December 16, 2014

The things We Forget when we’re Sick.

oil painting unwell girl

The darkness had seized me.

It was only a few days after I published my piece on recovering from a friend’s suicide attempt, and I was curled up in a chemically decaying ball, wanting desperately to die.

This is how my bipolar disorder operates: it is rapid cycling, which is a fancy clinical way of saying that I switch from manic highs to petrifying lows very quickly. There is, without proper medical and therapeutic intervention (and for me often even with it), little time in between cycles for me to breathe. Bipolar disorder does not care about circumstance, so it left me blindingly depressed right around Thanksgiving.

I found myself gasping. I was drowning in the very sea that I begged people to survive. I discovered that I needed more than the core belief that life is beautiful to get me through.

When one is depressed, it can be so easy to knee-jerk against the beliefs we held when we were well, to say things like “Everyone’s life is beautiful but mine.” We find ourselves to be our own philosophical exceptions.

Let me tell you, you are no exception. Our lives are beautiful, and we deserve to celebrate them.

For some days during my depression, I celebrated being able to walk upright to the kitchen, or having my light turned on for more than half an hour, as only darkness seemed tolerable and deserved. I learned that by celebrating the seemingly easy but oh so difficult things, bearing the weight of my depression became easier.

One thing I learned, with help, from my depression is that I need to get rid of the “should’s.” It doesn’t matter how easy something “should” be. If it is hard, and I try, that is worth celebrating. Depression is not a matter of a lack of gratitude or poor character; it is a matter of chemicals and something much deeper.

My Case Manager told me to “stop should-ing on myself” when I was depressed, and I think that’s a lesson we need to all take into account. Depression isn’t our fault, and we can’t “should” our way out of it. If we could, we would just stop being depressed. So we deserve to give ourselves the grace of not making ourselves feel worse with all the things we “should” do, and instead celebrate all of the things we are actually doing.

Right now I am sitting with a dear friend at Panera; she is working on homework and I am enjoying having time to reflect in her company, and I remember back to the time a few weeks ago when I had to be talked through once simple, and then seemingly impossible, tasks of daily living.

I am learning to roll with the punches of my variant moods. I am discovering that it’s an imperfect process, and coming back from my depression has taught me how important it is to share our stories. I am learning, slowly, to make healing from madness.

Depression, while it sat on my chest like a miserable lion, robbed me of my dignity and self worth. After a while, it felt strangely comfortable.

While I was depressed, thoughts of death were like a cool washcloth in times of great fever. Sometimes they still are, but I am learning that life is so much more important than whatever depression can discolor. Creativity, self worth, hope, and dignity are things that can be taken back.

Suicide is not.

The darkness can certainly obscure our bright lights, but it is time we win ourselves back from the edge. This is a long, hard journey for many, with a very convoluted road map, but I believe it is worth it.

During my depression, I felt less than human. I compared myself to an earthworm, writhing around blindly in pained attempts to create meaning. I felt less than, defective and cracked. Because of these feelings, I felt I had full justification for killing myself. Now I know that there was no such justification.

Depression is not justification for me dying; it is instead the crucial reason that I survive to share my hope. There is power in storytelling and a need for personal anchors. For me, that anchor was poetry.

I believe that poetry can save lives. It has saved mine. I listened to Andrea Gibson’s album Flower Boy for hours at a time during my darkest days. I specifically listened to her poem “Jellyfish.”

Curled up in the dark and shaking, that poem became my anthem. It is how I survived. “Jellyfish” is, somehow, the anchor-poem that kept me kicking in a dismal sea, fighting for the shore. And so a jellyfish is going to be the tattoo I ink into my body, to forever commemorate the journey.

Andrea Gibson’s poem spoke to me in the depths of my despair, and that is why I believe we all need an anchor. We need something that speaks hope into our tired hearts, and calls us back to life.

Today at Panera my friend and I talked briefly about Emily Dickinson. In one of Dickinson’s poems, she wrote to “Tell it slant.” Well, I think it is time for us to tell it straight. The straight talk is that depression doesn’t just hurt—it kills.

depression and friends

I’ve seen more than my fair share of hospital rooms and offices populated by the living dead; I know that it kills. But I also know that it can heal. Give it time. As much as I loathe when people tell me to “Give it time,” because I know that in the deep of it, it feels like the time of redemption will never come, I ask that of you now. I would like you to give it time before you give up completely, because I promise you there there is reason to be hopeful.

I am hopeful because I have heard poems that breathe life through my veins like wind chimes, and I’ve shared stories that have made friends laugh, and in turn been made to laugh until my sides hurt. There is so much to learn, and even things to teach. Our story-road maps, however hatch-marked by pain and detours, are leading us to somewhere glorious. There are stories to share. There are yoga mats to roll out, even when we’ve let them collect dust for so long that we can no longer touch our toes.

Even if it seems like it will take forever, know that healing will happen if you fight for it, and you will not have to travel this story alone.

During the darkest hours of my depression, my therapist asked me to have faith. I thought she was insane, but I listened to her. Faith, I’ve learned, outlasts pain. Faith is permanent and evolving; darkness is not. I urge you to find faith in something, however questioning that faith is. It will hold you tight.

My therapist knew that my road map is already well-worn from travels to where madness reigns. By introducing faith, she provided the impetus for me moving slowly out of this perilous place to one with more substance and hope. She helped change my direction. My madness and recovery are becoming much more meaningful; they are, I hope, bright lights for others, and testaments to the power of anchors.

I will tell it straight: fighting depression is one of the most difficult things I’ve done, and I know I will have to do it again. That is the physiology of my brain. But every time I come back from that darkness, I know more about myself, my abilities and my dreams. I learn to kick back at the dark sea, while also accepting that it is my cross to bear. I am learning to softly hold life by its sharp edges.

As I recover, the edges round themselves out.

With shaky faith, I am able to get back to enjoy life among the living, even when the darkness seems to be all there is. My life is becoming fuller with each round I win.

Looking backward, I was a despondent train crash. Maybe that is how you feel now.

Maybe you’re looking at your road map but don’t know where a safe place to go is because your own brain doesn’t feel safe. I’ve been there. But darkness is impermanent. You will find the shore, despite this horridly rocky sea, and it is worth it. And I promise you, from my perspective of sitting with a friend at Panera, there are better times to come.

I am building sandcastles for our hopes to live in until you can find something more solid. Solid hopes will come. We will find our outlets where we feel completely alive. Just hold on. I found a poem that became my anthem when my heart didn’t know how to beat on its own.

You, too, can find a heartbeat when yours feels too weak. My beloved therapist told me to have faith, and without that I doubt I would be where I am.

Have faith and fight on; your story is worth saving.

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Author: Emily Taggart

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: freeparking/flickr, Gerald Gabernig/Flickr

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