Most of you know, I suffer with bi-polar. Let me change that verb. I have bi-polar. I decided not the use “suffer” because I don’t live a life of suffering. I live a life of challenges – the challenge to stay out of the pit, the challenge to stay focused and not cave to impulsive behavior, the challenge not to judge myself for my “issues”.
Depression is often depicted as a deep hole in the ground. The depressed sit at the bottom. The walls are high and there ARE NOT many handholds. The bottom is cold and smells rotten. The light at the top is so far away it’s impossible to imagine the strength to make the climb. Sometimes it’s impossible to imagine ever standing to your feet in order to extend to the hands reaching down to help.
Another feature of the pit that most people don’t imagine is the ladder. For the chronically depressed, this ladder is the type that’s used in rocks – kind of like staples. They are hard to see, hard to wrap her fingers around. It takes a lot of strength because the climb is vertical.
For others – bi-polar and acute depression – the ladder is more like you’d find in a library. The ladder slants into the room and has handrails. The climb is hard, but the incline makes it more manageable. Thankfully, this is the type of ladder into my hole.
When I was a girl, my father was building our house. He would stand at the top of his ladder (and to a little girl that was a damn tall ladder). He’d call down for me to bring up a tool or a box of nails. My little body would fill with excitement of adventure and fear of falling. I was going to climb the ladder. My hands would start to sweat and that would add to the experience.
With a tool strapped to my belt or a box tucked under my arm, I’d put one hand in front of the other and make the climb. That was hard but not the point of today’s blog.
I always made it to my father. I’d hand over the requested item and then it was time to go back down. I’d look at the ground and my excitement turned to nausea. I couldn’t see the next rung below me. I’d grope and hang for a split second in the air. My father used to get angry with me, call me a chicken and shame me into moving. My mother would stand below, holding the ladder and coaxing me down. Once I found the first rung with my tiny feet, I gained confidence and moved to the ground with ease.
What’s the point? Over the last few weeks, my book hit the market. I got some unwelcome news. I’ve taken on “too much” and therefore I’m more stressed than normal. I’m at the top of the ladder and depression is calling me to come on down.
When I was a girl, once I moved my foot one rung down, I was able to go all the way without stopping. If I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, it was easier to reach the ground. It was the first step I would struggle to complete. The same is true for stepping down into the pit. If I can find the first step, I rush to the bottom. But I don’t want to be in the pit. I want to stay at the top where, like my father, I accomplish something. At the top, I pound nails and achieve my goals.
So, I have to recognize the first step and not put my foot on it. In the past, when I was really hurting, I didn’t even try to recognize the beginning of the descent. The pit, you see, was comfortable. Not pleasant but known.
But now, I recognize the pit for what it is, and I’d rather not go there.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been able to identify my very first step. It’s actually quite easy to see. When I’m about to descend, I start to question everything I’m doing.
MY first step is ALWAYS the desire TO QUIT – give up what I’ve worked for (my career, my hobbies, my relationships) – judge what I’ve accomplished (or not accomplished).
When I recognize that step, I can turn around and climb back up. I can head to the roof and my bucket of nails. I can climb back to my goals and get to work. But I HAVE TO RECOGNIZE the start of the descent.
It’s hard to recognize the first step once you’ve started the descent. But when you land at the bottom (or hopefully stop in the middle of the ladder) and take the time to think backwards, you have a chance to halt and move back up. Unwind the thought process. We don’t jump into the pit. We take a ladder down – one foot in front of the other. Take the time to find the first step. I think you’ll discover it’s most often the same. Your pattern, your trigger. For example, maybe your first step is:
When I recognize the step, I don’t automatically stop the desire to quit. But I can say to myself – “this is your first step. Don’t make any decisions at all. Don’t spend any $. Use some of your go-to self-help techniques.”
Yes and no. For me, I find myself recognizing the first step and still taking a couple more toward the pit. But I also find myself stopping and turning back to the light. I rarely get all the way into the pit. Even if I end-up in the mud, I don’t stay as long. I find the stairs easier and the climb faster.
What is your first step? Is your first step the same each time? How can you encourage yourself to turn around and head to the roof? Can you make a plan to stop your pattern or at least slow it down?
A dear friend of mine chose to end his life recently. He was 33 and beautiful. Sweet, funny. Silly. Even when he was driving me crazy, he’d make me laugh. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth and sometimes it was so inappropriate all I could do was wipe the laughter tears from my face.
When I first was told, I heard the words but felt well …. I guess I would say I felt the shields go up and I wouldn’t let it in. Until someone said, “That was so selfish.”
The barrier has been blown and the feelings are crashing across and over me. I am sad. I am fighting feeling guilt. But what I mainly feel is RAGE.
You want to know what selfish is? – it’s a person who dares to call someone who hurt so badly that taking his own life was the only way to stop the intense hurt.
Selfish is the person who feels like they know what someone is going through and are allowed to give their opinion. That’s selfish and arrogant.
Selfish is the person who, instead of thinking of the family and this victim, thinks of THEIR opinion. Their UNINFORMED opinion.
I have tried to commit suicide once. I have sat in my bathroom surrounded by every pill in the house many many times. I have done the research on the “best” or the “surest” way or the “least painful” way. I have almost dialed the Suicide Hotlines. So, I know what I’m talking about. WHAT YOU NEED YOU TO KNOW:
I cannot know what Sam* was going through and I should not pretend I can.
I do KNOW his pain was so thick he could not see out of it. Imagine a fog so thick you have to pull over and wait it out. A fog that engulfs the car inside and out. It’s cold and horror movie scary. Even if someone is sitting right next to you, the fog is so deep you can’t see far enough to find that person’s hand. The fog is isolating, disorienting.
I do KNOW he was thinking of OTHERS and not himself. But he was seeing others through the dark grey the fog. He was afraid FOR his family. What if he brought them into the fog? What if he ____? (fill in the blank). A person willing to take that final step is TRYING TO TAKE CARE OF THOSE HE LOVES.
Is he misguided? Absolutely. But the fog is so thick, the sun can’t pierce through. And it feels never-ending. It just keeps rolling in and over. In the mouth. Up the nose. Clogging the ears. It’s a cold sweat and shaking hands and a racing heart.
Do I wish he would have reached out? Absolutely.
Selfish people will say “He should have talked to someone”. Those people have never sat in the fog. You think there is no one out there. It’s like being on a dark planet. Imagine you are surrounded in the stuff. You can’t touch it. You can’t smell it. You can feel it only as cold on your skin. You can’t even see it in any ‘real’ way. The fog is ephemeral. How do you sit in a therapist’s office and explain what feels at the time as completely inexplicable? How do you explain the imaginary fog that feels as real at the time as the therapist now sitting in front of you?
We’ve all been sad. But this is not sadness. This is not even despair. This is ABJECT FEAR the fog will NEVER float away.
Did he make the wrong choice? Yes, but not because he was selfish. He made the wrong choice because the fog will float away even if he couldn’t see it at that moment in time.
Do I think he could have gotten help and found healthy coping mechanisms? Yes. I have. But it’s hard to find someone who you trust and then the climbing out of the fog is misery – a different kind of fog. It’s all so embarrassing, shameful. If you have not been there, you cannot possibly know so please do not say “HE SHOULD HAVE ______” – if you want to judge someone, look in a mirror. That’s as far as our judgment is allowed to go.
Do I feel sadness for his family? Yes. Sam will be missed by many.
Do I think Sam was selfish? NEVER.
I know you would never say Sam was selfish to his family. BUT STOP THINKING IT and for damn sure, DON’T FEEL YOU ARE QUALIFIED TO SAY IT TO ANYONE. All you do is show your ignorance and shame the people who have sat in the fog. And, let’s be very clear, you have no idea who else may have sat in the fog.
Just be compassionate. That would be selfless and loving.
I wish I could be there for you. I wish I could explain better what he was going through. I will tell you that he loved you and he was not being selfish.
Sam – The fog has lifted. Smile in the sun my dear friend.
Shut up and I hope the fog never descends on you or those you hold dear.
*The name has been changed to protect privacy.
The first time was in eighth grade. The little bottles were arranged like soldiers. There were fourteen bottles -- one for every year of my life. I didn’t make that connection then but looking back that seems poetic or foreshadowing.
The little red one I remember the most. It was the exact size and shape of a Good & Plenty candy. Rather than pink, however, it was harlot red with a thin blue line. I wanted to collect them all, but worried I’d be caught, I only stole two. The next few were more inline with my previous experience: white powdery circles that I knew would taste bitter.
I placed my treasure – 33 in total – in a sandwich baggie. Enough? It had to be. This baggie went with me everywhere. In English class, I’d put the plastic treasure chest between my thighs and squeeze each one while Mrs. Darden made fun of me. I’ll show you, I’d think. On the school bus, I’d put my nose inside, breath deep and enjoy the aroma I could not name. While struggling with my homework and my father’s savagery, I’d place a pretty red one between my fingers and roll it around, careful not to crush the tender coating.
The day finally arrived – the day I’d swallow my treasure. I have no idea what precipitated the decision, what final insult I could not survive. I planned to tell no one. My treasure, my secret. Darren saw the bag. He sat next to me in English class. He was funny and kind and skinny and pimply. His blue eyes found mine and he simply asked, “What’s that for?”
I clutched the bag to my chest, shrugged. Even now, I don’t know what Darren thought. Did he think I was planning to become a drug dealer? Did he understand my goal to leave this place? Funny, you know, I was never scared of killing myself. It was just a decision. Not even sophisticated enough to be called a plan. Just a way to have some control. But Darren said the one right – or wrong – thing. “If you throw it away, I won’t tell.” In retrospect, I see that his “telling on me” shouldn’t have mattered. I would not be around to suffer consequences anyway. I was fourteen, of course it mattered. I flushed my treasure away at the next opportunity.
That was the first abyss I remember. I had no way of knowing that I’d spend a lifetime becoming a master pit builder.
Pits of despair are universally understood but individually experienced. Whether these chasms are created due to circumstance or hand-excavated, we all sit in our pits alone. Not alone, exactly. We share the hole with guilt, self-pity, exhaustion and a healthy dose of blame.
Even though each pit is a unique creation, I’ve learned there are some commonalities among pit-dwellers. Pits are dark and the smell of culpability permeates the walls. Tears – yours and others – force mud to ooze between the toes. There is only cold. Wails, even the silent ones, echo off the walls.
Each pit is furnished with two vital pieces of equipment: a shovel and a permanent marker. With the shovel we can dig deeper, making the light at the top smaller and smaller, the climb harder and harder. I’ve carved crypts and rested, I’ve flagellated myself or beat the walls in anger.
With the marker, I use words to prove my need to stay in the abyss longer. I use my creativity and pain to slander individuals or the entire world. Whatever we write on those pit walls, we also chisel into our soul. The words may fade but never disappear – they will be waiting in the next pit.
People see me in my pit. Some pretend they don’t notice the desolation carving wrinkles on my face. Other people rush on past, afraid I’m carrying a contagion. A select few – and these faces I will forget or forgive – throw more dirt in my hole, enjoying my dark reality. Then there are the angels who put in their hand, offering me a chance out. Sadly, these beautiful people are often forgotten.
The shovel and the marker are also tools of rescue and redemption. When I let enough light in, I redesign or reconfigure cruel, hurtful words. Pasts cannot be re-written but they can be reframed. New truths can be constructed, new strengths developed. I can cling to the infallibility that the sun rises every day – just look up -- my hole may be deep and the sunlight narrow, but it is there, it is giving me light.
I met a man yesterday whose wife of 52-years died in her sleep nine months ago. He’s in his pit but he’s using his shovel to create footholds and the light is getting brighter. He’s extending his shovel to those of us who are willing to help pull him out. He’s used his marker in anger for her leaving; for guilt in things not said, promises not kept. But, when he remembers their years together, he adds hearts to her name and memories to each letter. It’s okay to rest in your pit for a season. Sometimes the pit is the best rest you’ll ever have.
I wish I could say I’ve never created another baggie. I have. Oh, it looked different – I no longer need to steal from my mother. But I’ve stood on the edge, both arms extended, wanting so badly to crash into the darkness and take permanent residence. But a version of Darren peers in, extends his hand, and waits on my choice. That’s the thing about pits -- we can stay, we can entrench ourselves or we can climb.
When -- if -- you decide to climb, it will be your muscles that hurt, your heart rate that explodes, your sweat pouring forth. Only you can face the doubt – the doubt in your ability to make the climb, the doubt in your right to leave the pit. Only you can do the work. And, let me be honest, it’s easier to dig pits than it is to ascend the depths.
I alone experience my version of despair. I alone know what I experience when I lose, fail, or suffer. You too have suffered. But you do not suffer like I suffer and I do not suffer like you suffer. You cannot be my strength and I cannot be yours. While you can stay in the bowels as long as you like, when you are ready to leave, only you can put one foot in front of the other.
I went to school with Darren for five more years. We ran in the same circles. He never spoke another word to me. Not one word. He also never told. He could have destroyed me with one juicy piece of gossip. I doubt he thinks of me. I think of him daily and have for 38 years. Without meaning to, he saved me.
There is one more universal element to the pits. We all have them. Look behind you. Do you see the scars on the ground, the newly planted grass, or the unsettled soil? Look ahead. Do you see where shovels sit and wait? Get ready to climb. Build your muscles. There is danger ahead. Look to your left, to your right, look up – hope is there somewhere. Take her to the pits with you.
Copyright 2021 June Converse, All Rights Reserved.