Depression

Cutout Heart

Walking past a jewelry store a few days before Valentine's Day, I see a window display of cutout hearts dangling on silver ribbons.

 

I forget, until I remember.

 

Hearts cut out, dangling on ribbons of memory. I see tender threads of sorrow connecting us to our losses: loved ones passed on; friends who have passed us by; lovers whose touch has faded with time. My cutout hearts: our first child, due February 10; our second child, due February 14.

 

I forgive, until I rage.

 

This time of year usually finds me deep underground, out of the chatter, holding my grief silent and sacred. But this year—the year of charmolypi—I decide to hang on and hang out, to push through and pretend. I forget how raw I can become, as though my skin has been stripped away.

 

I am together, until I fall apart. 

 

What happens is coincidence. A curse of timing. Mercury in Retrograde. At my most vulnerable, I linger in a social media forum on the cusp of a weekend, like a child in the schoolyard at recess, watching as a group knits together, their backs to me, intent on their own games, speaking their secret language. The language of sisterhood. The language of motherhood. Languages I will never speak, countries I will never visit.

 

I am whole, until I break. 

 

All the rage. All the raw hurt. It pours out in little-girl loneliness. I lose my shit. I really do. For days, a ticker-tape parade of all my faults and shortcomings replays in digital neon shoutycaps:

JULIE, NO ONE WILL EVER PICK YOU FOR THEIR TEAM BECAUSE YOU ARE

withdrawnawkwardweirduglysillyclumsyboringnotasisternotamothernotoneofus

 

And then it stops. Not all at once. It takes some serious self-talk and soul-searching. The gushing fire hydrant of self-hate eventually diminishes to a lawn sprinkler, and then to the last trickle from a closed water spout. It takes keeping my eyes peeled for moments of grace.

 

I stand in shadow, until I turn my face to the sun.

 

Grace comes first from the inside. A recognition that all my rational energy is fighting the good fight—the one that keeps my head above water when it sees the tsunami wave of depression bearing down. It comes in the letting go of unfair expectations—of myself, of others.

 

Other moments of grace follow: an article, shared by Rene Denfeld—whose powerful writing and capacity for compassion serve as inspiration for the writer and woman I strive to be—and in the reading, I accept my grief for what it is—endless and all right (Getting Grief Right); an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert that makes me realize I must reclaim the shit I've lost and own it. Own that I hurt, that I overreact in moments of acute pain and loneliness, and forgive myself for not always getting the really awful stuff just right.

 

Emotional healing guru Iyanla Vazant says, “When you see crazy coming, cross the street.” In this case, I meet crazy in the middle of the road. I put my arms around her and say, "You are loved. You are worthy. Now, let's celebrate."

 

I walk, until I dance. 

 

A wee package arrives in the mail from someone who has never met me, but who offers up her faith in me, her heart, her home. In the grace of a sparkling just-spring day, I melt.

 

"I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." I pulled this from that lovely New York Times article to which I linked above. The thing is, I'm writing about my sorrows. I'm writing a whole huge novel about the sorrows. It's the toughest work I've ever done. My character, Holly, she isn't me. The story isn't autobiographical, although some of the places are places I've been, some of the experiences are ones I've had. But it's not so much that I'm writing about what I know; rather, I'm writing what I feel.

 

I write, until I heal. 

 

That girl on the playground feels a warm hand slip into hers, pulling her away from what she doesn't have, into the embrace of what she does: the love of wonderful boy. My Valentine.

 

I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy. ~ Isak Dinesen

 

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Solstice Stillness

It's in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones—Pico Iyer 'How Can We Find More Time To Be Still?' Ted Radio Hour 

 

When the nettles of frustration brush my skin and leave tiny welts of irrational ire, when I strain to speak and manage only a raspy caw, like the ubiquitous crow that everyone hears but no one listens to, when the voices in my networks become the clashings of a thousand cymbaleers, I know it is time to seek silence.

 

I cradle the familiar collection of equilibrium-shifting triggers in my hands. The drawing down of light as winter approaches is a smooth cool stone, heavy in my palm; within the spiraling centers of delicate shells echo the hollowness of the holidays. I am learning not to fear these found bits of worn, sculpted, worked nature, for they are natural parts of me. They are opportunities to withdraw and listen deeply, to embrace and elevate the heavier parts of my soul.

 

Author Colm Tóibín once stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. I find such comfort in this notion, for it is a way of accepting the world that speaks to a writer who is so often overwhelmed by it. Not surprisingly, it is the times when I seek stillness that I find clarity in my writing, that new characters or ways over seemingly-insurmountable plot walls are revealed.

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But beneath the stone and carapace are broken bits of shell and sea glass not yet smoothed by the wisdom of time. Their sharp corners, coated with grating sand, poke into the soft meat of my palm. These are the events external to my life, the headlines and sound bites and smartphone photos of action and reaction. The shared moments of our culture that become hashtags and status updates. The voices opining about it all. Briefly, I join the discussion, but quickly overwhelmed, I retreat and determine the most important thing I can do is to listen. Carefully choose the voices I allow in, and fall quiet, listening.

 

Susan Cain reminds us that this culture values action over contemplation. We are a nation deeply uncomfortable with silence and we often equate opinion with action. Author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, expressed in a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, "I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people not being a part of the world and ... trying to change it." Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers. During his seventeen years of silence, John Francis realized what a relief it was to listen fully to others, instead of listening only to the point of formulating his own response.

 

We change the world for the better only when we understand what makes the world better for others. The only way to develop the degree of empathy necessary to effect change is to listen to what those others have to say.

 

In this week of longest nights, as I continue to seek stillness within and without, I offer you a Solstice wish of peace and quiet so that you, too, may listen and hear your own heart and the hearts of others.

 

 

 

 

Walking the Black Dog

Since the news of Robin Williams's suicide broke, I've had some incredible, brave, and heartbreaking conversations with friends about the nature of depression and what would bring someone to the point of taking his own life.  

It's been disheartening to see accusations of "selfish" leveled against those who commit suicide, and frustrating to hear, "But why didn't he ask for help?" But ignorance is an opportunity to open dialogue and educate, and our collective mourning is a chance to lift the veil of shame that covers mental illness.

 

There is a perception that if you don't look or act as if your world is falling apart or if there is not some profound triggering event in your life, that you couldn't possibly be ill. I'm a confident, positive, strong person who has been brought to her knees by depression. It's not the blues, it's not a reaction to crisis, it's a cocktail of biology, chemistry, genetics, and personality that I have to work daily to keep in balance. I haven't asked for help when I most needed it, either. I can look at the woman who suffered so greatly and think, "Did she know she needed help?" I don't remember thinking much of anything but a suffocating hopelessness that I just wanted to stop. There surely was a point when a mental health professional could have helped me turn things around before I fell so far, but depression is insidious-- it creeps in and swallows you whole.

 

Asking for help assumes a level of energy and rational thinking, a sense that you would even know what help looks like or that you don't feel profound shame and guilt for your entire existence. Asking for help means you hope. When severe depression hits, there is no hope. There is only white noise and emotional exhaustion. No one chooses this.

 

I believe that even though I can't change my genetic makeup or my biology, I can alter my chemistry and improve my mental health through diet, exercise, writing, and meditation. I can change my responses, be on guard for my triggers, and prepare myself when I feel I'm starting to slip. I accept now that I will have to manage my depression and anxiety for as long as I live. I'm beginning to find the beauty in the scary times. As a writer, those ebbs become times of quiet gathering, a gentle harvest of words and feelings, a drawing down of reserves, and a turning inward to listen and be still.

 

I have no idea what my future holds and when or if I will tumble again into an abyss. None of us with mental illness do. But I do know that talking openly about mental illness is a powerful step toward managing the worst of its evils. Depression is not logical, it is not fashionable, it is not a choice. But it is not a curse, either. It is.

 

Let's just keep talking about it until we're no longer ashamed. Until we no longer condemn someone for reacting to something beyond his control.

 

I sit beside Robin Williams. I take his hand and I say, "I'm so heartbroken, not because you didn't ask for help, but because I understand why you couldn't."

 

Take a moment to view this video. I had a black dog, his name was depression

For those with depression, watch and take heart. For those puzzling over the whys and wherefores of depression, watch and understand.

An Enchanted Life

An enchanted life has many moments when the heart is overwhelmed with beauty and the imagination is electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, a place, or a person. ~ H.L. Mencken  

Oh great, here comes AFPGO: Another Fucking Personal Growth Opportunity. ~ Unknown

 

About a mile into a run last week, I stopped. Just stopped. I couldn't. There are times when my body needs a break from running and I try to listen. I try not to judge. I walked home with tightness in my chest and heaviness in my limbs. I thought, "I'll just swim laps at nine." Nine came and I lowered myself into a hot bath. That was the water I needed, water like the warmth of the womb. I needed to be comforted, not challenged. I needed to soak, before I sank. I was utterly overwhelmed.

 

The slow creep of mud that finally reached my mental shoes, stopping me in my tracks—this weird blend of acedia and agitation—wasn't a surprise; I'd felt it coming. It started, perhaps, a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in the midst of a tremendous online chorus of writers, some of whom are my literary heroes. I was amazed and delighted to have been included in their ranks. Their voices swelled and rose in a mighty roar of energy and affirmation that took my breath away. I found my way through the crowd to quieter corners and rooms down the hall, making personal connections with a few voices that reached me with calm clarity, but I couldn't shake the feeling that somehow I didn't belong there, that these writers, these thousands, were accomplished and ambitious in ways that are completely foreign to me, perched as I am on this almost-island, in my quiet sunroom, spinning my modest tales that no one would mistake for great literature or groundbreaking creative non-fiction.

 

Time to retreat. I stopped reading the bios that made me feel so woefully inadequate, I withdrew from conversations that sped past faster than I could read or type, reminding myself that time spent wishing I was more, did more, risked more, reaped more, was time spent not doing the one thing that mattered most: writing.

 

I returned to my keyboard and to my mind, wrote a flash fiction piece, finished the first draft of short story, and began researching literary journals to submit each. I did yoga on the beach, I hiked, I walked. I read a volume of beautiful poetry. I filled two boxes for Goodwill, because when I get like this, I want to lighten all my burdens, I want to clean out, get rid of, eliminate, discard, set myself free.

 

But still the disquiet remained. A torpor dulled my sense of possibility and joy, sitting heavy in my core, while anxiety beat a woodpecker's refrain against my heart. I knew I hadn't gone far enough in seeking the peace that would guide me to back into the light.

 

When the interwebs cease to be a source of information, of playfulness, of social release and friendship, I know that something is happening inside of me that bears watching. I know it's time to be careful, that the world is about to swallow me with noise. When I agitate instead of participate, it's time to shut it all down and walk away.

 

When I begin to despair that my writing doesn't stack up and that my future will never brush the dizzying heights of those in my online communities, it's time to recommit myself to the page.

 

Echoing a remark a writer friend made here recently, it's possible to read too much about and into the writing and publishing process. It's possible to fill your mind with so much advice on craft, so many dos and dont's of seeking publication, that you get mired down and find yourself unable to move forward.

 

It's possible to let the world get too loud.

 

I shared a draft of my query letter on a limited-public board last week, seeking critiques from fellow writers. One commented that my query was too perfect, too textbook. I'd felt the same, so the comment didn't sting, it confirmed. It came as a relief. I was right. In trying so hard to adhere to all the pro tips, I'd lost my voice. I rewrote it (again. again. again.) and I feel there's more of me in there, but it's not yet where it needs to be.

 

Until I can find my stride and run again, I'm deleting those writers' tips blog posts that get routed to my inbox. Until I feel safe in myself again, I'm staying away from the social media where I feel vulnerable.

 

I want to be overwhelmed with beauty. I want to be electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within. These happen only in two places for me: outside and on the page. That's where you'll find me, in case you're wondering where I've gone off to ...

 

7/5/14

ETA: A couple of wonderful articles have made their way into my life in the week since I first published this post. Just had to share:

The Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasan, for The Atlantic

Why Every Story You Write is a Guaranteed Failure by K.M. Weiland, on her eponymous blog

 

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The sky is low ~ the clouds are mean

When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about. ― Haruki Murakami The week's forecast promised nothing but grim. Day after day of rain. Heavy skies that reflect only muted grays and browns, the not-cold-not-warm-sensory-deprivation temperatures that dull the mind; outside smells of rotting wood and moldy cheese and inside your hands are always cold and you're weary of the sound of voices--your own, the cat's, the cashier at the grocery store asking how you prepare your leeks. In other words: Winter, Pacific Northwest-style. Just when my heart is beginning to ache for Spring. I braced myself.

There's no forecast for the soul, no way to predict when heavy clouds will sit on your heart and steal your breath. Each morning, you wake and listen to weather building in your mind. Usually, there is a providence of ferry horns and train whistles to signal the arrival of ideas, an urgency of sirens because you can't wait to pick up where you left off the day before, a racket of errands and chores you must shuffle so your words get the full attention of your brain-heart-hand connection.

But sometimes there comes a spell when you hear nothing. When you think you ain't got nothing. No more words or no more will to drag them from the foggy corners. The brume descends and all color, taste, music vanish. Your runs are slogs, your swims are trials by sludge, your yogic breathing stutters, because even breathing is Just. So. Hard.

Yet, if you listen a little more carefully, you can catch the signs the other forecasters miss. The slightest slings and the most harmless arrows begin to land and wound. Your confidence becomes dissonance and your inner harmony is bested by the demons of dissension.

You know what's coming. You don't know how long it will last, so you batten down the hatches, hunker in your little lifeboat, tuck your head in your sou'wester. Chatter becomes cacophony, so you turn off social media to silence the din of voices, listening for the clarion bell that signals an All-Clear.

You are beginning to accept there is release in disquietude, that depression is not to be feared, but to be used because it brings a certain stillness. The tiny moments of grace shimmer in sharp relief against the tarnished patina of sadness.

And you keep writing. You let habit be the anchor. You start each day in doubt and bewilderment and through sheer force of will (or is it desperation?) you end the day with a sense of the fullness of life. Your life.

If you keep writing, the storms will roll through and scour out the mud and detritus and leave you clean and shining. You will land safely, bumping onto shore with a wobble and scrape.

One of the things I've come to appreciate most about living on a peninsula that looks like the tailfin of a whale is how quickly weather blows through. As it did this week. Storm front after storm front smashed across the peninsula at night. The wind and rain woke me in the wee hours, our upstairs corner flat shook; I imagined the neighbors' trees crashing through the glass walls and roof of our sunroom. I groaned at 4 a.m. as I planned out my morning run, knowing the rain and wind would slow my forward momentum and chill me to the bone.

But the days were exuberant with sun. I drove with the sunroof open; I wrote in the sunroom for the first time since Autumn--the temperature approaching 70° even though it was shy of 50° outside. I hiked in shorts.

This Sunday evening, the lights flicker. The house shakes. The wind is so ferocious and the rain so pummeling, I laugh in wonder. The storm signals change, motion, rage and release. It pulsates with furious joy of being alive. I'm not too far behind.

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The sky is low, the clouds are mean,

The sky is low, the clouds are mean, A travelling flake of snow Across a barn or through a rut Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day How some one treated him; Nature, like us, is sometimes caught Without her diadem.

Emily Dickinson

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Yet the Edge of Day is Bruised

It is a singularly beautiful day. Brendan and I are walking through one of our favorite haunts - a stretch of beach on the Puget Sound north of Seattle. Nature is shaking her hair free, sending droplets of rain one moment, a burst of sun the next. The wind is whipping up secret scents from the forest behind me, the kelp and seaweed at my feet weep a salty tang. Seagulls coast on air currents and fall in flocks to the water, whistling and laughing in jovial competition; geese march in armies across driftwood to the wetlands hidden among giant cattails and Lady ferns. The autumnal equinox occurred on Friday, yet there is only a slight shift of color, an occasional rash of plum red or burnt sienna staining the leafy arm of a maple or ash. On this windy afternoon the tide is high and waves spin and slap against the shore. The water is surprisingly rough in this sheltered finger of water. The rush of whitecaps in the cobalt water mirrors the bundles of clouds rushing in the forget-me-not blue sky. Wind surfers twist in the cool air, fish trawlers crest the heaving water. A towering city floats past - a cruise ship bound for Alaska that seems outlandish in this solemn stretch of bay between Seattle and the Kitsap Peninsula. Shadowed by clouds, the Olympic Mountains beyond are a primordial and ominous barrier to the Pacific Ocean.

This is a peaceful, beloved place only a few steps removed from the chatter and traffic of a city. It is not far from where a friend recently ended his life.

I am acutely aware of Jeff's absence as I walk along the sand, so near to where he spent his final hours. It is hard to imagine that anyone would choose to forgo this beauty, that there could be any sorrow so deep it could not find comfort in a place so unblemished and whole.

After Jeff's body was found and his death ruled a suicide, we wondered why he didn't ask for help, why we didn't see it coming, how such a warm, generous, open-hearted man could hide such unhappiness and continue to function in a job he loved, to care for an ill wife of whom he spoke in the most tender terms.

But the mine shaft of depression is deep and the slide into its depths can be swift - the trapdoor opens and swallows you alive, leaving behind your skin and a shadow of your soul. You remain in the close, dark place alone, your voice silenced, like those nightmares when you try to scream, but only a croak escapes your throat.

Some are able to crawl their way back to the surface, to emerge panting and dazed. Their visible scars will fade in time, but there will be wounds which never fully heal. Others slide deeper, until the only way out becomes the only choice they believe is left to them.

We cannot know another's heart. We cannot judge their response to or tolerance of pain any more than we can begin to understand our own. We will regret missed clues, we will feel anger at what we perceive as a selfish act, we will mourn the beautiful days they will never experience.

I am deeply sorry for the choice Jeff made. I am beginning to accept that it cannot be undone. But I'm certain he is with me on the beach today. And now I know he's okay.