I reached the pinnacle of a successful engineering career after a chaotic childhood, a rape, a cult experience, a violent marriage - only to plunge headlong into losing everything I’d gained. Mate, family, home, work, dog gone. Health gone. 1994. Major depression. 34 years old. I no longer knew who I was. I did not know how to go on. Frantically clawing my way I tried to regain my health, spending over $10k, desperately following any advice given. It didn’t work. Nothing worked. I lived in the Maine woods for a year. No running water. No electricity. No TV. No Radio. No books. No journal. Only dancing naked in the rain, snow angels under a full moon, watching frost freeze on the window pane. I was sleeping but no beauty. Twenty hours of unrefreshing sleep a day found my baseline chronic fatigue syndrome. The pain of fibromyalgia remained unrelieved. The cherry wallpaper was no consolation. Maddening.
I moved to an island. Peaks Island. Living in the old generator shack that once ran the Ferris Wheel. Sunsets were intoxicating. Dad died on Halloween, the thinnest veil between two worlds, and an aurora borealis. Easy and beautiful just like my dad. I lost my mind. Consumed with thoughts of jumping off the boat, a new friend said, “Why don't you?” My high gear got even higher. That’s how I landed at McGeachey Hall and entered your fishbowl. So many eyes on me while I told story after dramatic story. Angrily, sadly, crazily. Working with you gave me what I needed, a sense of finally being heard.
I began weaving together wisps of life in this magic place. Photography, writing, becoming an active member of the community. Making my regular boat trips to visit you. Telling you all the stories. It always felt more like a social visit than a therapy session. It was funny. I would come in all bent out of shape in fighting mode and 45 minutes later I’d be a lamb and truly feel better. Of course it would never last because illness always crept back in. I couldn’t figure out what you had done but it didn’t matter, I kept coming back. I was drawn to something of normalcy, kindness. I felt valued, worthy, honored. You never made me feel less than.
Of course I wasn’t always a lamb. You would ask me how I felt. I always answered “sad”. You would ask if I was angry. I always denied it. And get pissed that you asked. Rage was a staple. I could be a raging lion or tiger or bear, with words that spewed into my journal or out all over my friends. My mind was not capable of understanding the wholeness I was being offered. It was a sieve that everything leaked through. The battles my thoughts had with each other were nasty. Deadly, even.
I felt like Helen Keller. A wild child. We went through many drugs. I begged for more. You were always conservative while my friends’ doctors ripped through prescriptions. Each new change brought side effects lasting weeks or months, creating even more insanity. Now and then I’d get a good drug working, only to have it fail. Over and over, again and again. You always encouraged moderation. I always resisted. Remember when I almost fired you? That was rough for both of us. Something deep inside wouldn’t let me leave. There was a wisdom that bypassed my broken mind. I was safer with you.
The simple act of taking my coat at the beginning of each and every visit was unnoticeable at first. I was unaware of the effect, but there was care, worthiness and chivalry. You repeated the word “hygiene” for as long as I could remember. I had no idea what it meant or how to do it but in the later years of our therapy it slowly crept in and I remember just getting it one day. Somehow, I learned to be human again. Somehow I began to create habits for myself and grew a life I wanted. As my self-worth got woven together I began to care.
In one lucid and defining moment I made you a promise. I did not promise never to take my life. I promised I would call you first. It was an eye to eye, soul to soul commitment unbroken. I have since integrated hesitation practice with the mantra “not yet” into other parts of my life. It frees me to be more choiceful. Freedom. Choice. Response-ability.
You told me, “I can't save you, only you can save you,” and I was pissed off for years until I got it. There are things you are responsible for, and things I am responsible for. There are things I have control over and there are things I so very much do not. Wisdom is to find that edge and allow others to help you stabilize, and manage as best you can while the illness takes you up, down, all around. It’s like sailing on the ocean. There is stillness. There are storms. There is sun. There is rain. Intense and quiet. It is about weathering whatever the storm brings and believing you can make it, because someone has believed in you.
I am not cured, fixed, or healed but my life has been enhanced by our mutual knowing. My moods still swing. My symptoms still flare. But I now know how to surround myself with good souls who hold my hand while I try to balance on the seesaw of bipolar. I have tools in my toolbox. I have patched together a life that works.
You have held my hand to walk through some tough places. And you never once stopped believing in me. Being present is the greatest gift of all. That is good medicine. There is enough of me on board now.
[An open letter to my psychiatrist on the occasion of his retirement.]