Category Archives: Living With Mental Illness

Reminder

Hello, reader. Remember, I’m moving all of my activity to my other page, Not My Last Words. If you follow me here, you may want to go and follow me there. Not This Song will disappear in June.

Check out my newest entry, Oak Tree Debate, at notmylastwords.com and continue watching me deal with life, creativity, poetry, and weird ways to hang on for one more day.

Selfishness

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How far am I willing to go to save my life?

Last week, I stood in front of a small group of poets and read a selection of my work for 25 minutes. It was the Monday after the inauguration, and many of the listeners had spent the weekend marching. I knew that later, at the open mic, many of the poems would reflect current events. I worried that my work, particularly at this time, would be judged self-absorbed and turned too far inward when external things are so urgent.

Here is what I said to the audience at the beginning of my reading:

“I cannot do justice to these times. Part of me wanted to attempt to assemble a body of work about what is happening to our country and society. But trying to do that would have been dishonest. I was invited to feature here, and that means I was invited to share who I am as a poet.

The truth is, one might say that I am a selfish poet. While many of you are trying to save us all with poetry, I am often only trying to save myself–and, perhaps, someone else who doesn’t think they deserve to be saved. 

The truth is, I mostly write about the things that keep some of us bound and silenced on the sidelines. I write about what I know. I know about being a drug addict. I know about being a mental patient. I know about being a woman, and a mother. I know what it is to want to die. I know what it’s like to decide to fight to live.”

When I am thinking clearly–when I am not drowning in a miasma of depression and shame–I believe that writing, reaching, fighting for those who share these experiences is important. I believe it is a contribution. I believe that helping someone wake, even for a moment, from the nightmares inside their skull helps the world.

Do not think I don’t feel anger and outrage. Do not think, ever, that I don’t care. But I can’t afford to keep worrying about what you think of me. It’s going to kill me.

So I must accept the truth. This–this writing, this poetry, this exploration and celebration of our inner worlds–this is my playing field. This is my way of fighting the oppression and sick culture that wants us bound, silenced and unconscious. This is what I have to give.

If this is what I have to give, I want to give it wholeheartedly. This means learning to let go of hoping for approval. This means not fearing the labels of selfish, self-absorbed, and all of the others I want so desperately to refute.

I want to help. Perhaps if I manage to improve my health I will find small ways of helping in the external world. But what I want most is to support others in their fight against despair. If you are out there, as an activist and a warrior, I want to offer illogical hope when you are burned out. If you are in bed, paralyzed with depression or pain, I want to help you hang on until a slightly better day. By sharing my inner world, I want to help others explore theirs. I want people to have an inner world that sustains and strengthens them through anything.

Not Time For Hunting

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I don’t generally do trigger warnings, but here is one for you: this essay goes into detail about thoughts of suicide. Not intentions, not plans, just thoughts.

“I am going hunting,” an old man might say, during a long winter in a year when food was scarce. His family would not try to stop him, if the situation were dire enough. They would hold back tears and wish him luck, he and they both knowing he would not come back.

Sometimes I think that if I were braver and less selfish I would “go hunting” too. The harsh equations I solve in my head tell me that I can’t contribute enough to make up for the resources I use. In the last couple of months, as I watch those around me react to the election and gear up for battle, the part of me that wants me dead uses this argument at an ever-increasing volume.

Here’s the thing, though: I know it’s not time for me to go. I know it, no matter how awful I may feel about myself. There are very specific things I’m doing that are important to people I love, and they need me to keep doing them. I am providing services, though it is hard to remember that when I get overwhelmed. Perhaps there will come a time when I must consider going hunting. Things are bad, and they are going to get worse before they get better (if they do.) However, for now my decision is clear, even without considering that illogical and transcendent part of me that believes we are all worth something.

Acting on that decision means taking care of myself physically and generally treating myself with respect. It will come as no surprise to my readers that I haven’t had much success with that lately.

What if the old man, although not leaving for his final hunting trip, constantly hung out in the doorway of his hut? Stayed on the fringes of his family, never sitting before the fire? Ate his food but did not allow himself to take any pleasure in it?

I spend a lot of my life hanging out in that metaphorical doorway. Maybe you do too. What would I say to the old man? Surely I would say: Grandfather, come away from the door. Eat, get warm, play with the baby. If you’re staying, stay. Enjoy being here while you are here.

Self-Delighting, Self-Affrighting

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“…Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
–from “A Prayer for My Daughter” by W.B. Yeats

These are the type of words to which I cling: words that remind me that my soul is capable of light and growth regardless of external circumstances. With the latest political catastrophes, though, I feel that such things are one of my dirty little secrets. How dare I believe that joy and peace are possible while things are turning to shit around me? How dare my soul remember anything but impending doom?

I can’t help it, though. During my life I’ve met so many people who were happier and more at peace in their lives than I can imagine being. They came from all walks of life, dealt with poverty or illness or injustice, and carried what seemed to be an independent joy about them. They cried and fought and grieved like anyone else, yet they were also able to rejoice and rest and laugh.

That’s what I want, and it doesn’t mean I want to retreat from the problems of the world and huddle beside some inner fire. It means I want that feeling of wholeness to accompany me where I need to go.

Writing this–confessing that I feel guilty for thinking about an inspiring and comforting passage of poetry–makes me aware of what a dangerous place I’m in. I already struggle to feel worthy of any space on this planet. If I let this guilt control me, I’ll fall farther and farther into the kind of place I described in On The Advice Of My Solicitor:

I just want not to be a burden anymore. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and consume resources and imagine the contempt others feel toward me.

…Take my eyes and give them to one who is blind. Take my hands and create, build, fix what is broken. Take this pretty-good soprano voice, that sings so little, and play lullabies for children fighting nightmares. Send these feet to march in the protests against racism and social injustice. Take this brain, hammer out these kinked chemical impulses, and turn its intelligence toward solving the dilemmas of our species. Take these words and craft them into speeches that will liberate, or into the right phrase at the right time for someone who needs it.

Take this neglected flesh and feed it to starved dogs in dusty fields. Take the food I’ll no longer eat and give it to the hungry. Take the phosphorus and minerals from my bones and replenish the tired soil of my planet.

The disabled are going to suffer under the new regime, whether the disabilities are physical or mental. We don’t need to be inflicting extra suffering on ourselves. How do I stop it? How do I really act upon my belief that if I harm myself, I give the enemies of love a victory?

It’s not a matter of trying to believe in the “self-delighting” part of my soul, or of understanding that the truest poison of many fears comes from the “self-affrighting” part. I know these things; they stand immutable in my psyche. It’s about giving myself permission to use the power of this truth.

The Watch-Fires

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Damn, it’s been hard to know what to write here lately. I shut down completely for the two weeks or so following the election–not proud of it, but every bit of energy and strength I had was going into not doing stupid and irreversible things to myself. Then there was Thanksgiving to get through.

I’ve been writing and discarding multiple essays in my head. There’s so much I could say, about so many subjects. So many populations for which I fear. But the thing that is helping me sit down and write today is a return to my most basic principles: what is the purpose of Not This Song?

Well, the main non-selfish purpose is trying to make others feel less alone in navigating difficult lives, with an emphasis on a few particular conditions. If I go back to this, I can rein in the part of me that thinks I have to write everything. I don’t need to discuss specific issues right now. I need to support those that are doing so, but my work has a different focus. I don’t need to change anyone’s mind about anything outside the confines of their own psyche.

So what I want to say is: Are you okay?

What are you doing to take care of yourself? What is helping you? If you are disabled, what is helping you resist the voice that makes you feel guilty for not being able to do as much as others? If you are an addict, what is helping you resist using? If you have a history of suicidal thoughts or actions, what is helping you not go there?

What I want to say is: if you have things that are helping, do them. Do them as much as you need to. Don’t you dare tell yourself you have to earn them by doing things you aren’t able to do at the moment. If you don’t have anything, seek help in finding something. Easier said than done, I know, but just keep the option in mind. Don’t you dare tell yourself that you don’t deserve it because others are suffering more. You can’t help them if you aren’t here a month or year from now.

I won’t tell you things are going to be all right. I’m just continuing to operate on my basic premise that giving up is not a good option. Given that, it makes sense to do what is necessary to stick around. We will all operate in different ways and at different speeds. Some of us find action is the best soother and we’re already out there. Others, like me, are taking weeks or more to get back to a non-dangerous level of functioning. It’s okay. Yes, I admit that’s much easier to say to you than to myself, but I mean it.

One of my favorite metaphors for the inside of my mind is a small village, in a jungle, at night. This particular jungle is full of terrifying creatures that attack the village frequently. The creatures stand for any malign influence on my psyche, whether external or self-created. Messages of shame, terror, despair, envy, compulsion, apathy, nihilism, and everything else destructive. It doesn’t matter if they are from childhood, from media distortions, or from real-world catastrophe…if they get in, the effect on my psychic strength will be the same. The village is circled with a defensive ring of watch-fires and a guard of warriors. The warriors will fight whatever gets in, but they need the fires to be able to see it. The fires also keep much at bay just with their light and heat.

When things are not going well, I imagine the attack. I can almost hear the cries of the warriors and the snarls of the beasts. As I consciously concentrate on generating opposite thoughts to combat the destructive attack, I imagine positive turns in the battle. Most of all, I imagine the fires blazing more and more brightly.  If I am taking good enough care of myself to do any regular meditation, I visit the fires and add fuel to them. Fuel, of course, is made up of things that make me remember why I want to win the battles. Music, poetry, experiences of love, beauty, every non-linear belief I have…the fires need them to burn.

Right now, the fires are low and the jungle is crowded with danger. And I know that, too far away for me to see, other villages also fear the darkness. I hope you’ll try to feed your watch-fires, as I try to feed mine. Only if we survive the nights of our spirit will we be there to give anything during the days.

We Interrupt This Depression…

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My dark phases, hellish as they might be, are not uninterrupted darkness. The grim or lackluster parts are almost always interrupted by moments of grace. Much grace comes from my family, for I am blessed not to live in isolation.

Beyond these everyday blessings, sometimes I get moments. The kind I’ll remember years later. They pierce through the fog and join their neighbors in the innermost vaults of my consciousness, there to be defended to the death.

About ten days ago, I drove about an hour and a half north to go to a poetry reading in Napa County. The reading was held at the town’s library, which like many buildings in the town basically backed up to a vineyard. Lines of comfortable chairs were arranged facing the windows of the main room, and the reading poet was silhouetted against one side of the bright span of windows. While listening, we gazed at the green vines under the slanting sun of a late summer afternoon.

The beauty was so surreal that I began to feel as if I were on another world. I found myself thinking of recent tragedies in the news, and about how much privilege is involved with this tranquil setting, but even the familiar sadness and guilt faded into just being present.

The Moment with a capital M wasn’t only this beauty, though. It wasn’t just the careful packing away and stowing of a lovely memory. No, the magic part came next, in equal parts spirituality and science fiction.

I was struck, suddenly, with a feeling of being apart from the time stream. The concept of parallel timelines exists in many sci-fi universes, and I have been exposed to it long enough for it to be a part of my thinking at times. Right there and then, at that moment, I felt my current timeline brushing against another one. The other timeline was one, probably one of many, in which I was not in that beautiful room because I was not alive.

In that timeline I didn’t live to write any poetry, or read any, or drive to Napa to share some. I died sometime between 2009 and 2011, you see, from a drug overdose or some other self-destructive act. My chair was empty.

It sounds a bit trite as I attempt to describe it: I had a moment of being grateful to be alive, blah blah…but there was something about that empty chair, almost superimposed against the one I was occupying, that made my worries and shames lose power for a moment. The words, the window, the sun were my reality, mine, there as opposed to not there.

There I was, in the middle of this period of depression and poor health, feeling so powerfully alive that all else faded. And when it came my turn to read something of my own, what need was there to fear? The words were mine, my reality, coalesced in this fortunate timeline from ghosts of might-have-beens.

A Familiar Conversation

Those who share some of my issues will be relieved to know that I am taking steps to obtain a supply of my bipolar meds again. Having dropped the ball during the previous months and the stresses I’ve been having, I have been without them for nearly a month now…and it’s not good.

At last, I became resigned to using precious funds on a visit to my old psychiatrist, because my plans to find a new one hadn’t panned out and there was no longer any time to lose. However, when I called the number, I found out the practice had just closed. Turns out he is still in practice, but with a new group clinic. So I called the number, and was told I need to go through the standard intake process before I can be given an appointment with him or anyone else. On the bright side, they might be able to match me with someone who will take my insurance for part of the cost.

So, yesterday, I found myself participating in an intake conversation. This feels weird on a couple of levels: first, it always feels overwhelming for me to try to summarize my present and/or past condition (can I just give them the address of this website, please?)  Second, the questions on the intake are familiar to me from both ends: before my diagnosis, I worked at a counseling center and did phone intakes regularly.

I know why they have to ask certain questions, and I know what answers they are looking for. I know what red flags they are trying to spot. I know the clinical descriptions of the things they describe. And although I know these things, I need to answer the questions like a patient and not a co-clinician.

Something else about this, for my readers who share my issues with addiction: the intake person asked me about any history of substance abuse. If it hadn’t been on the form, I would have brought it up myself. Whoever I end up seeing will, like my old psychiatrist, be fully informed about my history of addiction and recovery. I can’t overstate how important this is: one of the drugs I used to abuse came from a psychiatrist years ago. It wasn’t their fault, but as a person in recovery it’s my responsibility to make sure doctors of any kind know that certain drugs are not appropriate for me.

At the end of the questions, I was told they need to consult my insurance before they can schedule me an appointment. They will call me back, the intake person said. I promised myself I’d wait at least until tomorrow before calling again, but I feel anxious because some medical “we’ll call you back” things have not gone well lately.

So that’s what’s going on. Nothing very fun or inspirational right now, but I know many of my readers have been there. Part of living with our conditions is sometimes doing that footwork, one step at a time, and dealing with the frustration of not doing it very well.