Sunday, February 10, 2013
Afghanistan kicked my ass. For each month someone spends in a conflict zone, at the end they should be required to spend a day in quiet retreat where they have nothing more important to do than just breathe. And they should be surrounded by people whose only purpose is to remind them to breathe. Just breathe, dear. Instead, they come home to people who either don’t recognize this tense, harsh stranger who has returned or who have forgotten that this person was anything but that.
War is difficult enough. Being in a place where people want to kill you, where the people around you want to kill someone, and where small children and innocent women die, leaves one on edge 24 hours a day. Just outside of your awareness, you wait for the worst to happen, hyper vigilant even in sleep. Add to that the insanity of working within government bureaucracies that are inefficient and mean-spirited, where time and money are squandered both frenetically and mindlessly, where the purpose you came with dissolves like the Afghanistan desert sand through your fingers. And you are compelled to work with allies whose corruption is tolerated so that a larger purpose can be served, alongside a culture where the worst imaginable atrocities, especially those visited upon women, are commonplace and often celebrated.
Then you come home… some come home to face joblessness, indifference, even derision and disgust. Some return injured, crippled, or maimed. Those of us who were spared the physical injuries agonize for those who weren’t. We will do so for a lifetime. Others, like myself, come home to personal lives that are not the same. Although the relationships you left behind have remained in suspended animation for a year or so in your own mind, the people you left behind have moved on. It’s a cruel paradox of time that invites disparities in expectations. I can imagine how difficult it must be for the person who has to deliver the news that they just don’t feel the same way anymore to someone coming back from war or a humanitarian disaster. Imagine, then, being on the receiving end of that news.
For me, all this resulted in a descent into a darkness I had not experienced for a couple decades, a foray into Dante’s fifth circle of hell where “the sullen lie … withdrawn into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.” I lost interest in everything around me; sleep and hunger eluded me. Where I might have turned to running, which has held me fast for many years, a back injury I sustained in Afghanistan precluded me from engaging that trusted, reliable ally. It was the best I could do to get out of bed each morning, but get out of bed I did. I put one foot in front of the other and showed up for life, devoid of interest, joy, or hope.
As a neuroscientist, I understand in a very real way, the signs and symptoms of classical depression. I had them all. As a neuroscientist, I also know how very physiological/biochemical classical depression is. Once you’re in it, there’s little you can do without external intervention. In 3 weeks I dropped almost 30 pounds. At 5’7” and 100 lbs, I looked ghoulish. I did force myself to eat and was fortunate for the people who noticed and cared enough to force me to eat as well. I went through the motions, hoping something would take hold. This is not sadness; this is not grief; this is a complete shutdown of the psyche, a downward spiral from which there is no escape. I know that medication is effective for getting people to the point where they can move again and start the road to recovery, but I was unwilling to take that step.
Fortunately, an unexpected event turned everything around in an instant. I had a propane leak in the small tank close to my bed and I woke the other morning to propane asphyxiation. I was violently ill, vomiting ceaselessly, unable to catch my breath. But in that brief period, the shock to my system was apparently sufficient to release the neurochemicals needed to reset my baseline, perhaps analogous to ECT or exposure therapy. From that moment on, I was fine. Just like that, I was a completely different person, embarrassed by my insanity over the past 2 months, but no longer insane. Just like that. I went hiking yesterday, looking for fossils (abundantly rich in my limestone-laden backyard) and started thinking about the future and hiking New Zealand. I rode down from my canyon this morning, my soul open and devouring my surroundings, intoxicated by the beauty of it all. The hurt and anger buried deep inside has, to a great extent, been supplanted by a poignant sense of regret and has taken a back seat to joy and a renewed sense of purpose. The perseverating self-loathing is gone. I have been released. The disappointment remains, but is no more than that, and rises to join a deeper understanding of the unfortunate events that gave rise to my situation.
A Buddhist tenet says that all things are interdependent arising. So it was with this.
I am grateful for the people who noticed, cared, and stayed just out of sight but ever ready to step in if needed.
This is me, moving on.