at least, something not brown.

Since the bar, Copa D’Oro, is in Santa Monica, it obviously had the requisite kale salad among its “bar snacks.” But in the end, I opted for what I convinced myself was a terribly efficient vegetal-cocktail solution.

Warning: SJ, you may wish to stop reading now or risk barfing during the next paragraph.

The cocktail I ordered, which they called “Lenin-aid” (was Lenin a big gin drinker? It seems highly unlikely …) was reminiscent of my very own cocktail invention, Boswell’s Revenge. Only this one, it must be said, was superior. It consisted of gin, freshly pressed cucumber and celery juice, and fresh lime juice. And there must have been some simple syrup or something in there. It was so delicious! And moreover, I convinced myself, it was practically a self-cleansing cocktail, with all of chlorofyll-rich cucumber and celery juice surely ameliorating any deleterious effects caused by the gin.

Utter tosh, is that what I heard you say? Well maybe, but it’s like my mate Joe says, “we do not care for seeing through the falsehood, and willingly give ourselves up to such agreeable an imposture” (from Spectator No. 419, perhaps my most favorite of all).


[1] I already knew that Doctor S. had a deadpan sense of humor, although the last time I’d witnessed it on display, I did not appreciate it.

This was a few years ago; I was seeing her to ask about possibly being referred to an infertility specialist. After a miscarriage, we’d been trying to conceive another child for nearly a year without success. I described how I’d been charting my temperature and trying to predict when I was ovulating and all that tediousness, and how I was getting increasingly anxious that I was never going to get pregnant again.

She looked at me, nodding sagely, and then she paused.

“Have you tried having sex?” she asked, completely deadpan.

There was a long pause, and then she cracked up when she registered the flummoxed look on my face.

“Sorry!” she said.

I actually now find this really funny but at the time I thought to myself, “this is the WORST possible joke for a doctor, of all people, to make to her patient when she knows that that patient is struggling to conceive a child,” and I wanted to throttle her.

[2] In order to find out why I would have elected to buy a disgusting pseudo-healthy vegan cookie instead of something more obviously satisfying, like a nice bar of chocolate, you will have to read the next post.