Friday, June 22, 2018

Depression: on the Inside and on the Outside

I spoke in a recent post about the highs of bipolar disorder. Today I'd like to talk about the lows.

When I was a teenager, I reported to my therapist at the time that I was viewing the world through a glass wall. I could see through it, and speak loudly enough to be heard, and yet there was a sense of isolation - my actions, my life, were meaningless, because I could not truly interact with my peers.

This is a pretty common description of depression, and along with it came fatigue, insomnia, lack of interest in daily activities, moving in a fog of strangeness. I discovered later that most of my depression was mixed in with mania - I used to say that I was really excited about being depressed. An odd statement, and yet the fringes of psychosis present in my sadness meant I operated in a heightened awareness, a skewed perception, like a jolt of lightning splitting a charcoal sky. 

Depression can creep up on you, and if you've lived with it for a long time you may not know what it is like to feel normal. When the darkness begins to crawl in, it can be hard to notice - the lows are a part of your identity, and they aren't particularly alarming, at first. 

Right now, the outside world threatens my internal world. Every morning I make coffee and drink too much of it - and before I begin my daily work I read the news. I can't let myself become immune to what is going on, and I can't ignore it in favor of my privileged comfort, so I follow the backwards progress of politics. Half a pot of coffee, or four shots of espresso, or a full French press, and the news. 

And the news is terrible.

It seems selfish to couch that in terms of my own mental health. I suffer no real-life repercussions of policy, and my life is pretty darn nice - as usual, I ask myself why I should have the right to complain. I lose interest in my housekeeping, in my writing, in my art, despite the time and ability to do all of it, and I guilt myself; how dare I feel this way? 

But I think most of us, even those without mental illnesses, feel this way. 

As this administration dissembles and blunders and commits human rights violations, we must continue our lives. And as we continue, the nastiness grows, unabated, like a grim soundtrack in a horror film. Everything feels bitter and filthy - we live not only with the crimes being perpetrated by our government today but with knowledge of those same crimes throughout the history of this country. Brick by brick, a glass wall is erected before us all; we are joined in anger and yet isolated in our own experiences of shock, betrayal, hopelessness. 

I experienced the highs, described here, and now, inevitably, I feel the lows. My mind swings like a pendulum - no longer erratic, wild, but still inexorable. And that motion, the back and forth, is made so much worse by current events. I begin my day reading the news - little wonder that my mind swings slowly, turgid with sorrow, toward deepening lows. 

Unlike every other post, I find it difficult to summon a positive message. That is the insidiousness of depression - half a pot of coffee and not a darn thing to say. 

The metaphor continues. I am passionate about writing, and art, and music, just as so many of us are passionate about equality, justice, love - but those things seem out of reach. Hope begins to wane, for our country, for our futures, for our loved ones and for ourselves. Anxiety is our companion, too; I know that I view each day with trepidation, wondering what horror may be unveiled next. Our coping mechanisms are stretched, threadbare. Some people drink alcohol with grim smiles of momentary relief. I, sober after fifteen years of drinking, clutch my beloved mugs from the renaissance festival, spilling caffeine down my chest in those uncoordinated moments when I somehow miss my mouth. 

If there is hope to be had - at least for me - it is that in taking some action I begin to chip away at the glass wall. Sitting here, still in my nightgown and writing this post, my dulled mind begins to wake, senses sharpened. The old advice about putting one foot in front of the other applies - the only way we can move forward is by taking small steps. I often equate the idea of self-care with bubble baths and manicures (which are admittedly both on my list for the day) but I think it goes deeper than that. I think that to care for ourselves we must do things that are hard. Therapy isn't easy, nor is working toward social justice. And if you've been dealing with chronic illnesses for your whole life, sometimes the most basic things are the hardest of all.

I know how lucky I am. I have a solid grasp on life when before I clung to it desperately from my fingernails. But I think that my awareness of my disorders makes me more aware of the sickness in this country. My internal highs and lows are external - bipolar may be the key word for America, mood swings, psychosis, an illness difficult to manage. I can't help looking at what's happening and recognizing it as something I have experienced in my own mind; we live in a dark world, somewhere bizarre and twisted, a place which shouldn't be reality. I am fortunate enough to see my bipolar disorder as a blessing - the challenge I was meant to face in this life - but if our country is bipolar, it is not being treated. It runs rampant. 

And that affects me. I can't deny it. Even as I live a medicated life, and even as I work towards continued good health, a sickness grows which I cannot manage.

Step by step - next up is doing the dishes and washing the sheets. I'll take my bath and do my makeup, and then I'll work on my art. I know that all of that is possible because of the incremental step of working on my writing. One foot, two feet, and keep walking.

But if you too are feeling that you are brought low - if you cannot, right at this moment, take those first steps - please know that you are not alone. We are all in this difficult time together. We can knock down the glass wall, even if it cuts us.     

We cannot survive in isolation. And if we want to come up from the depth of the lows, we must do it holding hands. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

When You Were Small

Imagine you are small.

Everyone, even the most cold-hearted among us, was a child, once. Each of us holds memories of what it felt like to be young - to be new in this world. We remember the first moments of love and the first moments of pain, the comfort of a soft blanket, the agony of a skinned knee, the shyness of new friendships, the longing for an embrace.

I remember lying in bed with my dad - I was about two years old - while my mother showered in the bathroom, my face pressed against the wall and feeling the vibrations of water cascading over her hair, my father's face with its red beard as he smiled at me. I was safe; I was content.

I remember the day when my parents decided to get divorced, not because I understood the conversation which had taken place, but because I saw my mother crying, and I was helpless in the face of her grief.

All of those memories live inside of me; childhood memories live in all of us and inform the people we become. I will always love the sound of running water, and I will always feel hot sunshine and remember the golden afternoon light on my mother's hair as she cried. I will always love them both, in pain and in joy, and that love will remain in me for all of my life.

If we are defined by anything it is by our memories and how we cope with them. Abuse, affection; loneliness, love; despair and deep contentment. Studying post-traumatic stress reveals how fundamental recollection is to our identities - to have traumatic memories is to relive them. To be unable to escape in panic, to be dizzy with trauma we cannot erase. Those memories become a core part of who we are, and without proper care - therapy, medication, self-analysis - we may not emerge from their shadow.

Imagine you are small.

Imagine your mother, father, grandparents - imagine the people you love most in the world and the only people you truly know - suddenly ripped from you. Imagine being four, or two, or eight months old, with all the helplessness of your small body and your developing brain, and imagine what it would feel like to be alone. To be jostled and nameless and unloved, to be imprisoned with other unloved children. To be hot, hungry, dirty. To be confused, to not know how to speak, to be denied what all children need - touch.

To be locked in a cage.

We were all children, once.

How do we permit this kind of suffering?

We learn everything we know about human emotion by the time we are five years old. Much of that growth happens before we are three. And so much of that education happens through the touch of loved ones; so much of our development comes from human attachment. We learn from the people who are charged with our care - we know how to love and how to self-soothe because of the roles our guardians play in our lives.

I've watched my brother- and sister-in-law raise their children, and I've been continually impressed by how happy those children are. They know they are safe, and loved, and cared for; they know their creativity and individuality are protected and encouraged; their every day routine is built on a foundation of security and respect. Having worked with small children, knowing how delicate early development can be, I watch my niece and nephews with incredible joy and gratitude.

And it galls me, it is agonizing, that right now there are children - human beings - who are not given the opportunity for the same happiness. It is stolen from them, and that kind of denial is without doubt a form of torture.

These small people are going to grow up some day, and they will hold within them the trauma of their detainment, their separation from their parents, their hunger, their pain. For the rest of their lives they will live and relive these cruelties. They have no security, no rights, no love. They cannot yet speak and advocate for themselves. They are untouched by the gentle hands of their families. As they mature, they will experience post-traumatic stress, mental illness, even physical maladies - because we are allowing them to be tortured. By our government. By our representatives. By our votes, our inaction, our American and nationalistic cruelty.

I've often thought that in order to support the current President, one would have to be stupid, selfish, or cruel. Stupid, to believe the administration's lies; selfish, to not care about the suffering of others; cruel, to revel in that suffering. I've seen in the past weeks the joy of conservatives as they lock up children, as those children are irrevocably harmed. I've seen the apathy when it is brown children who suffer. I've seen massive stupidity as the administration scrambles to justify or deny its atrocities and as those lies are believed.

Imagine you are small.

You don't care about politics, you don't understand why people hate you, you don't know why this is happening, and you don't know where your mother is.

Imagine that these are your first memories of the world. Who will you become? How will you ever feel safe? How will you heal and re-learn what it means to be loved? How will you cope with being an abused child? The abuse may end, but the legacy of being abused will be in you forever.

We have allowed this. On our watch - in our names. Children are being tortured, their sense of self stripped bare, their futures stolen.

We were all children, once. And while our childhoods have ended, we must remember what it felt like - because the cure to stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty is and always has been enlightenment, empathy, and compassion.

Imagine, now, that you are an adult - the kind of adult you needed when you were young.

Protect these children the way you needed to be protected. Speak for small people who cannot speak for themselves. Be loving, be kind, be safe.

And fight. Because childhood is worth fighting for. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bipolar One - Split in Two

For the past twelve years, I have thought of myself as a before and an after.

When I was nineteen, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I made a list of symptoms, describing my behaviors as if to prove that yes, something was wrong with me. I read them aloud to a psychiatrist, and her diagnosis was quick and clear: bipolar one. 

I am one of the lucky few who found the right medication right away. I've been taking the same stuff for twelve years, and I've had ups and downs, minor adjustments, but the maintenance of my illness has remained essentially the same. When I was drinking the medication was less effective - psych meds and alcohol should not mix! - but now that I'm sober I feel the full force of stabilization, of serenity. 

As I've progressed in those twelve years, I've pushed away the Alice who was before. I remembered my erratic moods, my impulsive behavior, the crawling shadows in my brain, and I felt both relief that I had changed and a fear of who I had been. The meds made me gain weight, and the weight became a symbol of this "after" Alice. I was cocooned in a physical manifestation of a rejection of my former self. 

Now, having lost all of the weight, I find myself closer to the before. I pull on clothes from 2005, 2001, and they fit - and I can't help but remember the way I felt when I was younger. I celebrate this body, feeling proud, elated, grateful; even so, I fear it. 

We live in our bodies. They have memories - they live through us.

In terms of my mental illness, I tend to go through three year cycles. Every three years I feel the ghost of mania - it feels like the lingering smell of smoke and stale beer, a whisper of music you heard when you were young - and it has less power over me, now, but I'm able to trace those cycles back to the year I was born. It has always been in me. And I'm due - I've been aware of it for months - and it comes in concert with my weight loss, my struggle with body dysmorphia, a burst of creativity, my father's death. All of the ingredients are there, bubbling away like the beef stew my dad made the last night I lived at home.

My illness is chronic, and despite the mercurial nature of bipolar disorder, it is predictable. I know its inner workings. I understand it, more and more as I get older.

It scares me, sometimes - not because I do anything frightening, but because I've so thoroughly judged the "before" Alice. Because I felt I had to reject her. Because maybe I convinced myself that there really was something wrong with me - diagnosis as condemnation.

I'm so open about my mental illness, and I speak and write about it with supposed compassion and acceptance. I want to be supportive of others, to share my stories in hopes that other people who struggle might feel comforted by the fact that they aren't alone. At the same time, I think I've been swayed by the judgments of mental illness which are both common and extraordinarily harmful. I've taken on a mantle of wrongness - my brain works differently, and that must make me a bad person. I can only hope to assimilate by denying my neurodivergence. 

I want to be like other people, I guess. I cower from the Alice before, casting her as the villain, the angry goddess, the wicked witch. And now that I have her body again, now that my three years are up, now that my dad is gone and I'm sorting through the memories of our relationship, I face her in the mirror and feel genuine fear.

I keep playing through the same memory of my father. It was a perfect Baltimore spring day, 2005, sharp and ripe with the smell of concrete and pear blossoms, and I invited my gaming group over for cookies and cocktails. We sat in the back garden, eating raw dough out of the bowl, drinking triple sec out of antique glassware, and my dad was playing jazz on the kitchen speakers. He was laying slate, stolen from a church renovation, in our little flower bed, and he asked my friends to shatter it into smaller pieces. He turned up the volume, and four teenage boys danced over the stone, totally ridiculous - and my dad was beaming, and I was a little drunk, and the spring air blew through me like a kiss, and I was thin and sweet and madness and joy. 

That's the before Alice. The scary one. The bad one. And nothing ever feels like that any more.

And maybe I want it to. Maybe I'm tired of hiding from myself. 

If there's a lesson to be learned, here, it must be that I have to accept my mental illness in a new way. I can't just think of myself as a before and an after - I have to merge the two selves and reject my fear. I wasn't a bad person - though I made some decidedly bad decisions - just because I was unmedicated. I wasn't bad because I was thin, because I had an eating disorder. There wasn't anything wrong with me - I'm ill, surely and forever, but I'm not a person to revile. 

I can't hate such an essential part of myself. I can't push my heart away.

Managing chronic illness can feel like a fight against your own body, your own brain. Some days are really good, and you can almost feel normal, and some days are really hard, and you know you are not. I'm never going to be normal - I hope I can turn that into a good thing. Because I want to remember.

I want to remember the afternoons in the back garden. I want to mourn my father while recalling the fragile beauty of Baltimore in spring. I want the tissue paper tenderness, the honey-ripe, the skirling dizziness, the smell of smoke and bruised pear blossoms. I want to lick the bowl and have it all. 

I want to be finished with the before and the after. 

I want to be Alice, now.