What does it take to return from a trip into the dark? A long bout of clinical depression tends to be followed by a long and gradual return, but shorter dips require a quicker springback. How do we master the art of coming back? How do we put aside regret and tackle the life that has piled up outside our door?
Cyclothymia. That’s what my doctors call it. I live with a certain ongoing level of bipolar depression, but within that come fluctuations that tend to last only a few days. After that few days I begin to feel better, but it’s hard for me to poke my head out because I fear what I will find.
There’s an image from science fiction that keeps coming to mind when I think of this. Many years ago, I saw an episode of The Twilight Zone (well, a brief reboot) in which a harried suburban mom finds a magic stopwatch. She discovers that saying the phrase “Shut up!” causes time to stop for everything but her, and “Start talking” makes it resume. At first it’s wonderful: she can hit the pause button on yelling kids to take a bath or nap or anything she wants.
Then, with no warning, sirens blare and the TV tells of nuclear hostilities breaking out. Missiles are coming, there’s chaos in the streets and she is surrounded by crying children and an avalanche of noise. Overwhelmed, she screams “SHUT UP!”
In the last scenes of the episode, she leaves her motionless family and walks through her town among the statues of people frozen in various attitudes of terror. Raising her eyes to the sky, she beholds a missile poised a hundred feet above the ground.
For some reason, the episode made a big impression on me. I kept imagining what she might do next; whether there was anything constructive she could do. Would she load her frozen family into a vehicle and try to travel somewhere away from the kill zone? Would transports even work? How long would she wander alone, making and discarding plans under the poised death in the sky? How long would she be able to stand it before she closed her eyes and whispered, “Start talking?”
When I’m rising from the lower levels of a cyclothymic dip, I feel life waiting for me. But I don’t feel the good parts of it waiting–I’m not un-depressed enough for that yet. What seems poised over my head is a fearsome construct, made up of whatever stressors I had going on before I fell low enough to shut down, multiplied by days of hiding and neglect and whatever damage I’ve done to my body and brain.
A small part of my psyche seems to believe that if I don’t come back yet, these stresses will go away. It wants to keep hiding, even though I’ve returned enough to be miserable and be ready to come out. And when I do begin to engage more, the slightest new stress makes me want to scream “Shut up!” and retreat again.
It takes courage to come out and try to be in the world with some semblance of normalcy again. Perhaps not the kind of courage anyone else would notice or respect, but it’s there. I’m very imperfect at it, but every time I start doing more things you can bet I’m fighting an intense drive to pull away and shut down again.
Coming back at a reasonable pace, a pace quick enough to give me a few good days before my next dip but slow enough to keep me from freaking out, is a skill set I’m acquiring slowly. I try to be conscious of where in the cycle I am, and make a point of not trying to do too much the first day I feel better.
It’s been more than four years since I stopped using drugs to deal with my mind. I’ve still struggled with using food, with varying degrees of success. I’ve worked with doctors to treat my disorder, balancing benefits and drawbacks of different meds. I fully expect to deal with these cycles for the rest of my life.
This fear of coming back I describe, the fear that the poised missile made me feel, is my enemy. The greatest development I could see for my soul in this life–the thing that would bring me closer to being the hero of my personal dreams–would be to win freedom from fear’s rule.