Wilfrid Sheed’s In Love with Daylight describes several recent years he spent fighting illness, addiction, and depression, winning through to that strangely elusive condition in which the plain light of day, without being unbearable, is bright enough to keep the heart up.
Sheed’s account of his illness is underlaid by two conditions that shaped his nature. One is Catholicism, and lest the secular reader be put off by this, it has to be said that Sheed’s Catholicism is lightly and gracefully worn, skeptical, anti-pietist, and nowhere offered as inspiration. It’s not even affirmed exactly, so it would be very misleading to call In Love with Daylight a book informed by Catholicism. Still, as will become clear, his reasoning and his conclusions are more “Catholic” than otherwise.
The other condition, one he has written little about before, was his getting polio at the age of fourteen. The very words of this phrase are enough to chill the heart of anyone who remembers the annual summer plagues. But, as Sheed points out, terror and revulsion are responses appropriate only to potential conditions or to the conditions of others. When it’s you and it’s happened, a different set of reflexes and imperatives are brought to bear. His chapters on his polio experience are memorable and make it possible to understand how he succeeded in coping with what was to come in later life.
He summons up the circumstances of adolescent illness with a harrowing clarity:
But perhaps my sharpest memory of all is of writhing on my bed a few weeks before I got polio, grappling with the possibility of someday catching it myself. We’d just been given our new rooms at school for the fall, which makes the scene all the more vivid since I was still seeing it for the first time, and the day was unseasonably hot, and for a moment or two I was next thing to scared out of my wits. I couldn’t take it, that’s all. I’d go crazy that’s all, I’d go crazy if I got polio and had to give up baseball and, of course, football—and walking, which I’d almost forgotten about. And I’m sure that if someone had chosen that moment to show me a picture of myself as I would look a year or two hence, crawling spindle-shanked, my face an apparent mask of pain, over an ice-cold floor to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I’d have gone crazy on the spot.
But being fourteen equips a person with formidable reserves of energy and courage and once upon a time it also furnished certainties. These in Sheed’s case were the principles of Catholicism. “As a matter of fact,” he writes.
for years I believed that my own smooth adjustment to my losses was entirely the consequence of the religious faith…. Indeed, a firm belief in miracles and the power of prayer, and a trusting nature, did treat me to three and a half years of unbridled optimism, at the end of which I was so used to polio that I could barely remember what life had felt like without it…Faith had more than done the trick for me and I guess a truly pious person would say that my prayers had been answered that way; but that’s the kind of faith you only get to use once, and I gradually lost interest in praying for anything, because I couldn’t think of a grown-up way to do it…
Only much later did it dawn on me that I needn’t have subjected religion to this intolerable stress and that a lot of people had adjusted as well as I had without believing in prayers or miracles at all.
Clarity is always present in Sheed’s account, unsparing and utterly unsentimental. If suffering and misfortune can ever be described as not wasted, they were not wasted on young Wilfrid Sheed, whose consciousness was quickened for life. He reflects:
But looking the worst in the eye is not, I should add quickly, something you should rush into. In the matter of getting used to things, the golden rule is always to let your body go first, dragging your mind behind it. If you try to jump the gun and resign yourself to things like sickness and death before your body is ready for them, the images will simply annihilate you.
This certainly seems to be good advice for an age beset by new plagues, at least as sound as anything in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (parts of which it uncannily echoes) and probably of more practical use to Western readers.
His reserves served Sheed well, up until his middle fifties, often about the time one is reminded that there’s more to survival than just cheerfully being around year after year. Along with many other veterans of childhood polio he was struck with the potentially disabling “post-polio syndrome”—a return or extension of the disease’s paralytic effects. This condition is sometimes attributed to the effects of physiotherapy in vogue at hospices like Warm Springs, where he had spent some time.
He also developed what turned out to be treatable cancer and was advised to give up smoking and alcohol. For a man of letters of Sheed’s generation, one for whom the writing life in New York was the drinking life, this was a thing not too easily accomplished. But Sheed approached it with his customary élan, reasoning: “I’ve been here before…I know how to do this.”
He would take what he calls his “polio attitude” into new areas. The “polio attitude” he defines as “(1) an awed respect for the authority of the body and (2) a thoroughgoing skepticism about those who trade in its upkeep.” Sheed coped with his “postpolio” symptoms and managed to quit smoking. “The smoking clause was easy to comply with in the circumstances: unbelievably painful, but easy, and perversely exhilarating.”
But he had already been having a little trouble with alcohol and pills. It was not exactly an unheard-of condition around town or on the shores of literary exurbia. As long as joy’s hand is ever at his lips bidding adieu, people are going to want to get high. Some abstain, take up roller-blading, turn up at the Y at six AM of a winter morning with their Speedo goggles and squash bags. Other people play balancing games, orchestrating gradations of attachment to various favorite potions or “substances” as they are disdainfully referred to by those who despise their yickiness and depravity. The term “substance abuse” is so evocative, conveying the intersection of moral and material guilt. Many who find their way into it get well and truly fucked up, and some of these descend in stages to the levels of hell generally defined by the expression addiction-depression. As it turned out, Sheed would need all of his faith and canniness to find his way through.
Addiction-depression is a hall of mirrors, an unfunhouse in the corridors of which the victim can lose hold of reality, a loss which is immediately and genuinely life-threatening. The emotions of childhood, the worst ones, emerge out of the past as torments unaccompanied by the optimism and resilience with which they were originally endured. The impulse is toward self-medication, which extends the arc of every mood swing. The subjective nature of feelings is difficult enough to grasp: What’s the difference between a real and an artificial emotion? Is there one? May one speak in such terms? In the cycle of dope, perspective vanishes or appears in a Chirico landscape. Booze and drugs murder sleep just as Macbeth does.
The accompanying depression has a disheartening flatness. Sheed writes, “After depression there are no tragedies….” He may be right. When we’re young and clean we’d happily volunteer to share the fate of Shakespeare’s characters if we could only partake of their poetry, their language. But the downside of drugs speaks a shattered, affectless tongue that’s resistant to tropes.
Sheed recounts his experience, quite widely shared in our druggy country, with detachment and wit. His poisons were variously alcohol, which is where it usually starts, Ativan (a drug better known to travelers as a Mickey Finn in the dives of Bangkok and Manila than as an instrument of healing), Halcion, and phenobarbitol. You might say it could have been worse. In fact it was very bad. At one point he calls what he lived through “Nothing to the nth power; Nothing heightened to the screaming point.”
At the darkest moment of his personal night he had occasion to recall Chesterton, the philosopher now little known outside the shrinking Catholic world, whose entertaining paradoxes haunt the reflections of all educated English-speaking Catholics, be they hanging fast, clinging loosely, or fallen away.
“I thought often,” Sheed writes, “of Chesterton’s saying that ‘suicide is an insult to every leaf on every tree,’ which had answered all questions of this kind for me during the glooms of adolescence but which rang no bells now. ‘So what?’ was all I could say. Leaves have their problems, I have mine.”
But he survived both his diseases and their cures, at one point interning himself in an AA-minded sanitorium he refers to scathingly as Happy Valley. The “thoroughgoing skepticism” of his youth was brought to bear on his doctors, whose knowledge of the effects of their own nostrums he found wanting, and on the techniques of AA, “parrots lecturing to sheep.”
At times, the attitudes in this memoir reflect not only Sheed’s Catholicism but his vestigial Englishness. He does not share the charitable American readiness to suffer well-intentioned fatuities, though he gets past the English macho tendency to engage in utter denial and to regard alcoholism and drug addiction as foreign (American) conditions to which only the weak (Americans) succumb. Evelyn Waugh was just one of the boozy English writers, roseate and tanked to the point of spontaneous combustion, to deny he had anything like a problem with a couple of whiskies before lunch with wine, followed by the same at dinner, followed by some Dickensian bromide at bedtime. If ever an unsound mind of genius was destroyed by alcohol and drugs it was Waugh’s—witness his The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold—yet it would be possible to read the biographies by Christopher Sykes and Martin Stannard without quite realizing this. Sheed is touchy and sometimes accusatory toward his handlers but never blind.
It’s in his Catholicism that Sheed collides head-on with the AA people. In spite of its agnostic brand of religiosity, the Program is, at its core, deeply Protestant, even Calvinist. It involves a denial of the doctrine of free will, a surrender to and utter reliance upon grace, which he was unlikely, by instinct, to accept. An account of a personal Inferno, In Love with Daylight contains a story that ends like Dante’s original; our hero emerges to regard again the stars.
So my private proofs for God, or whatever, begin with this: the sheer capacity for happiness, and one’s sense, when it happens, that this is correct and normal and not some freak of nature. When health returns, it feels like coming home, with everything just as you left it: and the other thing, the bad news—the broken leg or even the mental breakdown—feels like the freak. But now you are back where you belong, in harmony with the universe. And from this I deduce with some conviction that the universe is essentially a good place to be, despite appearances, and that if it means anything, it means well.
Very orthodox this, in its indirect way, Jansenist-free, counter-Gnostic, Catholic Christianity—imprimatur, nihil obstat—without sentimentality or triumphalism. In Love with Daylight’s account and its style, aphoristic, forthright, humorous, and irascible, will provide the stuff of a few useful arguments for anyone who has experienced addiction-depression at close quarters, from the inside or the outside. It makes good reading and good company.
April 6, 1995