Sunday, November 14, 2010

Swim Lessons

ECT on Friday went off without a hitch. The IV slipped right in, anesthesia worked as it should, the seizure was short and sweet, and I woke up feeling great. Better than great. Instead of my usual collapse into bed for the afternoon, I was perky and ambitious, even suggesting to Christopher that we hit the supermarket and then stop for lunch. Yes, I was hungry—hungry enough to eat a real meal. Indian: paneer, vegetable curry, and rice. No measuring cups, just flying by the seat of my pants. Estimating how much I should have without any panic.

Part of my equanimity was certainly due to my mini “lecture” on Depression and the effects of ECT that my ECT psychiatrist asked me to give to a group of visiting potential Residents. “What does depression feel like?” he asked. I was lying in the hospital bed, waiting for the nurse to insert the IV, anxious about the imminent ECT procedure, and despite these nerve-wracking distractions, my doctor believed that I could offer them insight, an intimate glimpse into the debilitation of depression.

“What it’s like," I said, “is hell. I’ve been suffering from depression since I was at least fourteen, cutting my arms, starving myself. Depression leaves you at a great distance from yourself—you no longer have a self that you care about. You no longer believe there’s any possible way to climb out of the well. Inert, stuck, dead to the world. Everything that you know should bring you joy? Fails. There is no capacity for joy. No imaginative capacity; no ability to see beyond the bleak wall of yourself. What ECT has given me these past few weeks is a chance to get unstuck—sure I still have serious ups and downs, but I don’t stay down. There’s a new clarity—and maybe that’s also due to the fact that I’m no longer on any drugs, for the first time in 16 years, no drugs!—that allows me to see that I don’t have to stay at the bottom of the well. I guess what I’m feeling, as tentative and precarious as it may be, is hope.”

Later, Christopher said I was brave to speak as I did. “I couldn’t have done it,” he said. “Speaking about IT in front of a group of strangers. That just shows how far you’ve come—you’ve gained some distance on IT.”

That’s what I have to remember: I don’t have to live inside of IT’s demands. I can forgive myself, feel some small amount of pride that I am surviving IT, that I am making progress. For instance, yesterday, at my kids’ swim lessons, I was sitting with my daughter and we were watching her brother take his first few strokes without the aid of a flotation belt.

“I can’t,” he screeched. “I can’t do it!”

His teacher assuaged him. “Of course you can,” she said. “You’re already doing it!”

And in fact, he was—he’d swam the few strokes from her arms to the wall without even registering his success. Can I recover from IT? Similarly, I often feel like I’m sinking, drowning, flailing helplessly in the water. Can I stay afloat without IT, without the perverse comfort of depression, without the scaffolding of the Eating Disorder and its sick but soothing dictatorial order? My answer: Of course I can. I’m already doing it!

How can I be sure? Not five minutes later, because it was a million degrees in the pool room, I stripped off my sweater, leaving me only in my black tee-shirt. My daughter looked over at me, at my bare arms.

“Momma,” she said, “how do you think you got all those scratches on your arm?”

I took a deep breath. “You know, I got them so long ago, that I don’t really remember.”

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but my arms are healed these days. No cuts to have to hide or explain away, no crazy scenes with scissors or knives. No bandages or lies. Scars, yes. Over one hundred. But I believe that there will come a day when how I got them will be an indistinct, vague memory. I truly won’t remember how I could have ever done that to myself, how I could have ever believed that damage and death were the only ways out. What I will have in ITs place is a joyful, creative life and I will be swimming confidently and with imaginative purpose through love and light.