“Here be dragons” once was the designation given on ancient charts and maps for unexplored areas of the globe, but what do we call those areas of our human condition that have never been explored, such as our understanding of our own mortality and how we deal with that surety? Coming to terms with one’s own demise can be both terrifying and freeing, either way it is certainly life changing, as any cancer survivor can tell you. I have more to say on this subject but will need to think about just how much I’m willing to share about my personal travels through terra incognita.
I’ve suffered with bouts of depression most of my life. My earliest memories have not always been the happy, carefree thoughts that should accompany childhood, teens, and young adulthood. For me, I remember being fearful most of the time, sometimes the things I feared were substantive, real, but most of the time they were not, born out of imagined nameless terrors. Diaphanous fears plagued me; like fear of the unknown, a harmless group of older kids standing on the corner, and an irrational fear that my parents were going to leave me alone in the middle of the night. My fear of being left behind was so pervasive that I would force myself to remain awake and vigilant, watching their adjacent bedroom door at night just to make sure that they didn’t sneak out surreptitiously during the long dark night. I literally learned to fall asleep with one eye opened and of course I could never speak of these wakeful nights.
Fear of living, fear of being a failure, and my all time favorite, fear of success were the companions with whom I grew up. It cost me my first love, it cost me my marriage many years later, because looking back I now realize that my wife and the mother of my children, mistook my melancholy for disaffection and grew weary of my sullenness, eventually ending our union by seeking a divorce. I was never diagnosed with anything useful, even though I spent much of my twenties and thirties in and out of therapy. I drank heavily to mask the fear and relieve the depression. I consumed copious amounts of beer, wine, and that quintessential cocktail, the Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred; of course the alcohol only led to other problems; it is a wonder I never became an alcoholic.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H.P. Lovecraft
According to James Jones, the author of “From Here to Eternity”, the soldier must think of himself as “essentially a dead man” so he can “function as he ought to function under fire.”
When he explained it in WWII, he wrote: “I think that when all the nationalistic or ideological propaganda and patriotic slogans are put aside, all the straining to convince a soldier that he is dying FOR something, it is the individual soldier’s final full acceptance of the fact that his name is already written down in the rolls of the already dead. Only then can he function as he ought to function, under fire.”
In my late fifties the ubiquitous bouts of depression combined with other symptoms that finally indicated to the nurse therapist, who was counseling me at the time, that perhaps the issue was organic, neurological in nature and not a psychological problem at all as, yup, I’d always feared. I was referred, for the first time, to a Neurologist at Emerson Hospital, who, with the aid of a CT scan, diagnosed me with Colloid Cysts blocking the third ventricle causing a hydrocephalic condition (fluid buildup) placing pressure on my brain. He recommended surgery to correct the condition that I’d been born with and the rest is history. This surgery and the subsequent long recovery afterward were enhanced by the Thyroidectomy I underwent a year later for papillary Thyroid cancer to affectively cure me.
So what does this have to do with terra incognita, ‘here be dragons’, or tales from the battlefield, you ask? The depression, though it has abated significantly has never fully left and the unnamed fears still return from time to time, just to say ‘Hi’ but I’ve found a new way to cope; I simply accept the fact that I’m already dead, just like James Jones’ combat soldiers. It is eminently effective and on those rare occasions when assuming my demise fails to banish these annoying specters, I merely stop taking my thyroid replacement medication for a day or two, just to speed things along a bit and that usually does the trick. So when I tell people that I’m thoroughly unimpressed with my own mortality it is so true_ that it’s scary.