Alexander Orlowski, Head of an Old Man in a Fur Hat, 1815.
For something that inhibits creativity, depression inspires a lot of metaphors. You can read about it likened to a vine-covered house or a black dog or a dreary balloon, or see it portrayed as a lowering cloud. Maybe because it’s a state so characterized by its lacks—of joy, of fun, of perspective, of energy, of hope, of self-love, of memory—people are eager to imbue it with substance.
When it hit me—in the abrupt way it does when you’ve forgotten to take your meds—I was on the subway. It was like being deluged by a tidal wave—no, make that a wave of slush from a passing taxi. The drear was powerful and immediately exhausting. I told myself it would pass. We all have our tricks. When things aren’t too bad, I can sometimes get myself to the dog run. The best thing to do is to help someone else, although this is easier to say when you’re not in the grip of it. When the prospect of dressing or bathing seems beyond contemplation, when keeping yourself from others seems like one of the few good things you can manage, the energy required in engaging with others is daunting.
This day, I wasn’t so far gone as all that. I knew the thing to do was to take my mind off my troubles. I decided on something I’d been thinking of for a while: to go to the senior center and ask them to pair me with someone to visit regularly. I’d used to visit a woman, but a while ago she’d moved, or been moved, to a nursing home out of state, and since then I’d let it slide. There are a lot of elderly people in my neighborhood, and during the winter people can feel particularly isolated. Maybe I could hang out there and talk to people—anyway, it was a good thing to do. It’s always good to remember the elderly.
When you’re not yourself, it can be important to remember what you’re like when happy, to try to conjure the things that would normally bring you delight or pleasure. So when I passed the supermarket, I had the thought of stopping to get myself a package of Entenmann’s hot cross buns. I wasn’t hungry now, but normally I look forward to the annual appearance of these shelf-stabilized pastries the way some seasonal epicures anticipate the running of the shad.
While I was on line to pay, an old man came in and made a beeline for the single cashier. “I forgot my muffins!” he explained. And then, well, he sort of light-switched. All of a sudden he was furious. “YOU DID IT AGAIN!” he screamed. “YOU STUPID MORON! YOU PUT MY MUFFINS IN A SEPARATE BAG AND I FORGOT THEM!”
The three of us on line were shocked. The teenage cashier didn’t look up. She continued to scan another customer’s groceries.
“Don’t talk to her that way!” I said when the initial stupefaction had worn off. But he was too far gone in rage to notice me.
“YOU DO IT ON PURPOSE!” he was screaming now. “YOU DO IT OVER AND OVER AGAIN AND YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? IT’S ELDER ABUSE! AND I’M GOING TO SUE YOU! I’M GOING TO SUE YOU FOR ELDER ABUSE!”
He was really worked up now, face red, veins throbbing.
“The only one being abusive here is you!” I said. “Please leave!”
Once again he ignored me.
“ELDER ABUSE!” he was screaming over and over.
He moved forward menacingly and the man ahead of me leaned away.
“THAT’S ELDER ABUSE, TOO!” he shouted. “YOU JUST ASSAULTED A SENIOR! I’M GOING TO SUE YOU!”
“Sir, please get ahold of yourself,” I said severely. I didn’t know why no one else was saying anything; presumably because he was either senile or deranged. Or because he was paying no attention. He left, glaring at us all the way up the escalator. I made a point of shaking my head at him. I was more than a little disappointed to have been acquitted of elder abuse.
“I’m sorry he spoke to you that way,” I said to the checkout girl when it was my turn. She smiled faintly. “I don’t take it personally,” she said.
I have to say, after that I felt just fine.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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