Out of the darkness arrives the sweet dawn

Mental health

I read this last night in a brilliant collection of essays by Parker J Palmer. ‘Many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives.’ He goes on to say that when he got depressed in his early 20s, he thought he had developed a ‘unique and terminal case of failure.’ It wasn’t until many years later he understood that what had really happened was that he had ‘merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race.’

Sorry for quoting the shit out of Parker J Palmer, but there is something incredibly powerful in what the author is saying here. Absolutely, when I was younger, I thought I had developed such a singular sense of failure. It certainly didn’t occur to me that all the older, wiser people I came across might have had horrific struggles with bleakness, darkness, depression, crappy things happening to them too, any of it, all of it. In fact, when I think back to the kind of stories I heard about depressed people – well, Sylvia Plath springs to mind and she stuck her head in the oven. What I’m saying is that the tales of depression I heard about always seemed to end pretty badly. As a teenager and young adult, I did not know that most people had been through their version of Palmer’s ‘journey of darkness’, most had troubles, they all grew from them. Grew up, out in every direction, exponentially. I don’t know why I thought most people had escaped it – that arrogance of youth, as Robyn Davidson called it, perhaps. We are all human, we have troubles and sorrow, we all do. We become fully signed up members of the human race when we peak over to the dark side, when we jump in it, or worse, when we get stuck in it.

Parker is talking about us being role models for younger people. And not the kind of role model that is defined by achievement after achievement and acquisition after acquisition (and I say thank God for that! I ain’t got nothin’ but love in my life). No, the kind of role model who is honest, who talks about any struggles they have had with gentleness and with truth. The kind of role model who is compassionate about the human spectrum of emotion, and knows that the darker shades etched on the page bring out the beautiful bright hues of light. He is saying that we should become the kind of grown ups who say this: Don’t be afraid of the dark, it helps you fall in love with the light. It helps you become the light. When it is dark, and you are stumbling and fumbling everywhere for the switch, or for a match (where’s that fucking match?) to light the candle, or for the flicker of dawn – you will find it. It will come.

This is a surety, this is how we are made, this is what it means to be human. It is how life works, a communion of different shades which meld into the beautiful whole that is your existence. (Or come on, when you are depressed, the hole that is your existence). We tread and skid through hills and valleys, all the way through life. As you get older, you really start to see this, you learn it into your bones; how could you not? We are designed to keep afloat in the whirlpool emotions; we get to feel the same levels of deep joy as we do deep sorrow. That is the pay off for our journey into darkness.

A tale of two cities

Mental health

Ten years ago, I spent a month in New York with my sister, who lives there. It was Spring. The city was fizzy and infused with life – times a gazillion. I was in an exploratory mood and opened myself up. I studied everything and everyone around me; tiny things like how an older lady with very black hair stuffed into a red knitted hat was sitting on a bench, gesticulating to her male friend, who was nodding vehemently while clutching an over-flowing carpet bag. Or how, in one glossy neighborhood, all the women, heck all the men too, were so groomed that they seemed to shine, as if someone had painted them on to the street. I nearly bumped into Yoko Ono on the corner of a block and it was just one of those New York things – yep, there’s the iconic Yoko, just sauntering down the street. Horns honked with a special New York dialect that sounded like music to me, people yelled across the street, laughed, fought like lovers, carted bags of large, doughy freshly baked bread as they hightailed it down the street.

Everything was amazing. All of it. The people, the noise, the dirt, the guts, the glamour. It sounds corny, but I felt like New York opened its arms, drew me in, then gave me gift, after gift – wonderfully weird conversations, belly laughs, random, quicksilver friendships, beautiful vistas (even if it was rubbish over-flowing in a trashcan, I found beauty in it), things that made me cry with joy or want to punch the air. I was riding on a kinetic, almost tangible, vital energy I’d immediately tapped into on arrival and I didn’t want to ever stop skidding about on it. The city has a humongous personality, and if you get on the right side of it, it’s all-consuming, utterly intoxicating, enough is never enough; you want to keep piling more on.

A couple of years later, I went again. My mood was different, though I didn’t realise it at the time. I was closed off, sad. Worried about things. New York folded its arms, shrugged. It turned away. People were rude, relentlessly so. Its streets really were mean, just like the Scorsese film. People shoved and pushed, rolled their eyes. They had no time to talk. They didn’t want to know. I felt stifled, bewildered, wondering where ‘my’ city had gone.

Some time later I stumbled upon a quote by Anaïs Nin: We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are, and with a visceral jolt back to the snapshots in my head, I thought of New York. Each time I was there, I had polar opposite lenses on. The later trip, I somehow became entangled with a grim underbelly of the city and its bleak undertow of negativity. And that first, explosively exquisite time – well. I’d risen up like freshly bloomed flower, delicate face turning eagerly up to the rain, sure of the nourishment that was to come.

I think about these two city trips sometimes. Why is it that when you are cranky as hell you come into contact with more of the same? Why, when you are as happy as a clam, do you get showered with an ocean of joy? It’s unfair, isn’t it? Perhaps the first time, New York should have been more unkind, made me wobble on its giddy merry-go-round. Later, it might have had the decency to cheer me up, throw me a few tidbits to haul me out of my grump. There’s a lot of awfully woo-woo stuff I could reference here but I won’t. If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that this is how life works.

Vigilance on all fronts

Mental health

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.

You’re ok – I’m not ok

Mental health

‘I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything!’ says Tchaikovsky in one of his letters which I read here, in an article written by the impeccable Maria Popova. Tchaikovsky had lapses of stinking depression, too. Maria notes that what was ‘most remarkable yet quintessentially human about his disposition was the ability to assure his loved ones of the very things he was unable to internalize himself.’

This is so true: how easy it is to comfort others but be ruthless towards ourselves. What a relief it is to give a rousing speech to a friend about how to ‘fix’ their life, while coldly ignoring our own needs. It soothes our existential wounds, helping others, diving deep into their problems while callously ignoring our own. We can do this with singular self-destructiveness, stubbornly deflecting the glare of our own troubles, rushing to the aid of everyone else. Listen, I know that’s nice for everybody else but if we do this we risk getting stuck in a brutal living hell; there’s an underlying, inescapable pulse in people who do this, a horror of facing their feelings, a bone-tired disinclination to come to their own rescue. Whole lives can go by and people can die without recognizing this.

Everybody deserves to be happy – trite but true, and we must assimilate this information as adults, if we haven’t done so as children. It’s our responsibility to make ourselves happy (yes, I know: newsflash! I have only recently discovered this.) Of course, making others happy is the one of the genuine great joys (and arguably ultimate purpose) of life but your cells will only recognize, and so be nourished by, that joy if you are doing it from a stable base of your own contentment.

You can help and help – giving parts of you away that you haven’t ever dared to give yourself – until you are so tired you suddenly don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. And it’s not physical fatigue, it’s the sort of tiredness spurred by the recognition and subsequent quashing of a small voice inside you that says: What about me? Is it it ok to help me, too?

Well, it’s not just ok to help yourself, it is essential to the evolution of the self, to the growth of your family, to the circle of people around you, and the city or town or country in which you live. And actually, all your descendants too, because all sorts of pain is sleepily passed down through generations, and you can stop it.

Here’s the story of Hercules and The Wagoner to clumsily hammer the point home. A farmer is stuck on a muddy road in the pissing rain, the wheel of his wagon wedged into the mud. He sits and swears and curses the mud and the wheel, shaking his fist at heaven. Come on Hercules, do me a solid here! Do fucking something! Eventually Hercules comes down, no doubt rolling his eyes, and says ‘Put your shoulder to the wheel, urge on your horses… I won’t help you unless you make some effort to help yourself.’ The wagoner gets it, stops giving out, starts to at least try to push the wheel and coax his horses on. Hercules readily helps. Everything shifts; everything changes.

Caveat: If you are so profoundly depressed that you can barely move or think or speak, and someone quotes Hercules and The Wagoner to you, tell them to fuck off.

What time is it, Mr Wolf?

Mental health, Motherhood

I’ve just finished Dolly Alderton’s book Everything I Know About Love, a beautifully honest, funny love song to her 20s and to her coterie of female friends. It wasn’t one of those happy, jaunty love songs though – rather a gritty raw one; she suffered, she shagged, she loved, she got dumped, she drank, she worked her butt off. She says near the end, as she approaches her 30th birthday, how it’s the ultimate cliche – but she didn’t think aging would happen to her.

I am more than a decade down the line, and yes, I didn’t think it would happen to me either. Jennifer O’Connell wrote a great piece in the Irish Times the other day; it made me laugh. She mentions the ten-year chasm between her imagined self (32) and her actual self, around my age. And I reckon many of us – not just deluded middle-aged men – spend a lot of time feeling aged 17 or whatever age cut us most on the inside, no matter what we look like on the outside; no matter what age we are. Perhaps we feel like a child whose toy has been snatched away, or a teenager sneaking a thrilling fag when we hear a heady, resonant song from our youth. Or we might feel full of the perfect, arrogant daring of our early 20s, when we were pretty sure we were going to change the world.

As old man time ticks on, women are left in a wondrous pickle because we all, inside, fucking love getting older – and mostly, outside, hate getting older. I’m expecting a knotty, vastly irritating wrestle with aging because I have always looked younger than I am. I hated it in my teens and 20s. I was never taken seriously, always asked for ID, always treated like the baby of the group – a role I played up to without realizing that it was retarding my development into womanhood. Men tended to speak to me as if I were a child, and if they fancied me it made me a little suspicious because I wasn’t womanly, only girlish. In my 30s, looking young was a badge of honour – people looked twice when I said I was 35 or 36, saying I looked about 22. My childlike personality, its resolute static, added to the whole effect.

Really, I was just terrified of claiming adulthood. I thought it was for other people. Older people. Now, I’ve entirely skipped a significant portion of adulthood and moved directly into middle age. I’m kind of ok with it. Definitely great to be alive, yep. After three children, all the accompanying sleepless nights, and some bloody shocking health shocks along the way, I look every single one of my nearly 43 years. I love to feel my age but yes, there is, shall we say, a small (and it is small) dissatisfaction with actually looking my age. It’s damn hard for any woman to be all pioneering, marching to the mantra of ‘Yeh, alright, I’m wearing my grey hair with pride, even on my vagina,’ and there are women who are doing that and I totally want to be them. Honestly.

In front of my nieces at the weekend, I kept adjusting my language. They were obsessed with my boobs and belly and breastfeeding, pointing and poking and prodding – and I really had to counsel myself to not say anything negative about my aging body. I want them to think it’s all great. Even though I don’t necessarily think it’s all great.

I want to. But I don’t.

Jabba on your shoulder

Mental health

‘My mouth isn’t asking for chocolate, my whole body is asking for it,’ said my son recently, totally disassociating himself from his need for the sweet stuff. Nope, nothing to do with him. At the age of three, he nailed it: how cravings work. As an adult, you can test it out. Go on. ‘My mouth isn’t asking for [insert your vice here], my whole body is asking for it.’

Each day, I scrape by on a dichotomous regimen of stubborn disagreements between my mind and my body. They aren’t even close to deciding how we are going to live out the rest of our days together. A wingman for each sits on either shoulder. One’s clear (militant, even) about what it wants. Green things, water, fruit, no rubbishy big bready things. No alcohol. The other is really laissez-faire. Slovenly. Looks a bit like Jabba the Hutt. Lives for today. To hell with tomorrow.

I tell Jabba that it’s all very well living like that in your 20s but not in your 40s when you have health issues and three small boys. At this age, you know that most of the decisions you make regarding exercise and diet are going to have a knock-on effect on how well you live. And how long you live. But then Jabba will tell you: fuck it, come on! You could get run over by a bus tomorrow. You deserve this, it’s been a long day. Let’s do it!

I think we can agree that he’s fairly unattractive with his wide-gash mouth and gross protruding belly. So why’s he so damn seductive? Why does he get his own way so often? It takes willpower to pick Jabba off your shoulder, and place him down firmly behind you. That willpower thing, that’s just a little giant something I’ve been working on recently. In turns out you have to do stuff and repeat stuff for your brain to compute that you mean business. You have to keep doing stuff and keep repeating stuff for your brain to change, to morph into something better.

The other lieutenant is no great shakes, either. That one is almost as annoying as Jabba. Way too holier-than-thou. I can’t sit here all day necking green juices and exercising. I’ve got things to do. One day, I’ll brush them both off. The holy one can give Jabba some tips on how to smarten up a bit. Jabba can tell the holy one to loosen its vice-like grip. I’ll tiptoe off, wobbly at first – but then I’ll start to run with the unbelievable freedom of someone who’s finally found the straight, sure road, hidden all along in those unconquerable peaks and treacherous valleys.

Photo by Jay Ruzesky on Unsplash

I see you

Mental health

I’m rereading a book I read when I was about 16, The Catcher in the Rye. If you took refuge in books as a teenager, then you probably know about Holden Caulfield and his beef with ‘phonies’; they were mostly adults, and they were mostly bullshitting him.

If your parents or the adults in your life are disengaged, then being a teenager sucks. That age is so tender. They are children, they are starting to look like adults. Their brains are exploding with childish things and grown up things and hormones, and everything else. If old man time gave me a free pass to go back, I wouldn’t. I suffered intensely. In fact, my brain froze on teenage mode all the way through my 20s and even beyond, because I didn’t mature properly. The reason I didn’t, I think, is because I didn’t feel ‘seen’. I wanted so desperately for an adult to understand even an iota of where I was coming from. But they couldn’t.

I wonder can I give this to my children – I really want to. What do I mean by being ‘seen’? (It sounds bloody awful, doesn’t it? Like something from a compulsively cheesy American TV drama.) I mean: That they feel loved for who they are, no matter what. That they feel adored for the ‘bad bits’ as well as the good bits. Actually, that they never learn there is such a thing as ‘bad bits’ within the young self. There aren’t.

I try to watch my language with my children. I try to say things like oh that’s naughty behaviour instead of you are a naughty boy. I read it in some parenting book somewhere. Do children pick up on such nuances of language? I don’t know. I’m winging it like everyone else. I tell them I love them, a lot. I hope that whatever I’m doing, that by the time they are teenagers in a few short years, they will still be talking to me. Really talking to me.

I really hope that by then, I will have given them the tools to slash through the confusion that settles in adolescence. I want to show them that most of humanity is not phony, but utterly glorious in its inescapable spectrum of joy to sorrow, ugly to beautiful – and utterly reliable in its passage from darkness to the surety of light.

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Wake up call

Mental health

‘You can’t beat death/ but you can beat death in life, sometimes’

How cool is this? Charles Bukowski wrote it in 1993. He died in 1994, at the age of 74. A friend sent his poem The Laughing Heart to me this morning, and it illuminated a sentence, or instruction, that has been reverberating around my head these last few days. It says: ‘I cannot help you with your fear of death, but I can try to help you with your fear of life.’

It came in one of those self-speaking-to-the-self moments. You know, that sacred, special ‘inner voice’ that comes to you sometimes? No, it’s not the naggy horrible one, telling you all sorts of lies about yourself. You can call that one the critic, the monkey – you can call it a dick – call it whatever you like: it’s not you. It’s the you that wants you to stop being you (I’m not going to edit that. I know it’s irritating to read, I’m sorry).

Another friend of mine says that suffocating voice is ‘just old childhood tapes’, playing on a loop. She pressed stop on them ages ago. Actually, she pulled out the reels and burnt them. I really listen to her because she seems like a fully evolved person. She’s one of the happiest people I know. She has also suffered the most of anyone else I know.

There is another narrative pulsing within you. It’s very quiet, calm and steady. It tells you things. Important things. How can we find this voice that can help us beat death, sometimes? You just have to get still inside yourself. Slip behind the curtain. There’s meditation, yes. But it could also sneak up on you when you are doing the dishes or walking the dog. Or when you are drifting off to sleep or waking up, and your consciousness is touching something else. Your soul, maybe.

You will know when you hear it because your heart will light up and then, as Charles Bukowski says in the last line of that poem, the Gods will delight in you.

Seek and ye shall find

Mental health

I love that quote from Rumi: What you seek is seeking you. When you hear it, your heart relaxes a little. You stop trying to shove the smudgy roundness of yourself, edges all blurred from life’s sweet and shocking other plans, into a stark square of expectation.

It means that you don’t have to strive so relentlessly to ‘become’, as Michelle Obama might put it. In her brilliant biography Becoming, she traces back through her life, and it reads like a motivational map. You want to apply it to your own hopes and dreams. It’s the kind of book you put down, punch the air and say: Right, I need to get to work. At its core, you see she worked her butt off to get where she is today – but you also understand that who she ‘became’ was inevitable. What she sought was seeking her. She was just very proactive about meeting it halfway. Or, in her case, near the finish line.

We are all ‘becoming’. We really don’t have to know what it is specifically we are becoming. Back in my late 20s, during a treacly bout of depression, I kept hearing a voice in my head. It said, over and over again, Become who you are. Become who you are. I basically thought: Fuck off. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be, anyway? I felt very weighed down by the notion of becoming who I was. So many young people do. The pressure of expectation nearly floors them before they get started.

Eventually, the depression muted and I stopped hearing the voice. Actually, I deliberately stopped listening to it. I shoved it down as far as I could into the depths of my self, so I would never have to face the reality of being who I was.

I’ve grown up a lot since then. I realise that none of us have any choice but to become ourselves. To be ourselves. You can’t fight against who you are, any more than you can stop the tides from rising and falling, any more than you can stop the sun setting or flowers from blooming. You get the picture.

What you seek is seeking you is an immensely comforting snippet to rest your head on. It means that you don’t have to try so hard. The freedom to be yourself stretches out before you on the road less travelled. The path is pristine and nobody has set foot on it.

Nobody can, you see. It’s your road.

Big life

Mental health

In another life, I lived on a tiny island called La Maddalena. One summer evening, the heady scent of wild gorse in the air, I flew around the island on the back of a friend’s scooter. ‘Che vuoi fare da grande?’ he yelled into the sea-fresh wind, thousands of tiny stars twinkling in the sky above as we sped on into the violet night.

My Italian wasn’t great then. I translated it literally, ‘What do you want do… in the big?’ (It means: What do you want to do when you grow up?’). I told him I wanted to write. I wanted to ‘be’ a writer.

Life took over: or more accurately, mental illness took over. I spent much of the next decade profoundly depressed. It wasn’t a mild, nagging grey cloud over my head. It was massively debilitating, utterly disabling. My whole spirit totally suffocated under its power. Often, I couldn’t even rouse myself from sleep. I threw away years being depressed, but I didn’t have a choice. I really didn’t understand how to get well.

This is the monumental might of human emotions. If you let them overwhelm you, they can be so powerful and so dangerous. There aren’t many solutions offered for young people who are struggling with mental illness. At the time, I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. I thought I was incredibly lazy. I thought I had an undiagnosed disorder that made me sleep all the time.

The truth is that the weight of my thoughts had left me physically immobilized. It would be many years before I started to get well. I tried many different ways of trying to recover. Having children gave me a new determination not to succumb to the devil and the dark. Meditation started to heal my brain. I could feel it happening. And each time I do it, I feel it happening still.