Saturday, August 16, 2008

The view from here

In 1995, I took a road trip through part of the West. Along the way to Taos, I stopped off and visited the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southern Colorado. The dunes sit up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on the east side of the San Luis Valley. The prevailing winds etch away bits of the San Juans on the west side of the valley, but the wind cannot maintain the momentum needed to carry the bits of sand over the Sangre de Cristos. All of those little grains carried on the wind have been continuously deposited in the same spot for millions of years. And so it is that the tallest dunes in North America are not along any shore, but rather, sit check-to jowl with the Rocky Mountains in an otherwise innocuous farming valley.

I had read about the Sand Dunes in the AAA travel guide, but I couldn't picture what they must be. As I rounded the curve leading from the toll gate leading into the park, my mouth fell open and I caught my breath. This was one of the most spectacular geological wonders I had ever seen. How had I gone far into adulthood and never heard about this place?

The dunes are the subject of constant study by geologists and biologists. Nobody totally understands them. There is a lot of discussion and speculation, but the dunes are always shifting, always evolving, always revealing something new and unpredictable, even to those who know them best.

I tried to climb to the top of the dunes. I never made it. The whole place is an optical illusion and nothing, absolutely nothing, is how it first appears. I climbed through the soft sand for hours, and was repeatedly discouraged by my lack of progress. I worked hard, I was hot, I was frustrated. I kept going, but it seemed like the top of the dunes kept moving away instead of rising up to meet me. Why couldn't I get there when I could see the top so clearly?

By the time I gave up, I had made it less than half-way to the first summit. This didn't seem possible, given the grueling climb I had made--and for such a long time. Coming down the sand mountain was much easier than going up, but just as tricky. There were places where the slope would just fall away into a deep hollow on the side of the dune. Taking the wrong track could mean having to go further up to circumvent a hollow in order to continue coming down. There was a lot to keep track of in both directions, and no single way to approach it. I have puzzled over this place since I first laid eyes on it.

When I boarded a flight to see Jolie earlier this week, I was happy to have a window seat so I could rest my head against the bulkhead while I napped. I started to doze off almost immediately. For some unknown reason, I awoke suddenly, as if startled, and looked out the window. It took me a second to realize what I was looking at. Beautiful mountains looked like a relief map. Little bits of snow were still tucked into north-facing recesses near the peaks. As the mountains gave way to the valley, I could see an enormous field of textured tan earth that stretched for miles and was almost circular in shape. I couldn't make sense of it, and I hadn't seen anything like it on any flight, ever.

And then, it hit me. I understood what I was looking at. This was the place that had so fascinated me in 1995. I clearly saw the Great Sand Dunes, but from a very different perspective--one that couldn't make sense to anyone who had not seen them the other way, from the ground. I was seeing something I knew, but without my previous frame of reference, I doubt I would have recognized it.

I have known my friend, Jolie, for two years now. Most of our friendship has been spent online, where we have come to know each other through the exchange of emails and pictures, music and favorite websites. One thing that was evident in our friendship early on was that Jolie was in much better shape than I was. To me, it always seemed that despite Jolie's struggles with deep depression, she was able to cope far better than I could when I was at my worst. Now it is Jolie who is not doing well. I feel that my attempts to soothe her intense hurt are woefully inadequate. Seeing her this way has taken me by surprise, as I am so used to our situations being reversed.

This is the first time I have witnessed her struggle up close. I barely recognize my funny, resilient friend, mostly because I have never been physically present to see her this way. I understand what she feels right now because I have been there--too many times to count. I have been there, but I have never, until now, walked beside someone whom I know and love as she feels the depth of that despair and overwhelming pain. I have always been the person experiencing the darkness, not the one seeing it from the window. It is like looking at a photograph of yourself when you had never seen yourself in a picture before.

I ask myself, If this is what I am like when I am profoundly depressed, why are people so judgmental? At my lowest emotional depths, I always worry what other people think of me. They must think I'm pathetic. He must be so sick of me. I am a burden. Nobody wants to be around me. I must look terrible. She probably thinks I'm worthless since I can't fight this thing. Everybody must think I'm such an albatross--who would want me around? Maybe I shouldn't stay around...

Yet, as I spend time with Jolie and watch for her feelings to be revealed on her face, I think none of those things. In fact, nothing even remotely like that occurs to me at all. Instead, I worry. I worry that she'll feel too much despair to keep living. I worry that she's not taking care of herself. I get waves of anxiety because I care about her, but I feel so powerless as I can't do much to change her situation. I hope that at least I bring her comfort. I cannot fix the pathology, but I want to wrap my friend in my empathy so she never feels alone when things get this bad. She is not alone, but how to convey the sincerity and love behind that truth?

As I bear witness to this human tragedy from an outside perspective, I can't imagine feeling inconvenienced or irritated or judgmental as I know others have. No, what I feel are my own despair and sense of inadequacy. I feel what I wish others would feel at those times when I am in Jolie's current situation: Compassion.

When I look at Jolie now, I know I am actually seeing myself as I must so often be seen by others--perhaps hard to recognize for some, and quite changed in demeanor. I know this place, this feeling, this state of being; it's just a bit of a surprise to see it in someone else, let alone someone I know. Despite what I know, this time I am on the outside looking in, looking in at myself, not at Jolie, seeing the excruciating sadness in a way that feels akin to an out-of-body experience.

In my most crushing sadness, I struggle to communicate that I am still me, I am still inside of the illness, but I am very much aware that the people around me think it is my personality that has changed, that I am no longer May. From the inside, I want it to end. Now, Jolie wants it to end. She talks about it as a theoretical, anyway. I may be on the outside with everyone else right now, but unlike most, I know that Jolie has a problem--she herself is not the problem. Nobody wants to feel depressed. The related behavioral changes and irritability are not even the issue; they are the manifestation of a horrible illness deep inside the brain. I get that. Jolie gets that. Why doesn't the rest of the world get that?

I want Jolie to survive. I want her to feel better--a lot better. I want her to find relief, calm, and clear-headedness. Mostly, I want the sadness to simply leave her body. I want to give her hugs that somehow transfer the benefits of my medications through that shared energy. You are not alone; you are not alone. If she can't do it, then what hope can I reasonably expect for myself?

The sand dunes come to mind as I think of Jolie. Flying over them I could see clearly that they were still the same dunes, but I was seeing them from a different and unexpected perspective. This doesn't change their beauty or their uniqueness. Flying over the dunes and seeing them differently gives me one more insight into something familiar, and so it is now with Jolie. I understand her situation from the inside, but it also helps to see it from the outside. You can tell me about the shape of the dunes, but it's too abstract--I have to see them from several sides. I had to see Jolie in order to better understand me. This has changed how I interpret what is part of both of us. This is a good change that comes from a place of knowing and understanding.

Jolie and I have this in common: We are chameleons who adeptly adjust to our situation. We have used myriad coping skills to stay alive in the face of a debilitating illness and an unsympathetic society.

The dunes constantly make subtle changes, ever reshaping themselves to accommodate the uncertain winds. Maybe we are all dunes in our way, unique and beautiful, shifting as we need to if we are to survive the wind that is constantly pushing against us.


Laurel said...

I don't even know how to comment on this post, I'm too flooded with my own memories of wanting to wrap you with empathy, to protect you and make your sadness go away -- and I know that was long ago and I haven't been there for you since. I think you're getting something positive out of this trip, as difficult as it sounds, so I'm glad for that.
All else aside -- this was a beautiful piece of writing.

May Voirrey said...

Thank you.