Dear Lily June,
I’ve probably said this to you before, but one major part of being a writer is being a collector. It’s both crazy-making and healing: Every image I’ve seen is seared into my brain, every passage I’ve read has been packed tightly in the chaotic library shelves of my mind.
Having a mental illness that causes me to organize, list, store, and obsess usually aids me creatively. But how does having a creative habit that causes me to hoard, compare, ruminate and obsess affect me mentally? That cuts both ways, sometimes driving me into despair, other times giving me hope that pain can always be channeled into poetry.
When you can’t let things go, you can’t let them go. Every pain I experience, read or write is an echo. It’s a steel-winged irony.
Still, I know that dwelling too deeply–diving down into the same waters that, at points like this, threaten to drown me–isn’t healthy. I know, especially now as a mother, it’s my responsibility to find ways to surface and resurface. Sometimes it’s a labor of love, Lily, just keeping yourself alive. And that’s okay–as long as you keep doing it, even when you feel like you’re hanging on by a sole thread.
The featured image of this post, for instance, is by a painter named George Frederic Watts, who created the work, called “Hope,” after the death of his daughter, a pain so profound I don’t dare to imagine it. (To say we can’t fathom such tragedies is excuse; some part of every parent knows exactly how deeply that scenario would wound them, and so we keep going the only way we can: by denying its possibility until and unless it becomes reality.)
In the painting, Watts depicts a woman leaning into a lyre, a single string clinging to it. The colors make the image ambiguous: It’s just as likely the string is crafted of sheep gut as it is from the woman’s own hair, wrapped and wrapped around it. She is blindfolded, so all she has left to experience is the music that must be produced from the severely reduced instrument. As the artist himself said of the allegorical work, though,
“Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.”
The first lesson of escaping depression, Lily–of finding your hope again–is this: Listen for the single chord. There is always a music just beyond the agonizing silence of your current experience; no matter how painful your days get, there will be a day, somewhere in a future you cannot predict, where that music will fill the whole room again. Until then, cling to the last string.
A year ago today, I wrote about counting my “blursings,” a silly post about finding talents in what others might see as flaws. I have to remind myself that the difference between these two is a matter, not necessarily of reality, but perspective. I have to remind myself (your sometimes overly serious mother) that it is in silliness in the first place that we embrace profundity.
“There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse! As I have often found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position, and be bruised in a new place.”
Or, to put it more succinctly (and seriously) through the line my boss–going through a painful divorce–wrote on the marker board of his office,
“If nothing changes, nothing changes.”
That kind of perspective is a blessing and a curse in the same packaging. The definitive blursing. As a second lesson, I would remind you to look for these, Lily, and see that, even if you can’t remain entirely positive, you may at least be able to see both the cloud and its inevitable lining.
In trying to restore my mental balance, I’ve tried to overcorrect, craving articles of positivity, motivation. Sometimes, they come in small lines, like this one attributed here to Confucius:
“It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.”
Depression is tricky, as it strips you of any desire to literally, figuratively, or spiritually keep going. In times like these, as a third lesson, you have to lower the bar, hunt for and celebrate the small wins.
Embarrassing confession: I have made myself a self-care list. It contains the things most people do without thinking–washing my hair, brushing my teeth. These are the quintessential little victories, the ability to keep participating in the ridiculous rituals that make us into human beings. When you stop seeing your body as a thing worthy of care, Lily, you lower yourself into nothing, a speck of dust stuck on an insignificant rock speeding through space.
And that’s true: we are infinitely less important as a species than we believe ourselves to be. But then, we’re also the only species to buy toothpaste. And somewhere there’s a scientist hired by a toothpaste company just to, periodically, create new flavors of toothpaste that are neither too toxic nor too tasty (lest it become sewage or candy).
And there are teams of public relations specialists hired to hold focus groups so that numerous strangers can get together to discuss whether the toothpaste is a marketable asset for the company. And then there are advertisers and the actors who smile in the commercials, beaming their scrubbed clean teeth. And then there are the workers in the factories who do quality control to ensure that rows and rows of machines are functioning, squeezing the product into the tube so that you can squeeze it back out.
And there are truckers who transport boxes of boxes of the stuff to retailers, and retailers who hire cashiers to ring the toothpaste up on their counters just so you can take it home and use it. Just so you can smile, and it won’t stink.
And if all you do today is that–buy toothpaste, use it, and then, because you can, beam your teeth at a stranger who, in a parallel universe, might be another person like your mother wrestling with depression and who needs all the small victories–all the reasons to keep going, even slowly–that she can get and your smile becomes one of those, then you’ve done a tremendous thing.
And that kind of cause-and-effect thinking sometimes makes me want to keep going, but sometimes it flips the switch to the other side, and triggers my anxiety. And in those moments, I’m grateful for others who share their stories.
Lesson 4: Make your own self-care lists, or steal others’ if you have to. (Believe me, they’ll relate, and they’ll want you to.)
Lily, despair’s greatest trick is always in convincing you you’re the only who one experiences it quite like this. That you’re alone in the universe with the lonely pain of your loneliness. That, in itself, is ridiculous if you keep your eyes open long enough. Lesson #5: Keep your eyes open long enough.
For instance, there’s the line someone shared with me recently (forgive me, I can’t remember who!) that I so, beyond measure, needed to read about spirituality from Alan E. Lewis:
“To pray is to confess not the abundance but the exhaustion of one’s verbal, intellectual, and spiritual resources. It is surrender to the one who prays for us when we have no prayers left and can only do so only when we acknowledge our own bankruptcy of spirit.”
Prayer, in other words, Lily, comes not always from the highest place of praise (as I had always assumed), but from the lowest place of our humanness. There is something to be said, no matter your someday religious preference (or lack thereof, my little love), for learning how to surrender, especially when you’re at the lowest of your lowest pain.
For another instance, where I work, there’s a graduate student who just lost her mother to cancer but was still able share on social media this comedian’s words on the pain we all try to keep at bay inside ourselves, and both she and Louis CK can feel that pain (what he calls The Forever Empty) and keep going:
And from the place where I used to teach, there was a fellow instructor who posted this heart-wrenching piece about a woman who struggles with suicidal ideation, amongst the dysfunctions and losses from her own family, and when I read it, I am broken over and over not just because there’s so much I relate with, but because there is a writer this talented on the face of the earth who, because of her pain, considers flinging herself off it.
Lesson #6: Don’t fling yourself off the earth. Ever.
And then I read Plath’s “Morning Song,” and I am terrified all over. In my reading, it is the poem of a mother simultaneously lost to two things: The magic of her child, and the numbing pain of being a new mother. The woman clearly dotes upon her delicate baby, comparing the child’s breath with the flickering of moths over roses. The anxious mama wakes just to ensure the child is still breathing–and in that moment, her child’s breath holds all the music of an ocean. Oh, Lily, have I been there.
But when you pit that indescribable beauty–of a baby whose cries even rise like balloons to the sky–against the mother’s description of herself, stumbling and “cow-heavy,” you see how much this mother is struggling to hold herself together for her son or daughter.
Lily, not only did Sylvia Plath kill herself at thirty, but her son–perhaps the beloved baby of the poem above–killed himself in his forties. We are a delicate domino of a species, with every member affecting the other. (It is so easy, in the midst of a disconnecting depression, to forget this, but resist the temptation to dream yourself an island, Lily.)
Everyone who has written one of the blog posts above has impacted me. Everyone who has shared something–be it in their office or online–with me has shaped my survival through a dark time that I’m having trouble explaining, even to myself, let alone my friends and family. Everyone who has sent me an email lately that I haven’t yet (but intend to! I promise!) responded to. You, Lily, my blessed baby. My beloved husband, your very loved father. I owe all of you my life. Seriously. And I owe my life to everyone I have the potential to impact, too.
I will not tip into anyone to knock them over this time, Lily. I am trying to do better. I am leaning into the lyre.
You have to know, some days, I keep going only by listening to the music of a single chord, plucked from a single strand of my own hair that I’ve wrapped around the lyre of what’s left of my sanity. My struggles with mental illness will reach a crescendo, and then, things will get quieter in my mind. This is the melody I have become accustomed to, and I will do what I need–through self-talk, self-care, writing–to get to the other side.
Because things have changed since the last time I lost myself, Lily. Now there is you to listen out for. I know there is an entire symphony of your future. I need to fight to be here to hear it.
- By George Frederic Watts and workshop – CgGv3RqPFUZk4A at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum Tate Images (http://www.tate-images.com/results.asp?image=N01640&wwwflag=3&imagepos=1), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13466071