Thursday, 27 October 2011


I do hope Father B chimes in to tell us what he meant by "drifting" in the Seraphic Goes to Scotland "Knowing Young Nuns" post. It makes me think of skeletal wraiths in worn shrouds floating about the library downstairs. (Eeek!) Wraiths are a better image than zombies because although zombies are rather unthinking, they at least have a goal: "Braaains! Braaaains!"

To take a stab at what he might mean by drifting, I will say that I think he might mean a rather unthinking habit of following the path that grown-ups set for us, be they parents, teachers or taste-makers, while choosing those things that we think (for complicated reasons perhaps unknown even to ourselves) we think we should choose, and then coming to the huge foggy void that meets us when we finish education.

As much as we love Brideshead Revisited, I think we should be told that this is no model for the undergraduate life. Waugh almost ruined his life by behaving like Charles and Sebastian. It wasn't their fashionable homoeroticism (which in Brideshead Revisited is worded very, very carefully indeed) as much as their drunkenness, their snobbery, and their contempt for work in general.

Charles and Sebastian and Waugh himself were serious drifters. After Oxford, Waugh drifted into teaching little boys, whom he loathed, and longed for his fashionable friends and wrote. He almost drowned himself. Fortunately for him, he wrote a book about people who drift, and it was a huge hit. Realizing he could make money through writing, Waugh ceased to drift quite so much.

In this he was like Charles, who discovered he could make a living through painting, although poor Charles does drift in and out of marriage and from country to country and from love to love, doesn't he? Poor Sebastian drifts in and out of sobriety and finally applies to a religious order. They are very nice men, but they can't take him on because he really doesn't have much to offer by then, poor man.

I read Brideshead Revisited at 11 or so, and as its homoeroticism went way over my head, as Waugh meant it to do, it became my second Bible. I fell in love with Sebastian, of course, so thank goodness this was in Canada, or I might have ended up like the young Nancy Mitford: longing to marry a charming, handsome aristocrat who mysteriously was not at all attracted to women.

I fell in love also with Oxford, which made any Canadian university a sad second choice, with literature, which--as everything I studied was written before 1950--gave me an unhealthy distaste for ordinary employment, and with aesthetic thrills:

Then we talked of [the wine] and nibbled Bath Oliver biscuits, and passed on to another wine; then back to the first, and on to the other, until all three were in circulation and the order of glasses got confused, and we fell out over which was which, and we passed the glasses to and fro between us until there were six glasses, some of them with mixed wines in them which we had filled from the wrong bottle, til we were obliged to start again with three clean glasses each, and the bottles were empty and our praise of them wilder and more exotic...

...And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining-room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle on the rocks.

'Ought we to be drunk every night?' Sebastian asked one morning.

'Yes, I think so.'

'I think so too.'

The idea that young loves are replaced by higher, more progressive, loves also left its mark.

Waugh was uneasy about this book for the rest of his life, and well he should. He made the young Charles and Sebastian so enchanting that the young reader does not compute that Charles' youth leads him to an unhappy, lonely middle-age and that Sebastian ends up penniless, bald and drunk in some godforsaken African dump.

Hindsight is 20-20, and if I had not been such an ass when I was young--and I vaguely knew I was an ass, incidentally--I would have avoided anything hard-but-classy (like Ancient Greek, for which I simply was not clever enough) and worked my butt off for top grades, so as to go to law school. Alternatively, I could have gotten over my snobby attitude that only "dumb girls" studied French and Italian so as to become language teachers for the district school board. Their pension---aah! What was I thinking?!

I'll tell you what I was thinking--when I was thinking at all, that is, since most of the time I was feeling. I was thinking that I was just going to get a Ph.D. in English Lit on the strength of my delicious writing style, and that bestselling books would just come to me as I gazed from my mullioned office window into an elegant Victorian Gothic quadrangle. A much more important concern was whether I should marry or remain Single, entirely wedded to my Academic Career.

Meanwhile, I spent my five undergraduate years battling a kind of interior fog. It had crept in when I was a teenager, despite loving high school so much more than elementary. What I didn't know then, but certainly know now, is that I suffer from a tendency towards clinical depression.

Sitting about determined to be sad and snarky about everything is a moral failing, but clinical depression is a physical, as well as a psychic, illness. It can sometimes be managed by eating the right things and sometimes by medication. It can be worsened by all kinds of external things. It is a very interesting condition, as I can say at the moment, as I am between bouts. Of course, bouts are hellish.

If you have a terrible feeling that you are just drifting and are willing to do anything, including JUSTGETTINGMARRIED to get it over with, or JUSTSIGNINGTHEPAPER to get it over with, it might be that you have some kind of depression. And if you think you might have some kind of depression, it might be helpful to talk to a doctor or counsellor about it.

I am not a doctor, of course, but I do caution you against using the possibility of being "a depressive" to feed an addiction to DRAMA. I've met too many people hooked on the DRAMA of being on Zoloft, etc. It's not helpful. Really, my vulnerability to depression is just as banal as my youngest sister's vulnerability to bronchitis. The poor child never comes to the UK but she gets the most awful colds. And they go on forever.

Sadly, because I love them, you can't be on my kind of anti-depressants (SSRIs) if you are married and "open to life" because SSRIs scramble baby brains. However, I very much wish I had found out what the fog in my head was when I was 19 and gone straight onto lovely lovely What-Was-It or, actually, I suppose, since What-Was-It wasn't invented yet, its grandmother Prozac. [Update: On the other hand, I see that teenagers and adults under 24 aren't supposed to be on SSRIs, and that they don't work for milder forms of depression, which means most kinds of depression. Oh dear. Well, talk to a medical doctor, if you think you are depressed.]

And now I shall toddle off purposefully to the library to work on my paid article about James III/VIII and Family.


Jam said...

I am probably misusing this word, but it occurs to me that Christian life is meant to be teleological, on the large scale everything is meant to work toward gaining heaven. On the smaller and contemporary scale, dating ought to lead to marriage: a smaller involvement and commitment leading to the ultimate involvement and commitment. In contrast, for my secular peers, each relationship is on its own terms and while there is a progression (from hanging out to being together to living together to marriage) there's no actual moral weight there, just prudence and respectability, and of course every kind of relationship including marriage can and probably will be ended. It always struck me as odd in college how domestic the established couples were. Not only were they sexually active, but they ate all their meals together, they normally went to everything together, they even ran errands together, each one could casually offer the other one's help and no one thought anything of it. This sort of leveling out of "relationships" strikes me as a kind of drifting.

theobromophile said...

I would have avoided anything hard-but-classy (like Ancient Greek, for which I simply was not clever enough) and worked my butt off for top grades, so as to go to law school.

Ancient Greek is actually a great background for law school. :) American law schools - not sure about Canadian - love Classics majors. But I suspect that is beside the point.

Now, practising law in Canada is different from practising law in America, but I will be more than happy to help anyone erase regrets about not going (especially if they would have had to pay American university prices for it!).

For Catholics, especially Catholic women who simply adore babies and feel called towards Marriage, American law school is probably one of the worst choices you can make, unless your parents are very generous and pay for it all. The debt makes it difficult to have children at all, let alone to stay at home with a great big brood of happy Catholic kids who eat dinner every night with Mommy and Daddy. (Yes, you can go to law school and marry a lawyer, but then it just means that he will work 80 hours a week.)

Incidentally, a lot of people flee to law school - at least in America - because they feel themselves unsuited to ordinary careers but can only get an ordinary career with their undergraduate degree. "Post-graduate baby sitter" is what I heard one lawyer refer to the view that many law students take towards law school. It's sad and it leads to a lot of sad lawyers.

That would be my rant of the day. :) (While I do love a lot of what I do, I sometimes wonder about having done it differently - working during the day and going at night, perhaps - so as to have more freedom.)

Sheila said...

I hear cognitive therapy is great for people with mild, recurring depression. This is what my husband has, poor guy. There's a book called "Feeling Good" which teaches cognitive techniques you can use on yourself to help nip a depression cycle in the bud. He says it's been helpful.

Not having depression myself (though, like many people, I suffered from it as a teenager and didn't know it), I'm not exactly an expert, but that's what I would recommend for young people who aren't good candidates for drugs -- that book, Feeling Good, and a good cognitive therapist.

Depression SUCKS, but it is treatable. Just because you feel aimless and miserable in life doesn't mean you'll always feel that way.

Anna said...

Thanks for this honest post, Auntie. Prayers for you!

theobromophile said...

It can sometimes be managed by eating the right things and sometimes by medication.

I'm not a doctor, but maybe Med School Girl can chime in: hypoglycemia can and does cause depression. Severe depression. Frightening, want-to-off-yourself mental fogs. (J.K. Rowling's descriptions of how one feels around dementors is the best way to describe it - like you'll never be happy again, and all you can think of is the worst things to have ever happened to you.)

While it not the only cause of depression, it's a very easily controlled one.

Med School Girl said...

I know that if I haven't eaten for a while and my blood sugars are low, I feel pretty crappy. I would assume, then, that having chronic hypoglycemia could cause a person to have a low mood.
I have to admit that I have yet to meet a patient being treated in-hospital for depression who has chronic hypoglycemia, period, let alone it being the primary cause for their clinical depression.
Bear in mind that I am really a "baby doctor" and am early on in my training.
Mostly, we treat clinical depression by correcting for abnormalities in neurotransmitters, mainly serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
One reason why I do not want to be a psychiatrist is because the role of the psychiatrist (at least in Canada) has shifted away from psychotherapy and more towards managing medications.
Pharmacotherapy has its role, and should not be discounted. However, other really interesting therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (as Sheila rightly mentioned) are often conducted by psychologists and not psychiatrists.

Seraphic said...

Thanks for prayers, Anna, but actually I am fine at the moment. Haven't had a big bad episode for a very long time!

Now let me see...

Jam: I know. And so often they get sooooo bored with each other.

Theobromophile: Canadian universities and law schools (and law) are so different from American, I don't know where to start. I guess I would say that when I was 20, going to law school was not expensive. The best Canadian law schools (at least until recently) were nowhere NEAR as expensive as American. Going to law school in Canada is a good way to prepare for all kinds of careers. I know a young Canadian lawyer who works part-time, supporting his wife and child with ease.

Sheila: yep, I've read that cognitive therapy is the way to go for mild depression. Good books sounds even better because, ueeeeegugh, I got so sick of cognitive therapy. Besides, my shrink ran off with a priest. The horror!

Med School Girl: But I love medication! Woo woo! Well, actually, they were expensive. But they worked for me, which was the main thing.

Jim said...

As a lawyer, I can tell you that you are probably fortunate that you did not go to law school and become a lawyer. Many lawyers, at least in the United States, are unhappy or depressed, largely because of the stress and long hours, and for many lawyers these days, compensation that seriously lags the amount of time they have to put into the job. Plus, it is very difficult to balance being a lawyer and having a family.

I survive being a lawyer largely because I am very involved in my church. My church has kept me sane, in many ways, and keeps on reminding me that the proper balance in life is to put God first, your family a close second, and your career as a lawyer third.

Anonymous said...


Even if you are not prone to depression, living in the northern latitudes with the days becoming shorter as we approach winter solstice is depressing.

Half the people I know up here (including me) have "SAD lights". It is a very high intensity light box to which you expose yourself in the morning. Also, for an alarm clock, you can buy a thingy that starts becoming light an hour before you wish to awaken, and is very bright by wake-up time. It also has a backup audio alarm. Might be called a "dawn simulator" - a friend gave me mine.

You don't have to sit there and stare at your light, just sit in front of it for maybe 20 or 30 minutes while you drink your morning coffee and/or read the news. They really do work and no drugs involved. Not sure how far north you are but we are rapidly losing daylight here and I think you are at about the same latitude.

Please try one?

Isabella of the north

Seraphic Spouse said...

That sounds very interesting! I wouldn't mind trying one, but I don't have SAD--at least, I don't get it anymore. I think I may have got it as an undergrad.

I have a tendency towards clinical depression--I don't HAVE it at the moment! As I said, it's like my sister's bronchitis. My sister doesn't have it all the time, thank goodness. And I have a reasonably good idea of how not to weaken my resistance to depression. One of them is never allowing myself to be bullied by heterodox theologians or priests. (That may sound funny, but it's a fact! ) For all I know, I will never get a major episode again, and that would be great. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

Anna said...

Oh yes, didn't mean to imply that you were depressed now. Just that I appreciate you talking about it.

FrB said...

Sorry Seraphic, I was rushed off my feet yesterday & didn't have a chance to explain what I meant by drifting...

I think you pretty much nail it when you talk about the "rather unthinking habit of following the path that grown-ups set for us..." However, in addition to the agenda that 'grown-ups' set, is rather toxic agenda set by young people's peers.

(Also, Jam says a lot of stuff I agree with wholeheartedly.)

In short, I get the impression that many people don't even bother to consider the opportunities that life has to offer them. If we are Christian, we know that God is calling us to eternal life by means of the vocation He gives us in this life. Sometimes that vocation has a form that seems extraordinary to most people - the life of an enclosed religious, for example. For most people (by definition) it's the more ordinary/normal path of marriage and family life.

One of the things that struck me about the twitter commentary was the number of people claiming that they couldn't understand a young woman becoming a nun. I was struck by the fact that they weren't so much saying that the religious life was something that they wouldn't choose for themselves, but rather that they were saying that they couldn't even IMAGINE it being attractive to anyone. It made me think that they had rather impoverished imaginations and that they'd never even considered doing something radical with their lives.
The monastic life is not my vocation. However, I have enough sympathy and imagination to understand its attractions.
Likewise, I think I have enough sympathy and imagination to understand someone totally rejecting religion altogether and becoming a libertine. I can understand someone choosing to become a committed Muslim or an Orthodox Jew, although those lifestyles aren't remotely attractive to me.
In other words, the idea of a radical life choice is something which resonates with me. Furthermore, even though the normal/ordinary vocation of marriage and family life is common, it is also a radical life choice if entered into seriously and with consideration.

In short, I believe that the Christian tradition calls us to live an 'examined life' wherein we believe that how we spend our life is a serious matter. I get the impression that so many people do so many things without this serious approach. They go to university because everyone else is going. They date because everyone dates. They have the experience of falling in love and then find themselves having to decide about 'moving in together' or 'marrying'. Now, I'm pretty sure that they realise that this is a big decision, but if life up to then is all about going with the flow, then how prepared are they to make the big decision they have drifted in to?

Now, this does not mean that one should constantly be agonising about "my vocation" and worrying about why God hasn't told me what to do yet. However, it is about cultivating the sense that one's life and how one lives it is terribly important, and living in such a way that one's decisions reflect the unique importance of one's life before God.

healthily sanguine said...

Gosh, who does NOT get depressed nowadays? It seems to be the disease of our times. Of course, clinical depression is another level . . . coincidentally, Allie at Hyperbole and a Half did a brilliant post about depression recently (poor thing):

Anonymous said...

Under 24? I thought it was under 18?

I was first prescribed SSRIs aged 19. I've known people who've been prescribed them as young as FOURTEEN in the UK, and I've heard of children as young as SIX being prescribed them in America. The last time I checked the NICE guidelines said that teenagers under 18 could be prescribed fluoxetine but no other anti-depressants, but that after age 18 any anti-depressants are ok.