by Nolo Segundo
At 24, I had dropped out of the London Film School suddenly, and to this day I’m not sure why. An affair that ended, some kind of insecurity? I thought then I knew myself, but I didn’t– no one ever does completely: the unconscious is too deep for that. I came home, back to America, and fell into a profound clinical depression, the kind where you stop eating, sleeping, feeling. Day after day I paced around the large dining room table in my parents’ house; they never seemed to think to get medical help for me. Instead they thought if I went on a camping trip with a friend to Vermont, I’d snap out of it.
My buddy and I drove through beautiful Vermont but I could not ‘feel’ the beauty, or feel anything really– no interest in food, movies, reading, or even the opposite sex. That is the worst thing about depression, the death of affect. I realize since then that we humans are primarily emotional beings, and every thought we have from food to politics has an emotional base to it. I remember, after we saw a dog get hit on the road and stopped to help, my confusion as to why its owner was so upset.
Not sleeping or eating devastated my nervous system, so much my hands shook like a 90 year old with Parkinson’s. I feared being put away in an asylum for life, and since I thought back then that death meant extinction, it seemed logical to kill myself and end my mental torment. So when we camped beside Lake Champlain, I would wait till my friend went to sleep before walking into the lake; but I wanted to write a good-bye note to my parents first. The problem was my hands shook too much to write legibly, so from somewhere in my mind I said a sort of prayer to the God I had stopped believing in as a clever teenager: ‘Let me write this’– not even please! But suddenly, and I mean in an instant, I went from uncontrollable shaking to complete calmness, my hands steady as a rock, and then I looked up and saw the stars and felt deeper than I have ever felt, their beauty, and asked myself, why would I want to die? Then I went in and slept like a baby for the first time in a month [and since then I know the meaning of ‘the peace of God passes all understanding’].
The next morning I woke feeling completely ‘normal,’ and as I was walking to the campground’s showers I felt ‘it’ enter my body- as though the madness of that depression with its near total nervous breakdown swept into me from behind! And it was even worse than before, as my hands shook so violently it would have been dangerous to try to shave. I knew then I had little time left before I lost all control, so as we drove into Montpelier for breakfast I told my friend I needed to walk first. I went to the bridge I saw as we drove into town; it took me three times before I could bring myself to jump. I remember everything like yesterday: the falling through air, going through a rock-strew rapids [I have a scar on my back from hitting one of the rocks, but better that than my head hitting it], finding myself swimming until I remembered I wanted to die. Between that moment and the time I was again briefly awake on the bank [having been saved by Mike, a Vietnam vet who was riding his Harley when he saw me jump], I was conscious but had no body, and I could only see a vast and utterly deep blackness, though no words can capture that infinity of profound darkness. But the worst part was that my consciousness was roiled –the best word I know– by torment, worse than any imaginable pain, because it was my consciousness that was in agony.
Then for the second time since childhood, I called out to God, but not to be released from this hell I was in. It was a question: ‘How long will it last?’ I asked. Why that I don’t know, unless I had lived before, done something bad, and my soul remembered. But I was released, and it was and is by the grace of God that I can write this a half-century later– and I do not use that phrase, ‘the Grace of God’ lightly.
Nolo Segundo is in his 70’s now and has led a peaceful life since his marriage almost 40 years ago. But his 20’s– the time he came of age– were more like Dickens’s ‘…the best of times, the worst of times… .’ At 20, he went to England to do his junior year abroad. A couple of years after college, he suffered a major clinical depression; he almost drowned in a Vermont river and had a near-death experience, one that shook his former agnosticism to the core. He was opposed to the Vietnam War, yet for some reason still rather inscrutable to him, he went to teach ESL in the war zone of Phnom-Penh, Cambodia in ’73-’74. There he developed a deep affection for the Cambodian people, and though he heard stories about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge towards their own people, he could not believe they would have been capable of the genocide of the ‘killing fields.’ After the war forced him to leave Cambodia, he spent over a year teaching ESL in Taipei and later Tokyo. A year after he returned, he met the woman he would marry. Some of his poems are about the strange thing called aging and its paradox of wearing down the body while gradually– or so it seems to him– freeing the soul. The rest try to explore that inexplicable Mystery permeating each one of us and that seems to manifest Itself every so often, in ways subtle or strange. At times he has felt that life is just one long dream, and he has dreamt such dreams many, many times before.