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  • Little Finds

    I just started a new junk journal--the kind filled with sketches, to-do lists, poems, whatever--and so was scrolling through my previous one, which is extremely thick and thus two years old.

    I stumbled upon an untitled poem that I most likely wrote for my friend Liz, who was going through a tough time. Liz is my homie on Etsy--a woman I never met in person or even talked to on the phone--yet in the last couple of years has become a deeply valued friend, as we've shared so much of our lives with one another in emails. Rarely a week goes by that we don't at least check in, sometimes just water-coolering about our Etsy sales, yet at other times talking about the most intimate details of our lives. She holds a hallowed place in my life these days...this soul out in Illinois who knows so much about me (and I her), yet who I've only seen in pictures.

    When I found this poem, I knew I'd written it for her, although I can't recall the circumstances. At first I thought it corny, then funny, then true.

    Untitled

    I will hold you until it’s over

    Listen ‘til the tears fade

    Hope for you when you can hope no more

    Dream for you a better day

    So cry, complain and fail

    I’ll lie on the ground with you

    We’ll point at the stars, at the gods and the saints

    And say, fuck you, and fuck you, too…

    Fuck you for all the suffering

    Fuck you for all the pain

    We’ll fill our cup with shits & giggles

    And let love pour down like rain

    **********************************

    Written sometime in January 2015. c Mary Ann Farley.
  • Understanding Suicide

    Back in April of 2009, I posted the following blog entry about depression, titled "Understanding Suicide," on Salon's blog site. It eliclited a number of responses, mostly positive and compassionate, but there were some that still felt suicide was a "selfish" act, a stance that while understandable, I still find deeply troubling and incredibly frustrating. In the wake of Robin Williams' tragic suicide, I'll once again post this essay, only here on my own site, in the hopes of spreading the word that suicide is the fatal outcome of a disease called depression, not a morally corrupt choice.

    ******************************************************************

    During the past few weeks or so, I've noticed that on some mornings, I've been waking in a state of depression, which is a bit alarming as I know all too well just how devastating a full-blown clinical depression can be. 

    Obviously, I'm struggling deeply with the wear of chronic physical pain, and my brain chemistry is starting to give way, just like it did five years ago when an infection, which I thought had been cured two years earlier after 18 months of agony, took up residency in my jaw and face again (and has been there ever since). 

    As any hope for a cure seemed so hopeless back then, I slowly began to sink into a hole so black, so absolute, that all roads seemed to point to just one solution if I was ever going to get out of pain, and that solution was suicide. This led to a stint in the local hospital's psych ward, and then a few weeks later, admission to a psychiatric hospital.

    With all of the physical complications I've endured as a result of this blood disorder, frequently spending weeks in the hospital at a time, I can say with absolute certainty that nothing--nothing--is as painful as a major clinical depression. And nothing, it seems, is as misunderstood by so many, particularly when it's accompanied by suicidal ideation.

    For most people, suicide is unthinkable, so when a loved one takes his or her own life, we can get lost in a state of confusion and anger. I recall reading a book by a psychiatrist a few years ago who'd lost both of his sons in a 13-month period--one was a six-year-old who'd died of cancer and the other was a teenage boy who'd killed himself. 

    What was shocking, aside from the obvious tragedy of losing two children in such a short amount of time, was that the doctor talked little about his teenager, saying only that suicide was the ultimate "selfish" act, and he chose instead to write about his six-year-old, as the younger boy's ordeal was most likely easier to understand. The boy was, in a sense, an innocent victim of his disease, unlike his "selfish" brother who took his own life. 

    I remember feeling such shock that this esteemed psychiatrist, of all people, didn't understand the fatal power of depression.

    A few years ago, I was hired as a freelance medical editor for a few months, and I was lucky enough to edit tons of the latest materials about depression and suicide. Perhaps what's most misunderstood about clinical depression is that it's not just a state of malaise or of feeling blue; it's a medical disease that if left untreated will only worsen throughout one's lifetime.

    In the same way that Type II diabetics cannot absorb their own insulin, when clinical depression occurs, receptors in the brain close, and a person can no longer absorb their own serotonin, along with some other key chemicals. 

    Why this shutdown happens is still a mystery. Take, for example, a set of twins, both raised by the same parents in the same circumstances. In response to a tragedy, one twin will go through a normal grief period while the other will go into a major depression, and no one knows why. All that's known is that a person simply cannot function without these crucial brain chemicals, and the act of suicide is simply a way to get out of excruciating psychic pain.

    In my own case, before I got depressed, I was going through one of the happiest periods of my life. For years I'd worked to get myself to a place where I'd perfectly balanced my work life (freelance writing and editing) and my creative life (songwriting and painting), and felt more inspired and joyous than I had in years.

    This is what made the sudden return of chronic pain so devastating, and what ultimately made my receptors close to the very chemicals so necessary to live.

    It's hard to describe suicidal depression, but essentially, it's a loss of control over our own emotional state. Ordinarily, when one is down or feeling blue, there are things that can lift the spirit, like inspirational readings, listening to music, and talking with others. But when one is clinically depressed, absolutely nothing works to lift the darkness, and slowly the will to live can begin to erode.
    In the same way one in chronic pain can lose hope that anything will ever change, the depressed patient also loses hope for a cure, and a battle surfaces between our primal will to survive and an aching desire to no longer feel this hell on earth.

    In that sense, the act of suicide is the fatal outcome of a deadly disease, not a moral choice by the patient. Far from being selfish or cowardly, when a depressed patient reaches the decision to end his or her own life, nothing is more harrowing or frightening, because there's the realization that pain has overrode the fundamental desire to live. It's hard to imagine that anything in life could be that painful, but unfortunately, these states exist, and the last thing we should do is judge someone in this unthinkable quandary.

    In my own case, I knew that I'd reached the limits of my endurance five years ago when I awoke one morning and felt no love whatsoever for anyone in my life anymore (even my mom), as every emotion had become eclipsed by pain. I was shocked at this revelation, because I knew the things that had been keeping me alive--namely the desire to not hurt anyone in my family--were no longer operating. I intuitively knew that I had about 24 hours left to live, and so I called a suicide hotline, which in turn called an ambulance for me, even though my local hospital is just two blocks away.

    That's how bad I was; I couldn't even walk this short distance, as every ounce of energy was going into just staying alive and not swallowing the bottle of pills that offered permanent relief.

    In time (four agonizing weeks or so), the antidepressants began to work, but not everyone is so lucky, particularly those who've struggled with depression repeatedly in their lives. Studies have shown that clinical depression actually damages the brain, and if left untreated, the illness only gets worse throughout one's lifetime. As the years roll by, the depressions become more frequent, more severe, and require less stimulus to set them off. That's why intervention with medication as soon as possible is so paramount to healing.

    Studies have also shown that antidepressants can actually have a curative effect, meaning that if the first depression is treated with medication and therapy, the likelihood of it happening again decreases sharply.

    Of course, there are those patients who use a suicide attempt as a cry for help, or as a means to get attention, and some of them do end up dying. But for the patient who is suffering from severe and extended clinical depression, suicide is nothing more than a way out of a type of pain that can never really be put into words.

    I've heard it said that suicide is "a permanent solution to a temporary problem," but this isn't quite accurate, at least in terms of a major clinical depression. For some, the problem is debilitating and lifelong, and for these patients, suicide is the means to finally rest, even at the cost of life itself.

    ****************************************

  • What's It Like to Be Matthew McConaughey?

    Matthew McConaughey is living large these days in terms of critical acclaim. His HBO television series True Detective (which he co-produced with co-star Woody Harrelson), and films The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, are all getting rave reviews, something he says he wasn't necessarily shooting for but nevertheless has been the recipient of after deciding two years ago to forego romantic comedies and head in a more serious direction. He said he knew it would take some time to make the switch in his career, but as he was financially secure and prepared to wait it out, he really wasn't concerned.

    As I watched the supreme confidence with which he carried himself in this Sunday morning TV interview, I couldn't help but wonder what it's like to be Matthew McConaughey. He's obviously a very hard-working guy, and is also very talented, so no one would begrudge him his success. But there was something else going on during this fifteen-minute segment that made me uncomfortable, and it's been hard to put my finger on it.

    I'm wondering...am I simply envious of someone who's had this much luck in his life?

    Yes, I know he's worked tirelessly to get where he is, but I also had to marvel at the astounding amount of good fortune that's been heaped upon him. Here was this extraordinarily handsome man in the prime of his life, who not only is enjoying a critically acclaimed trifecta in his career, but who's also happily married and has three robustly healthy children.

    When he spoke of his decision to no longer do romantic comedies, he said he talked it over with his wife, as they'd have to brace themselves for a few years of him either not working or doing much smaller roles as he began the process of rebranding himself.

    I thought to myself...what's it like to have that be the biggest problem in your life? As he spoke, it was clearly evident that he had no doubt that his plan would work, which was incredible in and of itself, as who deals with decisions even close to that? "Honey, we're going to live on my millions for the next two years during this transition of me becoming a more serious dramatic actor, which I fully expect will happen. Is that okay with you?"

    When people live with such extraordinary luck, I suppose there's no reason to believe that it won't continue. He sports that slightly cocky confidence because this is what he knows in life; it's the hand he's been dealt. While he was somewhat irritating to watch, I can't hold his confidence against him, as he's no more responsible for his streak of luck than I am for living a life fraught with so many mean twists of fate.

    I suppose at the end of the day, it's what we do with these respective hands we've been dealt that matters, as trite as that may sound. Yes, I was slightly annoyed with him this morning, but I also can't wait to watch tonight's episode of True Detective, nor can I wait to see his films. The guy is gifted, and I respect this decision to take this more serious turn in his career. In fact, I wish he'd done it sooner.

    But I'm also feeling a slight malaise, as well, as so much effort can go into just getting through my day. On a good one, when the pain isn't as bad, I can flex my creativity, too, and ponder which new roads to take. But the bottom line, I think, is that sometimes I'm just profoundly struck by envy. It doesn't happen often, luckily, but there are moments when it comes into high relief just how much time and energy are devoured by the simple act of enduring. I cry easily on days like this, sometimes hard, which purges things, at least for awhile.

    I certainly don't wish Matthew McConaughey's life was any harder, as his gifts are gifts to us all. I just wish mine was easier.

  • Five Ways to Awaken the Muse!

    As far as New Year's goes, I have to admit that as a holiday, it just doesn't hit my radar. Year in and year out, it holds so little interest for me that I don't even tune in to watch the ball drop, not out of some latent anger or cooler-than-thou attitude, but really because I just forget. 

    This year is different, though, not in that I watched the Times Square celebration (I forgot to tune in again, 'natch), but because the marking of time feels significant. So much is going on in my life these days that I feel a bit woozy, particularly when it comes to my art. It turns out that 2013 was a very good year for my Etsy shop and my paintings--a development that caught me completely off guard. The fact that I've actually attained some goals, both artistically and financially, has my head spinning a bit, and I've been asking myself that old Peggy Lee question, which sometimes surfaces when one has achieved a long sought-after dream with such single-minded focus: Is that all there is?

    Ah yes, with amber cocktail in one hand and a bon-bon in the other, I've been lying back on the couch lately pondering my newly won Etsy earnings and asking myself that time-honored query, realizing that I may have lost my way a bit, focusing too much on the business and not enough on the art. Don't get me wrong--A little extra cash does a girl good, and I'm profoundly grateful, but I need to get the artistic fires stoked again, as let's face it...without art, nothing will happen for me AT ALL.

    As I haven't created a painting in a few months, I'm now experiencing the dreaded white canvas anxiety attack...the moment when you've got a pencil in one hand, and a canvas or piece of watercolor paper in the other, and it's time to do something. I've been thinking about my favorite ways to get the creative juices flowing, and thought--what the heck! Let me share them with you, too! So what are some good ways to wake up the muse?

    1.) MAKE A GIFT. There's something about making a gift for someone that completely wipes away my creativity self-consciousness. I suspect it's because my love for the recipient is the driving force behind the act, and I know that regardless of the outcome, this person will be thrilled that I thought to make him or her something handmade. Even though the item might not be a painting, just getting my creative brain rolling again can create the momentum I need to get working on EVERYTHING.

    2.) SEND A CARD, DECORATE THE ENVELOPE. This is similar to number one, only simpler. To bust up a creative logjam, send someone a card or an article you know they'll enjoy, and then go hog wild decorating the envelope. I'll go so nuts at times when I do this that it's hard to even see the address when I'm done! Again, all self-consciousness vanishes in this exercise, and I'm delighted to know that the recipient is smiling as soon as he or she pulls the envelope out of the mailbox. Without fail, the response on the other end is always sheer delight, which invariably makes me want to do MORE.

    3.) GET ORGANIZED. No, this isn't necessarily a creative act, but there's something about organizing my creative space that sets the stage for something wonderful to happen. Placing all my paints, pencils and utensils in their proper place has a very relaxing effect on my brain...almost like I've mowed and weeded the lawn so that the flowers now have room to grow. I just love when I walk into my studio, and everything is clean and organized...mainly because it's license to get in there and mess it up again! Some artists thrive in a messy environment, but not me. When I'm in the middle of working on a painting, not a single thing gets put away at night, lest I destroy my momentum. But when I need to awaken the muse, an organized, clean drawing table simply looks delicious!

    4.) TAKE A CLASS. There are SO many wonderful online classes these days! Just scour Etsy alone and you'll find dozens. There are even plenty of FREE classes on YouTube! Without fail, whenever I take an online class, the muse gets busy again as she begins to play with all these new, wonderful techniques. (I like mixed media courses in particular.) And almost always, whenever I sit down to do an exercise, I get a full-on painting out of it.  Right now, I'm taking a class that's a year long, where a new lesson comes in every Monday morning. I'm having so much fun with Week One (the class is already on Week Three) that I've yet to move past it, having created TWO new images from it instead of one. (See the "work in progress" on this page.) Even though the teacher is online and in a video, trust me, you'll get inspired. It's well worth a few bucks to have someone hold your hand and show you some new ropes.

    5.) VISIT AN ART OR CRAFTS STORE. Oh, the fun of shopping in an art store! My favorite art store at the moment is Jerry's in West Orange, NJ (it's close to where my parents live, so I go there when I visit), and as soon as I walk in, I become intoxicated. I grab my basket and simply start walking the aisles, seeing what jumps out at me. My most recent exciting purchase? Ink pencils!!! Yes, that's right. INK PENCILS. Oh, and are they wonderful. They're sort of a cross between watercolor pencils and watercolor crayons (my previous exciting purchase)...a little looser than the former but less liquid than the latter. Make your lines, activate them with water, then watch the magic! Yep, a visit to the art store will get you working on something as soon as you get home, GUARANTEED.

    Have any creative tips of your own? Please let me know! I'm all ears. :)

  • I Didn't Win the Lottery, But It's Close!

    Boy, ya never know what's around the corner. A few weeks ago, I received a few notifications all at once from a woman named Jennifer, who said she was interested in buying a huge amount of my art on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, who would then like to exhbit said art in New Orleans in December at the National Hematology Convention, with me in attendance.

    Huh?

    My knee-jerk reaction was that she was an art scammer, as these diabolical people often approach you by name and even know the names of your artworks. But then it hit me--how would a scammer also know that I had a serious blood clotting disorder?

    It turns out Jennifer was real, and there was even more to the story. The company, Incyte, also wanted me to attend a breakfast in Times Square on Sept. 3, where I would be part of the ringing the NASDAQ bell to kick off Blood Cancer Awareness Month. Not only did they buy two of my prints to exhibit at the breakfast that morning (at the Intercontinental Hotel, no less), but they also sent a car to drive me to and from the event!

    And to put the cherry on top, for a few brief seconds, my smiling mug loomed over Times Square on the NASDAQ jumbotron during a series of photos taken during the ceremony just moments prior. Everything about that morning defined the very essence of the word delightful.

    But I'd be lying if I said I also didn't feel a slight discomfort about it all, as the bottom-line reason for my involvement was because of my illness, thus making it a bit more real to me than it already is. Believe me...this pain is real, as I live with it every second of every day, but there's also a small part of me that lives in denial that I'm a sick person. I'm not quite sure what I mean by that, as this pain rules just about every aspect of my life, and I've been quite open about it, both in my art and in my writing. I guess it's just hard to admit that it's now become woven into the very fabric of who I am, which on the one hand is a good thing, as it means I've accepted it, but it also brings up the latent anger that's always just beneath the surface, as it's something that has been thrust upon me. I did not choose to get sick or to be chronically in pain, nor would I ever have wanted this to be the way that my work would gain any kind of attention.

    When I saw my face up there on the NASDAQ jumbotron, it was certainly a wonderful kick, but it could not have been any bigger of a reminder of the enormous role this illness now plays in my life. It has become part of my identity, as proven by my looming presence over Times Square for those few moments on Sept. 3.

    While standing there, I couldn't quite understand why I was feeling tears well up in my eyes, but now I know. This illness is real, and it's a permanent part of me now. God willing, the upcoming Oct. 2 surgery on my jaw will help ease this terrible pain, if not rid me of it entirely, as it's been with me for over ten years now. A decade is a big chunk of a person's life. While I'm thrilled to be a part of this whole New Orleans extravaganza, how much MORE wonderful it would be if I attended it pain-free. Should that come to pass, I do believe my smile could once again light up Times Square, only this time without the use of a jumbotron.