Saturday, October 21, 2006

Man's Search for Meaning

I've just read a book that I'd often heard about but had never actually read, Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist. I read most of the book yesterday which happened to be a VERY bad day for me. Deep depression. Overwhelming stomach sickness. Headache from hell. Feelings of severe desperation.

In a nutshell, the two main points that helped me in this book are: 1) Unlike Freud, who said we live by the pleasure principle and, unlike Adler, who advocated that man's desire is for power, I agree with Frankl who said what we truly desire (and need, is probably more to the point) is meaning in our lives. 2) There is meaning in suffering. Indeed, there is always the potential for meaning.

This is a man who came out of the camps not just alive but with compassion and humanity. I have deep respect for him and found the book inspiring as well as an interesting starting point for thinking about my own situation. One place where I couldn't get with Frankl is his contention that having something bigger than ourselves helps us to find meaning in suffering. I.e. let's use my case: I am growing a baby, I have a beloved daughter. These two facts defiinitely give me reason to live. I am not suicidal. These two facts, however, don't prevent me from feelings of desperation and depression.

I would call what he calls self-transcendence, lightening up. And, though, I feel a deep sense of meaning from being my daughter's mother and from having the privilege to be creating another beautiful being, that meaningful feeling is not lightening my load of suffering (or gunk).

I fully understand that hormones play havoc with my emotions. My current state of emotional pain is much exacerbated by the strange hormonal doings of my body, not to mention the physical illness.

And yesterday, I was really really losing it. Not, again, in the sense of being suicidal but by feeling completely desperate. But I also believe (without certainty) that those emotions don't just come from nowhere, they're part of my packet of gunk.

In my terrible state yesterday, I was arguing with myself about going on antidepressants. I can't judge people who take them. I took Paxil during a very bad depression 7 or 8 years ago. It helped me start functioning when I couldn't function. But I also felt very weird while I was on the drug and weaned myself off. I am in no way certain about my belief about anti-depressants, which is that the argument the doctors give you is too simplistic. They always say if you were diabetic you would take insulin; if you're low on name-the-brain-chemical you need your name-the-depression-drug. I am also in no way certain that another of my beliefs about depression is true, namely that depression is a real state of emotion meant to be felt, respected and moved through, not dulled. My other not so certain belief is that anti-depressants are just a less destructive form of pain-duller/-avoider like alcohol or pot or stronger drugs. Part of my uncertain belief is that anti-depressants just slow down the whole growing up, waking up process.

I'm much more certain that taking them while pregnant would be difficult for the baby. At the same time, I understand why so many people do take them. They feel better. And I may yet decide I need to go on them because I understand that continuing to lose it won't help me, my daughter or my baby (not to mention my long-suffering husband). My naturopath wants me to take St. John's Wort (an herbal anti-depressant) but I'm even resisting that. What I read indicates there is little information about its effects on babies. I can't decide if I'm just idiotically stubborn or on the right path and I realize I need to dig up some books about sitting in depression because, at present, I feel pretty alone on this road.

So back to Viktor Frankl. His contention that meaning may be found in and through suffering has helped me. As did this passage when he quotes a fellow psychiatrist: " 'In the present-day culture of the United States, ... the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading' so that 'he is not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy.' " I realize that shame describes me.

Frankl wrote before the onset of near-universal anti-depressant use. I wonder what he would have made of the trend. Again, I question myself, am I being a stubborn masochist or am I being sensible?
And how am I finding meaning in my suffering beyond Claire and my growing baby? I realize I am actually a decent person. I know I am a good mother. I'm honest. Though I have feelings of anger and irritability towards people in my life, I don't act on them. (Or mostly, you'd probably better ask Dave). I'm a good teacher. I care about my students. And I'm a champion of sitting in gunk (again, whether this is doing me or anyone else any good is an open question). Still, it's a form of bravery, nothing to be ashamed of.

Viktor Frankl and I diverge on the idea of self-transcendence. I will not be able to find true meaning until I am able to live for myself. Just having the questions and enduring the struggles is the best I can do in that direction right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment