Dear Lily June,
If we were wise, when we were healthy, we would visit the shrine of the Common Cold, laying bowls of chicken soup and glasses of orange juice and vials of Vaporub at the feet of its altar, begging it to pass us over. Nobody gives the common cold its proper shrift or homage, but I would take a thousand stomach bugs over a single cold any day of the week for the following reasons:
- Colds hurt. All over. After a while, your sinuses feel like they’re as fragile as stained glass, and one solid blow could shoot the panes from the windows, so to speak. The sniffles and coughs cause you to ache in strange places, too, like the backs of your elbows or the tops of your feet .
- While gastrointestinal bugs are generally dominated by what comes out of you, colds are dominated by what feels stuck in you: Namely, the mucous and snot build up to the point where you feel like all your facial holes have been glued together with cement.
- They last forever. There’s an expression, Lily, that colds are “three days coming, three days here, and three days going.” Nine days is a long time to walk around feeling like your entire body–head, torso, toes–is one big, bloated nose that can’t smell anything, let alone “the roses.”
- No one gives you your proper sympathy. While they should bring you pity bouquets and hold your hand and whisper comforting nothings by your sickbed, most people act like you should just sniffle, suck it up, and get back to work. It’s a cruel world out there, Lily, and crueler if you’re working a nine-to-five (or really, seven-to-four) crammed full of decongestant and tea like your dear old mother.
And yet, despite the fact that I’ve been sick for three straight weeks–first with an infection then a drug interaction and now, to add insult to bone-tired injury, with a cold, all of which have exacerbated my chronic pain condition (especially with the extra vitamin C I’m downing to combat the last of the three), recently, I. can’t. stop. smiling.
What is wrong with me?!
Or maybe, instead, I should ask What is right?
In part, I’ve stopped idealizing depression. Once upon a time, when I was a temperamental young artist, I wore my difficult childhood as a badge of honor, and I saw melancholia as the dividing line between the real Writer and the sad Poseur.
I think Ursula K. Leguin captured my mindset best in these lines from her short story (ish), “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”:
The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. … But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else.
In fact, we see this view all over the culture with expressions like “Ignorance Is Bliss.” To be stupid, in other words, is to be happy, and to be sad is to be smart, ideas so ubiquitous, I see them reiterated in the Netflix shows I watch, as in this fragment of dialogue from the Dr. Who episode Blink:
Kathy Nightingale: What’s good about [being] sad?
Sally Sparrow: It’s happy for deep people.
In fact, I can remember singing it in the songs of my wasted youth, like when Kurt Cobain crooned,
“I think I’m dumb. Or maybe just happy.”
In the end, Cobain was so “smart,” he ended up dead by his own hand one year after recording that in 1993.
More and more, as you (and I) grow up, I’m not seeing an attachment to a painful past as a way of authenticating my voice, validating my experience, or heightening my empathy and intelligence. Instead, I’m seeing focusing on it as a foolhardy way to keep the blinders on my present.
I’ve started taking care of myself better physically, no longer seeing an emphasis on the body as purely vanity, or exercise as the self-improvement masturbation of the high school jock bully. I work out now to center my soul as well as shape my muscles, and it’s teaching me to exhale a tense breath I’d taught myself, unknowingly, to hold with my whole spirit and body. I’m eating salads not as a way of punishing the shameful “thin me” trapped within rolls of flesh, but because doing so makes me feel alert and alive and healthy.
I’m drinking water, taking vitamins, brushing my teeth, washing my hair, doing our laundry, cleaning our apartment–all the little activities that only someone who’s suffered from depression so deep, they could barely blink, let alone do these, can see as victories. And the strides I’m making go beyond just what’s reflected in the mirror.
In reaching outward into the world–like we did as a family by giving as part of our Saturday Bucket List Day–I’m starting to crawl out of the shell of myself in small, manageable ways that don’t require me to interact with many other human beings and yet, still let me feel like a part of greater humanity.
Does this mean my mental illness is cured? Is my depression over? Can I finally say Sayonara, Sadness and Adios, Anxiety?
Hell, no, Lily.
Loving you, though it bolsters my heart, doesn’t restore me to 100% sanity. Taking my antidepressant doesn’t alleviate the possibility of a bad day. Mental illnesses, even when things are going great, don’t just go away. There isn’t a decongestant, for instance, for an existential crisis, to help break up the clumps of ennui that build up until you can hack it all into a handkerchief and throw it away.
Things don’t work either like in this video that the incredibly insightful & Other Long Stories posted on her blog awhile ago:
There’s a reason, even though I’ve seemed “chipper” lately in this blog, that I’m holding onto the original reason I set it up subtitled as “Letters from a Mother with Mental Illness.”
I have to remain vigilant, Lily, even when depression isn’t the only–or even primary–focus of my current existence. For instance, even with our Bucket List, I worry: Is this a way for me to subvert the shame of my previous pathological list-making behavior but still avoid making the choices (like what to do on a Saturday) that cause me such panic? Is the fact that I’ve created “rules” for how we’ll engage in recreation another example of my OCPD’s rigidity and inflexibility?
Because no one reading my letters to you pointed those potential issues out to me, does this whole rumination on our family project just represent my tendency towards unfounded overthinking leading to anxiety?
Of course, I don’t want to reenact the Rosenhan experiment, personally. In 1973, Dr. David Rosenhan and two co-conspirators pretended to have auditory hallucinations to get admitted into a mental health facility. Once there, they returned to “normal” behavior to test whether, in a “crazy” place, even sane actions were interpreted differently. It turns out, even writing letters in the institution was seen, not as a hobby, but as a symptom.
I fear repeating that, and, even when I’m acting normal, because of my diagnosis, always assuming I’m acting crazy. Having a personality disorder means I have to constantly question what’s part of my disordered thinking and what’s just part of my identity. That I’m currently focused on our present and future together means I’ve chosen to hold out hope and ditch despair. For this week. And when I can do so even in the midst of physical issues–like illness and chronic pain–it makes me feel, and here’s a thing I never would have said before this point in my life, proud of me.
Lily June, I hope you never glorify what it means to hate yourself or this life, thinking this somehow makes you a more authentic, checked-in, intellectual human being. I hope you’re never addicted to pain like others are addicted to its -killers. I hope you grow up learning that it’s okay to be confident, proud, smart and happy. I hope you can smile even when you’re buried in tissues and living under the 9-day fog of the common cold’s cloud.
It’s day 4 for me, so the sickness is here and will be for a while. It’s okay, though. I’m still taking care of you. And I’m still taking care of me.
- By Aurora Mazzoldi w:it:Aurora_Mazzoldi – Own work by uploader , CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7818462
- “Blink.” Doctor Who. BBC. 9 June 2007. Television.
- Cobain, Kurt. “Dumb.” In Utero. Rec. 13 February 1993. DGC Records, 1993. CD.
- Le Guin, Ursula K. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Creative Education, 1993. ISBN 9780886825010