Lights on a Ground of Darkness: An Evocation of a Place and Time

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How did she get there? I had to understand them, first. The book became not about her, but about how her coming into the world caused a collision between four very different adults. The original scene was abandoned; the questions it had spawned were carried forward.

Exploring these adult lives also allowed me to explore themes that have interested me for decades: the rigid and mostly unspoken codes of certain class cultures; how the drive for conformity and acceptance limits a life; the secrets people try to keep about who they are and what they want; differing views of our connection to and uses of nature; the challenge and limitations of loving a difficult but compelling person, especially when they are lost or bent on self-destruction.

In addition, the totally unique setting of the Adirondack Park offered a formidable and fertile ground for these human struggles. Many of the people who live there year round are dependent for their livelihoods on the tourists and second-homeowners they both need and resent.

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The out-of-staters want both the wild landscape that brought them there and the comforts and conveniences they feel entitled to. The various commercial interests, from prisons and water parks to logging and development, offer much-needed jobs, but at some environmental cost.

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All of this gets regulated and controlled by the Adirondack Park Authority, which is in turn governed by politicians, most of whom have never set foot on a single muddy path or slapped at a mosquito inside the Park. Their individual histories, as is the case with all of us, are intertwined with the larger histories of the place, time and environment where they live.

Darkness Visible

Their own self-awareness, personal agency and individual integrity — or lack of these qualities — is what distinguish and separate them from one another. Ultimately though, this book is a love story. It was not really alarming at first, since the change was subtle, but I did notice that my surroundings took on a different tone at certain times: the shadows of nightfall seemed more somber, my mornings were less buoyant, walks in the woods became less zestful, and there was a moment during my working hours in the late afternoon when a kind of panic and anxiety overtook me, just for a few minutes, accompanied by a visceral queasiness—such a seizure was at least slightly alarming, after all.

As I set down these recollections, I realize that it should have been plain to me that I was already in the grip of the beginning of a mood disorder, but I was ignorant of such a condition at that time. When I reflected on this curious alteration of my consciouness—and I was baffled enough from time to time to do so—I assumed that it all had to do somehow with my enforced withdrawal from alcohol.

And, of course, to a certain extent this was true. But it is my conviction now that alcohol played a perverse trick on me when we said farewell to each other: although, as everyone should know, it is a major depressant, it had never truly depressed me during my drinking career, acting instead as a shield against anxiety.

Suddenly vanished, the great ally which for so long had kept my demons at bay was no longer there to prevent those demons from beginning to swarm through the subconscious, and I was emotionally naked, vulnerable as I had never been before. Doubtless, depression had hovered near me for years, waiting to swoop down. I felt a kind of numbness, an enervation, but more particularly an odd fragility—as if my body had actually become frail, hypersensitive, and somehow disjointed and clumsy, lacking normal coordination.

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And soon I was in the throes of a pervasive hypochondria. Nothing felt quite right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often seemingly constant, that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities. In my case, the overall effect was immensely disturbing, augmenting the anxiety that was by now never quite absent from my waking hours and fueling still another strange behavior pattern—a fidgety restlessness that kept me on the move, somewhat to the perplexity of my family and friends.

Once, in late summer, on an airplane trip to New York, I made the reckless mistake of downing a scotch and soda—my first alcohol in months—which promptly sent me into a tailspin, causing me such a horrified sense of disease and interior doom that the very next day I rushed to a Manhattan internist, who inaugurated a long series of tests. Normally, I would have been satisfied, indeed elated, when, after three weeks of high-tech and extremely expensive evaluation, the doctor pronounced me totally fit; and I was happy, for a day or two, until there once again began the rhythmic daily erosion of my mood—anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread.

By now I had moved back to my house in Connecticut. It was October, and one of the unforgettable features of this stage of my disorder was the way in which my old farmhouse, my beloved home for thirty years, took on for me—especially in the late afternoon, when my spirits regularly sank to their nadir—an almost palpable quality of ominousness.

Physically, I was not alone. My wife, Rose, was always present and listened with unflagging patience to my complaints. But I felt an immense and aching solitude. I could no longer concentrate during those afternoon hours, which for years had been my working time, and the act of writing itself, becoming more and more difficult and exhausting, stalled, then finally ceased. There were also dreadful, pouncing seizures of anxiety. One bright day on a walk through the woods with my dog I heard a flock of canada geese honking high above trees ablaze with foliage; ordinarily a sight and sound that would have exhilarated me, the flight of birds caused me to stop, riveted with fear, and I stood stranded there, helpless, shivering, aware for the first time that I had been stricken by no mere pangs of withdrawal but by a serious illness whose name and actuality I was able, for the first time, to acknowledge.

Our perhaps understandable modern need to dull the sawtooth edges of so many of the afflictions we are heir to has led us to banish the harsh old-fashioned words: madhouse, asylum, insanity, melancholia, lunatic, madness. But never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness.

The madness results from an aberrant biochemical process. It has been established with reasonable certainty after strong resistance from many psychiatrists, and not all that long ago that such madness is chemically induced amid the neurotransmitters of the brain, probably as the result of systemic stress, which for unknown reasons causes a depletion of the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin, and the increase of a hormone, cortisol. With all of this upheaval in the brain tissues, the alternate drenching and deprivation, it is no wonder that the mind begins to feel aggrieved, stricken, and the muddied thought processes register the distress of an organ in convulsion.

Sometimes, though not very often, such a disturbed mind will turn to violent thoughts regarding others.


But with their minds turned agonizingly inward, people with depression are usually dangerous only to themselves. The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk.

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Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained. That fall, as the disorder gradually took full possession of my system, I began to conceive that my mind itself was like one of those outmoded small-town telephone exchanges, being gradually inundated by floodwaters: one by one, the normal circuits began to drown, causing some of the functions of the body and nearly all of those of instinct and intellect to slowly disconnect.

There is a well-known checklist of some of these functions and their failures. Mine conked out fairly close to schedule, many of them following the pattern of depressive seizures. I particularly remember the lamentable near disappearance of my voice. It underwent a strange transformation, becoming at times quite faint, wheezy, and spasmodic—a friend observed later that it was the voice of a ninety-year-old.

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The libido also made an early exit, as it does in most major illnesses—it is the superfluous need of a body in beleaguered emergency. Many people lose all appetite; mine was relatively normal, but I found myself eating only for subsistence: food, like everything else within the scope of sensation, was utterly without savor. Most distressing of all the instinctual disruptions was that of sleep, along with a complete absence of dreams. Exhaustion combined with sleeplessness is a rare torture.

The two or three hours of sleep I was able to get at night were always at the behest of the minor tranquilizer Halcion—a matter which deserves particular notice. For some time now many experts in psychopharmacology have warned that the benzodiazepine family of tranquilizers, of which Halcion is one Valium and Ativan are others , is capable of depressing mood and even precipitating a major depression.

Over two years before my siege, an insouciant doctor had prescribed Avitan as a bedtime aid, telling me airily that I could take it as casually as aspirin. At the time of which I am speaking, I had become addicted to Halcion as a sleeping aid, and was consuming large doses. It seems reasonable to think that this was still another contributory factor to the trouble that had come upon me. Certainly, it should be a caution to others. At any rate, my few hours of sleep were usually terminated at three or four in the morning, when I stared up into yawning darkness, wondering and writhing at the devastation taking place in my mind, and awaiting the dawn, which usually permitted me a feverish, dreamless nap.

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room.

And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion. One of the memorable moments in Madame Bovary is the scene where the heroine seeks help from the village priest.

But the priest, a simple soul and none too bright, can only pluck at his stained cassock, distractedly shout at his acolytes, and offer Christian platitudes. Emma goes on her quietly frantic way, beyond comfort of God or man. I felt a bit like Emma Bovary in my relationship with the psychiatrist I shall call Dr.

Lights on a Ground of Darkness: An Evocation of a Place and Time by Ted Kooser

Gold, whom I began to visit as October became November, when the despair had commenced its merciless daily drumming. I had never before consulted a mental therapist for anything, and I felt awkward, also a bit defensive; my pain had become so intense that I considered it quite improbable that conversation with another mortal, even one with professional expertise in mood disorders, could alleviate the distress. Madame Bovary went to the priest with the same hesitant doubt.