Several days ago I read that Mental Illness Awareness Week would run from October 5 – October 12 this year. Let’s say I’m prone to indignation (righteous or not) over perceived injustice, and when it comes to the attitudes toward people dealing with mental illness, I perceive more than a little injustice. People coping with cancer and diabetes are not told to “just snap out of it” and expected to get better instantly, as if their maladies are acts of willful defiance. But when it comes to mental illness, well, you know…
So what follows is an expression of my indignation. It’s about the injustice and not so much about me. I hope I can avoid the risk of coming across too ponderous, too melodramatic, too trite, or too indulgent. Here goes...
I have a dragon inside. The dragon almost killed me, but I struggled to withstand his attack, and I survived. I cannot claim that I banished the dragon. He sleeps for now. He could awaken again. I would be a fool to underestimate his power.
But I’m grateful for the dragon. The fight that he gave me was a precious gift. I can see that now.
I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night counting my blessings. I would not appreciate those blessings as I do, if not for the dragon.
Six years ago, I was at the end of my rope. The pain had become unbearable, and everything I had done to ease the pain had failed. The dragon was winning. Out of desperation, I found a name in the Yellow Pages. I dialed the number and heard a recording from the other end of the line. The trace of humility I heard in that voice gave me a small degree of comfort, a tiny glimmer of hope.
I can’t say how or when it began, but I can say how far it had gone by the time I picked up the phone.
Looking out on the brightest of days was as though peering through a thick, gray cloud. The heavy weight that I carried every moment of the day was like a 200-pound overcoat that I couldn’t remove. My gut was tangled with knots of grief. My whole body ached.
I still remember pulling into Ingles and needing change to buy a newspaper, but being unable to summon the courage to approach the cashier with so bold a request as “Could you change this dollar for me?”
If I’d had a gun in the house I would have considered its alluring promise of sweet surcease from sorrow.
I don’t know if my smile was enough to hide all this from the world. For the most part, I suppose it was. But, strange to say, I’ve never asked.
When I met the humble man, I was not surprised that he named my dragon “major depression.” I was surprised he had so little to say. He offered no solutions that I can recall. I just remember that I began to speak to him, and the words came pouring out. I reflected on this in my journal the next day: “Is there a connection between speaking freely and personal empowerment?”
In that same tortured journal entry, still uncomfortable to read, I wrote of the doubts and fears that had silenced me. I wrote of “the monolithic monuments to personal failure that tower over my psychic geography” and “the dry deserts and frozen wastes that stretch out and threaten to engulf the tiny oases and tropical enclaves in my soul.”
Then, as now, I must have heard the voices of the skeptics, because I added, “on the other hand, when does all this become self-indulgent blather to justify my unwillingness to change?”
Is that how to explain depression? A deficit of character? A lack of gumption? An unwillingness to change?
Someone might have said to me, “Be grateful for what you have. You have material security. You have physical health.” But I already knew that, and it only made matters worse. “If I’m faring this badly now, how could I manage an unfortunate turn of circumstance?”
I look back through the months of journals that documented the long struggle after I hit bottom. I can’t condense that struggle without making it sound much easier than it actually was. It certainly wasn’t as easy as popping a Prozac might have been. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s not my place to judge anyone who chooses that route, but I knew it was not for me.
I did not want to euthanize the dragon. I wanted to understand the dragon, learn to live with the dragon and glean the lessons he was sent to teach me. Week after week, I visited the humble listener. My stories and my questions continued to flow.
After a while I wrote, “The depression is like a fog that descends and covers me – blocking my view until I feel lost and disoriented. When it lifts, even if I haven’t moved and I’m still atop the mountain – I can suddenly see far, miles and miles under the sunshine, from the same place where I had been fogged in.”
I wrote everything I could remember from my childhood and slowly grew to accept my past, whereas I had only considered it a painful burden up to that point. Pardon the cliché, but I embraced my inner child with compassion.
I began to recognize that my depression resulted in part from the gulf between the person I perceived myself to be and the person I felt I could, or should, be. I tried to imagine that person. A picture came to mind. I longed for the joie de vivre of Zorba the Greek, someone willing to sing and dance in the street, to make a fool of himself, without regret. I chuckled at the thought.
I took a hundred small steps. I tried to eat better. I tried to sleep better. I tried to exercise more. I took Saint John’s Wort. I practiced techniques of cognitive therapy to modify my habits of thought. I studied neuro-linguistic programming and discovered how subtle adjustments of posture and gesture have a powerful effect on mood.
I gazed upon the colors of the natural world around me, to absorb its healing energy. The soft greens and yellows of the May foliage were a source of strength and comfort. One day I drove past a roadside planting of poppies, and felt I’d never seen anything so red. The redness of those poppies - the essence of that redness - infused my spirit with a sense of life, a sense of renewal. I can feel it even now.
I took up oil painting and learned that the highlights are made brighter when the shadows are made darker.
I flailed away on my guitar, and sang sad songs…off-key…and loudly.
I reached the point where my heart broke open and the miraculous beauty of one leaf, one flower, one sunset, was enough to bring me to tears.
It’s been an interesting road, these past six years. “The greater the challenge, the greater the reward,” is a lesson I’ve been given several chances to learn and re-learn.
I’ve never felt more loved, more connected or more at peace. I’m not Zorba, yet. Maybe I never will be, but I can say I sang Occoneechee on Main Street, and I’m the better for it.
I cherish all this today, for I might not have it tomorrow.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s dragons. I won’t say “I know how you feel.” I’m not able to prescribe a ten-point plan for recovery. But I’ve witnessed the miracle of resilience. I’ve learned how that which we most want to avoid can sometimes be our salvation.
I appreciate how the ancients counted melancholia among the four humours and accepted it as a part of life. It was not to be eradicated, but instead, brought into balance.
I believe it can lead us toward, rather than away from, a richer and more abundant life.
And that’s the spirit in which I intend to celebrate Mental Illness Awareness Week.
Call me crazy if you like.
It won’t bother me a bit.
Inspired by the Durer engraving, Melencolia, (above) Edward Dowden composed this sonnet:
THE bow of promise, this lost flaring star, Terror and hope are in mid-heaven; but She, The mighty-wing'd crown'd Lady Melancholy, Heeds not. O to what vision'd goal afar Does her thought bear those steadfast eyes which are A torch in darkness? There nor shore nor sea, Nor ebbing Time vexes Eternity, Where that lone thought outsoars the mortal bar. Tools of the brain--the globe, the cube--no more She deals with; in her hand the compass stays; Nor those, industrious genius, of her lore Student and scribe, thou gravest of the fays, Expect this secret to enlarge thy store; She moves through incommunicable ways.