From Heavy as Lead to Light as a Feather

graphite drawingThere are places I go, whether on foot or by car–whether passing through or staying a while–that are like instant decompression chambers for me. Whatever has been weighing on my heart and mind seems to fade away into the distance with every step taken, every thousand feet traveled by car, bus, ferry or train. Flying used to be in that category too, but post-9-11 security hassles and the resultant grumpiness of the industry and travelers alike has meant that I need some of that other kind of travel just to recover from the flying days anymore. But that other kind, oh, it’s amazing how much it can do to change me.

I’ve had the sort of trip that was more like a descent into the maelstrom as well. The true recognition of my need for therapy and medication for my clinical depression didn’t happen for a long time over the years of sliding downward but rather in the few hours of being driven home from a long weekend getaway in a favorite decompression place to the place where my depression was gathering up a thunderhead over me at work, when I simply started crying and couldn’t stop. It was a dark, grim day for me (not to mention for my poor husband the driver), but it was at least purposeful in bringing out into the open what had been lying hidden in me for ages, and in leading directly to my finally seeking and getting the help I needed. What’s more, thereafter when I or we took off on any of those favorite walks or rides of renewal and anticipation and refreshment, it actually worked again, and the good wasn’t undone by the return lap of the journey.

It’s been a good long time since that ugly, interminable day of rain and tears. My life is inexpressibly happier; even though I had been able to find much happiness to paint over that swinish inner angst and agony, it was still only a pig in lipstick until I could remake myself rather than trying to remake the rest of the world to distract me from my own brokenness. That, in itself, was a journey of letting go of unwanted burdens and lightening my attitude and perspective. And it made me so much the better able to appreciate and regain that wonderful sense of freedom, the shedding of cares and escape from ordinary and tiresome things that comes when I take off on one of these expeditions. Short or long, real or imagined, they let me let go of what small troubles I might have, take a deep, strong breath or ten, hold still in awe and enjoy what is right around me, and then come back to the rest of life with a renewed ability to find beauty in them, too.

From the Bottom of a Well

digital illustrationThere are wells whose bottommost dark can hardly be imagined, let alone reached, abysses hidden in all of us that emit no light and rarely give up answers. There are parts of each of us that we can scarcely understand ourselves. Places in which no one else seems able to make sense of us. It does not diminish us, singly or as a species, but it makes living life a greater and more delicately convoluted adventure at every turn.

For me, this means that I need to find the positive in an assortment of inner oddities and personal distinctions that most often remind me of their presence in random, unpredictable and even annoying ways. The unusual synaptical dances that cause me to read upside down, backwards and sideways instead of the particular direction in which my peers and comrades read make me a very slow reader since texts around here are designed with the literate majority in mind. But I think that reading things four times through just to make sense of them does sometimes immerse me more thoroughly in the text if I let it, and it can help turn a mere reading requirement into a commitment. Drawing, when my hand tremors are being pesky, demands that I become more than ordinarily focused and deliberate as well. There are lots of frustrating nuisances that can be turned into usable stuff with enough thought and effort and patience and, well, acceptance.

I still have a mighty tough time scraping up that attitude, though, when it comes to getting a handle on anxiety. That, my friends, is my bête noire. Most of the time I work around it fairly well. My medication and years of learning coping skills and the support of family, friends and health professionals have made much of my anxiety mostly manageable, especially the social anxiety that long made it a near impossibility to meet new people or have conversations with any. But there’s this lousy aspect that keeps on lounging around in my psyche and popping out like a jack-in-the-box at the most inopportune times without so much as a how-d’ye-do, and I have yet to discover a single upbeat way to dress it up and take control of this fiendish pop-up and its ghoulish torments.

The particularly loathsome aspect, to me, is how utterly ridiculous and tiny my personal bane appears to my rational mind, yet how entirely paralyzing its power remains over me whenever it rears its nasty clownish head. It’s not especially complicated to explain, just seems impossible to me to solve; the parts of social anxiety that I’ve never been able to undo or conquer thus far have to do with any kind of business or personal transaction that seems to me to have any chance of including a need for me to request or require help of any sort. Add to that my continuing pointless yet persistent horror of using a telephone or communication forum of any kind for those needy purposes, and it’s a peculiarly potent combination of fears that can keep me from getting the littlest and quickest things done for days or weeks on end while I try to summon the nerve to move forward with them.

Sometimes I can persuade myself over a long enough period to make the call or write the email or knock on the door to ask for information, make a transaction, or schedule an event, and sometimes I just remain stuck in the grip of that inertia that neither solves the problem nor lets me forget that I am in its power. And believe me, I know how abysmally foolish any attempt to explain my terrified reluctance to any sane person sounds: it sounds beyond childish and outlandish to me. But that rational part of me has very little sway over my phobias, so only once in a wildly long while do I get up the courage to do that unbelievably little thing that others can, and I should be able to, do without batting an eye.

The good news, and yes there is plenty of it to get me through the day, is that I have lived a good long time visiting the bottom of this particular and soggy well without losing my ability to see the light up at the top end of it or even to experience a truly happy life by keeping my trips down there as separate from the rest of my existence as I know how to do. And strangely, I have found that the same rain of frustrations, frights and fears that occasionally pelt down the well around me can also lie at my feet like a watery mirror, reflecting enough of my better self to remind me to come back up into the brighter world and leave my fears behind. Even if I have to wait for the rising tide of it to carry me back up and out of there for respite.digital illustrationMeanwhile, I can remember that having Spasmodic Dysphonia tends to make me not merely a prisoner of my halting speech but also more conscientious about conserving, preserving and rehabilitating my voice. More importantly, it gives me yet greater admiration for those who use their voices in extraordinary ways, both those with SD or other speech anomalies (i.e., Diane Rehm and James Earl Jones) and those without (Angela Meade, Colin Balzer, Morgan Freeman). And while I may not have perfect pitch or infallible hearing, there’s nothing notably wrong with my ears. Sometimes I even suspect that being at the bottom of a well gives me a better appreciation for good acoustics!

Nobody Loves Me, Everybody Hates Me . . . *

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. . . Think I’m Gonna Go Eat Worms! [Note: no actual worms were harmed in the making of this photograph.]

Yes, it may be true that no man is an island–we all depend on others far more than we even recognize or comprehend–but conversely, every one of us is his or her own unique and seemingly isolated version of Three Mile Island at times when it comes to having personal meltdowns. It starts right at birth, when most of us scream and complain at having been removed from that ever-so-pleasant resort and spa, Mom’s innards, and ejected unwittingly and unwillingly into the cold, cruel world, and it continues, however sporadically, throughout our lives. We are such fragile creatures.

The majority of humans, happily, are not subject to this dark reality for too large a percentage of our lives, but it’s more common than is commonly discussed that we have trials, tribulations and the varying degrees of inability to cope with them that make us question, if not our sanity, then certainly our ability to rise above what’s bad, get a grasp on the good, and move forward regardless of feeling worthy or curable. Depression truly sucks–not just in the vernacular, but in the sense of pulling one down into a bottomless abyss like an evil and irresistible vortex.

I’m not referring, of course, to ordinary grief or sadness. We all get hit by those monsters at times. We flounder, we suffer, we recover. It may be deep and painful and take a long time to rebound from sorrows of even the most normal sort, but we do, eventually, learn how to go on living and being and take part in the doings of the world. Generally, that sort of difficulty or tragedy even tends to gradually heighten the sense and appreciation of what is good and joyful once we’ve experienced and survived the dark and can see the shining contrast of even a modest pleasure with what appeared insurmountably grim from its midst. True clinical, chemical, physiological depression, well, that’s a different thing.

It resists the most persuasive and intelligent logic. It batters self-worth and love in the most brilliant, gifted and accomplished sufferers. It tears at relationships of any sort with other people or with action, with one’s wit and will to survive. If it doesn’t make one outright, actively suicidal, it can simply kill through atrophy and attrition: sufferers have described the state of longing intensely to kill themselves but having no strength or energy to do so.

Why would I talk of such dire and dreary and horrid stuff, even think of it at all? Because I am reminded sometimes of when I used to be there. My worst bout of depression was perhaps aided and abetted by various situational and temporal aggravations, including the typical catalysts and intensifiers of real-world health and happiness threats: the onset of my spasmodic dysphonia, job problems, the murder of our good friend. These were of course widely different in intensity and timing, but to someone like me, their interaction with my evidently wonky endocrine system or whatever combined forces of chemical and biological imbalance were building in me meant that when I hit bottom, no amount of thoughtful and heartfelt reasoning with myself could ‘fix’ me or my situation.

I am one of the true Lucky Ones. I finally felt so brain-fogged, so unable to resist the pull of that deadly sucking, enervating, soul-destroying feeling of pointlessness and ugliness and being unlovable and incapable of doing anything meaningful or good–well, I got so needy that I actually let others help me. That was it. The only way out of the hole was to grip the hands reaching in toward me and let them do all of the work of pulling me out. Part of it was accepting these helpers’ assurances that they did indeed believe in me and in how I felt, that they loved me and knew that I had worth and potential. Part was letting others lead me around and taking their advice and simply letting go of what little shreds of ego I had left enough to say that I would do better in following an educated and experienced prescription for improvement than I’d been doing on my ever-weakening own two feet. And a part that was essential for me was loosening my grip on my insistence that taking prescribed treatment–both psychological and chemical–without trying to create or control it myself was a sign of weakness or failure. It took, in fact, all of my strength and intelligence to recognize that any strength and intelligence I had couldn’t save me.

The luck involved is clearly that together we (my caregivers–medical and personal–and I) did find the combination of therapeutic treatments, behavioral changes and chemical re-balancing medication that not only unlocked my present emergency state of depressive existence but ultimately proved to let me feel fully, wholly myself for the first time in my life. I know that this is not a cure but an ongoing process for as long as I live. And, having lived both ways, I am more than happy to take on that responsibility. It’s a privilege.

What’s most beautiful of all, for me, is that when it happens (as it has in this last couple of weeks) that several occurrences and situations conspire to remind me of this my past and how it shaped my present life and self, it also reawakens in me the profound gratitude for all of those complex minutiae that converged so miraculously well as to make this life possible. To make my continued existence at all possible, perhaps, but particularly such a happy me. What seemed like the most disastrous and irreparable of confluences instead conspired to make just the right blend at the right moment that finally offered me a rescue.

Turns out that eating worms is the very nourishment that makes some birds healthy enough to sing their hearts out with the pure delight of existing. Last week I was out walking and saw a ditch full of drowned worms, lured into and killed by stormy waters. This week I was walking the same route and the sky was filled with the most spectacular warbling, chirruping, musical bird songs I could hope to hear. Coincidence? Very possibly not.digital illustration from a photo

(* from the old campfire song Nobody Loves Me, Everybody Hates Me . . . )