Monday, July 21, 2014

Summertime Musing -- Aging and Depression

A rainbow brightens my spirit in Portugal
I have been back in the United States for a very busy six weeks after a wonderful European trip that included biking in Portugal and a visit with my aunt and uncle in the south of France.  After returning, my husband and I flew directly to Southern California to celebrate my daughter’s graduation.  We are very proud of her.  At the age of 28 she is completing a PhD in civil engineering.  She is a hydrologist who specializes in global groundwater.   We then returned to our home in the Pacific Northwest, to complete our house remodels and train hard for a 204-mile bike ride from Seattle to Portland.  We completed this ride along with approximately 10,000 others last weekend and the final house remodels are just about done.  Now, I am taking a moment to reflect.

When I was 28, I could scarcely imagine having the self-confidence my daughter has.  At that time, and at various times throughout my life, I have struggled with depression and feelings of worthlessness.  When I think about this life long condition rationally it is ridiculous.  I am a very functional person.  But of course, feelings of depression and even elation have little rationality by definition.  Back when I was a young woman, I lacked in self-confidence.  In retrospect that was quite typical of young women of my generation who were not encouraged to have meaningful careers – let alone in science or engineering.  In addition to my concerns about being able to support myself in a male dominated field, as a single woman, I worried that I was incapable of living my life alone.  To make matters worse I knew I wanted to be a mother.  Not that I lacked for lovers during my twenties – just that none of the men I met seemed like husband or father-of-my-child material.  I planned how to live my life as a single career woman – even coming up with a scheme to have a child and be a single mom!  Remember this was long before artificial insemination existed. 

I didn’t end up facing life alone, since soon thereafter I met the supportive man I married.  That was 34 years ago and we are still happily married.  But curiously, even after all these years and the joy of two wonderful children, a good career and a delightful, extended group of family and friends, I still suffer from intermittent bouts of depression.  I am more experienced at recognizing the early symptoms of depression, and knowing how to behave – perhaps as a result of help I received over the years from mental health professionals.  Nevertheless, when a wave of sadness washes over me, at that moment, I still feel almost helpless…as if I was once again the 15-year-old girl sitting in her bedroom in Philadelphia wondering how to face the next day. 

In all honesty, I am usually happy.  But, here and there, feelings of loneliness and emptiness engulf me.  Once present, these feelings won't leave me. I don’t think I am alone in having feelings of sadness and loneliness.  I think many people have these feelings.  I try to remind myself that I am healthy and very much loved by my husband and family.  But none of this matters when I feel the deep sadness of the world surround me.  I feel as if I should be able to shake the dark mantle but at times I can’t.  So I sit with it.  I try to behave as if I wasn’t sad.  I listen to music.  I read a good book.  I eat healthy food.  I get exercise – perhaps I go for a walk or a bike ride or to my gym. I visit with my family and friends.  I wait the sadness out.

Earlier this year, when I was skiing in Park City, I went to see Judy Collins in concert.  She is ten years older than I am and a gifted singer – her voice rings like a bell even at the age of seventy-five.  I didn’t know until recently that she suffered for years from depression.  This knowledge gave me a connection and even more affection for her.  She has written many songs but the one that speaks about how to manage sadness is a favorite, the Song for Judith.  I will repeat the chorus here:

Open the door and come on in
I'm so glad to see you, my friend
You're like a rainbow, coming around the bend
And when I see you happy
Well, it sets my heart free
I'd like to be as good a friend to you, as you are to me


This chorus encapsulates how I feel about my husband, my children, my friends and my siblings.  They have seen me through many a difficult time.  Sometimes they didn’t even know I was down in the dumps since just having them come in the door brightened my mood.  I love the idea of a rainbow coming around the bend.  When we were biking in Portugal, on the worst, most rainy day, after we were safely in our pousada and warm and dry, we ventured out for a walk.  The sky was clearing and we crossed the big pra├ža and there in front of us, shining over the old church was a beautiful rainbow!  It immediately brightened my spirit. 

After biking in Portugal, my sister and I and our two husbands visited my 89-year-old uncle and aunt who live in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  Their village is so small it doesn’t have its own bakery.  In summer, the baker from a nearby village brings his truck to the town square to deliver bread but the rest of the year you have to drive 12 kilometers to the nearest bakery.  My uncle and aunt moved to this village from London in 1985.  The village is beautiful – consisting of fifty or more ancient stone houses and a stone church set into a rocky, forested landscape.  Over the years, both my family and many other family members had the great fortune to visit them for summer holidays.
A few years ago, the village won the title of Village Fleuri – or Village in Bloom – a recognition granted to villages and towns in France that have more and better flowers than other villages but have also demonstrated respect for the environment and a value for social cohesion.  It is an honor to be named a Ville or Village Fleuri.  More than ten years ago my aunt spearheaded the village transformation into a Village Fleuri.  Even today, the village is always in bloom – geraniums, roses, lavender, endless annuals and perennials decorate stone terraces, balconies, pots and beds.

This visit was bittersweet for us.  Three weeks prior to our arrival my aunt suffered a debilitating stroke that resulted in complete left-side paralysis.  She is living temporarily in a rehabilitation center in a town almost an hour’s drive away from the village.  My uncle is predictably sad but coping magnificently.  We visited my aunt regularly during the week, reading poems, doing crossword puzzles, helping her eat – a difficult process given the paralysis.  We wheeled her outside to see the pond and ducks and recited long forgotten nursery rhymes together.  My aunt is an independent and capable woman.  She is determined to get better and return home.  My uncle and his children have plans to modify the handicap inaccessible house to accommodate my aunt’s wheel chair and to build an accessible bathroom.  Perhaps my aunt, at 89, will never walk again – but she is going to do whatever she can to return home. 


Having lived through the aging and inevitable deaths of my own and my husband’s parents, I have to quote my mother: “Old age is for the birds.”  It is hard to see my aunt and uncle, who have been an inspiration, both philosophically and intellectually to me (and many others), have to deal with the challenges that old age presents.  The good news is they have lived a wonderful life and to a ripe old age!  They are in a village where they have lived for many years and where everyone looks out for each other.  Even the mayor takes as part of his duties the monitoring of older people’s health in the village.  It is the French way.  The bad news is that they are getting even older.  Despite his age, my uncle regaled us on the way home from the clinic one day with the full history of Vichy France and President Charles De Gaulle.  His knowledge was far broader and greater than mine.  He cooked us delicious rabbit stew with bacon and onions and sat on the porch expertly finishing the difficult crossword puzzles in the London Times.   He and my aunt represent a generation that changed the world.  We can all learn a lot from them.


This generation, our parents’ generation, grew up in the Great Depression and fought World War II.  In the face of great adversity, they put their heads down and worked to make the world a better and safer place.  Soon they will all be gone and we will be poorer for their departure.  There’s a reason why Tom Brokaw called them the Greatest Generation.  They are a hard act to follow.  Perhaps with our children’s help – and a little help from their friends – we’ll figure out a better future for the world.  Along the way I hope to figure out how to deal expeditiously with any future moments of depression.  I plan to continue exercising regularly, eating healthfully, keeping my mind active, helping others and spending time with my friends.  I look forward to that figurative “…rainbow [,] coming around the bend.”

1 comment:

  1. I've undergone a few periods of depression in my life, but more often have been plagued with anxiety. I tried everything I could think of for decades. Finally, last fall, my doctor recommended I try antidepressants. I'd tried two in an earlier decade; one made me manic and the other brought on panic attacks. This time I asked my sister what she took, and that was prescribed for me. I ramped up from a low dose to the one I'm at now, and I feel myself again - maybe for the first time. No will power could have increased the seratonin I lacked. I feel grateful.

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