Pura Vida

When your choices come down to interring yourself in a psychiatric hospital and traveling to Costa Rica, you are in the simultaneous position of being very lucky and getting a raw deal.  And yet this was the choice that confronted me two weeks ago, as I endured my worst-ever meltdown days before a long-planned trip with my Dad.  I was either pulling myself out of my nearly year-long funk, I told myself, or I was going to find rock-bottom in a psychiatric ward.

I chose the former, which on reflection probably means that the latter was unnecessary.  Still, in the days before I left, everything about the trip seemed terrifying.  Anxious about spending ten hours on a plane alone, I pumped myself with enough valium for the flight that I was almost too comatose to make the connection in Miami.  Upon arrival, I approached Costa Rica with just the kind of insightful thinking you would expect from a depressed person: “I wonder if howler monkeys get depressed?” or “I wonder if macaws get depressed?” or, in particularly reflective moments, “I wonder if leaf-cutter ants get depressed?”

And then, on the third day of the trip, something clicked. I woke up one morning, and I felt as someone should when eating gallo pinto at an eco-lodge at the base of a beautiful volcano: grateful.  I waited with trepidation for the usual afternoon “dip” in my mood, and it didn’t come.  Instead, I spent the time usually reserved for wallowing in self-pity watching Agouti and thinking of how snuggly they looked.  Almost overnight, I fell back in love with Latin America—and perhaps more importantly, with being alive.  I loved the food, the mountains, the people, the air, the sun, the sky.

It was pure ecstasy.  Choose your metaphor.  I felt as if the dark clouds that had been hovering above me for months had finally broken and the sun was shining through.  On the drive back home from the airport, I rolled down the window and shouted to the desert night, “I have my life back!”  And had I written this post last Friday, that’s where it would have ended—with a Hollywood climax to my cataclysmic final battle with inner demons, one in which, obviously, I triumphed.

If only.  It only took 24 hours for the sadness to return: first a twinge, then a deluge.  And why wouldn’t it?  I still live at home; I still don’t have a dissertation topic; I’m still lonely and lost and scared.  But, on reflection, all is not lost; in fact, I’ve had an important revelation.  I can be a depressed person and still find joy and beauty in joyful and beautiful things.  And I can come back from a wonderful vacation and find the real world disappointing—and have that be a normal response, not a pathological one.

In Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon—required reading for anyone who suffers from depression—he describes depression as like a vine strangling a tree (which seems appropriate, having just come from the rainforest).  Medication, friends, family, vacations—all of these can hack away at the vine.  But even when the vine disappears, you find that the tree itself, in the intervening time, has rotted.  Costa Rica freed me from the vine—at least for a moment.  But what I saw—what I have become—was scary.  There’s a lot of re-growing to do.

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One thought on “Pura Vida

  1. Has it occurred to you, Alex, that your reaction to the United States is just as normal and natural as your reaction to Costa Rica?

    Why would anyone feel good “in the belly of the beast” unless they were doped to the gills or totally insensitive?

    The best title of a dissertation I ever came across (it was a list of dissertation titles in a magazine I found in a library, and try as I could, I never managed to track down the dissertation itself) was: “Schizophrenia: As Essential to Survival in Our Society.”

    The world economy is such that an enormous percentage of adults still live with their parents. Most available jobs don’t pay enough to move out. No reason to blame yourself for outsourcing and globalization. The real problem is that in many places like Spain and Greece, IMF-imposed austerity has also caused the parents to lose their homes.

    A few weeks ago I wrote to a prisoner for the first time. I’d seen something he’d written that I wanted to repost to my website. Nothing like writing to someone in super-max 23-hour lockdown who still stays sane, to appreciate how lucky I am not to be in the same position yet.

    I say “yet” because I live in a police state and the same thing could happen to me or anyone else at any time for any reason or for no reason at all other than a local private prison has an empty cell and the cops and judges get a kickback for filling it.

    To be a human resource rather than a human being is not good for anyone’s mental health.

    Costa Rica may be far enough south to avoid the brunt of Fukushima. Anywhere in the southern hemisphere is a good place to be right now. And anywhere that hasn’t yet cut down 97% of its old growth forests is a better place than anywhere that has.

    We were meant to live in natural surroundings. That’s why they make us happy. Civilization and technology can’t make people happy, so they have to rely on pharmaceuticals for what they consider to be a reasonable facsimile or substitute.

    If the “pursuit of happiness” was ever a goal of this country, they seem to have searched for it in all the wrong places. But it wasn’t–it was mere words. The Founders and Framers were so opposed to happiness that they slaughtered anyone they caught smiling and destroyed any lifestyle that engendered happiness. Capitalism considers it a sin or a crime to be happy (synthetic facsimiles and substitutes partially excepted). Happy people are less apt to submit to wage slavery or kill on command. Of course both wage slaves and cannon fodder are required to have good morale, but only as part of a social persona to demonstrate that they are not likely to rebel or run away. All authentic human emotions are penalized, so genuine happiness or bona fide sadness must be masked or medicated.

    Maybe you could try the old William Burroughs method to find a dissertation. Desecrate some of your textbooks. Cut out the words that seem to be meaningful and important, put them in a pile, mix them up, and try different arrangements until you find one that works.

    But never tell anyone how you did it.

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