Friday, August 18, 2006

Depression stole a friend last Friday. One of my favorite co-workers at Gartner, Bruce Caldwell, died after spending more than a year on disability. I first met Bruce a decade ago when he covered service and support for InformationWeek & I was handling marketing and market intelligence for Technology Service Solutions (TSS), an IBM-Kodak joint venture. Gartner hired him to focus on IT outsourcing right about the time that IBM Global Services folded in TSS. When I joined Gartner in 2000, focusing on infrastructure support services, Caldwell & I often found ourselves working together on specific projects. The grumpy demeanor of a skeptical journalist melted away to reveal a delightful, dour wit &, rare thing for Gartner, somebody who was as at least as good at the craft of prose as he was at technology. Bruce had been both a working journalist and a union activist, which meant that our world views were pretty much in step. The only part that I never fully got – my failing, not his – was his passion for sailing & the ocean, one reason he was no longer living in Indianapolis. Bruce may have been at least as amused about my own love of poetry, but he was one of only a couple of co-workers I had with whom I could discuss writing – poetry included – intelligently.

Depression is certainly no stranger to anyone involved in the world of poetry, and the disease has been a regular visitor to my family tree as well. My grandmother, who pretty much raised me, had a severe case of chronic depression that was never treated during her lifetime, beyond taking one cruise to Panama in the early 1950s “to get a rest.” I have at least two cousins on my mother’s side of the family, a half-brother who is self-medicating with alcohol & a son who are struggling with the disease in one form or another. Two friends, one of them a former roommate whose wife was the first person to turn me on to Russian Futurism, the other a sign language interpreter who has translated my writing into ASL, have jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge. And then there are all the poet-suicides, starting (for me at least) with Dan Davidson, but definitely including Lew Welch & Richard Brautigan. When the media says that one in however many Americans is currently suffering from a mental illness, depression is the largest single factor, hitting nearly 21 million Americans each year.

Depression is one of those diseases – schizophrenia & Tourette’s syndrome are two others – for which the symptoms are often perceived as social, rather than medical, by casual outsiders. The disease – or its symptoms – is an embarrassment. People are told to “pull it together,” “suck it up,” or “get over it.” But that only happens if you are very fortunate with your particular version of the condition & the combination of medications & treatment options. My own experience is that what works for person A almost never seems to be of much use to person B, which I interpret as signaling that what we now call one disease is, in fact, a broad range of different-but-similar conditions, each with their own etiologies. It’s like ADHD, so-called attention deficit disorder, something you can almost bet won’t be seen in 100 years the way it is today, but rather as a spectrum of many different things going on, or going wrong, in one’s system.

That misperception can, I think, be particularly toxic in the world of poetry. All too often we – by which I include myself, among others – tend to engage with somebody trying to pick some fight when what is driving their behavior has little or nothing to do with aesthetic judgments & differences. And we tend to excuse behavior – substance abuse in particular – when what is going on is amateur self-medication. Partly this has to do with how open the world of poetry is – a major psychosis need not stand in the way of success, if handled right (and how many other fields can you say that about?) – but partly we do it just because it’s easier to put it all back on the individual who is acting out. There is a certain morbid fascination to it all. At its worst, you see behavior like the “pool” George Starbuck once told me about, of folks around the Boston scene betting on when John Berryman would kill himself.

What I want to say is this. If you have a problem, please seek help. It can be a frustrating, trial-&-error process, but it beats not trying. If you have friends or family with a problem, help them to get help. If you see someone in the comments stream to this (or any) blog who is acting out for reasons that have little to do with the topic at hand, don’t just jump in & verbally or intellectually rip them to shreds. That’s not only too easy, it does no good whatsoever. Poetry isn’t about one-upsmanship, or it shouldn’t be.

End of rant.