But I found a way out by going into the woods (and Sondheim helped)
I was reminded (by Facebook, of course) that it was two years ago today that was last extended bout of depression was triggered.
It started with a happy memory, the last morning of a lovely holiday on a Greek island, but it also reminded me that the next day I went to Paris, which is where and when I know that I suddenly faced another depression:
I’d gone to Paris on an overnight trip by Eurostar, to catch a production of my absolutely favourite musical Guys and Dolls at Théâtre Marigny, a venue that had lately been specialising in producing great Broadway musicals in English, not French, in its beautiful location set in the Jardin des Champs-Élysées, near the Place de la Concorde. To cut a long story short, I was relieved of my mobile phone within five minutes of arriving at the Gare du Nord.
It was, of course, a story of everyday opportunistic crime, and hardly personal, but I almost immediately plunged into an abyss of self-blame and shame. It was my fault, I told myself. How could I be so stupid?
And thus it was that I knew instinctively that I was destined for another bout of prolonged depression (one that therefore long pre-dated the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020, but also extended way beyond it, finally only lifting in October 2020). I’ve shared here before how it was thanks to concentrating on both my mental as well as physical recovery that I was able to achieve this breakthrough.
The latter was relatively easy — I submitted myself, again, to a surgical knife for an overdue back repair, thanks to a long-standing genetic inheritance of a curvature of the spine that left me in literally crippling nerve pain whenever I moved. (I ended up having three discs fused in a series of operations in September 2020). But meanwhile I was also finally tackling a darker psychological inheritance of unresolved childhood trauma, and at last working to free myself “from the shame and blame of the past”, as the 12-step family-of-origin fellowship I joined puts it in their literature.
This has been literally life-changing, dealing with my mental recovery in a way that the surgery had dealt with my physical one. And though there were no literal knives involved, I’ve managed to start to heal from the death by a thousand cuts of a caregiver who gave no care at all, and then finally revealed their utter contempt for me by warning me that my husband and I are destined to spend eternity screaming in hell, because homosexuality is an abomination against (his) God. I share this deeply painful and personal experience once again because I need to reminded that it is his shame, not mine, that I am dealing with; and that walking away, freely but also with forgiveness, from this dysfunctional relationship has been a route to freedom.
Growing up — and long living openly — as a gay man is hardly a remarkable or unique experience, but we each have our own versions of acceptance or rejection by family members and other “friends” to deal with. And even if we don’t, of course, have a choice about who our parents are, we do have a choice as to whether we can or should allow them continuing purchase in our lives that they helped to create.
Parenting is a massive responsibility; my father was simply incapable of fulfilling it. But then he’d not had a model for doing so; he, too, had an absentee father (who died when he was six).
And to bring this column back to theatre, which has long provided me with a sense of family and belonging and helped me, more than anything, to make sense of my losses as well as my assets, I constantly return to Sondheim and Lapine’s magnificent 1987 musical Into the Woods, a fairytale parable about faulty parenting and overcoming those painful deficits that are not your own fault.
As a baker finally meets his biological father, whose actions led to a curse being placed on his family that long rendered him childless, their relationship is distilled in a gorgeous song No More that simply gets deeper and deeper each time I hear it.
The baker tells the man he now knows to be his father:
No more riddles
No more jests
No more curses you can’t undo, left by fathers you never knew
No more quests
No more feelings. Time to shut the door
Just… No more
And his father replies:
Running away, let’s do it
Free from the ties that bind
No more despair, or burdens to bear
Out there in the yonder
Running away, go to it
Where did you have in mind?
Have to take care… unless there’s a ‘where’
You’ll only be wandering blind
Just more questions…. different kinds
Where are we to go?
Where are we ever to go?
Running away, we’ll do it
Why sit around, resigned?
Trouble is, son, the farther you run
The more you’ll feel undefined
For what you have left undone, and more
What you’ve left behind
We disappoint, we leave a mess, we die, but we don’t
To which the baker responds:
We disappoint in turn, I guess. Forget though, we won’t.
I can’t forget; but I can forgive.
And the ultimate moment of healing comes in the show when the Baker, left to raise his child alone after his wife is crushed by the giant, seeks her guidance after her death:[BAKER]
Maybe I just wasn’t meant to have children [BAKER’S WIFE]
Don’t say that! Of course you were meant to have children [BAKER]
But how will I go about being a father
With no one to mother my child? [BAKER’S WIFE]
Just calm the child [BAKER]
Yes, calm the child
I’ve been learning to calm my inner child for the last year or more, and I think I may have finally done it. I’ve gone into the woods, as the final song has it:
Into the woods, you have to grope
But that’s the way you learn to cope
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through your journey
Into the woods, each time you go
There’s more to learn of what you know.