It's Never Too Late
"It’s never too late to make changes in your life. That’s Satan’s lie. Don’t believe it. As long as you have breath in your lungs and a willingness to become a better person, you can make changes.
"At any season of your life, at any moment in time, you can start all over again. You can draw a line in the sand and say, ‘All that is in my past is in my past. I’m going to start a new life right now. It won’t be easy, but I can do it.’ You’ve heard the old cliché so overused that people have tuned it out. But it’s true. ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life.’"
I listened to Dave intently. But instead of absorbing his words into my heart, I was thinking how to poke holes in his philosophy.
I said, "You made three major changes in your life, but look at the time frames. The drinking and fighting occurred over less than half a year. The fling with your co-worker lasted a few months. Your being filled with pride happened over three years. My bad habits have become ingrained in me over a period of 40 years. With that length of time, personalities become defined in concrete. Thought patterns become deeply etched fissures in the brain. The traces in the soul become darker and darker, until they are a permanent dye."
Dave pounced on me again. "It’s never too late, never too late. Think about Scrooge in A Christmas Carol who underwent a profound experience of redemption over the course of one night. Scrooge was a financier who had devoted his entire life to the accumulation of wealth for himself, more than 40 years by the way. He held anything other than money in contempt, including friendships, love, and the Christmas season."
I was familiar with the story. "I’ll grant you that one," I said, "although it’s not a story based on a real character."
"Stories don’t appear out of thin air," responded Dave. "I expect Charles Dickens was familiar with a real person who had made such a change at an advanced age.
"If you want a real person, take my Grandfather Alex. Do you remember him when you came over to our house when he was visiting? He was a crotchety old man and had been tight fisted and a hoarder of money for 37 years of his life. He was greatly affected by The Great
Depression, and his personality and thinking were cemented from that time on. My grandmother told my mother Grandfather Alex was the sweetest and most generous man in the first 15 years of their marriage. When he was 40 years old in 1935, he lost his job, his house, and all his savings. He had to start all over again. He became very successful in real estate but always thought another Great Depression was around the corner. That thinking robbed him of most pleasures in life. He had a constant anxiety that life would throw him back to where he was when he was 40.
"In 1965, when we graduated from high school, he was 70 years old. When he was 77, with 37 years of being a miserable old man who was heading to the poorhouse, he got a wake-up call. He was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. He underwent chemotherapy and was in remission the last ten years of his life. Six months after the diagnosis, we started to see a remarkable change in him. He became a new person. He was joyous, generous, a very kind person, and someone you wanted to be around all the time. It can be done. You had a major heart attack a year ago. You’re living on borrowed time. You could just as well be dead. You can become a new person just like Grandfather Alex—today."
I had no argument for Grandfather Alex. I remembered him as Dave described him. He was friendly to me, but he wasn’t a very interesting person. I knew Grandfather Alex was wealthy from what Dave told me. I wouldn’t have ascertained that myself from the car he drove, the clothes he wore, or what he talked about.
I had to concede to Dave. "If your Grandfather Alex could make such a massive change at 77, I suppose anything is possible."
Dave leaped at my concession. "So you believe change is possible in the afternoon of your life. I don’t mean to claim it’s a smooth transition. It rarely happens that you can change your life through reasoning alone. The old self you want to change does not want to be changed. Your mind is not where the battle is won. No matter how fully you agree to what is revealed by reason, you will continue to stuggle along the old habitual paths of your life. Until, finally, one day you realize that your life is so empty, frustrating, and without meaning that the old life you have lived for 40 years is no longer viable."
Depression Rating System
"I spent one hour with Zeke in his office, giving him my health history and the litany of events leading up to my depression.
"Zeke told me I had some heavy things I’d gone through, and he wanted to start me on a common antidepressant—a Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitor, SNRI for short, to take the edge off my pain and move me back into a functioning mode. "
"He said, ‘I want to be honest with you. Different people react differently to different medications. The SNRI I’m prescribing will make you feel better, won’t make any difference, or will make you feel worse. The medication may take up to four weeks to reach its full effect, but you’ll know in two or three days if it’s making you worse. If it does, I want you to call me right away, and we’ll jump to Plan B.
"I also want you to keep track of the depth of your depression on a scale of 1-5 so we can both determine where you are at any given period of time. A 5 is normal. A 4 is feeling uncomfortable but still able to function; an upper 4 is mild depression and a lower 4 is moderate depression. A 3 is severe depression in which you have significant problems with thinking, eating, sleeping, and socializing; it is where hopelessness sets in and you just want to cry. A 2 is major depression that is not sustainable without some sort of relief. Thoughts of death arrive at this stage as a means of escaping the extreme anguish of the psyche. A 1 is a depression so dreadful and deep that, without intervention, a person considers suicide, and either embraces it or lives a life more horrific than anything the worst physical suffering can bring.’"
I was mentally under attack about it being too late in the afternoon. I’d win one skirmish only to find myself in another battle ten minutes later. I needed to move beyond endless introspection. My fingers and a computer keyboard were my instruments of action. I typed "late bloomers" into a search engine, and the results made a stunning list: Ray Kroc, who started a worldwide network of McDonald restaurants when he was 52, with major health problems and a life of neither fame nor fortune up to that point; Colonel Sanders; Grandma Moses, who started painting when she was 78; Nelson Mandela, who came out of prison to be President of South Africa on his 89th birthday; Charles Perrault, who published Cinderella and Tom Thumb when he was 69; Francis Chichester, who sailed around the world solo in 1967, when he was 65; Peg Phillips, who started acting professionally in her late 60s after retiring from a career as an accountant. And many others.
The person in my search who had the most influence on me was Norman Maclean. I had read the book Young Men and Fire ten years earlier because I was interested in the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana in 1949. The book moved me, and I was not easily moved then. After reading the excerpt about Maclean on the Internet, I went to my bookcase, pulled down Young Men and Fire, and reread all 301 pages of it on Wednesday and Thursday. There is much biographical information in his book, and I expanded on that by a thorough computer research exercise.
Norman Maclean retired from teaching at the University of Chicago when he was 71. Thereafter, he espoused a non-shuffleboard and non-geese feeding philosophy of old age. He published A River Runs Through It when he was 74. After that, he immediately started writing Young Men and Fire and was doing research in the heat of Montana late in his 70s and writing the book in his 80s, up to three years before his death. His wife died when he was 66, and he lived in both Montana and Chicago after that, going back and forth in his research of Young Men and Fire, focusing on Montana in the summer and Chicago in the winter. His friends and children lived in Chicago. He died in 1990 at the age of 87.
My impression of Maclean was that he was a riveting storyteller and as good a writer as I had ever read. As a professional writer myself in my advertising career, I appreciated good writing. The message to me of Norman Maclean’s life was simple: he had a purpose and meaning in life until the day he died. He didn’t feel it was too late in the afternoon for him. He just kept living a life of research and writing. Norman Maclean gave me a strong sense of hope that it was not too late in the afternoon for me either.
The Big Picture of Depression
Once again, seeing my depression from two years out is like a clear picture in color compared to the hazy black and white portrait I saw in the hospital. Clinical depression, the biochemical imbalance in your brain, can grab you at any time for no reason, such as in the elevator. If your only defense is taking medication, then more medication seems the only answer to relieve on-going mental anguish.
I see now in living color that a three-pronged approach is the best way to escape living in depression the rest of your life. The first prong is the medication so you can think and function again. But you can’t stop there. You need to engage the soul to discover the causes behind the symptoms and treat them with inner healing. Many people will find some success with these two approaches. The third prong, healing of the spirit, will bring you to a higher level of recovery than the first two approaches alone.
To complete the picture, I must color in two more images.
There are some people for whom a biochemical imbalance in the brain is a chronic condition, without being precipitated by hidden causes. The two approaches beyond medication will help alleviate the depression, but total healing may never happen. However, you’ll never know if you are that person unless you at least try the other two approaches.
The second image is people with mild or moderate depression who can be healed without medication, sometimes by just seeing a doctor to discuss symptoms and learn about depression. Seeing a psychologist or counselor will accelerate inner healing, as will having a spiritual director. Dave was my spiritual director. I have talked to people for whom the Holy Spirit was directly their spiritual director.
Do I sound like an expert on depression? I am, in a way. Those of you who have had a critical illness, like diabetes, have become experts by living through it, as well as by talking to doctors, talking to other people with diabetes, searching the Internet, and reading everything about diabetes you can get your hands on. That’s what I did. I’m not an expert on depression through credentialing. I am the depository of information gathered from my own experience; from Dave, Zeke, Wally, and Daniel; from depressed people I talk to (we seem to find each other by instinct); and from much research.