“Call your sorrow a disease or don’t. Take drugs or don’t. See a therapist or don’t. But whatever you do, when life drives you to your knees, which it is bound to do, which maybe it is meant to do, don’t settle for being sick in the brain. Remember that’s just a story. You can tell your own story about your discontents, and my guess is that it will be better than the one that the depression doctors have manufactured.”
-Gary Greenberg, Manufacturing Depression
“The real joy is knowing that if you felt the trouble in the story, your kingdom isn’t dead.”
“The thing I call ‘my mind’ seems to be a landlord that doesn’t really know its tenants.”
- Lynda Barry, What It Is
“Who weeps? Those who are living my dear.”
“So it goes.”
- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
It was Mother’s Day. And I know it was perfect as far as those go.
Dead asleep and awoken gently by my kids and Tony bringing me fresh breakfast in bed. And art, so much art they had made for me.
I propped myself up on pillows and rubbed my eyes into awake mode. Tony took the kids and left the house to run a few errands. The windows were open in the bedroom and I could hear birds. It was a beautiful day.
Physically, I had not been feeling well, and had told Tony that despite his bike race that day, I’d rather stay home. I needed a day of rest. He said he’d catch a ride with a friend. He said they weren’t leaving until around noon, so the morning could be slow paced. This too sounded perfect.
I laid in bed for awhile. I read. I played on my phone. I sipped coffee. I felt like I was on top of things. “I’m so good at resting,” I told myself, but some other voice inside my head said, “You’re totally not relaxed, and you have no intent on doing so at all today.”
Uh-oh. That’s a voice to stifle. I refused to root around for her, pinpoint her and stare her in the eyes. Instead I ignored her. Passed over her like she was a ghost meant for someone else, just passing through. I pulled the down comforter closer and inhaled and exhaled deeply. “I’m fine. Everything is fine.”
My memory is unclear as to exactly how things unfolded, but I do know it was getting really close to the time for Tony to leave and I was trying to get dressed, when in a matter of minutes three of my kids came in my bedroom with various requests:
“Can I go in our neighbor’s house to play video games? We saved this spot we’re at in the game and…”
“If he gets to go into our neighbor’s house then so do I.”
“Well I didn’t get to go at all yesterday, so I should get to go instead of her.”
I cannot tell you for sure what occurred at this point inside of me, but it felt an awful lot like that voice I had mistaken as a “ghost meant for someone else,” suddenly took a firehose to the face of that sweet innocent, “I’m fine” woman that was just minutes ago curled up in the bed. And that sweet innocent woman who was “really good at resting,” suddenly thought she might rip her own hair out and throw it at her kids.
“Get out of my bedroom,” one of the voices said sternly to my children. Maybe it was the meditator, trying to break up the skirmish, trying to wrestle the firehose out of the ghost’s arms. “Nobody is going to our neighbor’s house,” the stern voice added, shutting the bedroom door.
In times like these I often have the sense I am watching myself live from somewhere outside myself. I see the pulled hair. I see the wringing wrists, wringing so very hard. I see the sobbing and the walking in circles and the way I peek at myself in the mirror to see if I look as crazed as I feel. I see the strained neck with veins and vessels. I see the empty way I scan the clothes closet and think everything is ugly. Everything is wrong. The way the room feels like it doesn’t have anything to offer me anymore. Like it’s cardboard walls with picture frames drawn in sharpie marker, and I’m just some paper doll and those ugly clothes in my closet have ugly foldable tabs to keep the ugly clothes on my shoulders and my hips.
I see the awkwardly gaping, helpless mouth. I see me trying to yell, but hear no sound coming out, save a weak screech. I hear the repetitive words whispered rhythmically as if in so doing, they might soothe. “I need help. I need help. I need help,” they say. “Help like medication? Help like counseling? Help like a confessional booth?” another voice asks. And the voice replies “I don’t know, I’m just saying I need help because there is some other voice screaming at me saying, “”This isn’t normal. This isn’t normal. This isn’t normal” and “You’re not as strong as you tell yourself you are” and “You can’t let anyone know it gets this bad.”
But there is another voice that’s muffled, it’s far away, like the way you hear a voice when you are asleep and dreaming and someone is calling, trying to wake you. This voice says, “Everything about this is normal. Everything about this is okay. Everything about this will pass and return and pass again. Nothing about this determines how strong you are or aren’t. It just is what is. It’s just part of being you.”
I managed to get dressed. I managed to walk downstairs. I was shaking. I was looking for Tony. I had to tell him I needed help. I was also still outside myself, watching myself do all this. I saw myself get frantic when I couldn’t find him. I saw myself look at the clock. “It’s 11:30. What if he’s already gone?” I watched myself look in every room of the house. I watched myself check the garage and the back porch. I watched myself pick up a pillow as if he’d be hiding underneath it. I watched myself text him, “Where are you?”
I heard myself say, “Zoe, did Daddy already leave?”
I heard her reply, “I don’t know. Maybe.” And I saw how the nonchalantness of her response upset me even more.
“I can’t do this. He’s already left, and I can’t do this – a whole day…alone,” I heard myself say, under my breath.
Then I heard his phone go off, receiving my text. His phone was still here. He must still be here too!
I opened the door to the front porch, and saw him sitting, journaling. My eyes sized up the table. A calm voice inside me noted the details: “Journal, french press, iPad with music playing. Why he’s having a lovely few minutes to himself before he leaves for his race. How funny that he has no idea the chaos that’s about to bump into him. Someone should warn him.”
And then it was me again. The crazy me that said between sobs, “I thought you’d left. I thought you were gone. I can’t be alone. I’m a mess. I can’t be alone today, and I thought you’d left.”
“I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. I have no idea,” I heard myself say those empty words that brought no closure, but were all my insides had to give. There was no logical reason.
“Is it just that you thought I had left? Did that scare you?”
The voices inside me climbed all over each other, begging to be the one chosen to give their verbal response:
“No! That’s stupid. Why would I be scared if you left? I’m a strong independent woman.”
“Yes, I was terrified. I can’t go on without you.”
“You know what, I’m fine really. This was all just a little mix-up. I’m fine now. Just wanted to see you before you left and say good luck.”
The one that spoke audibly was this one. “I think I need to come with you to the race. If there is any possible way we can make that happen, I think we all really need to come with you. I can’t stay here alone, with the kids, like this.” I was proud of that voice that came out. She was speaking up for herself, asking for what she needed, even if it wounded her pride. She was dignified in her chaos. Determined in the midst of her crazy. Unapologetic in her mess.
He stood and hugged me. He said, “Of course, that’s what we’ll do.” For the next few minutes there was motion all around me. My family racing to go the bathroom and grab toys for the car ride and pack lunches. I felt like I was standing still in the middle of it all, the cool wind of their motion hitting my face. I felt like they were holding their arms up and carrying me along to next like marching ants in cartoons carry watermelon slices and chicken drumsticks and cherry pies away from a picnic blanket.
Repeatedly on the trip I heard myself tell Tony thank you. “Thank you for making this happen. Thank you for not leaving me home alone. Thank you for pulling this off on such short notice.”
* * *
The next morning the voices seemed quieter. I felt like I was in my own body instead of watching my own body from above.
“I’m trying to pretend like it was perfectly normal that I had a complete meltdown yesterday,” I said.
“It was,” Tony said.” I mean, it’s not something we’d want to have happen all the time, but we can manage when it comes.”
Later that evening, I sat in the dark on my bedroom floor my head in my hands and answered his “What’s wrong?” with another, “I don’t know.” A voice in my head said, “Now remember, you’ve already used up your one day of crazy quota. Time to pull yourself together. We wouldn’t want this to happen all the time.” Another voice said, “Shove it.” I took that “shove it” voice out to my car and I buckled her into the passenger seat. I threw all the other voices in the backseat, turned the keys in the ignition and went for a drive around the block a few times. I screamed the magic f-word. I cried. I beat my fists on the steering wheel and decided everything was meaningless, especially art and writing and everything that mattered to me. Then I parked the car back in my driveway, got out and went to bed. I’m not sure where the voices slept that night.
* * *
The third day, I met my friend Teresa for lunch. I told her everything.
“You do know this is completely normal, right? You do know this is just part of the cycle, right? I mean, that’s what I do. I’m your friend, that sits here and tells you this is precisely how it goes every time. And it always feels like it’s the worse time ever. And it always feels like this time you’ve gone too far over the edge. And so we sit with people like Sylvia Plath and we sit for as long as it takes. Cause see, we have people like Sylvia to sit with, we have their words that make us feel less crazy. The Sylvias and the May Sartons and other voices like that. You sit with her and then at some point, suddenly the explosion of creativity comes again.”
And you’re off and using all that dark for something light.
That day, that third day while being with Teresa, I finally felt unlocked. Grays regained color. The walls of my home didn’t feel like cardboard anymore. My clothes seemed pretty and tab-free. I wasn’t scared to be alone with my kids. I thought it was pretty wonderful to get to be an artist and a writer and a mother.
But if you’d asked me what changed, what was the exact moment that things turned around, how precisely it was that I was able to finally will myself to “just get better,” I’m afraid the voice inside my head that I’d choose to respond is the one that’s saying, “I don’t know.” It’s the same voice that is saying calmly, “Why you’ve just got to ride it as long as it takes and trust where it’s taking you.”