For this relief much thanks; ’tis bitter cold
And I am sick at heart.
Hamlet (1.1), Francisco to Barnardo
Question: what does a good American do when she feels terrible?
I knew the answer, and that for me it was different. Let me repeat that: I knew my answer. But I wanted not to know it. On the side of not-wanting, I knew that I would meet with support. So I went there instead.
My father had a heart attack in late January of this year. He survived, but it was frightening to Mom, and to my sister and brother and me, when we saw him. The doctors said he was better. A terrible shock, they said. They released my Dad from the hospital in early February. But something was wrong. Dad was sick. He had been for a long time, we knew. This was something worse.
As my mother and he began to confront his convalescence together in March, I fell into my own deep darkness. Inexperienced, I called it depression.
Doctors, good ones, had diagnosed me with depression before. I have had several major “episodes” since my twenties. I believe these were real, and that at least one of them responded to treatment. The darkness of March felt somehow old (I think now that it’s been there for years), and familiar enough for me to seek the classic measures. In this country, those measures are drugs.
Still, all my wanting was not enough to make me sick in a way that drugs could touch. On some level I knew this; even as I faithfully took the drugs, I noticed that they didn’t work, and was not surprised. I knew I wasn’t sick in the usual way. Not in my body, not even in the old serotonin dance of the brain.
I was sick at heart.
I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises …
Hamlet (2.2), Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Because I was sick at heart, things got only worse for me. I would rise momentarily from my funk by reading a good book, seeing a movie, having a lovely night with my husband. But I could not ever truly rise. I literally moved more and more slowly: crossing a room, a street. I was even afraid to drive.
And my father was growing ever more ill. Which I knew.
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward? …
Hamlet (2.2), Hamlet (soliloquy)
By the time May rolled around, the word I was using to describe my state of being was “stuck”. I was truly homebound: moving in any direction was an effort. I had great doctors who cared for me; one of them is the first psychiatrist who has truly been able to help me. In her office, I begged her to tell me why my “recovery” was taking so long.
She didn’t have an answer. How could she? The answer wasn’t medical.
I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
Hamlet (4.3), Hamlet (soliloquy)
June. By now I knew my father was dying. There is a way you feel when the death of a loved one is happening in your own body as well; it’s tedious, undeniable. Neither eating nor sleeping goes well, for any reason you can explain to others. And it got worse.
My dad was waiting for me. I knew this as well as I had ever known anything in my life. Why didn’t I go?
Reasons, reasons: I now believed that I was too sick to travel. I clung to the friends caring for me at home, to plans I’d made, thinking these had some magic that would keep everything on track. Bizarrely, I believed my next job (I haven’t had steady work since Dad’s heart attack) was just around the corner.
They say the owl was a baker’s daughter.
Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.
Hamlet (4.5), Ophelia
On June 27, Mom took my Dad to the doctor when he could no longer eat. His doctor, noting his heart rate, called an ambulance. Dad was admitted to the hospital — for just that night, we thought. Then another night. And another.
Dad would never come home.
Now I had to go. This was the very last thing I wanted to do. What I did want:
…To die; to sleep,
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
Hamlet (3.1), Hamlet (soliloquy)
The time comes when the last thing you want to do is the only thing left.
The strangest part: that tidal pull, the incessant internal demand, ended when I got in the car with my husband and started the drive south. We stopped just south of Gilroy and bought cherries at a roadside stand; I don’t remember eating them until we got to our destination. And we did stop for a sandwich, but I downed mine in minutes. The clock was ticking.
The hospital. I fought the urge to run because I knew he was still there, waiting for me. We found his room and I walked in and Dad and I saw each other.
That longing, the thing I had been calling sickness, ended. Just like flipping a switch. It has not returned.
Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting,
That would not let me sleep …
Hamlet (5.2), Hamlet to Horatio
I spent the night of my arrival with Dad in the hospital. He and I spoke that night of some things; he was amazed by the wind-tossed palm tree outside his window, and talked about it. Dad asked me about my journey. I told him of that day, and also the weeks. He nodded: Yes, I know.
Late on July 11, my father died in hospice. He’d lost the power to speak shortly after his move there, but he was listening until the end. My mother and siblings were with him. We had time, so much time. On the day Dad died, I sat with him and named and described each of his grandchildren once more.
A week after the day of my father’s death, the brightening I longed for through the months I faithfully took the drugs has come. It is, like all the experts and all the books say, in every leaf on every tree, in every face, in every moment. But I think that my drug cocktail did not put it there.
I still take the drugs, in different combinations at different times each day and night, just to see if I feel any different. I get occasional halo-effect headaches, and that’s funny, but it’s not bad. I wonder what would happen if I stopped taking them all at once. But people say you shouldn’t do that.
My doctors were and are terrific. They have acted in every way that highly trained, intuitive medical professionals should. The responsible party in this situation was me. I consider myself a good listener, but I did not listen: for months, even years. I was able to make things right in the end, but I threw a lot of money and time into making them wrong first.
I am not a chemical compound. And even if I am my brain, my brain is not chemistry. It is memory, it is time, it is empathy, and it is love.
… the rest is silence.
Hamlet (5.2), Hamlet to Horatio