Tuesday, March 14, 2006

What is the Line Between Caring and Coddling?

Depression is a frightening thing to watch ravage someone else. It is even worse when the person is incredibly bright. I stayed an extra day in South Hadley because I am too terrified to leave my friend all alone tonight. She is in the jaws of the black dog and totally isolated from any support network. I sent Za home on the train and changed my ticket to stay with Aliyyah. She is suffering from a broken heart. She has lost 30 pounds, has no interest in eating, sleeps all the time, thinks life is pointless, and oscillates between stability and sobbing on the floor.

I am now waiting for her to return from her office hours so that I can baby-sit her while she writes up a midterm for her students. Her isolation from a support network is incredibly frightening to me. There is nothing worse that slipping further into depression when there is no one around to pull you out. When I leave I will feel incredibly anxious about her.

I spent most of the ride back from the train station trying to convince her to take medication. Her stance against depression is baffling. She either tells me that she finds her weepy, girly, broken heart thing to be just pathetic, and hence beats herself up for grieving, or, she expresses repugnance for the idea of taking medication to stop the pain. This response from depressed friends always terrifies me. Their psychopharmacological Calvinism is just plain dangerous. I tried to explain to her that the new drugs are so much better than what she would’ve been subjected to 20 years ago. I think I am starting to make some progress, but still it is slow going.

I think it is my calling to soothe and nurture those who fall into depressions. I have enormous patience for depressed people and I have spent most of my adulthood thinking about what depression is and how it destroys lives. When I was in college one of my best friends tried to commit suicide. She had called me right before she did it. I was drunk, tired, and frankly sick of her calling me up crying over this or that. She told me that she was sick of living and I just blew it off, telling her to just crash and we would get breakfast in the morning.

She swallowed three bottles of different pills. My roommate found her, rushed her to the hospital. She tried to get me to come with her, but I froze. I just couldn’t move from my bed, and hid under the covers. I was overcome with guilt. She had called me for help, and I did nothing. Now she was in the ICU.

She lived. She has even thrived. She is married with kids and happy, last time I checked. However, I have never quite recovered from this experience. I am not sure that I can handle making another mistake and failing to see suicidal signs. I take any suicidal comments very seriously and have taken two of my former students to the hospital when they confessed they were weary of living.

As I sit her now in Aliyyah’s house, I can’t help but reflect on whether or not my urgent need to help depressed people is somewhat pathological. I cannot stand to see people suffering in this way, and I find myself utterly devoted to taking care of them. The downside is that some people have taken advantage of this trait. And, of course, I am pretty good at neglecting my own needs to tend to others. I get a great deal of satisfaction in caring for others and helping them feel better about life, themselves, and the future. I tend to extend this kind of concern to my students as much as my friends. And, it can be quite draining.

The other day, a woman suggested to me that I might need to reflect a bit on why I need to help others. I was rather stunned by this comment. I haven’t been able to vanish this comment from my thoughts since she uttered it. Is it pathological to want to help those who are suffering? Is this pathological femininity? Maybe.

But, on the other hand, I wish I saw this sort of trait more often in others than not. I think it is a trait that should be gender neutral. It is a virtue, if you will. Caring for others, especially in times of need, is part of being a good human being. Granted, if you neglect your own wellbeing to only care for others, then perhaps you are bordering on a kind of pathology. But, it seems utterly ethical to respond to crisis. What is the line between caring and coddling?

Moreover, is it really wrong to derive a sense of accomplishment from caring for others, from helping others? How has this become a sign of pathology? I wonder if the fact that we direct people to consider their need to help as a bit unhealthy the real pathology. We are a sick culture if self-realization means associating only with other self-sufficient, fellow self-realized folks, isn't it?