I hate clichés. I use clichés. Clichés are useful and often appropriate. Clichés suck! Grrrr…. Particularly, in my mental health adventure they seem to be omnipresent. It must be a comfort thing, something familiar. This too shall pass is my favourite. Not in just my decade of debilitating illness, but in life generally. It fits and damnit, it’s true.
Despite the depths of my despair, the state of my mind, the protection sporadic amnesia offers, I knew that the way I was thinking about everything was often not realistic. I could not, however, pull myself out of my head. It wasn’t possible. Before you go off on railing on my use of the word can’t, let me enlighten you to the truth. There are some things we can’t, cannot do. Trust me, I have a great “can do” attitude. I will try, keep trying and go back to trying when most have given up long ago. (This is different from procrastination. My procrastination is mainly out of fear of failing, yet another shortcoming.) About a year ago I went into carpentry without any real clue what I was doing. I have NO natural talent for it. It took me 8 months to say that. I’m not sure if I’ve accepted it. There are things I can’t do, because I can’t see the forest for the trees (cliché). In time with practice, patience and dedication I may well be able to master some things, or fake them. However, there is a distinct possibility that I just won’t be able to do them. I can’t.
In January of 2011, it began. The event now, seems irrelevant. (It’s not, but here it doesn’t matter.) By June of 2011, I wasn’t me. I can recall sitting at my son’s graduation not realising what was going on around me. I looked fine, but there was an emptiness I was to become intimate with, entangled. The spiral only continued. I attempted to mitigate the symptoms and alleviate the blur life had become. The drugs didn’t help, (and yes, I gave this round the necessary time to work). I had a masters dissertation staring me down. A cross-Atlantic barrier, an advisor who left the university, an absent program directory, and my emotions were uncontrollable. My inablity to know what was happening to me or see what I was doing to everyone around me, engulfed me. I could not see it. I could not understand it. I could not handle it. At the time, “I can’t” was the reality but not acceptable to me.
After years of trying to hide, run, escape – while staying put – I lost, because you can run but you can’t hide. I lost my marriage. I lost my mind. And in my mind, I lost my assets, my talents, my potential. I had no value. No amount of real world exposure or “in my face” obviousness made me see the situation as it truly was. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t instant. I had moments of positivity, maybe lucidity? But it always returned to self-hate, self-degradation, all out verbal assault inside my head. I spent so much time alone that my only friend was me. Much of this was self-inflicted. Like many people, I retreat, shut down and shut out everyone. Even now, I have few people in my life I see on a regular basis. A lot of it was by unconscious choice. I alienated many.
My sanctuary was work. I spent a solid 18 months working between 70 – 90 hours a week. Pretty much every waking moment I was at work. It was a distraction, a holding place, and I really didn’t care about the money. I just needed to belong somewhere. Before I go further I have to tell you that work, for me, has always been far more than a place to go and earn money/do a job. My emotions run high (bipolar!) I am passionate and I won’t do anything I don’t want, mostly because I’ll suck at it and might fail, so I’ll cut and run before that happens (see above). It’s not an “I can’t”. It’s an “I don’t want to” out of lack of fulfillment. Work brings people into my life that I might otherwise not get to know. I experience things I don’t know exist or how to do. Work is education, interaction. It gives me that overload of senses I crave. So if my heart isn’t in it, I don’t want it. I took two full time jobs, one with fluctuating hours and a set salary. The other was my “family” of nearly 15 years. Looking back they were both in an industry I can basically do in my sleep. It was something I knew and was capable. I’m enormously grateful now. I was grateful then, I just couldn’t see it. They all saved my life, more than once.
There is a period of time mid-decade that I simply can’t discern what happened when. All of my usual defense mechanisms, lifelong coping strategies rendered no relief. It was in and amongst this period I lost trust. The trust I had in everyone around me died. More importantly the trust I had in myself disappeared. (I struggle with acceptance of my bipolar diagnosis. Even now I often think it’s complete bullshit. Then I talk to friends or family and know it’s been there nearly all my life, lurking in the shadows.) The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I couldn’t trust myself. My brain betrayed me. I couldn’t find or hold my mind. The most intricate piece of we humans, the organ we know so little about, the thing that protects, maintains, mediates, delivers all the signals to us, failed me. And alone, because I pushed everyone away, I could’t relinquish myself to anyone else. I trusted no one.
What does one do with so much uncertainty? I always believed that by my mid-40s I would be in a much different place. The chip on my shoulder weighed heavy between expectations and reality. Despair is an understatement. My occupation watched what my mind couldn’t. But every now and then, the facade fell. My mind slipped further away. I don’t have a clear understanding or knowledge of the situations or any triggers but I know things happened. I know I contemplated, tried suicide inadvertently. My mind, failing and all, protected me from the explicitness of that hopelessness. But, as time passed and nothing changed, the oscillation of my stability wore heavy. Habits are hard to break and I needed to leave if I was going to have a chance to survive. Even in the uncertainty of my head, I moved to Scotland. I went back to school fully intending to get my PhD. I went deep into debt. (How much is a life worth? Mine currently stands at about $100,000. I have a piece of paper, okay, two pieces of paper for the price.) I was saved again.
I dared to plan, and let go of years of anhedonia. (After so long without emotion I may need to revisit and qualify so much of the past ten years. Possibly I can untangle part of what’s missing.) Scotland wasn’t completely foreign to me. I didn’t know much, certainly not enough but opportunity doesn’t knock twice. By the time I arrived my weight was down to roughly 115 pounds. I was unhealthily thin and could actually fit into a prom dress from 1985 when I was 15. Again, it was scary for those around me. I just moved through life. Conviction can ofter overcome inability. I worked those 18 months in sleep deprivation and forced myself into physical labour. If I couldn’t feel emotion, I would feel pain. My conviction dulled even that. Arriving with all my worldly possessions in two suitcases, I jumped on the motorway in my tiny rental. My first stop was to get food! I was finally hungry.
I had been unable to secure housing before I arrived but knew what the money would afford me. I had a long term Air BnB and knew how to ask questions. My first few weeks were more about settling and accepting my new reality. I was still lost and alone. Just now, it was in a different country. I wouldn’t use exciting as my state of mind. I had already done it when I moved to Ireland. I was hopeful, cautiously optimistic, going out of the frying pan into the fire. Classes started and I began to feel my shattered soul making a few lost connections. I am a confessed agnostic, but I do think that people collide for unseen reasons or opportunities. The case in point was my search for a flat. I made inquiries, went back and forth with landlords and agencies until an appointment I had cancelled somehow seemed viable. The man offered to pick me up to show me the flat. As a single middle aged crazy woman in a foreign country I fully knew what fate might befall me. Fuck it! I went. It was the best choice I could have made. I had a place to live and enough room for visitors.
I spent a year in Scotland. I realised and accepted that my incredible conviction could not carry me through a PhD. I didn’t have it in me. (Don’t be fooled, I still want a PhD and may get one at some point. But I have a much better realisation of what I need in order to be successful.) I wrote another dissertation, with a lot more guidance and support from my institution. I got another piece of paper. But I was still lost and depressed, just not suicidal. I was sad.
Coming home was okay. I didn’t feel that I let myself down or failed. I discovered too much to allow disappointment. What I did not have, still don’t, is pride. I completed two masters while I was really sick and all I have is a reality that I didn’t do my absolute best. Every now and then I take both of them out and start to revise and edit. Then I think, I don’t want to relive this even though I know I can do much better. My high hopes for a fresh new start soon shifted to the easy option. Patience is a virtue, and as one of my kids once screamed, “Ya! It’s one I don’t have.” Sure enough, the kid got it from me. I went back to waitressing. I found a new family and I loved my co-workers. They had more confidence in me and gave me so much support. But I was still ill. Bipolar wanted to keep me on the ride a little longer. Life’s a bitch!
The pandemic hit. Life changed for the world. We are not the same society. I am not fully healed, but, I have had a year of promise and potential. I felt, in my soul, what gratitude is. I learned to trust again. All these things I approach with caution. I take everything with a grain of salt. Most of all, I feel. My emotions still run with an intensity most people can’t imagine. (Yes, you can’t imagine how overwhelming I feel. And no, I don’t think I can explain it.) It’s fantastic. I can see the the forest and make out some of the trees, I collided with a few new souls who let me in without the harsh judgement I served myself for the past decade. I finally found medication that works. (I still have issues with the need to take anything, but I know it settles my head.) Throughout my lost decade I attended more classes, group sessions and discovery sessions than I can count. Tips, tricks and coping mechanisms were shovelled at me, usually without penetrating the blood brain barrier. However, I did file a few away in the recesses of my brain. I use them when I can, and I remember. They weren’t easy for me to wrap my head around, even when I was willing and tried. When life happens, I now make an effort to take a moment and acknowledge whatever feeling/emotion I am experiencing will pass. I haven’t gotten to recognising or accepting it, but I know it’s not forever. Often it’s not even for very long, this too shall pass. Additionally, just yesterday I had the privilege of being present for nearly the whole day and the pleasure of recognising my presence. Without appearing maudlin, I got to stop for a second and just bask in my own smugness of “getting it.” As everything does, it didn’t last forever but it took a tiny bit of the chip on my shoulder and patched up another piece of my shattered soul, All clichés aside, my cautious optimism feels a little stronger.