Rider on the Storm

Originally written and published 06/05/2014

Last Friday I had one of those classes – one of those classes when something truly extraordinary happens. This epic piece grew from the simplest exercise. While it was clearly extraordinary for the students, it was equally amazing for me. The work worked exactly the way it’s supposed to work. It flirted with disaster and then went beyond anything I could have expected or imagined – I let the moment of panic – the moment when I thought I needed to save it from completely collapsing go – and the moment after the panic, it became something absolutely astonishing. It was inevitable and surprising and exactly what it needed to be. (And just so you know I’m not exaggerating, when the exercise was over, one of the students who was watching said he was exhausted just from being in the audience.) 

So should I be surprised that when I woke up on Saturday morning, I felt well – for the first time in 5 months – I felt well. I felt capable, simply capable. I didn’t feel hollow or hungry (which has been very interesting because I’ve been feeling famished for months and have gained a ton of weight). And while I’m physically heavier than usual, I felt unencumbered - not euphoric, not elated, not invincible, not heavy, not black, not dragging under – just balanced and in accord. I had made a break though. I had accomplished something.

I’ve been very leery about feeling euphoric. About 6 weeks ago I found that I was spinning through an entire manic/depression cycle in a single day, day after day. I would feel euphoric and then panicked and anxious before plummeting again into black. It was too much for me. It frightened me. Spinning through entire cycles every day had not happened before, as far as I can remember.

I should say at this point that one of the most important people in my life is my ex-husband, Joe. I call him the Stephanie whisperer. He was with me through my last serious breakdown in graduate school and he walked me through my diagnosis and recovery. He has been just as helpful this time even though he is remarried and 7,000 miles away. (I should also say his wife has also been very supportive.) I check in with Joe about what happened last time because I don’t remember many of the events. The endless spinning is a new experience but it’s probably a new experience because I’m not medicated this time.

I went to a GP to get a referral to see a psychiatrist about 5 weeks ago. Even though the referral was urgent, I still haven’t been contacted to make an appointment. This is not a condemnation of the entire system, just the system for those who don’t have money or private insurance. I’m in a particularly bad financial situation at the moment so I can’t afford just to go pay for counseling (but that’s a different kettle of fish). The point is, I’ve been left to my own devices to get through this – not something I recommend but it has forced me to be vigilant about my own well being.

There are many thoughts and questions swirling around my head about this. This feels like when I got over the Chicken Pox or when I got over a really bad bout of food poisoning when I was a kid. I just woke up and felt healthy again. But that points to this being an illness, not a state of mind or a mood swing but an illness. I don’t know if the distinction even matters, but I sometimes get the feeling that mental illness is looked at as something I should be able to control. But we don’t look at our physical health that way. You could get pneumonia tomorrow, should you be blamed for that? Even if you have asthma - which pre-disposes you to respiratory illness - would you be blamed for getting sick?

I have felt blamed for this breakdown. As if having a condition predisposing me to mental breakdowns should actually be used against me for having a breakdown I’m biologically predisposed to.

I also feel like mental illness is looked on as being self-indulgent. Maybe I just feel that way because I stop being an over achiever when I’m depressed and I just do what is sufficient to get through the day. I hate that getting through is all I can do, but you can’t stop a hurricane. You just have to deal with it and get through the best way you know how.

I’ve begun to think of these last 5 months as a very long psyche hurricane. There was a build up of high and low pressure that gathered and pulled me way off balance and then the hurricane struck and raged until the balance was righted again. Thankfully, this storm didn’t cause as much devastation as it could have – and that is solely do to with the friends I never really realised I had. Friends who gave me financial support and emotional support and who just came to me and said, 'let's meet, let's talk, what do you need.' It floored me because I didn't expect it. I try not to let people get close to me because I'm too difficult to deal with personally but they found their way through and I'm very glad they did.

I have one friend to whom I can say anything – anything. He is the only person in the world who knows my worst secret – and he never judges me, and he would do anything for me. He chatted to me for hours during one of the darkest nights of this whole thing and he didn’t try to fix me. He just told me that my resolution was deeply flawed. We are terribly honest with each other, which means there are times when things get really uncomfortable. I have sat on his balcony while he wept with me and he has walked through my unique little hell right by my side. Everyone needs at least one friend like this. Go find that person. They must be your True North and you have to trust them, even when you hate what they are saying.

I’ve been as public as I can be about recent events and it’s been humbling to get the response and support I’ve gotten. There have been some who have completely turned their backs on me, but I expected that from everyone and it didn’t happen. Putting this out in the world the way I have is deeply uncomfortable, and I worry about the ramifications of it in the long run, but being public about this has humbled me. It’s one thing to strive for excellence from a place of open, flawed, vulnerability; it is another thing entirely to expect excellence in the world while hiding and hording an inner brokenness and weaknesses.

The thing that I wonder at most is the use of medication in treating depression and manic/depression. If I had seen a doctor 5 weeks ago and they had offered me medication or even a stay in the hospital, I would have taken it. I was doing so poorly. But if I were on medication, I would not know this shift that has taken place. I would not feel capable. I would feel dependent on a pill. The one thing I kept repeating to myself with wonder on Saturday is, ‘I feel capable.’ I feel able to go forward now. I feel steady. I feel grounded. I feel responsible and I feel capable.

I wonder how many others like me could find a shift like mine if they were given the time and the space that I had to find it, rather than a prescription? And I’m not saying that what has happened would or can happen for anyone else, but how will we know when we are so rushed to make things better? It has made Friday's class a bit of a parable. When I didn't try to fix the impending disaster waiting to happen in class, the most amazing experience came out of it. I just needed to be patient and let it be what it was, without judging whether it was right or what it was supposed to be - every rule was broken (except 1) and that allowed something amazing to evolve.

We are constantly driven to fix what’s wrong as quickly as possible without actually exploring it. We want it to pass, we want to move on, we want to get over it – but what if it needs exploring and experiencing? I didn’t have a choice this time, professional help has not been forthcoming, but professional help probably would have medicated me and masked the experience and I would have missed this - as I obviously did last time.

Doctors and scientist are discovering that the quick fix isn’t always best and can be detrimental. The over prescribing of antibiotics to quicken the recovery of minor illnesses the body is perfectly capable of enduring and fighting are now responsible for resistant strains of super bugs – which begs the question – are we making mental illness worse by treating it with drugs? Does the darkness, the black depth of the psyche get worse because of the way we treat it? Will every Columbine give way to a Newtown because it has to escalate?

All I needed was time and space to sort myself out. The pressure that came to bear and pushed everything over the edge was money. Think about that. In societies where mental health services are scarce and where there are tangible symptoms of mental instability that make earning money difficult or impossible, a horrible pressure builds that exacerbates an already dysfunctional situation.

I’m not sure how to solve this but I have to start thinking of a different solution for myself because riding out the storm was necessary. You can’t stop a hurricane. You can’t fix a hurricane. You can’t undo it. You can’t change its course. You can’t make it better. You have to let it run its course and you have to know that at some point it will disperse. And right now that seems like a very healthy course of action with the support I got along the way.

It made me think of Riders on the Storm. Into this house we’re born/Into this world we’re thrown/Like a dog without a bone/An actor out alone/Riders on the storm.

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