I went to see author of Mind On Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, Arnold Thomas Fanning, speak yesterday. Something he said about his recovery struck me: he used the word vigilance. He’s been well for years now; he’s on medication, he’s had therapy – but he also said he has to remain vigilant for the returning signs of mental deterioration.
It’s something I used to joke about with friends years ago, how to handle depression. It’s Vigilance On All Fronts, I used to say, with a half-hearted Charlie’s Angels move, imaginary gun in hand. As the years went on and my messy 20s morphed into my 30s – when shit was getting really real, as in, if you don’t do something about this ongoing mental health problem of yours, your life is going to be fucked – it began to dawn on me that there is no one single way to keep yourself out of the gloopy mire of depression. If you are prone to it, and you are not constantly careful, always on the watch for it, your feet will always remain boggy and muddy and you might never be free of it.
I don’t think you ever feel free from it anyway. Ugh. Once your brain has gone there, and you know it can go there, there is always the fear of slipping back. When I was trying to get out of it in early adulthood (impossible in my teens – all adults in my life were mystified by my behavior, even though it was straight up mental illness, clear as a blue day) it felt that most of my body was covered in this miry muck, even my face. I was blinded by it.
There was no ability to pursue a ‘vigilance on all fronts’ plan as I couldn’t even get to point one, letter A, any start of any plan. My question most days was as simple as how can I get out of bed when I don’t feel that life is worth living? Yesterday’s talk, if I’m honest, made me feel a sharp sliver of depression all over again, because it reminded me of that gruesome time: teens, 20s, early 30s, then post-natal mental illness too, all of it – and it made me briefly terrified that I’d have to go back to any of those places. I don’t want to ever go back but that is not how mental illness works. It is ruthless and can strike at any time.
Now from the vantage point of feeling (relatively) well, I know that vigilance on all fronts works to prevent a relapse. It means that you simply can’t let any area of your life slip for long. You have some leeway, but not much. Right now, there are behaviors in certain areas of my life that I will have to rein in otherwise the looming beast will be back. Once you are there, it is hard to get out of it. If you have fallen down the black pit, in the short-term, the only way to claw out of it is with medical help. Usually pills, and talking to someone who knows the workings of the mind. But if you are a fair distance from that hollow pit, you can still practice vigilance on all fronts. It should keep you away from the edge, and give you some safety rope if you do fall in.
For me, vigilance on all fronts is: getting enough sleep (*hysterical laughter in background), making sure I eat properly (though I’m not clear on what this is anymore), exercise (always on the to-do list, never done), not drinking too much, preferably nothing, listening to my kids, pursuing an activity of the soul (usually writing or reading, or walking on the beach), making sure I’ve had some nourishing conversations with friends, trying to listen to and understand my husband, that other entwined root of the precious tree that is my family, and finally, hands down – the big one, the one that I’ve found – for me – keeps my brain and my feet firmly out of that mire: meditating, every day.