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Mental Illness, Imagination and Perseverance

Surviving the coronavirus pandemic due to good habits from childhood and lots of love from Barbara, my Muse

The 2011 movie, Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier, hinted at what may be one of the most surprising paradoxes about those with mental illness: Sometimes, the people, who are perceived to be the weakest, can in fact be the people with the deepest reservoirs of strength.

In that film, which starred Kirsten Dunst as a deeply depressed young bride, a planet named Melancholia inches its way through the Milky Way, destined perhaps for a collision with the Earth.  Or perhaps not.

Is the apocalypse upon us?  Are these the end-times?

Part of what makes the film so compelling is the manner in which the various characters, including Dunst’s Justine, handle their lives in the midst of the encroaching planet.

While many of us may now be fearful, even terrified, about the future for ourselves and our loved ones, it is useful to keep in mind that we have been here before, and I don’t mean per se in the movies.

All of the various plagues, a deleterious as they were to humanity, did not wipe out the planet and did not exterminate our species.

The Black Death killed somewhere between one-third to two-thirds of the population of Europe in the 14th century, but there was no modern medicine back then.

It is true that the world is now a global village, and thus pathogens can travel quickly from continent to continent, something that was not true at the time of the Black Death.

But it is also true that, in the 21st century, we have made scientific advances, which allow us to sequence genomes, extract antibodies from infected people, and come up with antiviral medications as well as potentially a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus.

All of which should give us hope, and I don’t mean false hope, derived from bluster and lies.

No, I mean that rigorous science, based on hypotheses, experiments, testing and data, gives us the tools to fight COVID-19.

But we are going to have to be disciplined, to practice good hygiene and social distancing, as many of us have been doing for weeks now.  We will need to show ingenuity, to delay our gratification for months or years, until we finally beat this illness, until we finally get a vaccine, or until the virus, a somewhat flimsy RNA strand, dies out, perhaps in warmer and more humid weather, which some studies suggest could happen.

While policy should be based on science and facts, that does not mean that we cannot, at a personal level, look to the language arts for solace, for comfort, and for the wisdom of the ages to heal our souls.

Besides watching a film, like Melancholia, which might be a tad too melancholy for most viewers, where can we find such wisdom?

There is unlimited wisdom, as well as enchantment and wonder, to be found in so many literary works.

Of course, I am breaking no news in pointing out that reading Shakespeare, the Bible and the Greek poets and playwrights will always enlighten us.

Please get off your computers and mobile phones, and read these texts in print.

That way, you will reduce the stress, the noise and the extra radiation that spews from your electronic gadgets, especially when you use them for hours.

If you are older than 40, you might read the Zohar, the most authoritative text of Jewish mysticism, a five-book set that I read in 2018.

There are undoubtedly many reasons why you should not read the Zohar until you are 40, including the need for life experience to buffer the provocative, mysterious and mature themes in the tome.

But another reason is that, according to Jewish tradition, we are not likely to gain wisdom, if we are to gain it at all, until we reach that age.

I have in the past discussed the Zohar, which was probably written in the Middle Ages by a Kabbalist.  The mystical book alleges that it was composed by a famous rabbi about 2,000 years ago.

Whenever it was written, the Zohar contends that metrics matter very little except insofar as they have a holy resonance, like the number 40, which signifies endurance and commitment to God.

That is not to say that statistics have no value on this planet.

Science experiments often yield crucial data, based on facts that can improve our health.

But most other metrics, such as Facebook Likes, number of virtual friends or followers, or the amount of money in our stock portfolios, mean very little in the end.

On the subject of the stock market, let me say that while we all need money to exist on this planet, that does not mean we have to be ruled by money.  It should be obvious at this point that life has more value than the accumulation of capital, although thieves, who steal from us, who betray our trust, who profiteer in crises and at other times, need to be punished for their crimes.

My suggestion for those who own stocks and bonds is to avoid looking at your portfolio until the end of each month, when you get your statement.

That is a habit we all need to adopt.

So, what else have I been doing to cope with the coronavirus crisis?

I have been maintaining many of the habits I learned as a child.

When I was in 4th or 5th grade, I was spreading butter on my Eggo waffles one day in the kitchen of our home in Hamden, Conn.

As I finished doing so, I picked up a bottle of maple syrup.  I was prepared to pour it on my waffles, when my mother said very gently to me, “You know, Robert.  Maybe, next time, you might want to put just one or the other on your waffles.”

I froze my hand on the bottle of maple syrup and put it down.  Then I had what might be viewed as a curious reaction for a nine or 10-year-old.  I said to myself, “My mother is right.”

Except I also said to myself that, from that point on, I would never put either butter or syrup on my waffles again.

I have stuck to that vow ever since.

Perhaps, my reaction came not only from my mother’s kindness but also from the wisdom of my ancestors, arguably an epigenetic transmission from the rabbis of the Zohar, who stroll through the Galilee, Jezreel and Jerusalem, among other places in the holy land, and comment on matters of life and the law.  

As Rabbi Simeon might say, “He who interrupts his study of the Torah to put butter and syrup on his waffles, it is as if he has committed a sin.”

The result is that to this day I never put butter or syrup on anything.  I never drink sugared beverages.  I never put mayonnaise on anything, except when I am making a tuna salad sandwich.  And the only reason I put mayonnaise in my tuna is because it obviously holds the salad together.

Some people might think that I don’t enjoy food, but I love to eat.  And part of what helps me enjoy my food is the knowledge that I am eating healthily.

So, during this crisis, I have consumed a good deal of tea with honey and orange juice, while I have eaten chicken soup nearly every day, as well as bagels or bread topped with different forms of protein, such as peanut butter, humus, tuna salad, and, yes, lox spread, which I bought at Jerrys Famous Deli.

I would have bought lox itself, but I forgot that cured fish actually holds up well in the refrigerator.

As for sleep, I have not done quite as well as I would like.  But that is mostly because I have at times been glued to the TV for hours.

As Arianna Huffington has pointed out, one of the good habits or Microsteps that we all should take is to escort our technological devices out of the room or turn them off after a particular hour of the evening.

That way, we can decompress, relax and prepare for sleep.

I often eat yogurt before I go to bed, because I have read that its cultures can have a soporific effect.  Lately, I have been eating frozen Greek yogurt pops on a stick.

During the coronavirus crisis, I have been following some other good habits or Microsteps that I started as a boy. 

Like the ancient rabbis in the holy land, I have been going for walks, albeit by the San Fernando, not the Jezreel, Valley.

Around the time that my mother gently advised me to put only one condiment on my waffles, I went for a walk one Sunday with my father.

At the age of nine, I had never walked more than a few miles at once, so I was not sure how I would fare when my father and I trekked down Whitney Avenue in Hamden, where we lived, and approached the waterfall at Lake Whitney, on the way to New Haven.

We were about two miles into our walk, and I remember wondering if my feet would get sore, but my dad told me that we would be fine.  And we kept walking another two miles or so, all the way to downtown New Haven, to the New Haven Public Library, roughly a four-mile walk from our house in the suburbs.

My dad and I treaded down the steps into the basement of the library, where both of us used the facilities.  

Then my dad and I left the library and walked right back home, another four miles or so.

As we were turning onto the last side street, before we got to our block, my father said to me something along the lines of “Let’s finish strong.”  He didn’t want me to look tired in front of the other kids in our neighborhood.

As it turned out, I was not tired at all.  I was jubilant, flush with endorphins; and later that day, I asked my father if we could go for another walk.

Although we had hiked eight miles earlier, my dad and I proceeded to march to the Country Club Pharmacy on Whitney Avenue, not far from the waterfall in Lake Whitney, and headed back, about a three-mile walk on top of our earlier eight-miler.

To this day, I love to walk.  

Still, I will never forget how, in 1997, I had trouble walking, one of many physiological manifestations of my severe depression, while I recuperated in Connecticut after my first psychotic break.

My mother, a strong walker, forced me to get out of the house and join her on these hikes.

I soon regained my stamina and coordination.

In the past month, I have gone for a walk approximately two out of every three days.  I only walk about three and one-half miles, before I jog up the hill.  It is not that long of a trek, but it is good for your immune system to aerate your lungs.

Going for walks and eating healthily all these years have no doubt helped me fight off illness, including the coronavirus.  

Years ago, from 2010 to 2012, my late wife, Barbara, had five or so cases of pneumonia.  My baby had another episode of pneumonia, her most severe one, in December 2018.

Barbara’s respiratory problems tended to be bacterial, not viral, but I almost wonder if her last case of pneumonia, after which she lost 25 % of her body weight, was a harbinger of the coronavirus that started to get publicized in December 2019.

During all of Barbara’s bouts of pneumonia and other procedures, I stayed with her in her hospital room.  The nurses would get me a pullout chair and some pillows and a blanket, and I would sleep in the room with Barbara, who passed away peacefully in September of last year.

Thankfully, not once did I get sick after staying with Barbara in the hospital.

I have to believe that I benefited from a strong immune system, boosted over the years from those good habits or Microsteps, as well as good genes.

I have a great appreciation for doctors, nurses and technicians who take care of patients, but it is also true that patients, if at all possible, need an advocate.

Or else they can perish.

That is what makes this coronavirus so particularly sinister; it prevents patients from having their loved ones with them.

Barbara told me not long before she passed away that I had probably kept her alive for many years.

Of course, as I have written before, Barbara saved my life, and she has given me reason to live.

In the past month, I have had a few headaches from a degree of exposure to some sick people, and I may have antibodies percolating in my bloodstream.

That is a good thing because it means that I have subdued a virus, corona or otherwise.

When I go on my walks, I make the experience more soulful by listening to Bob Dylan on my iPod.

It goes without saying that my life would not be possible, were it not for Barbara, my eternal angel.

I would very likely have perished in the late 1990s, at the time of my two psychotic breaks, were it not for my baby.

Barbara blessed me for 23 years with her love and wisdom, her imagination and light.

She introduced me to Dylan’s music and to the love of cats, among other delights.

Ferguson, the orange tabby cat, whom Barbara and I rescued last year, provides me with good company, while I work in our house.

He and I both get a decent amount of in-house exercise by walking or scampering from upstairs, where I do my reading and writing, to the kitchen downstairs.  That is where I prepare not only my food, but also Ferguson’s.

The truth is that Barbara, whose nickname was Barbara Bunny, prepared me for my life without her. 

The love she gave me is infinite and sublime, like the love of David and Bathsheba or Antony and Cleopatra.

Not everyone may have a god or goddess as his or her spouse or partner, but we can all benefit from showing gratitude for what we do have.

We are all lucky to be here in spite of the hideousness of the moment.

And I say this as someone who was so crippled psychically that I received a 20, an extremely low score, on the Global Assessment of Function (GAF) scale when I entered the UCLA psych ward in 1999.

It was Barbara, who nurtured me back to health.

She truly healed me, as I healed her.

It goes to show that mental illness, including schizophrenia, psychosis, depression and PTSD can be tamed with good habits, as well as medication, therapy, work, and, of course, love.

Let me conclude by returning to Lars von Trier’s movie, Melancholia.

In that film, the Earth and our species are in peril, when, as I noted earlier, a planet named Melancholia drifts through the sky and heads closer and closer to our own. 

Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, suffers from a depression as crippling as the one I battled for decades, a depression that ruins her wedding, ruins her relationships with just about everyone, and seems to ruin her life.

And yet as Melancholia, the newly discovered planet, targets the Earth, the brother-in-law of Dunst’s character, played by Kiefer Sutherland, a man of science and reason, loses all hope and commits suicide.

He takes his life, even though it is he, throughout the film, who has been so certain, so mathematically convinced, that the new planet will not strike our own.

This is not to say that science does not have value.  It obviously does, but so does humility.  And so does imagination.

Toward the end of the film, the widow of Sutherland’s character, Justine’s sister, can barely function and cannot come up with any creative ways for dealing with the impending doom.

Who will fight back for humanity?  Who can offer an imaginative approach to saving the souls of the living?  

Who else but Justine, Kirsten Dunst’s character!

Although Justine, the depressive, has been debilitated for two hours of screen time, she “comes up with the idea of hiding in a ‘magic cave,’ a wigwam of sorts, that she and her nephew, a child, construct for the three of them.  With humanity on the verge of extinction, she holds the hands of her nephew and sister as they close their eyes,” as I wrote in the HuffPost in 2011.

As I pointed out in that piece in what might be a fitting coda to this essay, “mental illness is often linked to imagination, and … a fertile imagination, arguably a form of psychosis, can be an evolutionary adaptation that aids us in surviving our darkest moments.”

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