Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 11, Number 2
By Michael Lockwood
I have depression. Not your down in the dumps one day type of thing, but a grip you by the throat for months at a time version.
Anyway, it was around 10 a.m., a bit over a year ago, when, as I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping. Well, a phone call actually. But Poe's poem, The Raven, is relevant here, as I will explain.
It was the rehab person from my work. A delightful person whose role in life is to help people on long term leave make their way back into the workforce, or off the payroll if return is not possible.
She does the usual, "Good morning. How are you feeling today, Michael?"
I mumble something about being wonderful, full of life, and avoid mentioning that at that point in time I was feeling about as functional as a zombie. She assures me that I sounded great, then chats to me about some correspondence with my GP… And then the killer line:
"Because if you return to work, we may need to offer you reduced hours, less travel..."
Notice the qualifier " if". It used to be "when". My guess is that she was completely unaware that she used if, and would probably be mortified if I pointed it out to her. She is, as I said above, a delightful person.
My initial reaction was inaction. That is one of the beauties of being depressed--I can go into my shell and turn off the world. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, me using 'auto-speak', interjecting "mmm", "that sounds fine" or "thank you very much" at the appropriate time. For about an hour after the phone call ended, I sat in my favorite chair and just let the weariness run its course. When I woke, the parallel between The Raven and the phone call came to me.
If you don't know The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, then the following is a really brief synopsis.
This guy, probably a student or academic, is nodding off to sleep late one evening when he hears a knock on his door--the "as I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping" reference above. Thinking it might be a late night visitor, he rouses himself to check out who is there. Looking around in the dark he can't see anyone, but a few verses later it turns out the visitor is a raven. The raven is not just any bird--this one can talk, although its vocabulary is limited to the one word "Nevermore." The guy has a discussion with the bird--what's your name, will you leave me like everyone else, will I meet up with my now dead lover Lenore... and so on. Of course the bird can only respond with one word, "Nevermore" and the guy becomes more and more agitated, imagining angels and demons.
Now it would not surprise you that anyone who has a late night discussion with a bird, particularly a bird that can only speak one word, probably has some serious mental health issues. By the poem's end, our protagonist is no longer sleepy, he has really lost it.
The poem concludes with the following:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming, And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted - nevermore!
Poor chap. His soul caught in the shadow of this demonic raven for all of eternity. The point of this tale is not a deconstruction of Poe's The Raven, but the phone call I got from my rehab consultant.
So back to the phone call.
Implicit in the phrase "if you return to work" is the answer to questions I had not asked the rehab consultant, but which worried me at the time. Will I get through this? Will I be able to get back to work? Like the raven, my friendly rehab person had unwittingly answered, "nevermore."
Where I think the poem's protagonist makes his big mistake is to have a debate with the raven. Let's be clear here. It is late at night, he is still working through some serious personal issues which include the death of the love of his life, Lenore, most of his friends have left him and the world is a serious downer.
This guy should be on some medication and getting counseling. Instead, he chats to the bird, and worse still, actually believes what it says.
Metaphorically, that morning a raven tapped unbidden upon my door and when I asked if I held a winning ticket in life, it answered, "Nevermore."
I take three things from this. Firstly, when you are feeling down and out the worst thing you can do is to have discussions with ravens, rehab people or anyone else with a pre-programmed response, particularly a negative one. If you must have the conversation, then don't make the mistake of thinking that they are angels or devils imbued with supernatural powers. You might be a bit unbalanced before the conversation, but you will be even worse by the end of it.
Secondly, the pre-programming that happens is not an accident of nature, but a social construction. Poe's raven apparently learnt to speak the word "nevermore" from some unhappy master. Where and how did my rehab consultant, and the countless others who hold people like me in various categories, learn their pre-programming? I think that people find it necessary to reduce complex realities, such as mental health, into manageable sized categories which comply with the broad rules of their professional or personal paradigm.
The third thing I take from this is that I now intend to check out the form guide quite regularly. If and when I see a horse called "Nevermore" I plan to bet $10 to win and $10 to place. I'd be a birdbrain if I didn't foresee a mystical omen in all of this.
Michael Lockwood is a sometimes consultant and writer and an ex senior public servant from Queensland, Australia. He was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder four years ago and has had to rebuild his life in light of his illness. Despite the depression, moments of joy and hope keep breaking out.