According to those in the know, I am, right now, on a ship lost at sea, taking on water, sinking fast. Manic arrhythmia has everything beating too fast, throwing me off balance. Erratic sleep(lessness), irrational, disordered thinking, and all the BIG BAD urges festering beneath the skin—I don’t want to eat, if I eat I want to purge, if I purge I want to cut, if I cut I want to die, and then I try to, and then? A wide swath of damage and destruction. As Christopher reminded me last night, the time it takes for that rapid chain of events to unfold can be anywhere from 1 week to 1 hour. That’s how mania works: all impulses become immediate, vociferous actions. Actions that belong to IT and not recovery.
RECOVERY: it looks like it can better stand up to IT when capitalized. What does that mean when I, no, we (because my team is part of this, too), are in emergency, lockdown mode? I wear the life vest, listen to the alarm, follow captain's orders. So Christopher calls me on the hour to check-in (Did I eat lunch? Am I safe? But really wanting to know: Are you still alive?); in turn, I call on my friends, give the honest answer when asked Q. How are you? A. Unstable, unsteady, underwater. It means I sit on my butt for hours after each meal and Christopher plays bathroom monitor. I have to eat otherwise I will go wicky-wacky. Scissors disappear and knives stay in the knifeblocks. Lithium (I’ve overdosed on that before) and Abilify are hidden in some inaccessible place, dosages counted and doled out. I fill my time with running and reading and grading and riding and writing and cleaning and laundry and errands and kids and dogs and my husband. All of this doing and doing and doing may seem like some convincing impersonation of mania, but empty time is deadly time as it allows IT to start directing the show, and as Dr. B. keeps reiterating, IT wants me dead.
I don’t want to die. So here I am trying to keep things orderly, moving from one sentence, one word to another. Writing. And reading--this poem (“Having It Out with Melancholy,” by Jane Kenyon) again because, while I’m furiously bailing out the water from my boat, I’m keeping an eye on the horizon for the words that will keep me afloat. Jane Kenyon (herself a poet with Bipolar Disorder who died of leukemia a few years ago) is able to get at the dark absurdity of IT, the relentless hounding of her by IT, the mountains of pills that are supposed to, if not cure, then tamp down IT, the exhaustion of the constant fight with IT, the small, often unforgettable but miraculous moments that save you from IT, that keep you breathing, and ends with hope, that thing with feathers quivering on a branch outside her window, small heart beating resolutely, dark eyes fixed on the world and on staying alive in it. So here it is, long, haunting, necessary:
Having It Out with Melancholy
If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV The Cherry Orchard
1 FROM THE NURSERY
When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.
And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad -- even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.
You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
"We're here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated."
I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours -- the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.
Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.
3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND
You wouldn't be so depressed
if you really believed in God.
Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep's
frail wicker coracle.
5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors -- those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
"I'll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!" After that, I wept for days.
6 IN AND OUT
The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life -- in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .
A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.
Coarse, mean, you'll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can't
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can't sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can't read, or call
for an appointment for help.
There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.
9 WOOD THRUSH
High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
Where is my bird singing in the tree? I could say that it is, for now, the wonderful monotony of running laps this morning which drowned out ITs insistent voice. I could say it is Dr. B.’s voice, his words in my head, asking me, no telling me that I need to stay hitched to this ride, as tumultuous as it may be, and live. I could say it is the familiar sound of my kids fighting over who gets the first plate of pancakes, then their voracious gobbling of them up. Or Daphne asleep in the chair, snoring away, or Athena asleep in the kitchen, finally and blessedly silent. I could say it is the mere fact of rereading this poem this morning, hearing another voice describe what I, too, have been attempting to describe, another person who lived and lived with IT. I could say that it is Christopher, who is not home right now, but who will, I can rely on this!, come home, and to me—despite all of the awful, tedious shit of IT. And finally, why not today’s fleeting sunshine, such wonderful illumination. Not all is gray and cold or buried or burrowing or biting. And there is this: writing my way through IT, and the reprieve it offers in the brief surfacing for air, for light, for the hopeful, expansive view.