The Tunnel

Long long ago in a faraway land a young woman wanted to find herself. “I have to find myself,” she told everyone. That was cool because back in those days everyone else was trying to find themselves.

It was amazing how many people were lost back then, but, whatev’…

So in the process of finding herself she set out into the world not knowing that she would get to know herself by what she did in the actual world. As she bumped around, OK, bumped and banged around, she didn’t feel like she was getting anywhere. She let the wrong ones in and kept the right ones out over and over.

Once in a while she managed to do something that was in harmony with her nature, but ultimately the tug-o-war reasserted itself, and she was back in the dark. Then, through a series of very crazy events covering the better (“better” is questionable) part of a five years, she had a complete nervous breakdown, a major depressive crisis. She was told not to come to work, put on disability and sent to a therapist who gave her the DSM-IV.

The therapist sent her to a shrink and told her not to drive as she was a danger to herself and others. Luckily (luck has two sides, right?) she wasn’t living alone. Life was just dark for her in those days. The hole in which she found herself was covered with a perpetually gray sky. Black fingers of dead grass and dry branches reached across the hole. Some days her roommate almost had to drag her out of bed. Sometimes the smallest life stress would cause her to pass out.

The big challenge was that she had no insurance, and it took weeks to find a shrink who would take her without it. Without a shrink, she couldn’t get the antidepressant the therapist told her she needed. Finally she found one.

Getting PROZAC was fairly challenging and involved many trips to Tijuana to pharmacies on the border. It was cheaper there. No insurance, remember?

She read Listening to Prozac and puzzled over the fact that some people would rather be a danger to themselves and other than to lose “themselves.” She knew she wasn’t THIS, but what was she? She got more useful information from Touched with Fire. Years later she wrote one of the two fan letters in her life to this book’s author, Kay Redfield Jamison.

As the PROZAC began to work, she started drawing and painting and thinking. The climb out was slow and interesting. The morning she got up on her own and washed the dishes felt like a triumph (was a triumph). “This is great,” she thought.

What she didn’t know is that she had found herself.

“Don’t be afraid of falling backward into a bottomless pit. There is nothing to fall into. You’re in it and of it and one day, if you persist, you will be it.” Henry Miller, Nexus

Normal life attempted to begin, again, and she returned to work that fall. As she walked down the hallway to her classroom, her co-workers stood back against the walls, and one of them said, barely under his breath, “Lazarus!” The stigma of mental illness? It was as if the thirteen years of sanity (was it really?) and all the contributions she had made to the school had never happened. Little by little her hours were cut. It became almost impossible to make the ends of the month meet. The credit union threatened foreclosure which she staved off somehow. But with her new clarity of mind, she was able to act with conviction in her own defense as she’d never been able to before.

Pulling her shit together from a breakdown had given her — or revealed to her — power she didn’t know she had. The next few years were rough financially but at least she wasn’t lost any more. In case you’re looking within, hoping to find yourself, don’t. Actions speak louder than words. We know our friends by what they do. Same with the self.

Down in the Valley, the Valley So Low, I Lost my Poor Sweetheart from Courting too Slow — Cyclothymia

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Mountaintops and Valleys.” Describe a time when you quickly switched from feeling at the top of the world to sinking all the way down (or vice versa). Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?

“Mountaintops and Valleys” describes my life. I have a mood “disorder” called cyclothymic disorder. It’s a “mild” form of bipolar disorder that’s characterized by rapidly cycling moods. My mom used to say I worried her because my highs were so high; my downs so down. I just felt guilty, like I should somehow change, or defensive like who was she to tell me what I was like…

With cyclothymia, you experience periods when your mood noticeably shifts up and down from your baseline. You may feel on top of the world for a time, followed by a low period when you feel somewhat down. Between these cyclothymic highs and lows, you may feel stable and fine.

Although the highs and lows of cyclothymia are less extreme than those of bipolar disorder, it’s critical to seek help managing these symptoms because they can interfere with your ability to function and increase your risk of bipolar I or II disorder. (Mayo Clinic)

Too many people have written too much and too well on the topic of mental illness for me to attempt much here. I honestly don’t find it interesting in itself — though in the early 90s when I spun into a clinical depression I was very interested in what was happening with my mind because I did NOT want to be where I was. Not all of the variously labeled mood “disorders” and mental “illnesses” are dramatic. Many of the books and articles I’ve read talk about how to “live with” a mood disorder, but if you have one, it’s your life, the life you’ve always known. I always find these articles strange. The only person writing on this topic I’ve found 100% credible is Kay Redfield Jamison. She’s also the only person to whom I’ve ever written a fan letter. 🙂

I cannot actually say if the highs I’ve felt as a result of this are exaggerated because I’d have to know what other people feel in their highs. I can evaluate the troughs, however, if only because of their stark and gloomy contrast to the rest of my life. I also wonder if there is anyone in the world who lives an entire life in a “normal” mood.

The bottom line with a mood disorder is that a person has to live with the “hand they’ve been dealt.” I “manage” my moods with St. Johns Wort and attention. Now that I know the “facts” of my mental workings, I am able to discriminate between sadness from depression. I understand the difference between “feelings of sadness” and true sorrow. The complementary euphoric states are something to ride in the same joyous way one rides a carnival ride, though more dangerous — there’s no mechanical salvation at the end and it’s — often — no cheap thrill.