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the lean year.

February 25, 2010

“And there, of course, is the paving stone of womanly existence: to create and elaborate the social bonds that sustain community. [. . .] their words like needs and patches and thread, their lives one long quilting bee of human bonding. Gossip is not idle. It is an exercise in design, the picking out of patterns in the social fabric. The fingers of every woman strengthen and embellish the whole.(p.201)

I was a genuinely good child, a typical first-child/girl, who liked to please others. [. . .] I was in a hopeless bind: to do as I would– to please others– I could not be as I was. And the greed for thinking: what does that signify? Simply, I think now, that I was a writer. (p.202)

From Patricia Meyer Spack’s The Female Imagination I copy an insight into my journal: ‘Preservation of the feeling that one is set apart by special gifts depends often on failure to test those gifts, but the reluctance to test oneself generates guilt and disappointment. Unchallenged capacities fade away; it’s harder and harder to believe in them. The world allows women not to use themselves, then denies their value because they fail to function fully.'”(p.212)

– Nancy Mairs, from her essay “On Living Behind Bars” in the anthology,Unholy Ghost: Writers On Depression edited by Nell Casey

I just finished reading this collection of essays, and it struck a chord with me. At only 23-and-a-half, I have already suffered two distinct depressive episodes myself. One when I was 17, and the other during my senior year of college, ending about one year ago. In the collection’s final essay, a mother’s diary entry about her adult daughter’s depression reads: “October 3, 1998: I am completely braced to do whatever necessary to bring Maud through. I have the clearest feeling of being supported by recent years of happiness (lest anyone mistake me for a selfless person). Packed with satisfaction and strength, I’ve lived out a lot of things I wanted to do so that it’s possible for me to be at her disposal. This feeling pours out for the most part (with occasional moments of self-pity), I will lay my fat years at the service of her lean one. I have a sense of the depth of the emergency. A visual image of the hollow beneath her.” The daughter (Maud Casey) also remarks, “Now that my depression has started to lift, I’m suffering from what I’ve come to think of as the hangover of the depressed: shame.”(p.282)

I attended the funeral yesterday of one of my former professors. She lost her long battle with cancer on Saturday. In the midst of everyone’s gaping sadness and overwhelming heartache at her passing, I felt tugging at me a smaller drama. I was suddenly surrounded by many of the very people who bore witness, and not quietly, to my latest bought of depression. I am brought to face my own shame. Depression is ugly.


“The Lean Year”

the child of depression is shame.
I know her, facing your hazel eyes
and graying hair, cropped short,
thicker than ever. Remembering
my lean year– when I didn’t eat
and stopped growing.

And when I go home,
take off my shirt to find
my nipples– still, hard pink buds,
my hair– still long and dark
and curled for the funeral.
and the sex is feverish and frequent,
and the death is coming.

in late spring, my clothes kept
piling on your side of the bed–
jeans’ legs turned on themselves
like husking and silking corn
and making frogmore stew
from the photographs, the guitar stand.

I’ve always slept on the inside of our bed
away from the door.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. amanda permalink
    February 25, 2010 1:36 pm

    have no shame my dear…the people who witness sadness and stick by you are the people who love you most and no matter what.

  2. Momma permalink
    February 26, 2010 3:30 am

    Amanda is absolutely right on this point. We are the ones who love you most, having been tested (remotely) along with you in your sadness, and who will stick with you with even more determination for having witnessed your hard-won victory over the depression. You may feel somehow expected to be ashamed, but please don’t feel that based on something you have read from someone else’s pen. I imagine that, as in every experience of life, depression shapes each victim (and witness) of it individually, and no such expectation can or should be put upon another. I am among many who are quite impressed with your struggles and the person you have become out of them. We love you tremendously, without the least hint of shame, but with great pride and admiration. You came through it on the brighter side, Sweetheart, and you know now that that is not only possible, but quite attainable. Congratulations, with arms full of heartfelt hugs!

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