This essay was first published in
Foliate Oak Literary Journal, May 2011
Walls the Color of Tears
My unflappable friend Ellen stumbled into a cave of depression six months ago, and now she muddles through her days in a fog of pharmaceuticals, each night an eternity of wide-eyed, worrying wakefulness. She’s under the care of a psychiatrist who seems to have just one weapon—a prescription pad—and so they gamble, stud poker with hidden hole cards. More depressed? Let’s switch to Wellbutin; Anxiety worse? Up the Xanax. Not sleeping? Here’s some Ambien. Try this. And this. Going for a straight? Take two cards and hope there’s an ace in the hole. The counter and table in her shoebox of a kitchen have no room for food fixing or eating; they’re blanketed with pill bottles.
What happened? Not to minimize what she’s going through, I see it as just the stuff life sometimes dishes out, but multiplied and all at once, like standing below an upended garbage can when the lid falls off. A convergence of circumstances, a plague of locusts: her mother’s death seemed to tip it off, aggravating already severe health problems which then added to her mounting financial woes. Her work, already stressful and demanding, is suffering from the onslaught, and now retirement has been booted off the horizon. Her path is strewn with pitfalls; she dodges snarling beasts and shrieking specters, with no end in sight, no ray of light.
She used to say that her biggest worry was where to put her energies, whether to go to the concert or the play on Saturday night—she had more interests and activities than hours in the day, days in the week. She loved music—baroque and folk, opera and heavy metal—she played the flute, sang in a community choir. She loved to read, her tastes eclectic—literature and thrillers, bios and art history, travel writing, nature and science. She loved movies, bio-pics and chick flicks, Star Trek and the Harry Potters, adaptations of classics, anything British. She loved dirt bikes and the desert, camping and hiking and bird watching.
Something would seize her imagination, like a gust of wind grabbing a kite, and she would hang on for the chase. When it was China, she read Pearl Buck and Anchee Min, went to exhibitions of Chinese art, shopped at the Chinese market. Last year it was whales: she checked whale books out of the library, heard of a novel about Ahab’s wife, planned a whale-watching expedition. But then all this happened. Look at me—I’m using the past tense, as if she’s gone; that’s the way it feels.
Where is my energetic and multi-faceted friend? Yes, this is about me too—I’m having a hard time dealing with it. It’s hard to be around her now—nothing gives her pleasure; I can’t make her laugh with the snide cynicism we used to share. She’s like a cipher, her personality sucked up by one of those menacing monsters—the invasion of the spirit snatchers. She moves as if she’s dragging a heavy trunk or Jacob Marley’s chains. She sits, exhausted, staring at her empty walls, walls the color of tears.
Her doctor keeps altering and increasing her meds—she’s being vanquished by Valium, zapped by Zoloft. She tried therapy—two or three different times—nothing helps, she says. One gave her financial advice—make a budget, get a smaller apartment, sell your bicycle, stop buying books; with another it was her diet—eat less fat-salt-sugar-starch-bread-meat-dairy; eat more fruit-veg-fish-walnuts- tofu-rice. Where’s the cognitive skill, the probing, the listening, the healing?
She was the mainstay of an agency for twenty years. She balanced the books and swept the floors—she did it all, she was the go-to person. The board’s directors valued her dedication, and they’ve been patient. They supplemented her disability payments and continued her health insurance, but now they need to move on—they have a small budget and a mission, work to be done. Two board members hand-delivered a termination letter right before the holidays. I was outraged at their timing—couldn’t they have waited? The severance they offered is generous for their means, but she feels betrayed, abandoned. And unemployable. Now she wonders how she’ll pay the rent and buy groceries, how she’ll afford her medical care—the dominos keep falling, one after another.
A network of friends set up a schedule of daily visits to bring meals, take her shopping and to medical appointments. But after a couple of months they started drifting away, puzzled, annoyed that she wasn’t getting better, wasn’t responsive. I’ve hung in there with her—isn’t that what friends do?
She and I used to do a lot together—lunches and matinees, galleries and gardens, concerts and baseball games. Now she feels vulnerable in public places, crowds amplify her anxiety. We used to call ourselves a book club of two, taking turns—I would delve into some obscure nonfiction work of her choice and she in turn would read my Virginia Woolf. I miss those times; I want them back. I’m frustrated and saddened, I feel deprived. I’m like Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin,” whining: “I want to go to lunch!”
She tells me that she rarely sees anyone these days. She says she appreciates that I’m sticking by her, even though it may not show. That helps, but sometimes I wonder if she even knows I’m there; am I talking to myself? Yoo-hoo, earth to Ellen! I really did say that to her once, and she rewarded me with a pained half-smile, half-grimace. I try to mute my flippancy. I tiptoe around her, measure every word, every gesture.
I check in by phone every couple of weeks now—it used to be weekly—no change, she says, apologizing. I’m so boring, I’m not much of a friend, she says. Read, I urge her, get out of yourself. I’ve tried, she says, I can’t. What about a trashy page-turner, a mindless mystery? I’ve tried, I can’t. She accuses me: You think that if I read, everything will be ok, don’t you? No, I say, but it can’t hurt; am I being overly simplistic? No, she says, just conventional. Ouch. She gets testy and defensive, visibly distressed—her hands shake, her voice gets quivery, she won’t make eye contact—when I bring up her situation, so I choose my moments carefully, back off quickly, and keep a thick reptilian skin.
We’ve exchanged birthday and holiday gifts for years, books, scented candles and herbal soaps, teas and cookies. For Christmas I give her a journal, bound in gold and black with a bamboo design and a delicate clasp, the pages faintly lined. She removes the curly pompom of yellow ribbon and the red tissue paper wrapping and gives me a look that says, won’t you ever give up? Maybe I should have given her a coloring book and crayons—safe and comforting, they don’t make demands. No pressure, I say, you can keep a diary. Or write a novel. I bubble, I babble. Draw flowers or doodles, make vocabulary lists or grocery lists. She says “thank you, it’s lovely,” and with barely a glance, without looking inside, she sets it on top of a stack of unopened mail and sinks silently back into the couch.
She can’t drive because of the medications, so I see her in her musty apartment on a busy, ugly commercial street, a riot of honking horns and revving engines. Her place was always piled high with books and papers and do-dads, the cheerful clutter of a busy life, but now it’s the disarray of neglect. The piles on her coffee table spill over onto the floor, New Yorkers and National Geographics communing with dust bunnies in a forsaken hodgepodge.
I have to get her out of the house, for my sake as well as hers. I drive her to the park, and we stroll a bit, but she tires quickly. We go to lunch nearby and share one of our favorite yuppie pizza combinations—this one goat cheese, garlic and roast eggplant—and a Chinese chopped salad. And I entertain her. I’m a one-woman vaudeville show. I talk about what I’m reading, a movie that she might like, something new I cooked, something funny that happened—always trying to amuse her, pique her interest. Now my soft-shoe, now a song; I juggle, make faces, do cartwheels. I keep up the banter, and every so often I see a tiny glow, like my heater’s pilot light in the dead of night, a spark of animation, a twinkle of her puckish grin, and I fan it with all my might. I turn up the thermostat, but like my faulty heater, it fails to ignite—it flickers, it fizzles. I’m encouraged, though; I’ll keep trying.