Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Until I Say Goodbye to Denial

"What a golden age, 
what a time of right and reason
the consumers king 
and unhappiness is treason"

- The Magnetic Fields, Strange Powers


Half memoirs, half self-help books make me a little wary, because what works for one person may do the opposite for another. Until I Say Goodbye by Susan Spencer-Wendel was no exception. I read it and liked it, and would have liked it more if it were only meant to serve as a memoir and a love letter to the author's children. But that isn't how it was marketed, and it isn't the entire intention. The intention of this book is to let us all know that if a woman dying of ALS while she has three young children can "live with joy," the rest of us have no excuse.


I must object to the widely held idea that there's something selfish and self-indulgent about being unhappy. It's absurd. By its very definition, people do not like being unhappy. This is almost always true, no matter how many mental gymnastics you do to convince yourself that, since unhappy people can be unpleasant, they must be enjoying it, and therefore you're free to judge. Furthermore, undesirable emotions are part of being alive. Being happy all the time is not an option, although for a variety of reasons, it's more attainable to some than others. 

Susan Spencer-Wendel seems to have been a great person. Hard working, high achieving, and a barrel of fun. She had a million friends, a devoted husband and three lovely children. When she was diagnosed with ALS, she decided she wouldn't feel sorry for herself, but instead be joyful because she was alive. Which is great. I'm glad she could do it. I'm glad she was able to pack so much into her last couple of years. My concerns is the "What's your excuse?" tone of this book. I'm afraid it will be read by terminally ill people or, worse, their friends and acquaintances, and used as a means to deny them feelings deemed inconvenient to themselves or others. So now not only do they have to cope with dying decades before they expected to, but they have to pretend to be at peace with it. If that happens for some, great. But it's an unreasonable expectation, and an unacceptable demand.

Spencer-Wendel had two things going for her that most don't. One, money. Although there were moments of her appreciating simple things available to anyone, for the most part, where did she get this joy she was living with? She bought it. Which is fine for her - given her circumstances, I'd have done the same. However, if this is how living with joy is attained, I'm afraid it isn't available to most people. Again, this is fine for a memoir, but troubling if it's meant to serve as a guide for others, which it is. Even her simple pleasures take place in luxury hotels, exotic destinations, or the lavish "chickee hut" she decided she desperately needed in her back yard. Don't go spending staggering amounts of money to make yourself happy and have the audacity to imply that those who can't do it are weak or self-indulgent (seriously, going on a massive spending spree is somehow presented as not indulging oneself). If the things you use to make yourself happy are largely out of reach for most people, you've lost your claim to smug. Edit: Whatever makes you happy, it's not available to everyone. Don't be smug. 

If you like memoirs by affluent women coming to terms with the reality that they won't be there to see their children grow up, might I suggest A Matter of Life and Death, by Marjorie Williams? It's only an article, but all these years later it remains one of the best pieces of writing I've ever encountered. I'm loathe to imply Marjorie Williams did it "right" and Susan Spencer-Wendel did it "wrong," because they were two different women. But I do think seeing someone take almost the exact opposite approach has merit. Williams was in her emotions. All of them. She was terrified, resentful and furious, and none of this robbed her of the ability to find joy in the fact that she was alive.

Williams also acknowledged her privilege, which, to the best of my recollection, Spencer-Wendel didn't even pretend to do. You see, while Oprah encourages gratitude, she's mostly talking to people who can't afford luxury. She also encourages the successful not to feel guilty, because you know, law of attraction. You're entitled to anything you have. The more you have to be grateful for, the less you are morally obliged to bother. This seems to be the position Spencer-Wendel took, and in the process she managed to achieve something almost impossibly difficult - joy without gratitude. Gratitude requires at least some degree of humility, and completely excludes entitlement.

Even if you have money, the level of joy attained by Spencer-Wendel may not be in the cards for you. The other ingredient here was a brain that, for whatever reason, wasn't prone to depression. "You are the master of your mind," was her motto, but what she really meant was, "I am the master of my mind." She had not lived with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder. Where does the mind end and the brain begin? She did suffer from one episode of mild depression as a young adult, but it was brief and treatable. When she was diagnosed with ALS, she went on anti-depressants, which she and her husband called "happy pills." Well, let me tell you something - they do not work that way for most people.

Her joy seems to be as much about proving she's right as anything. Again, that's fine - whatever gets you through the night. Heaven knows she had the right to do whatever she had to do to comfort herself. However, it created a thread of dishonesty that ran throughout most of the book. I found she was most relatable when she allowed herself to have uncomfortable feelings, which usually manifested in grief over the probability that she would miss seeing her children grow up. It would be impossible not to feel for her while she was lying in bed, unable to move or even raise her voice, and listening to her terrified son screaming because he was locked in an elevator (also, I suspect, because his mom was dying).

Another example of simple humanity was her taking her teenage daughter to try on a wedding dress. I can't imagine she was the type of woman who sat around planning her daughter's wedding, but even so, the time came when, knowing she would never see any such thing, she indulged herself and talked her daughter (who wanted a mini-skirt) into humoring her. In addition to allowing her a small glimpse into a future she wouldn't see, she also felt it might do something to infuse her daughter with a sense of her presence on some future date when she may very much want it.

Later, she took her to see Wicked on Broadway (which, I feel compelled to mention, would out of necessity be where the financial self-indulgence began and ended for most people), and cried during one of the songs. Looking over, she saw her daughter was also crying. After the show, she asked why, and her daughter told her "I was crying because you were crying." "No more of that," Spencer-Wendel admonished herself. But I had to wonder - did she make her daughter cry, or did she allow her daughter to cry? Would the grief have arisen anyway, tears or no tears?

I'll admit to having pegged Susan Spencer-Wendel as a type. Specifically, a type I have a hard time with - someone who owes their ability to achieve to being intelligent, but somewhat shallow. These people are usually not troubled souls, and I don't begrudge then that. The trouble arises when they lack compassion, which in my experience, many of them do. A healthy dose of self-centeredness allows them to do well for themselves, but leaves them with little ability to try on different points of view. Considering how well this world view works for them, can I really say it's a problem? If avoiding unpleasant emotions and alternative points of view made her last couple of years as pleasant as possible, perhaps these people are right - they do have it figured out.

The problem is insisting others process things the same way. The author dubbed her older son, Aubrey, a "complainer," but admitted this went hand in hand with him being what his teacher described as an old soul. Sensitive to himself and others, and keenly aware of what was going on around him. In a rare moment of insight into how people who differ from herself function, she was terribly sad for him, knowing life in general would be more painful for him than for her, her husband or her daughter (her younger son is autistic, and presented as being on an entirely different emotional plane). The question is, when sadness, anger, fear and grief all fall under the "self-pity" umbrella, where is there room for someone like Aubrey?

My intention isn't to question the parenting decisions she and her husband made. Indeed, one of the few examples of her displaying any vulnerability happened when she explained how they chose to present her illness to their kids. This was what they chose to do, these were their reasons, and all she could do was fervently hope it was the right thing. It's hard to judge under those circumstances. What parent hasn't been there?

I'm not saying Susan Spencer-Wendel did any of it wrong, only that what's right for her may not be right, or even possible, for others. The last thing any of us need when we have a problem is the added responsibility of feeling like moral failures because we aren't happy about it.

The day you realize you'll never swim again just might be a bad day. You can decided not to allow yourself to feel any regret over it.

Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes,
and find the box thats sad and CRUSH IT!

Or you can feel whatever emotions come up for you, and let them go when they're ready. If you choose the latter, Oprah may not be as impressed with you, but perhaps being honest and authentic has value, too.