Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Minding the soft animal

Mary Oliver said, "poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry." Her book, Dream Work, got me through some difficult times in the past, and, though I don't read it a lot these days, I know many of its poems by heart, and sometimes bits of it come back in strange ways.

The other day, not quite three weeks after stopping drinking this time around, I was feeling pretty darn low. After I had spent far too much time staring alternately at the wall and the computer, in the kind of low spell that overtakes many of us otherwise sane people, I googled "depression after quitting drinking." (Well, who doesn't do that sort of thing? How else did you find the sober blogs, anyway?) On the first google page, I came across a study that showed, "In mice that voluntarily drank alcohol for 28 days, depression-like behavior was evident 14 days after termination of alcohol drinking. This suggests that people who stop drinking may experience negative mood states days or weeks after the alcohol has cleared their systems." To determine how depressed the mice were, the scientists needed a measure, because we know how much scientists love numbers. The mice were put in a beaker of water and given a chance to swim, something mice usually appear to love doing. Researchers found that "the amount of time they spend immobile (floating and not swimming) is measured as an index of despair or depression-like behavior. The more time a mouse spends immobile, the more 'depressed' it is thought to be." An index of mouse despair. Who are these people, who can look at those sad mice and tot up their morose moments of immobility?

I have to say, I felt quite akin with those sad mice, floating listlessly, all that booze taken away and no joy to be found even in swimming. I cried a little bit, for me and for them, and then I really had to give myself a shake. Because I know from my psychology studies, there are a lot of questions about how mouse studies relate to people. Yes, some of the brain parts and how they work have similarities. But lab mice live in impoverished environments, and they have very few options when it comes to changing their lot in life. The study is interpreted as evidence that quitting moderate drinking can lead to mental health problems, but of course that's a reductionist reading of a complex situation. Anyway, I have more options than those sad mice, so I pulled on my boots and went for a walk.

This week, when I have't been staring at walls, I have been researching motivation, which I know is ironic when mine is at a severe ebb. The thesis I'm writing critiques one particular theory of motivation, and I'm putting together some ideas from current philosophy and neuroscience in order to at least sketch an alternative. Jaak Panksepp, an animal researcher, has some interesting theories about emotion and motivation, based on his work with animals and the similarities among animal and human brain systems. His work accounts for the role of culture and interpretation in humans, so don't worry, he's not reducing us all to measures of mouse despair. (If you want to see some really lovely evidence that animals and people are surprisingly alike, watch this very short clip, in which Panksepp records the sounds of rats laughing!) Panksepp does say that our pleasure and pain systems are evolutionarily ancient, and in our day to day lives, we don't (can't?) understand how our motivation is tied to this less than conscious part of ourselves. But it is.

Reading Panksepp's work on the deep mammalian brain and emotion, I was reminded of some lines from Mary Oliver's poem, Wild Geese:

      "You only have to let the soft animal of your body
      love what it loves.
      Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine."

And I wondered, what am I doing about that? Do I need to reconnect with that soft animal in order to want anything at all? For me, not wanting anything--maybe like those immobile mice-- is the hallmark of depression, and I know I need to gently find my way back to real wanting if I am going to be well. I thought about the border collie I took care of for a few years, and figured I could do what animals like doing, and see how that went. When I did, it worked. I slept, and ate good food, and spent time with my partner, and I walked and walked and walked. (I didn't bark or chase sticks, so one up for keeping my sanity in check somewhat.) The walking has been more restorative than I can explain. Every day, I walk around to the local park for an hour or more. As soon as I get there, my breathing changes. A few deep breaths of that damp, earthy air and I start to relax. There are lots of paths and hills, and a couple of flower gardens that are mostly dormant now, waiting for the spring. I find these comforting. One of my favourite places is a little falls, about 15 feet high. Every day this week, I've stood next to it and, for a few minutes, just looked and listened. Here's a picture I took of it yesterday, when the last bit of daylight was catching the water and the mossy hill alongside.

I don't take great pictures, but it's just a reminder I can keep on my phone for when I can't get to that falls but need to recapture that feeling. Breathe. Look and listen. I think Mary Oliver's insights are being borne out by contemporary neuroscience. I used to take a lot of time for that sort of thing--I was all about nature walks and poetry--but the past few years, I have been very busy, and I'm a little burnt. If I am going to figure out how to live without numbing off the parts I don't want to feel--and that's becoming a lot of parts--I need to pay attention to the soft animal, see what it loves, and rest in that. I think it's working, at least a little bit. I'm nowhere near getting done the things I have to do, but I'm finding how to be at home in the world, which is kind of the bare minimum if I'm going to do anything else.

It's been grey out all day, but the sun had just cracked through and I can even see patches of blue up there. It's already mid-afternoon. I'm going to head out and walk while it's still light. I'll take care of the soft animal that is me, and see how it all works out.

If you're still reading, many thanks. I hope you have some giggling rats moments today! Peace and joy.


  1. I tried to comment on this yesterday but lost the comment during posting.. trying again!

    Oh, those poor mice. Poor us, floating listlessly indeed. I am having a swimming day today and am so grateful for that.

    The days when nothing means anything are hard. I had a run of them before Christmas and they were so difficult for me (and for my family I am sure). I remember sitting at the table during a meal and just wishing I could evaporate. I was only there in the flesh, not in the spirit. Perhaps by tending to the flesh, as you say, by giving it food, sleep, and exercise, we can recreate that bridge back to the spirit?

    I know some Mary Oliver poems but have never had any of her books. I am off to Amazon now to order Dream Work as my treat for today, so thank you for that inspiration!

    PS watched the giggling rats with my cat on my knee, who was highly entertained!

    1. Thanks, Primrose. It really is awful to feel that way, and I'm glad yours lifted. Mine's on its way, and I think just taking care--and taking time out to do that--has really helped.

      If you don't find Dream Work--it's an older book--I think a lot of the poems are in a Collected volume, and also in a New and Selected that came out at one point. I do hope you enjoy. She's such a fine writer, and you certainly deserve that treat!

      Sorry about the comment problem. I think Blogger is like that some times, but I don't know what I can do to fix it.

      Glad you and kitty liked those giggling rats, too. I should have linked that on your post, what to do when you feel low. It's on my list now, anyway. Hope you have another swimming day!

  2. Discovering my ebbs and flows has been one of the greatest things and greatest challenges of being sober. My comfort comes from knowing that I may be low, but I'm not down. I actually have come to appreciate the sort of hopeless parts. They let me know I need to slow up and tend to things. They make the joy that much sweeter. They make me feel so.....human. Real.

    Oh, what a lovely waterfall. Walks are the cure all for all that ails. Glad you're doing ok. :)

    1. It is lovely, isn't it? The other day I was standing there and a mom came by with her two small children. One started chattering but she shushed them, and they all three stood with me for a moment and just watched the water falling. What a special moment. (And I was wrong about the height--I think it's more like 30 feet, I'm just bad at estimating measures.)

      Walking really does cure everything. And I agree that even the lows have a point to make if you listen. This week I did really realize that I have been trying to do way too much, and I can't do it. I simply need more time walking and sleeping and doing what looks like nothing. So I'm feeling a lot better. Thanks for your wise words. And for caring. xo