Beyond Blue

While we’re on the topic of brain anatomy, have I mentioned my tumor? It’s a benign growth in my pituitary gland.

Be careful what you pray for. During the year of my depression, I got down on my knees every morning and begged God to give me a brain tumor and/or cancer–some kind of terminal illness–as a graceful exit out of this life, a departure that wouldn’t leave my kids as traumatized as my suicide would. Now that I actually want to be around, I get a tumor.

My endocrinologist says it’s no big deal, that pituitary growths are quite common and respond well to medication. She thinks my little white pill should shrink that baby without much complication. Although I can’t say I am a fan of growths in general, and especially those in the brain, this discovery does provide a bit of relief, or at least a considerable piece of my whole mental breakdown puzzle.

In “The Good News About Depression,” Dr. Mark S. Gold says this about the pituitary gland:

“With all the hormones flowing to and through this gland, and its direct involvement with the hypothalamus and limbic system, anything that goes wrong with the pituitary is bound to affect mental life. Accordingly, since most of the body’s hormones seem to be controlled by the same neurotransmitters that we believe are involved in mood disorders, the functioning of the pituitary and its client glands may well provide a window into the brains of depressed people. Many of our neuroendocrine tests for depression do indeed measure fluctuations in pituitary hormone output.

Recently, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been used to show active disease in the brain of depressed patients. MRIs clearly show that enlargement of the pituitary gland due to hypersecretion can provoke depression and vice versa.”

All this makes me wonder and awe at the interaction between all the parts of the body–how the different organs, glands, and systems of the human body are so interconnected. Just as my mind communicates to every living cell, my cells (and their growths) frame my thoughts.

Maybe it’s because I’m mentally ill myself that I find the behavior of “American Idol’s” contestants perfectly normal. Even if the early audition crowd does suck–if they are “humiliations set to music” (according to a “Washington Post” article)–more power to them for going after their dreams.

“I don’t want to patronize you, but it’s never gonna work for you, darling,” a meanie Simon Cowell told wanna-be singer Jessica Rhodes, bringing her to tears.

Some say she asked for it by showing up. But my imbalanced brain thinks differently.

“Success is 99 percent perspiration and one percent talent,” my business-savvy father told me back when I was unloading Thin Mints as a Brownie Girl Scout. “The only thing that separates the winners from the losers is perseverance.”

Dr. Seuss received 27 rejections before “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was published; a skinny 5’11” Michael Jordan was cut from his varsity basketball team; Colonel Sanders drove from restaurant to restaurant with his pressure cooker and famous recipe of 11 herbs and spices before he made history with KFC; and didn’t some opinioned jerk tell Katie Couric in her early days that she didn’t have a face for TV?

I sure as heck wasn’t born with the ability to write.

My eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Kracus, read aloud my essay as an example of how NOT to write. My SAT scores were so low (especially verbal) that I lied about them for 18 years. Any aptitude test I took suggested I pursue a career in math or science. The profile of a writer fit me about as well as Dolly Parton’s bra: an intellectual permanently glued to a book, ready to discuss any classic, from Plato to Hemingway. (God showed mercy on me the day CliffsNotes went to press.)

Oh yes, and my “American Idol” moment, when I asked a professor in grad school to write a letter of recommendation for me. (I was applying for a job as an editor of a Catholic magazine.)

This man of the cloth (a priest), much like cocky Cowell, took me outside in the hall to drop the bomb.

“I’m sorry,” he said, squinting his small brown eyes that shot daggers through my heart. “I can’t do that. It just that you…you don’t use words correctly.”

Had I been on a televised set, I may have responded like Jessica Rhodes.

“No way. Please no, please!”

But that’s not because I’m mentally ill (well not totally). It’s because I had a dream–to become a writer–and I wanted it badly.

Viewers shouldn’t mock the contestants for pursing their dreams on TV. That takes guts. They should fault the judges for their lack of tact and constructive criticism.

“You need to work on your craft, Therese,” a very wise writing mentor told me when he took me under his wing. “And this is how you do it….”

He instructed me to read books on style, take classes, and analyze the technique of writers I respected.

He didn’t sit back in his chair and make fun of me like the arrogant professor I had, like a former boss of mine did, or like the tacky Cowell does. That’s not helpful at all.

Thinking more like my father, my mentor–a seasoned writer and an established publisher–read my essays, took a good look at my character, and came up with a plan. I’d have to apply the 99.5 percent of tenacity in my personality to compensate for the 0.5 percent of skill (and talent) provided in my DNA.

I don’t know. Maybe all dreamers are mentally ill to some extent…because dreams aren’t grounded in reality or logic. If they were, I’d be a math professor or an engineer for NASA (remember, my math and science scores were higher than English), not blogging in the middle of the night about “American Idol’s” poor suckers who just got the punch (the “forget about it” talk) that almost made me drop the pen (and my dream) back in grad school, when I had a few more neurotransmitters to spare.

Poor Jessica may very well visit the psych ward before the this season’s finale. But I’m rooting for her regardless. Because talent doesn’t determine who lives out their dreams. Believe me, I know.

Here’s a Newsweek interview with Jennifer Crocker, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who focuses on self-esteem issues, regarding the treatment of contestants on “American Idol.”

She believes that the judges’ criticism “can hurt people’s self-esteem temporarily and the more invested they are, the more they’ve attached their self-worth to being a great singer, the more it’s going to hurt.”

I should distinguish what I described in the last post as a “dream” from a person’s complete investment of self in an activity or toward an accomplishment. Only after years of therapy have I learned how to tease the two apart. But I still get them confused a lot…where I fool myself into thinking that winning a Pulitzer or finishing an Ironman or seeing my name on the “New York Times” bestseller list will “complete me” (like Renee Zellweger says to Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire”).

Last Wednesday a friend of mine died.

He was one of the most successful newspaper columnists of his time, the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, and a comic genius. But I appreciated Art Buchwald most as one of the three “Blues Brothers,” (with Pulitzer-Prize winner William Styron and former “60 Minutes” co-anchor Mike Wallace) who spoke and wrote publicly about his bouts with depression and bipolar disorder. The funny guy was, to me, a fellow companion in the mission to shed the stigmatization of mood disorders, to educate the public on mental illness, and to offer fellow depressives a message a hope.

Buchwald was loved by many depressives like me because he wrote about his mental disorder so candidly and with brilliant wit. As a young boy raised in foster homes (his mother was institutionalized shortly after his birth and his father was unable to support him and his three sisters during the Depression), he learned to use humor as a survival skill. His feelings of loneliness and confusion translated into jokes and, later on, material for his clever columns.

This Blues Brother was hospitalized for clinical depression in 1963 and for manic depression in 1987. He was suicidal both times, and credited prescription drugs, therapy, and the hospital staff for saving his life. Had the nurses not been there to “rock him like a baby” during his harrowing dark night, he said he believed he might not have survived to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In his recovery he became the poster boy for depression, and used his high-profile status to educate the public. His appearances on “Larry King Live” to discuss depression generated more requests for transcripts than any show King had yet produced. Buchwald was one of very few prominent people who had the courage to talk straight about mental health issues. In lecture after lecture Buchwald said this to audiences: mental illness is a potentially deadly disease. It is an illness like any other physical malady. If you haven’t experienced it, you can’t possible understand what it’s like. “It’s a terrifying phenomenon,” he said. But for those who seek help, there is hope.

Amen, Art. Pray for your fellow depressives from your resting place in heaven. And thank you for being our advocate during your days on earth.