Still Standing

Iris Chang was a young woman who wrote a famous book (The Rape of Nanking).  She became a symbol for many Asian-Americans, and blurred the lines between journalist and historian.  She was to all eyes a very confident, competent, attractive woman who “had everything”.  Yet her internal life went into free fall and she committed suicide at the age of 36 in 2004.  I just finished reading an inquiry into her life and death (Finding Iris Chang) written by her good friend, Paula Kamen.  Suicide seems to be a theme this week, with several young celebrities going that route.  I had been wondering about Ms. Chang for several days when I woke up at 3 a.m. completely at peace with an understanding.

Depression and degrees of sanity are part of the human condition.  When we slip into such degrees that it becomes clinically diagnostic is a question artists, philosophers, and most recently psychologists have been wrestling with for a long time.  Anyone can fall.  Just as anyone can slip and fall in their own house, anyone can slip, and start a decline that even they lose the ability to understand or stop.  That may be one of the reasons depression and insanity are so scary to us, because we know it could happen to us as well.

 I think supremely competent people are as susceptible, even if we don’t want to believe they are.  We all develop habits, and when those habits of mind and action are all we have to fall back on to block any pain or anxiety we have, they can stop working for us and begin to work against us.  Yet we keep dong them, because they are safe.  Those habits are knowns.  Ms. Chang worked.  She followed her habits of work because it was what she knew best.  She had responsibilities to her husband, son, and extended family.  She knew how to be forceful; she had learned how to perform.  But perhaps there came a time when she, like many of us, just did not want to do it anymore.  I’ll call it “pulling a J.D. Salinger”.  When people just say STOP.  They change their lives, and quit doing what they had been- no matter how successful it seems to people around them.  Many times, these people get happy.  Sometimes after long stretches they go back to what ever they had been doing (for better or worse).  I woke up at 3 am and I just knew that Ms. Chang had not been able to say STOP, when she may have really wanted to.

 The consummate achiever and self described geek with rough social skills may have just not known she had that option, or felt too ashamed to take it.  It’s a cliché to say Asian people commit suicide more frequently than any others, and often do it out of a sense of shame that is difficult for Westerners to understand.  Ms. Chang was second generation Chinese-American, and while that may have played a role, I think it was complicated.  What was not, it seems, was the clear inability for her to feel any differently than she did.  She fell, and could not get up.

I read recently about a forest in Japan that has been around a long time, but is a taboo subject for the Japanese.  It is a place where people go to die.  To commit suicide.  There were gruesome photographs of bodies everywhere in various states of decay, like some over populated CSI training lab (the likes of which they have in this country, using donated corpses).  Is it part of our world now that especially in first-world countries, suicide is just a fact?  I sympathized with Dr. Kevorkian when he lobbied to be able to help terminally ill people end their lives sooner rather than later.  That is an agonizing thing, to be sure, but an option I believe ought to be available for people who have terminal illnesses.  I know with complete certainty that if I develop Alzheimer’s and treatments have been useless, I want that option.  But this forest of lost souls, this is something different, I think.

 I talked with Husband about the value of real friends, and strong friendship-based marriages.  He agreed that we need those few folks in the center of our dartboard, the bulls-eye, who know us well enough to help us when we don’t even know we need it.   Those most intimate with us, not the rings and degrees of less intimacy that spiral out from our cores.  We need those central stabilizers, those perspectives.  Especially those of us with strong minds and hearts, whom others rely upon and seem to “have it all”.

 Developing such friends is not easy, and not overtly rewarded in our culture.  It takes a tremendous amount of work, and willingness to shunt some folks off to more superficial levels of friendship or eliminate them from our lives all together.  It also takes time.  We live in such geographically fragmented, fast-paced, demanding realities that the very idea of slow anything- slow food, slow friends, slow entertainment, slow work- seems impossible.  But the lesson I take from Ms. Chang is that anyone can fall, and fall fast.  Three things may have helped- I do not know, but I feel it to be true for myself.  1- knowing that anyone can fall, and letting oneself ask for help, and say STOP.  Change it up, let the ego go.  Pull a Salinger. 2- Teach my children the value of intimacy, real friends, and laughing at oneself in joy as much as self-deprecation; and living it as an example.  3- Live slower and let go any anxiety about what is let go as the compromise.  One last addition to this list is the “don’t put it in your head” rule.  There is so much suffering in the world, and we can read about it, see it.  We must, I believe, be a form of witness.  But also, we have limits to how much we can stuff into our head and try to balance.  So I choose not to watch violent fiction, or read it.  There is too much fact I have to carry around, and I don’t need the added images, ideas, or darkness.

 I have known depression, more than once.  I can’t say for sure what pulled me back from the edge, from falling over an edge I could not come back from.  But I know I have a very few good friends who helped.  I also know that I felt shame, I made huge mistakes- and I still suffer regret, but I am letting it go and trying to stop beating myself up about it.  I also know I am now middle aged, and I probably won’t be the high achiever I wanted to be.  I have to say, “oh well”, I pulled a Salinger of sorts in the past and now I am slower for it.  Oh well.

 Life goes on for me.  For many of us.  Sometimes it is enough not to know why, but just to be glad it does.

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