Friday, November 30, 2007
Ken Rumble is a poet whose work I have admired for some time now. He surprised me one day recently when being open about living with cycles of depression. He's living proof YOU JUST DON'T KNOW WHO out there is suffering, meaning that Ken doesn't display many of the behaviors we like to safely associate with someone suffering from depression. His openness felt immediate and vital, and I was glad he agreed to this interview. We hope it helps others if at least to get talking, and being open. Silence is the most dangerous coping mechanism in my opinion, the one that does the most damage.
Many thanks to Ken Rumble,
Ken Rumble is the author of Key Bridge (Carolina Wren Press, 2007) which one reviewer describes as an "exuberant free-verse tour of Washington, D.C." He works as the marketing director for the Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art and lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his daughter. His poems have appeared in the literary journals Octopus, Fascicle, Coconut, Cutbank, Parakeet, the tiny, Carolina Quarterly, and others. He is currently at work with his father on a nonfiction book about the Antarctic ozone hole. Check out his blog The Desert City.
Ken, you've recently come out of one of your cycles of depression. As poets we know of course how anguish has been romanticized. You're someone I trust can shed some much needed light on the subject. What does depression do to your daily life once you're in one of your cycles?
It's really almost totally crippling, and yet, I'd guess most people around me would just think that I'm a little moody. I get up, go to work, do my job, take care of my daughter, hang out with friends, exercise, write, read, etc. When I'm depressed my life externally is fairly normal. But my thoughts during these periods are toxic, full of self-hatred and despair. I am the target of my depression.
When I'm depressed, I think about my life and my past and think that everything I've ever done has been a waste and failure. I see broken relationships, lost opportunities, stupid decisions, ill-placed trust, naivety, and inadequacy. I look back and see chances to have made my life better than what it seems like, and I see I squandered those chances. And I see the reasons behind all my past decisions as suspect at best, stupid at worst. I look into the future and see myself stumbling through however many days I have left alone, forgotten, and unwanted. I don't believe I'll realize any of the dreams that I might have and really don't have many dreams left.
I think I don't know what I want in any general or specific sense or what to do to get what I want or to even change the current state a little bit, and I can't understand why I have the day-to-day life that I do, and I don't know why I continue to live that life everyday. I half want to just breakdown completely most days, just give in and collapse, give up, let go. I think a lot about wanting to be erased, to just no longer exist anymore, disappear, evaporate. I half hope someone will kill me. It's not, though, that I want to die exactly -- I just want to not exist, be gone. It's not exactly suicidal thinking, but it's not exactly not. It's just that my life seems so entirely worthless and wasted that continuing that life is just a burden that seems almost cruel. I've never come anywhere close to actually attempting or attempting to attempt suicide, but the depression is killing me.
And yet, I do get up, go to work, do all of those things. But that almost makes it even worse -- to do all of those things and be watching my mind rip myself apart with self-hatred and despair. I end up feeling like a fake, like I'm pretending, and I believe that the people around me know somehow, and they think I'm a freak or weird or undesirable because I'm acting so strangely. And I don't think I can tell anyone -- I don't think anyone will understand -- I think that if I tell people then they won't like me, won't want to be my friend -- it's very painful and childish/juvenile thinking and very real. When I'm in it, I can hardly think of anything else -- my mind is just so stuck in all this crap that I feel like it's all I can do to just go to the grocery store and use the self-check out aisle. And yet, I do that and more and most of the times, my mind is just running over and over and over this stuff. And I feel very very very isolated and very very alone and very very worthless.
And I am isolated and I am alone. I have the life of a depressive: I moved to a town where I have very few friends; many of my relationships are conducted via the internet; what close friends I've had, I've moved away from and lost touch with. My daily life mostly consists of working, running, and hanging out by myself. My daughter stays with me on a regular basis and those are usually my best days. She and my parents are probably the reason I'm still alive -- I don't want to hurt them.
So really, I guess I hold it together for the workday, then I come home and am just sort of frozen -- stuck in these depressive thoughts and exhausted by them. It's hard for me to read or write during those periods because everything I look at seems worthless, anything I might get interested in seems pointless. What does any effort matter for?
And it seems like nothing does matter -- live, die, try, not try, dream, not dream -- I look back and think that at some points I was really doing my best, giving it my all, really believing and fearless, and all for what? It's gone -- whatever good I made or was a part of is gone. My best efforts got me here: poor, alone, and with few prospects in a strange city. Nothing I do matters -- I can't change my lot. I tried to do something good, and for that effort I've been left with nothing. So what should I do now? What can I do? I don't have any ideas left, no more dreams. Now I just worry about spending $20 to go out one night because I'm worried I won't have enough money to buy groceries so I can make food for myself in my empty apartment.
I just see myself getting older and even more sad and undesirable. It's crushing and exhausting and crippling, and it can go on for weeks or even months.
Then when it starts to alleviate -- I feel disassociated and hazy; everything's happening around me in this weird hyper-focus, slow-mo that doesn't really make any sense.
And then I feel okay, but I don't really trust that I'm okay, so I'm like "I'm okay, but I'm going to sort of ignore that because I'm probably not really okay." And then I start to feel a lot better and happy even and relaxed, and the depression seems to be really gone. And then I can't even remember why I was so depressed; what happened? what got me there? what got me out? was it even there?
Most of the times it seems like a decision -- like I just decided, "Okay, I've had enough -- time to stop." But why could I make that decision a week ago and not a month ago? What happened?
Because when I'm really depressed, I know on some level that these horrible, self-hating things that I'm thinking are not exactly "true." I know that, and I know that "I'm doing it to myself." But I can't stop -- it even makes it worse; am I just so entirely self-obsessed that I can't control my own thinking? I can't stop thinking about myself for one minute and give myself a break?
And then it's like "who am I talking to??" Who is me? Who am I? Am I this depressed person? am I a happy person? am I my thoughts? I don't understand any of these things -- I can't make sense of concepts like "I", "me", "my", "thoughts", etc. So there's not even some kind of basic anchor or touchpoint to provide stability through this chaos.
And it feels self-obsessive, and I hate that about myself in those moments; there's a lot I hate about myself in those moments; I spend most of my depressed time thinking about how much I hate myself for being such a worthless, pathetic failure.
And then I'm out of it and it feels like it's a million miles away, and good things happen to me, and I have fun and good interactions with people and successes, and I'm terrified that none of it is "real" -- whatever "real" is. And I wait for the next cycle to come and I don't know why they come and I don't know what to watch out for and then I'm in it and I just want to erase myself.
And the worst part is that I actually have a pretty good life, my book got published, I like my job, I've got a great daughter, I have good friends, people have been generous to me about giving readings for the book, I basically like the town I'm in and my apartment, my parents are wonderful, I'm healthy -- things really aren't so bad, but when I'm depressed I hardly see any of that.
I just feel stuck, dead, incapable, and hopeless.
For the last two or three years, that's pretty much been my life. When I look back further when I'm not depressed, I can see that I've probably suffered from this for a long time.
The cost of all this for me is that when I'm in it, I have a hard time doing much more than the basic. My work (poetry, job, etc.) suffers; my relationships suffer, etc. It becomes really hard for me to spend time or just generally communicate with people because I'm so afraid to talk to people about all this and yet I can't stop thinking about it.
And it's particularly crippling to my work as a poet because the depression usually comes with some really heavy duty self-criticism about my work -- I'm no good, nobody really likes it, and poetry's worthless anyway. So submitting poems, staying active in whatever way in the community, etc. -- all that stuff that's kind of necessary to be "successful" in the poetry bizness, all that's very difficult for me. I get in these cycles where I have all this energy to engage in correspondence, submit poems, review books for a week or so, and then I can hardly stand to open my inbox, let alone actually respond to people. And I feel really guilty about those silences, those gaps, and I feel like I can't keep up at those times, and I start wondering why I'm trying to do it all anyway?
The worst part in some ways is that I have an intensely hard time talking about how I'm feeling when I'm depressed; I self-isolate myself while also desperately in need of compassion from someone, for somebody to hold me, stroke my head, and tell me everything's going to be okay.
Most of the time though I don't believe that people actually really even interact in any meaningful way -- we just make actions in each other's presence that are vaguely parallel and we assume that correspondence is actually communication; when really it's just us out there.
One story that's always intrigued me is from H.P. Blavatsky. She had a young woman come to her who suffered from cycles of depression. (This is in Philadelphia in the late 1880s.) Blavatsky listened very closely to the woman's details of how and when it occurred. She then asked the woman to use meditation during these cycles of depression, and to force herself to visualize a spot of light because when the depression cycled back into her life again that spot of light she created would also return with the depression. The woman experienced this, and she was asked to make the spot of light larger with each cycle. It made her depression a THING to be moulded and reformed. The woman was eventually cured, the depression tapering off and away, and one can wonder from many angles about how and why this cure might have worked. Have you ever heard of this cure by Blavatsky? Have you heard of other forms of meditation cures, ones that bring you some relief?
I know of Blavatsky, but I didn't know that story. I can sort of imagine that working, but I'm skeptical I suppose. I can imagine on some level getting used to this cycle -- I think my semi-recent awareness of it has changed my experience of it, and I think that as I continue to go through it that I'll learn more ways to deal with it.
I did vipassana meditation for awhile after doing a 10-day sit about a year or so ago. That experience was really complicated for me -- I don't know if I'd say the meditation "worked." I'm not sure what working would look like.
I've found that exercise helps a lot -- tiring out my body is a good way to get my mind to slow down it's downward spiral -- exercising also just makes me feel like I've accomplished something tangible and that feeling is always valuable when I'm depressed. Of course, on the other hand exercising and exercise can also be a /source/ of anxiety and depression. I hurt myself (largely unintentionally) sometimes (shit happens), and then I get really frustrated that I can't do this thing that helps me. Other times, I just think exercising is stupid -- what am I trying to do? who am I trying to impress? what's the point?
So nothing really comes easy.
Have you ever been treated for depression?
I've had two very good psychiatrists/talk therapists over the last couple years. I switched largely because I moved, but the new guy is very good, too. I've also been taking a anti-convulsive that has been used to treat bipolar called Lamictal for about a year and a half or so. There's a history of manic-depression in my family, and lamictal is used to treat M/D. I haven't had any intense manic periods -- I definitely can get pretty hyped up and energetic, but that's different from real mania. People that are manic usually have fairly substantial auditory and visual hallucinations and are gripped with some pretty intense OC activities. I've never been actually diagnosed as M/D, and I'm not opposed exactly to that diagnosis -- I'm just not convinced it fits. All that said, I'm on lamictal because other depression meds (SSRIs -- something seratonin re-uptake inhibitors) can "kindle" manic episodes in people with latent or undiagnosed M/D.
Honestly though, I really don't know if the lamictal is hurting or helping. I sometimes feel like I have a little extra distance on the depression -- like I can observe it from further away and not be quite as sucked in by it. On the other hand, I still can't really stop it exactly. So I don't really know. I'm actually talking to my doc about getting off of it.
The talk therapy part is what I find really helpful. So much of what happens to me/I do to myself is self-injurious, self-hating, and I really withdraw from people, avoid human contact. To talk to someone about it, to get to say these things in my head, and have somebody hear them and say things that make sense about them is a pretty intense relief, to feel some compassion. Being in talk therapy also makes it a lot easier for me to cry actually, and usually crying feels pretty good. I've got some wild grief that I've got to let out regularly, but most of the time I'm trying to adhere to some smiley face, happy, normal, level, likable guy image, and so it's hard in that mode to break down and sob. So the therapy helps.
And yet, again, the depression can often turn that rotten, too, make the therapy seem useless and pointless.
So and aside from that I don't drink very much, I eat things that are good for me, and I try to get plenty of sleep. Being hungry and/or tired usually makes the depression worse.
And of course sometimes none of it helps.
How are your poems affected by your depression?
Usually depression ends them -- it's very difficult for me to write when I'm really depressed. So yeah, usually I can't really write. Sometimes I do though and when I can it always feels really good -- even better than normal. Poetry writing and reading just generally help me get to that place where existence feels like a pleasantly flowing and interdependent/changable river, harmonious, light, and beautiful -- to get a little of that in the middle of some depression...
What advice do you have for poets and others who suffer from depression?
I don't really have any actually. In my experience, getting advice is almost the worst thing in the world, especially when it's good advice. It's like I get this good advice, but I'm too fucking depressed to do anything about it, so then I start feeling worthless and pathetic because I can't even do this little simple thing that would really actually help me.
So I try to avoid advice when I'm depressed.
I will say that I'd be willing to talk and listen to people about depression more.