“What is your depression like? We’ve never discussed that,” asks my newer counselor at the not-free free clinic. They are post-graduate level interns, which hasn’t done wonders for me in the 2 years I’ve gone there. At least they know that depression accompanies chronic illness like a fever accompanies the flu.
“It’s like a dark cloud over my head and everything goes black—the light at the end of the tunnel went out years ago,” I reply. “Then,” I say, “I go to the past—before I got sick—when my life was good.”
I get a stare.
“What about the future?” my counselor asks.
“I never go to the future anymore—it’s too scary. The future means more illness, more pain, more medical bills, maybe living in my car next month,” I answer matter-of-factly.
My counselor says, “Most people are stuck in the past and the future.”
“Not me,” I reply back. “I just go to the past and I’m stuck with the present, but I never go to the future.”
“The past is just an illusion—it doesn’t exist,” states my counselor. It feels like I have been socked in the face.
“WHAT?” I reply, and give a thousand examples proving otherwise. My counselor’s explanations make no sense while my brain goes through those thousand memories like still photographs in my mind.
I’m supposed to appreciate small things in the present. I already gave the example of my cat weeks ago. My eyes wander in the small room and then to the bushy, palm tree blowing against the window that I can see fairly well.
“I like that palm tree,” I tell my counselor. “Those trees have the fronds that look like a fan. You need the fan-shaped fronds to build a palapa—those thatch roofs made of palm fronds in México. I had one built and they had to go high up in the jungle to get to those trees.”
“You found something simple that gives you joy,” responds my counselor.
“It makes me happy because it takes me back to a better place—a time in my past,” I reply back.
I leave the appointment with my head swirling. Did I have anything left? Where was my past if it was just an illusion?
I came back to the motel and Google spied on an ex from over 15 years ago who I’d been trying to find forever—and finally did. A little trip down memory lane. Then, I was even more depressed that the only Jewish guy I ever dated—even if he was so neurotic that I dumped him—hadn’t turned back into the Super Size American he was before I met him at 22 and that he was married and actually had his good hair still. His face had aged and I really didn’t recognize him very well, although I have a photo of him somewhere from the brief time we dated so long ago. Was the past an illusion, after all? He wasn’t the same. How different do I look? At least his wife was a hot mess—he used to tell me I looked like a supermodel, minus the height thing. Then, I had my usual meltdown. So much for memory lane.
So, today I Googled this concept that makes no sense in my mind: the past is just an illusion. An illusion is a rabbit in a magician’s hat. I figured this is what I get for going to the not-free free clinic. It’s actually physics it appears. I underestimated my counselor. Albert Einstein first described it in his theory of relativity. Stephen Hawking and all the big physicists follow the theory that all time is an illusion: the past, the present, and the future. Einstein said, “The distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” For those science-types who would like to learn more, you can read this boring article.
I don’t have any interest in the theory of relativity. It’s not going to give me my life back, which is all I really care about anymore, aside from my 3-legged cat. I hate physics and I never even studied it. Physics is that weird uncertainty principle on that huge blackboard in A Serious Man that Larry, the physics professor, dreams about—as seen in this clip. Throughout the movie, he always asks, “Why?” and never gets an answer. It’s a Jewish thing—this need to know why all the time. Maybe I would have done well in physics. I was only one of two students in my class to pass logic in college and with a 4.0. My friends watched as I wrote 20-something page solutions and were convinced I could crack codes for the government.
Maybe physics is logical, but it seems abstract—like why I can’t see anything due to keratoconus despite my good visual acuity per the eye chart.
“High order aberrations,” said my dry eye doctor when I decided to ask him 2 weeks ago due to my inept corneal specialist. “It’s physics. Let me give you an example.”
He mentioned waves and I was already lost. I even took oceanography. He drew side views of misshapen corneas like mine, which I’ve seen and I understand. I’m a visual learner. Aberrations are refractive problems, which leads to less-than-perfect vision. In my case, light isn’t refracted correctly due to my Rocky Mountain-shaped corneas, or one of them after cross-linking. This creates a high order aberration, or more specifically, a vertical coma. Due to keratoconus, I also have nearsightedness and farsightedness, which are low order aberrations. It’s all just physics.
“Why can I read 20/40 then?” I implored. Actually, I read 20/70 that day, but the DMV doesn’t need to know that, or that I drive in two lanes.
“Well,” said the good doctor, “The exam is under optimal conditions—it doesn’t represent how you see in real life.”
Finally, an answer to my why. My distorted vision isn’t an illusion—or is it? My brain remembers that there is only one moon, not the several moons that I now see in the night sky. Maybe my entire life has become an illusion.
This is what I know. I am who I am because of my past. The good memories gave me life and the bad memories made me a survivor in every sense of the word. Some events from years ago are so clear they play like a video in my mind. Certain smells can transport me in time or bring people back from the dead. The simplest things can trigger a memory from my past. They are as real to me as the present moment. No illusions and no smoke and mirrors. The past is so tangible to me—it is alive for as long as I remember it.
I remember when my father was a dad. I remember when I was a roller skating queen. I remember when I had acquaintances and best friends and boyfriends. I remember when I fell head over heels in love. I remember when I went out on the weekends—every weekend. I remember when I drank too much and I don’t care. I remember when I had fun and laughed all the time. I remember when I spent the whole afternoon at the mall. I remember when I sat for hours people-watching. I remember when I was in college. I remember when I had old apartments in Seattle that I loved to decorate. I remember when I was a good cook and could eat almost anything. I remember when I read books and sipped soy lattes on the weekends in coffee shops in rainy Seattle. I remember when those who are now gone were alive. I remember when I enjoyed the present, but lived for the future. I remember when I was an expat in México. I remember when I had a life.
And I remember that every Sunday in my early 20s, when my business was closed like nearly every other in the pueblo, my stray dog and I walked to the puesto de cocos—the coconut stand—and I would buy un coco and the vendor would hack the top off with a machete, give me a straw, and my dog and I would walk to the sandy beach on the warm Pacific Ocean and I’d drink the water from my coco and talk to my friends while my dog ran free and life was as picture-perfect as a postcard.
This was real. I lived it. I can’t go back, but I can re-live it in my mind and I am someone again—someone who was healthy and pain-free and not visually impaired and didn’t stay in a motel and lived life to the fullest and could be anything I dreamed of. That is where I go when the sky becomes black and the light at the end of the tunnel is still gone and there is nowhere else to go because the present is a nightmare I can’t wake up from and the future is a slow and painful death.
Physics answers the big mysteries of the universe and explains why planes don’t usually fall out of the sky. It doesn’t delve into the human experience and try to make sense out of the nonsensical. Isn’t that what counselors are for?
By the way, according to the theory of relativity, everything you just read is an illusion—it’s in the past now.
I dedicate this post to the memory of my beloved, paternal grandfather, whose yahrzeit—the anniversary of one’s death in the Hebrew calendar—falls today. I lit a candle, said Kaddish, and made a small donation at sunset, when everything begins. This is what we do. My grandfather was larger than life, the strongest man I ever knew, a traveler of the world, and as seen here, a self-enlisting Marine in WWII who fought in Okinawa and survived. He died the year I got sick, but the smell of rye bread brings him back in an instant.