I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it arrived. Possibly, it had gradually washed over me like a steel grey bank of dense clouds. But in either case, I was left remembering a feeling I had long forgotten. The book I held in my hand no longer a quiet refuge, but now nothing more than page after page of words that shifted, evaporated, and distilled no meaning. As the book fell into my lap, I felt a weight settle not so much on my chest, as in my chest. A constriction, an immense coarseness that forbade breath deep into my lungs. My shallow breaths confined to inhalations of mere existence and as they were denied the luxury of slipping deeper into the bellows of life-affirming sustenance.
This was not just another panic attack that had washed over me. There were no accompanying symptoms of tingly fingers, waves of nausea, and that tell-tale sign of needing to escape. No, this was different. This went on day after day for almost a month before I finally accepted what I had suspected all along. My mind had betrayed me yet again; or maybe it was simply following its ancient script. It had been nine years since its last visit, but here it was pounding on my chest, its sinister and tormenting suitcases in tow… Bipolar depression had arrived in my life again, and there was no hope in hell that I could deny it the oxygen and life it bled from my life.
People who have never experienced depression imagine it be an overwhelming sadness, a temporary life derailment, an escape from which, an individual need only look inward to gratitude, and reach outward for meaning, love, and purpose. If only it were that simple—a tweak here, a recalibration there, and now you’re good to go.
But here’s the thing, clinical depression has nothing to do with being “sad” or feeling “down”; sure, you might hear people describe it using those words, but that’s because depression escapes our vocabulary. It transcends feelings altogether and leaves an individual adrift in a state devoid of feelings. It’s no surprise that as far back as we can see, depression has been described as an enveloping “darkness”. To be depressed is to inhabit a world of faded colours and muted sounds; and all the while, you sleepwalk through your life equally compelled to seek out community, with the full knowledge that the mere thought of sharing space with another repulses you.
This is now my third visit with bipolar depression, and it has found me in a place much different from where I was on its previous incantations. There was a time I would fight it, deny it, and starve it of the oxygen it needed to course through my mind and body. I pretended it was not accompanying me through my day. I drank and drugged myself through it, around it, and over it. To my mind, there was nothing good that could come of it—a malignant mass that needed to be cut out of my body. There was no need for a biopsy because there was nothing to be gleaned from its shadowy presence. And that’s the way I lived through my previous experiences with bipolar depression. I suffered alone as I drifted further and further away from the “real” me. I saw it as a weakness, a silent genetic mutation that occasionally sprang into action and stole my sanity, my sense of worth, my time on this earth.
But today, I’ve come to see my visits with bipolar depression not as blinding incriminations, but rather as extended moments of stillness and reflection. It reminds me of the little brass Tibetan singing bowl that sits on our dining room table. Before a meal, we strike the metal bowl with a tiny wooden mallet, and for 30 or 40 seconds, the bowl comes to life and emits a gentle ringing. And as that ringing begins to subside, it gives way to a precise moment where there is no longer sound, just an absence of sound. It’s meant as a moment of reflection, an entry point into a deeper communion with yourself and the divine. And to me, that’s the “gift” of my depression; beyond the exhaustion, beyond the fear and frustration, lies a chasm of dark primordial silence. At its core, depression is a conversation with facts. When you realize that all the outside layers of contrived security and comfort have been stripped away by depression, what you are left with is a terrifyingly authentic conversation with self. As the poet Seamus Heaney so eloquently breathed to words:
“You are neither here not there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
My prayer for today is that I not rile against the loneliness and frustration of my depression. Instead, I will mindfully traverse this temporary darkness, and when it asks of me to rest, I will rest. But deep in my soul I know that I have been graced with an opportunity to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” Onwards…