Merry Christmas

To anyone who feels like their longings and griefs, their guts and heart, are constantly spilling out all over the floor, too strong to repress and obvious to anyone who looks at them. To anyone broken-hearted and looking at pictures of more beautiful days. To anyone terrified of the time that has passed and even more terrified of the time that lies ahead. I’m not sure where I am now as compared to all of those other versions of myself who have survived and loved, but I do know I’m still here and it’s Christmas Eve and I love my father for setting up a humidifier in the bedroom because I have a cold.

I’ve written about time before, and the past, and how the concept of time passing is innately heartbreaking to me–that something is lost, inevitably, through a process that is irrevocable and unpreventable. I think this comes up more strongly at Christmas, at least for me. As Judy Garland sang, I’ve been muddling through for so many Christmases and gone to bed teary-eyed so many Christmas Eves, and I’ve realized it’s impossible to properly appreciate what you have before it’s gone, because you can’t anticipate the sharp yelping pain it will cause you by its absence.

Love who you love and write to me if that love is washing over other aspects of your life, making it difficult to move, breathe, think.

Merry Christmas to your past and present selves.

Has anyone played Mass Effect 2?

The way Thane remembers events is the way I remember emotions. Certain details, a scent or a sensation or a sight triggering a memory, I will remember not the perfect details of that memory, but exactly how I felt on that day, at that moment. Everything is full of feeling all of the time, bursting with it. A park, a street, a building. The smell of mothballs. Doctor Who. Teddy bears and advent calendars. The voice of my best friend. A tiny voice saying, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” I think I’m coming to understand that that’s part of what bipolar II means for me. Everything is always so much that it could be good or bad, and it’s usually neither, it’s just…. so much. There IS so much. My sorrows and joys don’t pass or become dimmer, not in the traditional sense. No wonder I used to cry at every film as a child. There is too much, and I’m not sure how to become a more well-adjusted person who isn’t quite so in tune with everything she has ever felt, beautiful or tragic, or both. I would make a very good character in a romantic novel where everything is always heaving with overwritten human drama but I’m not a very good regular person, and I’m not a very good adult.

An angel sang

I heard an angel sing last night. That was the thought that came into my head (and what a childish thought too!) when the tenor stepped forward to sing his pieces. My great-uncle conducts the Messiah every year, and every year the church pews are packed to bursting with amateur singers who form the chorus, while professional singers are hired as soloists: tenor, soprano, alto, bass. The tenor this year made my skin vibrate like my nerves were guitar strings being plucked (I do not mean metaphorically–I quite literally could feel my arms humming and trembling like live wires, so quickly it was unnoticeable), and I instantly thought of how angels would sound. His name was depressingly dude-like. Think “Josh”. But anyway. This is what mania feels like to me. You watch a man sing in a church and you are caught in a moment from Anna Karenina or Camelot (the musical version, of course, where everyone’s angst is so beautifully drawn out in perfect harmonies). An hour later you come down and you realize, again, that he is a complete stranger and you know nothing about him and all your conjurings and fantasies and ideas are based on the mania’s rich, delicious imagination and not his own character. And then you feel sort of disappointed in him for being so ordinary. (Which is not his fault, I would like to emphasize. His real self is not even involved in this process.)

I am thinking this is why mental illness is often linked to artists. It’s like never having tasted chocolate but having a perfect idea of how it would melt on your tongue. It makes everything that is imagined present, sharp, detailed–not just images, but sensations, sounds, touch in particular being an element my brain likes to actualize perfectly like a flawless braid.

Really, nothing happened yesterday. The narrative is actually: I went to a concert. All the rest I only felt, but did not tangibly or objectively experience. Humans are naturally imaginative and interior-focused creatures, so I wonder often if I am just a slight exaggeration of the natural model: most of what we are is what we cannot explain or communicate, a state of heightened emotion that language fails to capture and reason fails to explain.

I’m still alive!

With a few more nicks on my arms and maybe a few less brain cells (what does clonazepam do, anyway?) but here, heart beating, pulse thready but stable. I have been down and then I have been up and both have been astonishing and uncanny, the sights Lovecraft insists cannot be described.

Now it’s winter. Canadian winter. So, a little bipolar too. We can’t decide HOW we feel, the Canadian winter and I. Do we feel like shedding our tears all over the streets and sidewalks, or do we feel like shrouding ourselves in thick cotton blankets and hiding from the world? Today the (literal) sun was almost blinding when I walked to the grocery store. Many other days the sky has been completely white. I have a friend who describes these days as “dreary”, but I find them soothing.

There are Christmas stickers on my walls and snowmen plushies on my bedside table. I walk around around hearing:

We’re walking in the air

We’re floating in the moonlit sky

and weeping because I am ridiculous like that and everything feels so FULL, like each emotion is breaking out of its container.

I go to sleep with a tiny string of lit-up Christmas lights and the snowmen beside me.

I’m still here.

 

 

 

Is this mania?

I’ve recognized a pattern I’ve never defined. It’s been this way since high school. There’s a low thrumming in my chest, a rhythmic pulse like a call, an urge, a craving. I feel I am being goaded into something, that I need to do something, like an addict craving euphoria; I think that more than once I have mistaken this feeling for anxiety. The trouble is, it doesn’t go away if I employ self-care tactics, if I attempt to soothe myself, if I instruct myself not to follow my reckless and often visceral impulses. It worsens until I feel I am being smothered and my hummingbird heartbeat is all there is of me. In high school the feeling centered around going out, being with people, dancing, drinking, getting high: being alive in those classic clichéd ways of being alive when you’re seventeen. I have always thought I was just restless, that those days when I compulsively yearned to create an image of myself that was relatively unfamiliar were not related, were flukes, were the results of regular teenage boredom. Now I am not so sure. I can trace it back from those innocent days, when my emotional and physical safety depended on my lack of dangerous opportunities, to now, when at times my behaviour is unrecognizable and uncontrollable. And giving in, deciding my heartbeat was wiser than my mind, always gave me such beautiful feelings. Intoxication, maybe, or rapture, like seeing an angel.

I wonder now if this is related to my recent diagnosis of bipolar II. I wonder as I sit on the floor of my apartment and try to quiet my heartbeat, the rush of my blood, the surge of adrenaline that is not quite fear, but more like desire. How does one control such things? Barring the impossibility of the desired circumstances (in high school I was not especially popular and could not easily access the situations I craved), what does one do? Eventually the circumstances become wholly accessible, as they are now, as they have been for years, and again and again I follow the siren song. I have never been a model of restraint. And now I wonder if those impulses are not only personal weaknesses but biological frailties that have never been examined properly.

Mood Swings

For years, doctors have not been able to figure out whether or not to diagnose me with bipolar disorder. My former psychiatrist made the diagnosis, then changed it on second thought to some sort of obsessive/compulsive disorder twinned with major depression. Just yesterday I received the diagnosis of bipolar II from a different psychiatrist, an amiable but detached older gentleman charged with treating medication-resistant mental illnesses that have apparently confounded other medical professionals to the point where they don’t return my phone calls. I’ve bewildered them and others in my life with the fierceness with which I feel not just the emotions dictated by the BDD, anxiety and depression–though certainly those emotions do occupy a majority of my days–but also infatuation, obsession, inspiration, exultation, enthusiasm, sexual desire, adoration, a thousand kinds of love. They wonder if this is mania.

It is strangely, uniquely painful to be told that the only beautiful parts of your life are caused by faulty wiring in your brain. Because oh my God, do I love those manic days. I love how everything seems romantic and tragic and literary, the way the details of my day unfold in front of me like sentences in a Woolf novel, the way it feels to press my face to someone’s cheek and feel the scratch of their beard or the soft flicker of their eyelashes. Every sensation is like its own Platonic ideal. (That being said, I have been known to make harmful, selfish, reckless, emotionally dangerous decisions in these states. But oh my God, the act of living feels so bright and sensual, a significant part of me would rather live with the consequences of these days than lose their emotional charge.)

The amiable gentleman has made several firm recommendations regarding my medications, one of which is that I be put on a mood stabilizer. My fear is that, with this alteration, the majority of my days will become all of my days. I already spend 60-75% of my time either in a state of panic or despondency. Why would they want to take away the only part of my life that lets me have faith in anything other than the inevitable victory of the black rot over my little, cowering brain? The particles in the air are beautiful on these days, and often so is my face in the mirror. I don’t want to lose that, and I don’t want to have confirmation that it is, along with most of my moods and emotional states, an artificial sensation. It’s like fervently believing in God, and then being told that this belief has been downloaded into your brain and doesn’t actually belong to you.

 

 

2016 – the lowest point

When I was 24, nearly 25, I was severely ill. I lived in London in a carpeted apartment with J. He was my partner but also in some senses my caretaker; I am not sure if those outside of the community can fully comprehend the comfort that can be derived from a person who is always there, who is aware of all habits and rituals and routines, of all medications, of all symptoms and illnesses and episodes and variations of episodes, and the proper response to each. I do not mean to suggest that dependence is the natural state of a person who, like myself, suffers from emotional disturbances, or that we are entitled to this level of care. I only mean to suggest that he remains the only person to give so generously and acquire so much knowledge purely out of affection and concern. At one point in Ottawa, he took a class with others who had relatives or loved ones with severe depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, and so on. He learned techniques and spoke to me about them. He had information sheets he highlighted, and made notes in the margins.

To make a simple comparison, when I passed copies of these sheets to my parents I found them later abandoned in the recycling bin. My parents are not bad people. This is simply a difference in character, or approach.

Every day I would attempt to shower. This was a challenge akin to climbing a very tall flight of stairs. My symptoms would be more or less severe, usually more. At the time the body dysmorphia was crippling me. In every mirror and reflective surface I saw tiny lifeless eyes, aggressive eyebrows, an obscenely fat jaw, chubby cheeks, bad skin, and deep lines around my eyes and mouth; to my own eyes I was sullen-looking and grotesque, soulless and charmless as a sewer rat. J. disagreed, of course. We hung towels over the mirrors in the bathroom. We watched a lot of Law and Order: SVU. He sat at the dining room table doing his readings and writing his papers as the theme music played, interrupting his own study to wipe the tears from under my eyes, tell me I was a beautiful girl, make me instant hot chocolate or cut-up apple pieces with peanut butter, as the symptoms waxed and waned.

When he was on campus, I cleaned the apartment: I vacuumed the couch (half of which now belonged to the dog) and our carpeted living room. My social worker had given me information sheets on an approach to cleaning that was feasible for depressives with very little energy or motivation; the gist of it was to devote 10 minutes of every day to small cleaning tasks, so that the chores never piled up and overwhelmed you. Despite my dread and self-hatred and heavy bones, I showered and dressed and did laundry. I walked the dog and took her to the dog park. Sometimes I walked to the grocery store. I liked doing the groceries, picking out the particular things we liked to eat (turkey pepperoni, apples, berries, banana chips, Tostitos and salsa, curry sauce for our rice, frozen fish) and placing them in my cart, listening to the music playing on the overhead speakers (I remember our store played a lot of 50’s rock ‘n roll, my father’s favourite sort of music). I liked going through the quiet checkout lines and seeing the cashiers, arranging the bags in my hands so they were evenly weighted, walking home through the snow with my ears protected from the cold by a pink woolen headband. If J. and I did groceries together we took the dog with us, and one of us held her outside while the other went into the store. I remember she was always anxious when J. did the shopping (and I can only assume it was the same the other way around), looking to where he’d disappeared, afraid that he wouldn’t come back. If I tried to take her to the video store next door (the clerks let her wander the aisles with me and eat the old popcorn from under the shelving), she would be reluctant at first, as though we were abandoning him, as though our departure naturally meant we would never see him again. When (inevitably) the one who had departed did return, she would greet us with joy and relief.

As J. went to classes during the day and had such a volume of work outside them, I had to take some responsibility for the care of the dog. I walked the dog in the heat of the early fall, in the chill of the winter. Walking the dog was the closest thing I had to a daily purpose; I couldn’t lie on the couch and ignore her restlessness, her energy, her occasional anxiety. Despite my considerable flaws, I could not manage this sort of dismissal. It is no accomplishment: it is behaviour that should be expected from any responsible pet-owner, but I am so glad that even on my worst days she was not punished for my own failings (or, if you like, the failings of my own brain—perhaps it is a combination of the two).

She whined when I cried because she didn’t know what was happening, only that something was wrong, and she felt helpless and confused. She came up to me (usually I was sitting on the floor or the couch) and stuck her face in mine, whimpering, shaking her stubby little tail, trying to kiss me on the mouth; in other words, she was making me comfort her. (Even after I left J. told me she reacted to my voice on the phone, and when I visited she bounded to me as though even with my long absences from her life I remained somehow precious and memorable, my arrival an exhilarating event.)

I had a social worker in London, a psychologist and, later on, a psychiatrist, the latter at Victoria Hospital. Both doctors had studied and worked with BDD specifically (an astonishing rarity, as I knew then and know even better now).  I left London too soon to know if the counselling would have been beneficial in the long-term, but she was enormously knowledgeable and personable. She told me she had never correctly guessed the subject of the anxiety of a patient with BDD, whether it was their skin or hair or eyes or bone structure, their weight or their hairline, their nose. The features we considered our greatest flaws, that made us monstrous and repellent, evident (as we thought) to anyone with eyes to see them, she had never correctly divined simply by looking at a face. She never knew. She always had to be told. I went to her not knowing how to fix these obsessions or even how to lessen them, how to be strong and content, not how to feel pretty (I did not have such a lofty goal and still don’t) but how to feel okay, like The Face could not hurt me, like my face, my expressions, my smile, could be sort of pleasant in certain lights and someone could look at me and think, that’s a nice face.

This culminated in my brief stay at Victoria Hospital, the staff of which were ill-prepared for the volume of mentally ill people asking them for help. I went there asking for help. I was frightened. They committed me and searched my bag for instruments I could use to harm myself and gave me a bunk in ER, and I remember I was so grateful, so relieved. That relief made my first hours easier, the first day and night I stayed in the ER while waiting for a bed in psych, sitting in my little hospital cot in my blue cotton gown and my blue cotton pants, listening to the nurses murmuring at the desk in the middle of the night. J. was there when he could be. I had my little bunk and a curtain that closed around me (that lovely curtain made all the difference) and darkness at night to sleep, and I was relieved and didn’t mind waiting for a room, for a doctor, for assistance, for the emotional equivalent of cool hands on my forehead. But when the ER became overcrowded they shunted me into a hallway where I stayed in a hospital cot fender-to-fender with other young people in other hospital cots who had sought similar types of help and who had similarly been banished to this empty hospital corridor because they knew we were all too scared to protest too much. I slept under a fluorescent light that never turned off. There were no partitions, no privacy. My head hurt. I felt terrified and I cried and became so genuinely distraught and overwhelmed that J. and I almost attempted an illegal escape from Victoria hospital. When the psychiatrist came to see me the following day, I had spent the night in cold terror under a buzzing perpetual brightness and quickly lied to him and told him I was feeling much better.

We took a bus from the hospital and debarked at one of our usual stops near the grocery store and the video store. We went to get groceries. This first evening I spent out of the hospital, I remember the snow was falling. My arms were full of grocery bags and J. walked beside me. There is not a lot of beauty to be found in this scene, perhaps – a rather shabby London neighbourhood and an unstable girl who has just been released from hospital having lied her way out – but I remember it differently. My symptoms had not exactly lessened. I did not experience a miracle. But it was better to be here with the cold on my cheeks and the snow in my hair, ears covered by my headband, free and able to walk around, to look up and see the sky (however dark and obscured by snow it was), to no longer be a prisoner of fluorescent lighting. It was easier, it was sweeter. I was no longer contained, and the falling snow protected me the way the doctors could not. It snowed quite a bit that November in London, and I remember often thinking I’d like to make a snow angel but not having anywhere I could do it without being looked at.

I never went back to the hospital, in London or any other city in Ontario, no matter how desperate I felt.

I want to talk about the lazy stereotype

I want to talk briefly about something hugely common among depressives but which is almost impossible to accurately describe, though as soon as you begin, the people around you who have been depressed themselves automatically connect the sensation you are clumsily attempting to explain with what they themselves are experiencing on a daily basis. Doctors have an easy time discussing it, because it sounds so simple and matter-of fact. Loss of energy. Loss of focus. Loss of motivation. Classic symptoms, boxes to check off.

But when you open your eyes and stare at the dust motes in your room and think how difficult it is going to be to walk down the stairs and brush your teeth, or worse leave the house and be in the world and walk and take the bus and talk to people and attempt to be sweet and lovely as you hold this fragile image of yourself up to the world and ask them to love you. That is an astonishing amount of work, and for a lot of people it is impossible. This is not something we discuss with those outside of the community, because frankly, to those unfamiliar with the symptoms, we come off sounding lazy. And part of me thinks we always will. There is no way to understand how difficult it is for some people to do the simple necessary daily things that everyone else takes for granted, if, for you, those things are part of an easy and ordinary dance you perform naturally every day. I won’t even talk about cooking meals; that is one regular, routine thing with which I particularly struggle, and at the moment, can only do in the simplest form.

It’s such a simple thing. Lack of energy. But massively difficult to communicate to the people in your life who are wondering why you are not fighting harder. I’m lucky in a sense (mixed blessings) that anxiety and BDD symptoms often drive me to do those simple things like brush  my teeth and wash my face and make sure I am not falling even more in my own estimation. But a lot of people who suffer from major depressive disorder have trouble even getting out of bed. You hear this said so often, it’s almost a cliché, but when was the last time you thought about what that would be like, to be unable to move because the fog surrounding you and occupying your body is so dense and thick and heady that your body instinctively, biologically, surrenders.

I am not advocating for lethargy or for simply giving in to every negative sensation. I am simply advocating for greater compassion for this particular symptom of many mood disorders, especially depression. Your 21-year-old son may not be a “lazy shit” who is addicted to video games. Lack of energy, lack of motivation, can be biological, something they cannot control nor have chosen. Care for them and teach them to care for themselves. Ask them to meet you in the middle instead of doing the entire task themselves, NO MATTER HOW SIMPLE AND EASY IT SEEMS TO YOU. Do not give up on them and do not expect miracles. The steps they are taking may seem hopelessly small and basic but that is their fight and often what defines the beginning of recovery.

2017

Looking through old photographs is like wading through cold pockets in a lake, or the fabled sensation of encountering a ghost and walking through the cold shock of its invisible, intangible body. You remember a time when that moment, the moment whose record you are witnessing, was the present, when everything pertaining to that moment, all of the details of feeling and circumstance, were what was happening to you NOW, and the amorphous future of which you were afraid had not yet become what it is to the version of yourself looking at the photograph. I’ve never heard anyone talk about this, but to me it’s fucking weird. I remember wearing my flowered baseball cap and walking to the bus stop from my job on Canotek road. Not just remember – I was JUST THERE. It’s unnerving. I was JUST in a dorm room with my face pressed against the window, watching the snow fall outside. I was JUST in love and hopeful and moving into a place with hardwood floors and a tree that bloomed white blossoms in the middle of September. I was JUST wearing my hair in French braids and performing at Academic Hall in the full heat of the summer, standing onstage opposite a brave and frightened man. J. gave me a beautifully lifelike stuffed toy of a pig, and a card congratulating me. I remember the air conditioning only worked inside the auditorium, and hauling the set pieces through the lobby to the stage was tiring and made us all sweaty.  I remember Mary Jane did my makeup and made me far prettier than I had any right to be.

I think you get it. Needless to say, it’s weird. It’s surreal to lose pieces of your life, to have them fall out of your pockets when you’re not looking and when you finally turn around you realized you’ve walked so far away from them that the substance of them – the feel of someone’s skin or lips, the incredible fear before an act of vulnerability, the face you saw in the mirror on that day, at that moment- is gone.

Now I am small and still and blending into the background like a doll on a shelf.

Home movies

In 1999, I was a happy child. Loud, rude, attention-seeking, self-centered, boisterous, bossy, overly talkative, irritating, maybe even grating (I don’t know how I would have put up with me 24/7) but happy. My incessant stream of chatter on these videos (which yields no useful information at all) is completely self-absorbed and details the minute details of mine and my sister and brother’s daily lives. We were happy, so of course there are no striking, startling, or revealing details. It’s normal; to someone who is not me, I imagine it is quite mundane, unremarkable. I am just a child with very large front teeth talking about my pet grasshopper (I’m sorry, Hoppy) and playing bad piano. I am not particularly insightful or interesting. But I’m so happy. Maybe I don’t even realize I am happy, because the happiness is so intrinsic and I’ve never known much of anything else. It’s just me and the old gray van and the grass and my grandfather’s soft British-accented voice. It’s just my words. (“N. is making an ant path. Here’s the woods. This is a shortcut. Dad, look at my grasshopper. He eats bugs. We’re cooking marshmallows. Hi! The stupid guy [my very patient father] is video-camera-ing.”) and my delighted, changing face and I know all of my childhood frustrations and fits and tears and furies are rose-tinted with the belief that nothing truly bad will ever happen to me, that I am whole and complete and fine.

Naturally, watching these videos at 26, I wanted to cry. Witnessing that sort of innocence is simultaneously crushing and wonderful – crushing because, holy shit, what the hell happened to that kid? She definitely should have turned out differently, and wonderful because, look at that kid, she’s rosy and without pain, she knows she’ll be okay. She has the gift of not knowing what comes next.

There is also, of course, the feeling of bewilderment. What did happen? Very often I become preoccupied with the thought that my mental illness is somehow more selfish and entitled than others’. This is because my childhood was bright and healthy and without loss; it was elaborate Playmobil stories and fights with my sister and Quebecois Christmas Eves and all of that messy blonde hair and NOT ONCE do I remember thinking, in the first ten years of my life, “maybe I’m ugly.”

To be brief about it, there is no reason I should be sick. No one “went wrong” anywhere, except me.

When my baby brother and I start to sing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ I can no longer hold it in and do start to cry. I know I’m very lucky that I did get to feel those fleeting, sunny, childish things and that I did have a head full of nonsense and ramblings and that my parents were kind. I was incredibly lucky. I suppose the catch is that it’s irretrievable, that I can’t go back, that I am here, now, and things look different, and feel different and I cry and scratch at my skin and wonder if death would be better.