For the past few days, I have been dirty. No. Filthy. And I’ve relished being so completely unclean. As I mired in my own muck– sweat layered upon sweat, oily hair that made my head itch, the general grime of day-to-day living– I also became mired in spiritual muck.
I’ve not wanted this blog to become a confessional. Rather, I’ve aimed to make it reflective – writings that deal with experiences already passed, or passed enough that I can derive out of them some kind of insight. But even avoiding confession, reflectivity should also be honest. In the spirit of honesty, I’ll admit this – after a great high (reported in my last silly-babbling entry), there comes a deep low.
Lowness is a terribly difficult truth to admit, particularly for me – a girl always dishing out practical, logical advice; a girl eternally helping friends twist their perspectives so they can see the bright side during difficult circumstances. But I am no stranger to occasional bouts of long-depression.
The first time I can recall being inexplicably swallowed by internal sadness was as a sophomore or junior in high school. I remember distinctly that one night –another night of insomnia – I laid in bed and cried until there were no more tears. Then, I simply prayed. I had not been a deeply faithful person, but in that moment of lowness, I knew no other options. I stared at a shadow cast across my closet door as I silently prayed, something to the effect of, “If there is a god, please give me a sign, please give me a sign, please give me a sign. Some sign that I am being watched. Some sign that I have a guide. Please give me a sign.” I could not stop praying as I stared at the shadow. I don’t know for how long I prayed, but finally and suddenly, a perfect square of light illuminated in the center of the shadow on my closet. It could have been that something disrupted the way the streetlight outside was hitting the ground and casting its shadow. I don’t know. But there was a perfect square. And relief washed through my body. Then the square was gone. Finally, I slept for the first time in months.
I never had to premise a prayer again, “If there is a god.” I didn’t become dogmatic in my beliefs – but I became faithful in the truest sense. I believed in god – in spiritual power higher than myself, in the idea that I am not alone in the universe, but instead that I am guided, protected, watched as I navigate my own purpose in the moments of my life.
The next time I recall a similar sadness was as a freshman in college. It hit for a third time two years later during the winter of 1995. I had been in the throws of a dissolving relationship that finally broke in the winter. Suddenly, what should have been a run-of-the-mill month or two of sadness extended into months, months, months. A year. It affected me so heavily that I’ve since apologized to my then-roommates for the misery that I was within our house. I stuffed myself into my bedroom. I didn’t socialize with anyone if I could help it. I cried. I hated myself. I slept and slept and slept. I felt like the bottom of the earth – like a worm, a slug, like dirt – not intelligent, not fun, not interesting, just brown funk.
Before the summer of 1996 I began having intensely strange and vivid dreams that I was compelled to write down. I knew intuitively that they had to do with healing. In one, blue corn was being given to me – I was supposed to eat it to cleanse myself. In another, I swam with a pack of bears in the Atlantic Ocean. The bears and I breathed and swam beneath the water, absorbing oceanic life with still awe, and finally, we went to an island where I lived with the bears at a makeshift campsite where the bears cared for me. In another, I was in a glass home – a contemporary home full of odd angles – so glass panes jutted out in various directions, sometimes intersecting so you might look through one glass pane to another before you observed the exterior world. Inside, it was minimal – the only furniture, a cushioned round bench. I sat on the bench looking at this glass home, and I said aloud, full of amazing discovery, “I can do this. I could have designed this. I never knew I was intelligent before.”
That spring, I stopped burying myself in my room. I stopped feeling afraid and stupid. I began, as I have been recently, attempting, attempting, attempting. I began socializing again. In the summer, I tried to sew – making a dress I actually wore and curtains that hung in my room. I took my first camping trip with a group of equally inexperienced girls. I read every book I’d ever thought might be interesting. I took art classes when the fall semester began, because I’d always loved art, but I’d always been afraid of it – sure that I could not possibly create anything worthy of being called art. I found myself making, pre-art-classes, simple little mobiles out of broken glass. It became meaningful to me, to make something new and whole out of something fragile – glass – and particularly out of things that were already broken. When winter came, I bought myself a plane ticket to Boston, a city I’d always wanted to visit. I stayed in a hostel and I explored the city alone and completely at ease. I began dating again, moving past the way it feels to think no boy will ever love you again and moving past the way it feels to think no boy will ever be as good as the boy you’re not with anymore.
I was waking from that inexplicable state of sad sleep. When it happened a year later, when I began waking, and a few months later when I really felt awake and had perspective on the barren recluse I had been, I made a promise to myself. I promised I would NEVER EVER allow myself to get so low again, to bury myself. I had been unhappy. The people around me had been unhappy. I was a presence in that time– and not a good presence.
I began dating my now husband soon after I had become, if I can continue to use the metaphor, wide-awake. It was April of 1997. When I met him, I felt I was a new person – courageous, social, adventurous, confident. I’d just emerged from my own cocoon, and I was glad he didn’t really know me before.
Since, when I’ve felt bouts of that sadness coming on, I’ve worked consciously to fend them off – truth be told, I think I created my own mechanisms for dealing – being positive, shifting my point of view to discover what good is coming out of the situations I am in.
Even when my mother had her first stroke in the fall of 1998, I never fell into the kind of depression I’d fallen into previously. And when my mother died, I can’t say I became steeped in a negative mental and spiritual sleep. I felt grief. But grief, for me, has felt distinctly different from personal internal inexplicable melancholy. Grief can be explained. That is the difference. Grief has an explanation.
I suspect that one of my coping mechanisms, when I determined I would never allow myself again to become swallowed by my own sadness, was simply to actually allow myself to feel sad when I need to. But it has a time limit – the sadness. It is like a guest – it’s welcome becomes worn.
These last few months, in the midst of extreme happiness over pursuing writing, I know I have also felt nearly equally sad. Inexplicably sad. Sure, part of it is grief. But part of it, I cannot explain. I’ve handled it, for sure, as best as I can. I’ve warded it off. When I’ve been sleeping too much, I’ve let a voice snap in my head – “It’s time to GET UP. It’s time to GET GOING.” When I came out of that depression during the late 90s, I came to rely on lists. My lists began, always: 1. Wake up. This item on my list has been the source of great humor for my roommate at the time and also my husband. I have laughed about it myself. But truth be told, I needed “wake up” on my list – I needed it as a command, and I needed to be able to scratch it off of my list as an accomplishment. As a completed chore. As a precursor to the other parts of my day. There certainly had been a time when I refused to wake up, when I refused to crawl out of bed, when I slept and slept and slept. I never want to be there again.
This weekend, on Thursday, I felt that sadness enter. No rhyme or reason, just a feeling. It settled in, thumbing its nose at the euphoria of the past week or so. By Friday, I could sense it more definitively – I could sense that I’d decided not to ward it off. All day, I thought, I am hungry for nothing. I am hungry for nothing. And I wasn’t – no appetite for food. But the emptiness in my stomach was not just the lack of desire to eat. It was a spiritual kind of emptiness that I lacked the hunger to fill or even the knowledge to know how to fill it.
That night, I dragged myself to a writing workshop at a friend’s house. I thought I wouldn’t be able to write a single word. As it turned out, I began a poem with those very words: I am hungry for nothing. And in the writing, the words got shifted, moved deeper into the poem, instead of introducing it. But the poem itself depressed me.
On Saturday night I did something fun – but I had to force it. Not only was I not in the mood, but my stomach ached and ached. “You go be social. You go have fun.” I commanded myself. And I did, but in the midst of socializing, I felt waves of chills come over me, and I left early, took two Tylenol and went to bed certain I would wake with the flu. Sunday, I didn’t wake with the flu. But I didn’t wake until 11:00. I got up and forced myself to be nourishing. I made blueberry pancakes and cut up some fruit to eat with them. I ran a few errands. By 3:30, I was in bed again – alternating between sleeping and watching TV.
My husband peeked in. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Nothing.” I answered. “Are you depressed?” he asked. “It’s the weekend,” I replied, as if I am entitled to do nothing on the weekend. At 7:30, he forced me out of bed – “Come on, let’s clean the kitchen together and cook dinner.” “No,” I said, “Why don’t you get started on the kitchen, and I’ll cook when you’re done.” I wanted to beg more time in bed. “No,” he said, “We’ll do both together.” I obliged. I skulked out of bed. I cooked. I felt a little better.
Later in the night, I commented, “tomorrow is Monday.” “And?” my husband asked. But he answered his own question: “You won’t be able to lie in bed all day.” “I won’t be able to lie in bed all day,” I confirmed.
Today I forced myself to go to my class at the Y. I walked on the elliptical machine after. I took my dogs around the block. I showered for the first time since this past Thursday. It was a ritualistic cleansing. First I bathed. I put scented oil in the bath water. I put a sugar-lemon scrubbing mask on my face – which is supposed to make my skin “GLOW.” I sat in the tub and made a to-do list full of things I knew I could scratch off (including things I’d already accomplished), and some things I knew I would not get to. As I let the facemask dry, I read a short story. When I finished reading, I drained the tub. I turned the shower on and scrubbed off the facemask. I needed citrus, sunshine – I cleaned up with lemon body wash. I washed my superbly greasy hair – which I observed had left a stain on the mat at the Y earlier in the day (I cleaned the matt off!). I conditioned my hair. I let myself rinse in cold water. I towel dried. I put orange-ginger lotion on my legs. I went to my yoga mat and stretched. I stretched, stretched, stretched. I thanked god that I have the luxury to reignite this way – to peacefully recharge.
The sky was blue. (It had been gray all weekend.) Cool outside, but the kind of day when your feel warm under the sun. I rode my bike to a coffee shop. I’ve been working today. Not sleeping. Not blanketing myself in sadness, or embracing it as I did this weekend.
I learned something when I came out of that last terrible engulfing sorrow. I learned that it is okay to feel depressed. But it’s up to me to chase it away. I’ve come to accept that sometimes I can chase it away alone, and sometimes, I need help scaring it off. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to feel it to some degree. Highs and lows come in pairs, I think. What would it be to experience euphoria at all times? How tragic would that be? So I also know I can’t allow myself to slumber indefinitely. Balancing joy and melancholy, I believe, is what I assigned to myself as a goal for 2008.
Today, while I am enjoying the taste of solitude I have been craving lately, I am no longer steeping in my own filth. But occasionally, I enjoy it – the impurity, the grime, my personal muck – internal and external, physical and spiritual. It helps me recognize when I am becoming awake and clean.