Why Would an Al Jazeera Journalist Want to Talk to Me About Stress?
She had posted a query on a Facebook page for women writers: “Having a hard time with stress lately and would love to interview anyone going through same, possibly for an article.”
I didn’t know who she was, but if she was among the women writers on that page, she was no doubt accomplished, and a safe person to talk to. So I replied, telling her that I’d had a nervous breakdown in March 2011, managed the ensuing two-year season in hell without drugs because I wanted to see what my psyche was trying to communicate to me, and was always eager to tell people what my experience was, and what I learned from my time in darkness. This was her first message to me:
“I am looking to understand how people handle stress or trauma, what precautions they take, how/when they realize they are experiencing too much stress. I want to understand what the obstacles are, as well as the different stages that people go through as they try to understand their experience, and heal. Everyone has a different story. I myself have recently been going through severe stress which I believe is effecting my behavior and sometimes my work, so mostly I want to learn from others who are willing to share. Eventually I would write about what I learn. Perhaps we could Skype? I’m in Iraq these days.”
She’s in Iraq? I thought. And she’s a writer? And she wants to talk to me about stress? I Googled her, and discovered she’s a reporter for Al Jazeera, the New York Times and USA Today, among other news sources. I read through her articles online. Her stories were probing, truth-seeking, fearless. She had no doubt seen things that most of us normally try not to think about. And I began thinking about all those reporters sending stories back from the most violent and violated parts of the world, looking directly into an underworld we all try not to think about. How courageous these people are.
I FB-messaged her again, saying that after reading her stories and reports I felt completely at a loss as to how to help her, what to say about my limited stress vectors. I told her I felt silly, considering the important work she was doing, while here I was, sitting on my ass writing a novel. She wrote back: “The human mind is beautiful yet so complicated. Anything can be a catalyst for stress.”
So, we Skyped a few days later. I waited for her call for over an hour — her Internet connection had gone down — and when we finally connected she could see my face but I couldn’t see hers, just a Skype photo of an attractive, smiling young woman with sleek, black hair cut short, standing in the middle of street full of blurry pedestrians on the move. She apologized profusely for keeping me waiting. How do you adequately reassure a reporter living in and writing from Iraq not to worry about keeping you waiting?
We chatted for a while about our backgrounds, which couldn’t have been more different. She was born in Pakistan, I was born in Chicago; I’m over 50, she’s only a few years into her thirties; her parents had received death threats because of things she’d written; the only death threats my parents ever received were from me, when they refused to un-ground me. On the other hand, there were similarities: both of our mothers had suffered from unacknowledged depression; both of us had gone to Catholic high schools; both of us had been drawn to writing from a young age; both of us had had to fight against expectations to be able to realize our goals; both of us felt compelled to understand suffering — our own and other people’s. I told her that before the breakdown I had actually prayed for a deeper understanding of suffering, so that I might know how to try to alleviate it. And, oh yeah, I got it.
She asked me to describe the breakdown, what its possible antecedents might’ve been. I told her about my father’s acute bronchitis that had made it impossible for him to work in the cooler in his butcher shop when I was nine years old, his two years of unemployment, and the uncertainty that our (already poor) family faced; my first love (and, basically, mentor) who died when I was eighteen, after a lengthy but never-discussed illness; my physically and emotionally abusive fiancé, my slashed wrist; my acquaintance rape experience, and relationships with other not-quite-appropriate guys; my adopted sister’s descent into alcoholism and homelessness, her sudden death in 2007; the fall I took in a bathtub in Moscow in 2011 that entailed forfeiting my Fulbright Specialist grant . . . and then the breakdown a month later, triggered by something as ordinary as my dentist telling me that my root canal had gotten infected. She told me about the abuse she’d endured growing up, her struggle against fundamentalism, her desire to be a writer despite the goals her family had had in mind for her; the stories that she’d reported on (which I can’t describe here) and the horrors she’s witnessed; the trouble she’d gotten into with certain authorities, her forced move from her home country, and her current problems with a much-younger boyfriend. This is where we found our common ground. She said, “I feel I want to ask you, girfriend to girlfriend, if relationship support was important during your breakdown.” I told her I wouldn’t have survived without my husband. She told me that, because her boyfriend was so young, she doubted if he could understand the things she’d witnessed. I said, “Listening to these reports on NPR, I sometimes find it hard to understand how people reporting on these issues keep going. You are a witness for people who cannot speak, who have been murdered, upon whom senseless cruelty has been visited. Once you become a witness to these things, you become special — different from other people, apart from them. You carry the burden of suffering. It’s like a brand, almost. I can understand how all that might go over his head. He’s never seen what you’ve seen.”
She agreed with me. “But I don’t talk to him about those things. All I need is for him to listen to me when I’m anxious. And sometimes I can’t count on him for that. It’s like he’s hearing me, but he’s not really listening.” I asked her if she could get together with other journalists — journalists who were covering the same region, or the same issues — and share these things. She told me that journalists, amazingly, don’t really talk about “feelings.” “The idea is that this is your job, you knew what you were getting into when you set out to do it, and so now you have to just put your head down and do your work. It would be like you weren’t doing your job if you started talking about feeling bad. It would be like complaining.”
She said that her career was suffering because she felt immobilized by anxiety and sadness — I said it was no surprise! — and she was blowing deadlines. She’d been asked twice by a well-known, highly-regarded magazine to contribute articles, and she had yet to send them anything. She was having trouble sleeping, though sometimes she slept too much. Sometimes, she said, all she wanted to do was sleep. In terms of what she actually wanted to write about at this point, she said she felt drawn to thinking about suffering itself: what it meant in her life, how it could be managed, understood, “read.” How were other people doing this? What could she learn from them? And how could she begin to find her way back to the productive person she used to be?
A dog began barking. I laughed. She said she’d recently gotten a puppy. If this were a split-screen movie, I wondered, what would we look like, she in her apartment somewhere in Iraq around midnight, I in my kitchen in the late afternoon of a sunny August Sunday in Brooklyn? We were complete strangers, and here we were talking about the most fundamental of mysteries: suffering.
In trying to answer her questions, I reminded myself of what we had in common. That we were both women writers seemed of utmost importance. I told her — and I prefaced this by saying that I knew I was telling her something she already understood quite well — that women process things differently than men do. Women often have a heightened sense of responsibility (especially if they went to Catholic school!), and the feeling that they aren’t doing enough/doing things “the right way.” I said I admired her because she was doing some of the most difficult work that can be done, that she was not running from the horror of it. I said, “The people who cause this suffering — are they sitting around feeling powerless and immobilized?” Of course not. They are fully powered and emboldened. I told her that I learned so much from looking at what I was going through during the breakdown, letting the fear overtake me, allowing tears to flow all day, every day, for three months. I told her the breakdown coincided with the destruction of my childhood parish church, and every day I looked at pictures posted on a Facebook page, started by a former grammar school classmate, of that beautiful sanctuary being taken apart. I felt that the church and I were both being deconstructed. I didn’t know if I would ever be put together again. (“Put together” can be read two ways.)
We talked for an hour and forty-five minutes. After we talked, I kept thinking of things I wanted to tell her, ask her. One thing that kept coming up was something I’d read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Hamilton had written, of the goddess Demeter and the god Dionysus: “Each knew pain as well as joy . . . they were both suffering gods. The other immortals were untouched by lasting grief . . . But the two divinities of Earth knew lasting grief.”
Dionysus had grown up motherless. His mother, Semele, had asked her lover, Zeus to show himself in all his glory to her. Zeus knew that no mortal could survive a pure vision of divinity, but he had sworn to her on the river Styx that he would not deny her anything. She died at the revelation of her lover’s power, and Zeus snatched the child she had been carrying, and gave it to Hermes/Mercury to raise. Hamilton writes:
“The mother whom [Dionysus] had never seen was not forgotten. He longed for her so greatly that at last he dared the terrible descent to the lower world to seek her. When he found her, he defied the power of Death to keep her from him; and Death yielded.”
In Demeter’s case, it was the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by Pluto, lord of the Underworld, that put her in contact with human suffering, and caused her to wander the Earth, disguised as a mortal, until her daughter was returned. And Persephone herself was a suffering divinity. After her time spent in the Underworld, Hamilton writes, “. . . she was never again the gay young creature who had played in the flowery meadow without a thought or care or trouble. She did indeed rise from the dead every spring, but she brought with her the memory of where she had come from; with all her bright beauty there was something strange and awesome about her.”
We normally think of the Olympian pantheon —when we do — as glorious, care-less beings, capricious and far-removed from human affairs. It’s interesting that the three divinities most closely associated with Earth (Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of wine; Demeter/Ceres, the goddess of grain; and Persephone/Proserpina, daughter of Demeter and Queen of the Underworld, whose disappearance and reappearance causes the seasons to change) are the ones who suffer as humans do, the ones humans once turned to for recourse at time of death. They’d experienced loss. They knew what death and suffering meant. The Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated for 2,000 years to commemorate the Demeter/Persephone story (and named for the town where Demeter wandered, inconsolable, in search of her daughter), gave the ancient Greeks hope of life after death, knowledge that suffering could be transformed. The mystery of Persephone was the mystery of the planted seed, which looks like a dead thing when it goes into the ground, but, after a time spent germinating under the ground, grows into a life-sustaining grain. And Persephone, like the seed she represents, had been underground. She’d seen death. And she “brought with her the memory of where she had come from . . . there was something strange and awesome about her.” Before, she was just Demeter’s young daughter; afterward, she was a queen. A strange and awesome queen.
If I talk to my friend again, I want to tell her that being a witness to suffering does set us apart. Yet, by that mystery we call “paradox,” it also gives us the power to draw closer to our fellow suffering humans, to be the one who can heal. Because you’ve been down there. Because you came back. Because even though you may be haunted by a past, you believe in a future.
Sharon Mesmer is a poet, fiction writer, essayist and teacher. Her poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch, The Virgin Formica, Half Angel/Half Lunch and Vertigo Seeks Affinities (chapbook, Belladonna Books). Four of her poems appear in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (second edition, 2013). She has a new poetry collection forthcoming from Bloof Books in fall 2015 called Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place. She has also published three fiction collections, including Ma Vie à Yonago, from Hachette, in French translation. She is currently at work on a novel. She teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs of New York University and The New School. She has received two New York Foundation Arts fellowships and a mentoring award from The Jerome Foundation. She blogs at https://dubiouslabia.wordpress.com/.