If you’ve been reading Beyond Blue with any regularity, you know Larry Parker, because Larry is my most, um, vocal and frequent, commenter. He is extremely intelligent. Philosophical and sophisticated brains like his are the reason I kept my mouth shut in theology class. I let boys and girls like him duke it out with the professor over original sin or the problem of evil or how God can be both compassionate and just as I sat back and doodled in my notebook—or scribbled the different symbols of the Holy Trinity–saying to myself, “It’s all a mystery anyway, guys.”
Minds like his remind me why I should have studied harder for the SAT.
If you want to know more about Larry, you should check out his blog hosted on Beliefnet’s Community at http://community.beliefnet.com/doxieman122. There he has written some fabulous posts that give Beyond Blue readers a wider context with which to understand his comments here. I have included two of his journal entries or posts following this interview. i
So, dear Beyond Blue readers, here is our friend, Larry!
1) Okay, Larry. You’ve expressed your complicated relationship with God on many Beyond Blue posts, but it wasn’t until I read your journal or blog entry called “Wrestling With G-d” that I fully understood your perspective on faith. In that entry you write this:
I guess you’d have to say I’m still a theist, and more of a lapsed Catholic/Christian than an agnostic or atheist, simply because 1. I do care, badly, whether there is a G-d and 2. I believe there is a soul, whether it is destroyed on earth (if there is a h*ll, and people go there upon death, I don’t think Satan even has a soul to destroy by that point …) or preserved and elevated to heaven. And some theologians would say that the very fact that one doubts means that one admits there is a possibility of G-d; therefore, look at the positive — one actually has faith. . . . OK. Nevertheless, my faith is a weak one right now. Or — at most — one that is constantly wrestling with G-d, as Jacob did famously in Genesis 32.
You do wrestle with G-d so much in your writing. It’s wonderful. I hate to point to you and say “Believer. Believer. Sticks and stones may break my faith but you’re still a believer. . ., ” but isn’t it the people who DON’T wrestle with God who get into trouble? Isn’t the wrestling itself a form of prayer?
First of all, Therese, with the number of books you have written about Catholicism, and the posts I read on BB, you sell yourself WAY short on your theology expertise ?
I want to preface the entire interview by saying I’d like to focus on the event-based causes of depression. I strongly believe depression has a major biological component, but I think it would be interesting for BB readers to hear one man’s life journey and the stresses that helped kindle the brain chemistry already lurking. (My late grandmother had bipolar disorder most of her life; and there is a history of mental illness on my mother’s side of the family.)
If you go to my Beliefnet page, the first description you will find of me is “I’m a Jesuit-educated ex-altar boy who was seduced (in a good way) by Catholic ritual …” To paraphrase Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now,” I love the smell of incense in the morning. Even today.
But I have always had trouble with male authority figures – and in Catholicism, isn’t G-d the ultimate male authority figure? – because my own earthly father was more like Robert Duvall in “The Great Santini.” A military man, alcoholic, constantly traveling, and a martinet when he was home. (And who, I later learned, never wanted kids because of his own horrific childhood – but went along with my mom’s desires for a family.)
Being an altar boy was kind of a refuge for me in pre-pubescent days. That’s how G-d was to me then – a “higher father,” in President Bush’s words, guarding me from my own father and his dysfunctions.
But Catholic doctrine is, shall we say, not very friendly to the hormones raging in pubescent boys – or, for that matter, in post-pubescent “boys” and “girls” of any age who are unmarried. (Particularly if they are not, as I am not since my depression diagnosis, interested in having children.) So – although I was an obedient Catholic on sexual matters through high school (and actually college as well) — I was having doubts about my religion by the time I went to Georgetown.
There, I saw other people wrestling with G-d, who were themselves authority figures. Often the issues involved sexuality and gender – my Jesuit advisor who was gay and ended up having to leave the order (not because he did anything wrong – he wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone a child); the ex-seminarian who grappled daily with whether he made the right decision to leave the track to priesthood, even though he dearly loved his wife; the radical feminist bitterly opposed to Humanae Vitae who was an equally fervent member of her parish. And my own doubts deepened.
Where the doubts extended from religion to spirituality itself, obviously, came with my depression. As you hinted in your introduction, what is the role of evil in the world? How much is free will and how much is fate? How do you balance compassion and justice? The Jesuits are wonderful educators, but their Socratic methods can lead to constant questioning and especially self-questioning – which is perhaps not the best mindset for someone with depression to have.
Many people, if they think of existential crisis in literary terms, go to Robert Frost’s great poem “The Road Not Taken.” But there is a short story by the magnificent Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges called “The Garden of Forking Paths,” that notes that life is really “The Road Not Taken” over and over and over and over and over again – like a flow chart gone mad.
Until life becomes a labyrinth, and you feel lost in it, and you want to find your way back out but don’t know how.
That labyrinth image, I think, sums up my relationship both with G-d and with my own brain. And, perhaps, that of many people with depression.
2) I also loved your journal or blog entry called “The Best Da*n Support Group in the World.” It was very endearing, and by the way you’ve described it in your comments on Beyond Blue’s message boards, I know how important it was to your recovery from depression. You were the group leader (facilitator) for six months before moving. So you’re basically combining two of my 12 steps of recovery: find buddies (or support), and helping others (or service). I realize your symptoms aren’t going to go away with facilitating a group, but do you think having to be there as their leader helped distract you from feeling so lousy on nights you wished someone else had raised his hand and volunteered for your job?
You’re exactly right, Therese – being a group leader could be wonderfully therapeutic, sometimes especially on the nights I could barely stand to go.
I call it the George Bailey and Clarence factor. Remember the scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George is on the bridge, his car crashed, at his lowest point and ready to end it all. Suddenly, he sees Clarence the angel drowning in the river. What does he do? He forgets his own troubles and saves Clarence – just as he had saved his brother from drowning so many years before.
And thus begins the story of how all the “little things” George had done in life that he had forgotten about added up to a life that was literally priceless to the people of Bedford Falls. It’s a lesson I tend to forget about myself that I need to constantly relearn (and in fact, the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in general, about how “six degrees of separation” are real and priceless, are ones that I also need to relearn). I’m having transportation issues right now having moved further away, but I hope to be active again in the group in 2008.
One sad irony of 2007 is that, thanks to my own work in support group, with a new medication and exercise regimen, and with my increasing activism in the consumer community – not just here on BB, but in New Jersey on a number of levels – I have been more stable mood-wise than at any time since my diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2000, after my second suicide attempt. Yet I have needed every bit of that extra effort just to survive emotionally – let alone materially – since I have been unemployed much of the year. (All of your kidding aside ?)
3) One topic I hope to address more on Beyond Blue and get more honest about in my own writing is the lack of confidence in the workplace and how you handle the professional rejection you encounter when severe depression begins to debilitate certain cognitive functions (like thinking, for example). I know you’ve struggled with this. Any advice for the guy just now unable to perform professional tasks and fearing a lay off?
I’m lucky in that, other than the occasional aftereffects of a sleepless night, I’ve never really lost cognitive function on the job. Even Topamax, a.k.a. “Dopamax” which so many people complain about, did nothing to hurt my work skills.
Even so, I can only hope you have a boss or human resources department (preferably both) who respect the Americans with Disabilities Act not only in letter but in spirit. Otherwise, yes, you could be in big trouble.
Let me give you examples from two of my recent jobs. I was the spokesperson for a school district in Virginia. I told the H.R. department shortly after my hiring of my condition. They said they could certainly make an accommodation. The “accommodation” was allowing me to come in a ½ hour late the morning after a night event. Which, it turned out happened two to three nights a week in the district – not to mention the fact I lived an hour’s drive away. It was literally punishing.
For all that, I thought I was doing great work for them until my annual review came up, and I was told – you have a few too many absences on your record (we’re talking 12, not 30) so we’re going to have to let you go. I asked point blank if this had anything to do with my depression; they smiled sweetly and said no.
I was discharged on the very same day I won a major award for my public relations work on behalf of the school district. And the local newspaper wrote an editorial attacking the school district for their decision. So you tell me.
But, I didn’t want to fight it with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), so I moved back to the New York/New Jersey area for my next job. Where the exact same thing happened. I disclosed my condition to H.R.; this time they declined to make an accommodation; and shortly thereafter I was downsized – ostensibly because my functions would be picked up by an outside public relations firm.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. So I fought this with the EEOC. They agreed I had a preliminary case.
A few months later, I received a giant FedEx binder at my apartment, carbon copied to the EEOC. In it was every single memo and every single e-mail I had ever written for the company. The sections with quotes like “I need help with this project” or “I’m not sure which direction in which to go with this assignment” or “This might not work now that the parameters have changed” were highlighted to make me look incompetent. Needless to say, the EEOC denied my claim. Ugh.
Of course I’ve had good bosses as well. But perhaps not coincidentally, two of my best ones had depression or bipolar disorder as well.
4) Suicide attempts. You’ve had two and at very vulnerable times: one when you were thirteen and your parents split and your mom was remarrying, the other shortly after your separation from you ex-wife, having come down hard from a manic spell and for which you were hospitalized for a week. This points to what so many psychiatrists and psychologists say about an emotional or psychological trigger. It is also what I struggle with when journalists respond to the suicide attempts of celebrities like Owen Wilson—“Ahh, but he had just broke up with Kate Hudson” says the press. How do you explain the formula—how much illness, how much emotional trigger–of what happened inside you at those two times—why you were more desperate or more ill than at other times?
Well, it might be illustrative to say that, as much as I complain about E. (my ex-wife) on BB, I still consider my wedding day the happiest day or my life. Why do I say that? Because marriage is an occasion when families come together to celebrate a couple’s new life, their ideals, their hopes, and their dreams. I realized that day why many girls and young women – even self-styled feminists – look forward so much to their wedding days, years or even decades before they actually meet their future husband.
So imagine the horror when that life and all the ideals, hopes and dreams come crashing down. Even with my father’s absences and punishments and alcoholism, he was still the only father I had ever known. To see him suddenly, literally replaced by a new stepfather within months of my parents’ divorce (while completely understandable on my mother’s part) was nevertheless devastating. (Of course, my dad remarried within weeks of the divorce becoming final, so at least my mom showed more discretion — I guess.)
And all that much more is the horror when the ideals, hopes and dreams destroyed are not those of parents, but one’s own. Particularly in my Catholic guilt – and my desire, now ruined in failure, not to repeat my parents’ divorce – it felt like an end of life, far more than marriage. (Well, that and the fact in my hyperstress I averaged about three hours sleep for six weeks on end – mania, much?)
But one other factor must be mentioned with the earlier suicide attempt – I was being tormented by a group of boys at my middle school, a bit like young Megan Meier in Missouri was heartbreakingly pushed to suicide at age 13 last year by people around her (including adults) using online messaging. (See http://community.beliefnet.com/blogs/2583 for more on this tragic case.)
Back in the old days, it was getting pushed into lockers (in the hallway and the locker room), having gum put on my chair, having my book bag constantly stolen if I let it even a millimeter off my body, etc., etc.
The leader of the gang was a guy named R. He invited me to his bar mitzvah in the middle of this, but said that his parents insisted and that he would make sure I was ostracized during the party and in school afterward from here on out. He lived up to his word. Eventually, we ended up getting into a fistfight in front of the school and both getting suspended.
What stopped the hazing was something very similar to what was mentioned in BB recently about others’ deaths dissuading one from suicide. When two of R.’s dear friends were killed by a drunk driver a few months later, yes, it taught me about death and the finality of what I had tried to do – but it made him conscious of the error of what he was doing as well. Or so I thought, anyway.
For the next three years, he begged forgiveness. I finally gave it to him. We became friends of a sort – though, given his constant “advice” to me that I was ruining my life, peculiar ones. It was when I went stag to his wedding in 1992 that he gave me the advice to use the personals (the Rupert Holmes “Pina Colada Song” kind, not the online kind back then) – which was how I met E.
R. and E. hit it off immediately. They were closer friends than I was with R., who again was constantly criticizing me and saying, “Your wife has all the right ideas, you should shut up and listen to her.” In fact, at the time of my second suicide attempt, R. – who was and is a highly successful entrepreneur — and E. were finalizing a business partnership. It was definitely a factor in my state of mind that people close to me were seemingly ganging up on me.
E. refused to see me when I was in the hospital – “You made your bed, you lie in it.” But when I got out, with my new, far more serious diagnosis of bipolar disorder, openness and self-disclosure became very important to me. And I had never told E. what happened to me when I was 13. So when tempers cooled, I did.
She was stunned. I know I’m beginning to answer your next question ? but it’s as if a light went on in her head to say, aha, this isn’t something he’s been doing to me, it’s something he’s been trying to keep from happening to himself – for most of his life.
She broke off the business partnership and supported me in confronting R. with the truth about just how close his hazing had come to tragedy all those years ago. His reply – “I don’t remember any of that” – was not very convincing, given how we had originally reconciled. I haven’t spoken to him since.
When I tell people the story of my bizarre two-decade relationship with R., they say it has a literary quality to it – like Valjean and Javert from “Les Miserables,” or Mozart and Salieri from “Amadeus.” I think there’s something to that.
5) You’ve talked about your marriage many times in your comments on Beyond Blue. From what I understand, your ex-wife had no understanding of the physiological basis of depression, and repeatedly urged you to “Buck up” or “Snap out of it,” that your symptoms were signs of a moral weakness. I don’t really see how you could make it work with someone so unsympathetic as that. What would be your advice to a depressive in a marriage with a spouse who doesn’t get it and isn’t willing to learn about the illness alongside his partner?
In my quote you posted under question #1, about “Wrestling With G-d,” you omitted a very important excerpt:
(… probably the most spiritually lost person I have ever known — she was not a bad person at all, just lost; that’s the best way to describe it — was quite intentionally raised by her parents without any religious training. A wag once said that you send your kids to Sunday school — or Hebrew school, or what have you — so they’ll have something to rebel against one day. But I’m not sure it’s such a joke.)
Of course, I’m talking about E., my ex-wife.
BB readers probably think from my characterizations that E. was … um, the technical name for my beloved dachshund. E. could be a witch, no doubt, but then again I was probably a warlock in the worst of my depression when we were together.
No, I think what drove us apart more than the depression is that we married for the wrong reasons and didn’t have enough in common. (And not just us … my own parents still have nightmares about my ex-in-laws, who for the most part were lovely people, but who were also unbelievably different from them – think “Meet the Fockers,” with my albeit divorced mom and dad as Blythe Danner and Robert DeNiro and E.’s folks as Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand.) E. and I had dated for two years and gotten to a point where we said we should either break up or get engaged … and, visiting a jewelry store one day, on a whim we decided to get engaged.
That’s not the basis on which to build a marriage. Especially when we had different ideas about G-d, kids, careers, money, you name it. That’s a house of cards – and my depression was just the stiff wind that blew it away. But it would have collapsed eventually of its own accord.
And something that should give a small bit of hope to BB readers is that from what I’ve heard in my support groups, and read on BB, if you start with the kind of commitment and commonality a marriage should have and needs to have, you can survive one partner’s severe depression.
Since my divorce, I’ve met two women I could have married. One was like the Jenny Curran to my Forrest Gump – a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Southern gal who I adored, and who had a giant heart and even bigger problems (similar, tragically, to Jenny’s if you recall the movie). That wouldn’t have worked, to say the least.
The other was almost my soulmate – exotically beautiful (she is the child of immigrants), intelligent, understanding of my condition, sharing most of my values (including my sarcasm!) … except she badly wants kids and I badly … don’t. My heart breaks that I would and could not compromise on that, but I don’t feel I can risk repeating a cycle of dysfunction. I believe that to have stayed together would have eventually devastated her, me, our potential marriage – and obviously badly affected any future kids.
Yet I still love her, and probably always will. We’re still good friends – maybe that’s what was meant to be. (And she has taught me a lot about Catholicism, her religion as well, and reinspired me to a degree.)
I still believe my true soulmate is out there; this probably isn’t the time in my life for me to meet her, but I know I will someday. As I’ve said before on BB, I’m an incurable optimist – and if depression hasn’t cured me, nothing will.