At first, I attempt to make myself smaller, an effort thwarted by my generous thighs, extra-wide hips, and large breasts resting atop my big stomach. As Oprah says, you can’t hold up double-Ds with a six-dollar bra from Walmart. But money is tight so the buy-2-get-one-free bras and Hanes boxers, along with a pair of jeans and a polo shirt from the Goodwill outlet, are all that buffer my body from the world.
“What is it that you do here?” This isn’t the question you think it is.
Here right now is the corner coffee shop sitting at a table with another writer for our standing Tuesday writing jam. Resembling every other coffee shop in Portland, the sounds of technology coming from almost every table act as an oddly syncopated backdrop to the riffs of jazz and swing being played over the speakers. Dot and I contribute our own notes with typing that speeds ahead, seemingly unstoppable, only to come to a complete halt for minutes on end.
The relevant thing about here is that I am in it. That may sound narcissistic and most likely it is. What I mean to say is that it is a personal accomplishment that I got out of bed, added some photographs to a client’s website, showered, brushed my teeth, put on clean clothes and shoes with laces, walked up the hill to the coffee house, interacted with the person behind the counter, found a table, waited the 10 minutes I was here without my writing partner, got through the check in, and am now typing out these words.
Each of these events is like navigating a not-so-fun fun-house — mirrors distorting reality and trap doors waiting to drop me back into bed for the rest of the day. Even though from the outside it appears effortless, nothing about this is without effort. Because even on my good days — on days when my struggles with depression and a runaway mind are tucked away enough that I can pretend I’ve surmounted them — being out in public requires wearing a carefully constructed personality suit. I don’t pretend to be Superman. I’m struggling just to be Clark Kent.
Pressed against the cool metal interior of the bus, I pull my shoulders in, press my knees together as best I can, try to disappear. I do this even before anyone is sitting next to me. A reflex.
The question entered my awareness five years ago, during a residency at Goddard College. The writer Pamela Booker opened her presentation on sacred ritual by posing a question once posed to her: What is it that you do here? While the opera singer Jessye Norman was simply inquiring about Booker’s job responsibilities at the concert hall where they met, the question itself stayed with her and transformed over the years.
When she posed it to us, she paused between the do and the here: What is it that you do — here? The question has transformed for me over the years as well. In moments of great sorrow or desperation or beauty, and frequently when I sit down for my morning writing session, it enters my awareness, always with the weight of that pause. The question continues to paradoxically elude and center me. I respond with more questions.
Today is not a good day. I’ve had a series of not good days that I keep pushing through. My partner had a long holiday weekend that I didn’t want to ruin and so I pushed. We went out for bagels, went grocery shopping, went to a movie at the cheap seats, watched a movie at home. Yesterday morning, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong filled our small apartment with music; a pleasant diversion for my partner.
For me, their voices are a tether to some elusive part of me that truly wants to be happy, wants to be present. I chopped onions and mushrooms and zucchinis for our three-egg omelet. Gwen made the coffee, exactly how I like it — two sugars and enough soy cream to turn it into the perfect shade of caramel. Once at the table, we toasted to a day off together. To Monday Holidays. I held her hand and made jokes. It was a lot of damn work. And I wound up in bed for an afternoon with the excuse of fighting off a cold when what I was really fighting was the darkness.
More than the sniffles and sinus pain, it’s the lack of energy needed to push through an atmosphere thickened with swirling thoughts of why bother and it doesn’t fucking matter anyway and is it always going to be like this, day after day after day and I can’t I’m not strong enough I am worthless and I’m just so fucking tired… And really how can I stand when all of that is pushing on my heart?
It would be easy to extend my time in bed into today, to cancel my writing date, using the same cold as an excuse. But I am present enough to understand that this is a lifeline, a thread back to something that I cannot afford to cut off all ties from. I promise myself I can go back to bed after the two hours is up.
He steps onto the bus and my sense that he is heading to the empty seat next me proves true. He half sits on the edge, a black backpack taking up the bulk of the space between us. Only there is no space between us; his pack presses against my ribs.
She’s having one of her “episodes.” A phrase designed to be dismissive of those of us who have stepped outside of the bounds of polite interactions. Mental / physical / emotional … “episodes” also implies something with a distinct beginning and end. That isn’t quite how it works, at least not for me.
It’s more like the carnival ride, The Octopus — spinning at every pivot point while gaining height then dropping down. Even as the car is heading up, I know the drop is imminent. Sometimes the spinning is so distracting, though, that I don’t notice the minor lift or the major fall until all sense of gravity is lost.
When the ride pauses, I’m usually awkwardly stuck up in the air or down on the ground, nowhere close enough to the entrance to simply step off and walk away. Those moments feel like time is stopped in a hardening ether. A photograph under development; the fixer sets the image.
I can only get away with using the “fighting a cold” line for so long, even though at this point I really am fighting off the start of a cold. The sense of dread in my head is joined by what feels like a battalion of small soldiers jabbing their bayonets into my sinuses; my body, using the only defense mechanism it has, floods my head with thick mucus.
The great thing about getting a cold is the physical manifestation of the internal unwellness that depression also creates. People can see it; they empathize (from a safe distance) with the pile of tissues next to the bed. They do not question the lack of energy or the desire for a dark, quiet space. At some point, however, the expectation is one of getting better, of rejoining the productive sphere of society.
Eventually, the dread outlasts the congested sinuses and then grows to fill the space left behind. Getting out of bed gets harder and harder. But staying in bed to fight off depression is like driving faster to try to make it to your destination before the minuscule amount of gasoline in your tank is entirely gone. The theory works better than the practice.
Who is the you? What is the doing? Where is here?
So there I am, on the 20 heading down Burnside to downtown Portland sitting next to a big backpack that seems to be keeping the guy it is attached to from sliding off the tiny bit of seat he’s on.
Somewhere between Caesar Chavez Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, I become present in my 42-year old body. This happens from time to time. The main reason I have a body is to keep my head off of my feet and move my brain around. But every now and then I recognize my hands moving across the keyboard or feel the pressure of my skin holding me together and differentiating me from the rest of the world. Every now and then, I am back in my body. Usually when there’s a cool breeze or a light mist or a ray of sunlight playing across my arms or legs. Or when I’ve spent a few days outside on a camping trip and the pleasant exhaustion of a hike or time spent swimming in the almost-too-cold lake feels like coming home again, like the best parts of childhood when a hard bike ride or pickup game of football left me smiling through the soreness.
Those times, being body-bound is a magical gift, the consummate reminder of my humanness. Other times, like this trip, it’s the kind of gift you end up with from a White Elephant gift exchange at the awkward office party where no one really knows each other. The one thing they do know for sure is that the gift you ended up with isn’t the one they are thinking of stealing.
What is it that you do — here?
Drift. Disappear. Disassociate. My sacred rituals dissolve and I feel the gap in the space of the question pressing against me.
Is it possible to be spiritual if I am not in my body? What vessel carries the sacrament? How do I follow my breath if it disappears into a void? How do I center myself with the spinning earth when I am suspended in air? Connections sever.
Normally at this stage of what is becoming more clearly a depressive episode I’d be scheduling a session with my naturopath, a doctor who specializes in psychiatric homeopathy. Dr. E’s been with me since the beginning of my 2001 breakdown and has guided me through the journey from a psychotic break — when the only relief I could find from the voices in my head was to slice through my skin with whatever sharp object wasn’t hidden well enough — through a suicide plan that was interrupted by either grace or chance (I’m not sure which), to a place where I can handle knives and cook dinner without a thought of injuring myself. More importantly, to this place where, for the most part, I actually enjoy still being on this planet.
She also knows that despite these improvements, I still struggle when environmental sounds morph from the pleasant murmur of other people waiting for the movie to start into the harsh edge of perceived judgment swirling in those same sounds. How time can slow down so that crossing a room is like walking through carnivorous mud. Or speed up so that every movement is exaggerated, as if I swallowed a hummingbird. When I start to envision how easy it would be to push someone into oncoming traffic while waiting to cross the street, or the movement necessary to throw people over a railing down several floors in the mall, she knows the questions to ask me to fully understand where I am. And she knows the right remedy to get me balanced again. When I tell her I can’t stop smiling because the world is so intensely beautiful, she knows if this is because I am truly grounded or if I’m at the top of the ride and in denial about the impending fall.
Which is to say that she has a vision of what an in-balance me looks like and a memory of what a dangerously out-of-balance me looks like and has the know-how to help me walk towards one of those visions and dig out of the other. She knows how to stop the ride so I can step off and regain my balance.
But right now I owe her money and can’t bring myself to call her.
And I’m wondering if I can shift the here without intervention this time. I wonder this every time.
What is the here? Who is the you? What is the doing?
If my episodic depression was equated with fire, then the point of ignition happened in 2001 and while the major blazes were quelled by 2002, the embers continue to smolder. When the circumstances are just right, a conflagration flares up. Yet this metaphor risks putting too much emphasis on the fire itself rather than studying the build up of combustibles that turned a spark into a disaster. With a wider lens, I can see myself as a 13-year-old taking too many aspirins and then making myself throw them up. I can remember sneaking out for sessions with the psychology interns at the local college while I was in high school. And the way years of repressed memories overwhelmed me my first semester of college, forcing a medical leave of absence.
In the argument of nature/nurture, both factors are dowsed in gasoline. I found that out three months into my most severe psychotic break — and after two brief stints in psychiatric units — when I discovered that my biological mother had lived with bipolar disorder and had also been hospitalized several times. The context of my own mental break shifted as I reconsidered the moment that I found myself at a pool table in a corner bar certain that everyone in the bar was staring at me and talking about me, their voices reaching a crescendo in my mind. No amount of focus or self-talk could get them to stop. I frantically turned to my friend and begged her to get me out of there. It was that moment when whatever slight ability I had to control the ride disappeared.
For the next year it would be hospital stays, suicide watches, tri-weekly therapy sessions, psychodrama groups, my two best friends, Dr. E., and a touch of fate that kept me from taking my own life.
During that time, I became certain that I was following my birth mother’s journey into the world of bipolar disorder. My safety net doctor, however, doesn’t work in traditional diagnoses. She never uses the phrases they used on my discharge records from the psych unit: “Major Depressive Episode.” I never know what remedies she is giving me because she knows I will research them and diagnose myself. In my case, and perhaps in the majority of cases, the labels aren’t helpful. This is a journey for me, my struggles and symptoms evolve, regress, disappear, shape-shift.
Still, I had to know if this was also how it began for my mother. If her past was my future. After working with my doctor for a few months, I worked up the nerve to ask her if she thought that was the case, if I was becoming bi-polar. She reassured me that I was not. She did, however, say I have “a tendency toward mood swings.” Two different states of here, albeit quite subtle ones.
Dr. E. delivers the sugar pellets (carriers for whatever remedy she’s determined I need this time) under my tongue. The sweetness dissolves slowly and for a moment, my stomach tightens and my mind begins to swirl with anxiety: What if it doesn’t work this time? Then I hear her telling me to call her in a few days and let her know how I’m doing. I am not in free fall. I am not alone.
One typical response after getting a dose of my homeopathic remedy is that I feel more grounded. I mean this emotionally, yes, but also physically. The shift in my body is visceral; areas that felt absent suddenly become present again. And by absent I mean areas that are a void, like a cartoon character who has a hole blown through him and suddenly can see through his body. Not numb, not injured, simply not.
After my remedy, sometimes before I even get home, I feel my feet on the floor, feel my chest rising and falling with my breath. Most importantly, I feel the place beneath my belly button become tangible again. It has weight and pulls me into the world. And then I sleep for hours.
From somewhere out in the ether, I become corporealized, a body wedged between a stranger’s overpacked backpack and the blue metallic wall of the bus. As I feel my feet awkwardly pressing against each other, I think to myself, “What. The. Fuck.” The tension in my shoulders makes me grit my teeth. My left shoulder hurts as if it has slipped yet again. My back hurts from slouching over. My thighs slightly quiver, like taut rubber bands. My chest, concave from the attempt to fold into myself, is tight and each breath is a shallow effort. No wonder this isn’t any place I want to be.
Only when I wake up do I fully appreciate the extent to which I was drifting, how far I had shifted from myself. I’m always aware when I begin to disassociate; it is, in fact, one of my red flags that something is getting beyond my ability to self-align and that, unless I can interrupt the slide, the next thing to go will be my sense of time. And then the voices sometimes return, the murmurs of other shoppers in the grocery store becoming accusatory, judging, as everyone sees my social awkwardness as alien, as psychosis, as broken. It rarely goes that far these days. But knowing the extent of the slide while still in it is as impossible as estimating the depth of an ocean one is drowning in. How can I know where the floor is when it keeps dropping beneath me?
Planting my feet shoulder width apart, I prop one elbow up on the backpack and let the deep inhalation of my breath widen my chest, With the next breath, I square up my shoulders, stretch them back, creating space for an even deeper breath. An exhalation and my shoulders drop, relax into a space that belongs to them. Inhale and I lengthen my spine, push through from the seat up into my neck, which I move into a slow roll and feel the tension dissipate with the next exhale. Over and over, I inhale and expand into this body, this space. With each exhalation, I arrive into this world.
The backpack gets off at the next stop. Most of the bus gets off with him.
It’s only when I’m back on the ship safely that I can look over the edge and marvel at how far down the bottom actually is.
What is it that you do — here?
I keep breathing into the wide open space.