With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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“I think I’m depressed,” I tell my husband.
“No kidding,” he says, sautéing onions.
I am sitting on the linoleum, my back against the sunshine-yellow kitchen wall. When we bought the house two years ago, in 2012, I picked bright paint colors: teal, lavender, yellow. I wanted our home to feel cheerful.
“Do you want to sit on the couch under a blanket with a cup of tea and watch Law & Order?” my husband asks.
“That sounds terrible.”
“Do you want to call a friend?”
I imagine ringing up an old roommate for a chat: What am I up to? Well, I’m draped in a mantle of lead, the world has faded to sepia, and my internal soundtrack is a scratched record playing at half speed. Plus? I’m intermittently assailed by graphic suicidal thoughts.
It’s not as dire as it sounds. The depression is chemical, not existential. I have bipolar II disorder, which is characterized by rock-bottom lows interspersed with occasional bouts of manic hyperactivity. After some tweaking of my antidepressant cocktail, this maelstrom, too, will pass. I just have to lash myself to the mast and wait.
I know better than to trust my thoughts. I don’t even take them personally. A concept from Buddhism has helped with this. Buddhists distance themselves from the commotion in their heads by saying: The brain secretes thoughts. Still, I don’t know what to do with the secretions of my depressed brain. When a terrible thought flashes through my mind, I feel a need to object, as if I were a defense attorney in my own episode of Law & Order:
Thought: I want to die.
Me: Objection! I’d like to state for the record that I do not want to die. What I would actually like to formally request is that I stop feeling this way.
Sometimes I call upon my professional nurturing-professor persona and respond to the thought the way I would to a student’s off-base assertion:
Thought: We’re all doomed.
Me: [Wide-eyed pause.] Well, you are really thinking outside the box today. I appreciate your creative brainstorming! [Scanning room.] Anyone want to offer an opposing perspective?
Sometimes I apply logic:
Thought: I’m going to slit my wrists with the kitchen scissors.
Me: The kitchen scissors aren’t sharp enough to cut chard.
I look to spiritual wisdom for guidance. Catholic writer Henri Nouwen teaches that when we encounter a distressing thought, we should bless it and let it go. This technique makes sense for a practitioner whose brain chemistry is in balance. When my mind suggests I swerve into the opposing lane of traffic, however, I don’t want to bless that thought. I want to rebuke it. That thought is trying to kill me.
Likewise I question the spiritual wisdom that we must befriend our demons; that when they come knocking, we should welcome them in for tea. In my many years of battling depression, my demons have invited themselves over on a regular basis. I know them intimately by now: their names and faces, their hobbies and pets, their addresses and Social Security numbers. To my perpetual disappointment, my demons are terrible tea-party guests. When I gently ask whether they take sugar or cream, they suggest I smash the china teacup and slit my wrists with the shards. So when my brain secretes a brutal invitation to self-harm, it feels more appropriate to play the role of an exorcist priest, to raise my arms and shout, Get thee hence, Satan!
As a person with bipolar disorder, however, I try to avoid muttering about demons.
When I’m in a generous mood, I practice self-compassion as taught by insight-mindfulness teacher Tara Brach: I put my hand on my heart and say, You’re really hurting right now. I root my attention in my body, sensing the warmth of the air from the vent, the texture of the paper, the smoothness of the pen in my hand.
This is probably the right approach, but it takes a lot of concentration. And, like infernal boomerangs, the thoughts keep coming back. So I try to outrun them by throwing myself hard into the rhythm of daily life.
“Bring me the student journals?” I ask my husband, interrupting his carrot chopping.
“You want to grade them there on the floor?”
I nod. “And a pen?”
I flip through the first journal, circling misplaced quotation marks, feeling as if I were reading through a smeared glass.
None of this matters.
Ha! Not going to trick me with that one, Voice of Doom. There is no denying that my students matter — especially Alex, a buoyant and gregarious kid. The first in his family to go to college, Alex won my heart when, after a class discussion about gender roles, he declared with happy surprise, “I never knew I was a feminist!” In his journal Alex describes an epic journey to In-N-Out Burger, where he orders an “animal style” double hamburger with a warm sesame-seed bun and dripping orange sauce.
As I draw sloppy stars next to Alex’s final paragraph, I chide myself for not being more like him. Throughout my thirty-two years of life, I have failed to be adequately grateful for hamburgers. I charge myself to focus on the positive. “Alex used sensory details and original word choice,” I announce to my husband.
Dave balances our daughter on his hip as he takes the lid off the steaming rice cooker. “That’s great.”
I set Alex’s journal on the pile. Seven down, thirty-one to go. Work looms hopelessly: Unfinished cartoons. Stunted short stories. My identity as a writer is a pathetic facade. I can’t write, can’t draw, can’t think.
My toddler approaches me with a stuffed shark. I register her chubby arms and fine brown curls, but my oxytocin receptors are dead. My child could be a faint brushstroke, a distant memory. She holds the shark to my left breast and nods at me encouragingly.
“She wants me to nurse the shark.”
“Put the shark down, Chub Bug,” Dave says. “Time for din-din.”
I get up. At the table we hold hands.
My husband says, “Thank you for this food.”
My daughter says, “Thank you for the mouse.” (We don’t know what mouse she is referring to, but this has been her prayer for weeks.)
I say, “Please let this darkness pass from me.”
As much as I’d appreciate a divine intervention, I know that faith is not a protection racket. The whole sorry history of the human race indicates that God does not come charging in with a cavalry of angels when people are in pain. I also know that bipolar disorder is a brain disease, not a spiritual condition. It took me a while to figure this out. For years I prayed for release. I threw myself into good works, hoping they would trigger an electric spark that would bring me back to life. When manic euphoria came, it felt like grace. Then I started taking antidepressants. After a week brighter thoughts flowed through my brain. My sense of having a curdled, twisted core evaporated. I developed a can-do attitude, a personality quality I had always found mystifying — and a bit annoying — in others. The changes were pleasant. Yet they raised an unnerving theological concern: if my thought patterns and attitudes, my very sense of self, could be altered by medication, there seemed little room in the equation for the soul.
I arrived at a Christian existentialist conclusion: the soul is that which chooses. Malfunctioning receptors may sap or boost my energy. Chemical fluctuations may create a racket in my head. But I can choose my words and actions. And I choose, again and again, to reject the Voice of Doom.
“I think I’ll take a bath,” I say after dinner. But I continue sitting at the kitchen table while my husband does the dishes. When he’s done, he washes our daughter off in the sink, singing to her as she laughs.
“I thought you were going to take a bath,” Dave says, drying our daughter’s hair.
“I got stuck.”
“Leaden paralysis” is the psychiatric term. Dave is used to finding me slumped on the floor, staring into the middle distance. He accepts this with equanimity. My husband is remarkably even-keeled. His love is constant and unwavering, though I suspect I am a difficult person to live with. When I’m manic, I jump up and down, eyes blazing, and speak loudly and unceasingly about my latest writing project or social-justice crusade. I write and draw for twelve-hour stretches, living on ice cream and coffee and Coke Zero. When I am depressed, I sleep for fourteen-hour stretches, speak with an edge in my voice, and prickle like a porcupine when Dave lays a hand on my shoulder. I complain that he flosses too loudly. When he eats an apple, I wince dramatically at his ghastly crunching sounds.
Even when I’m stable, bipolar disorder makes me a less-than-ideal partner. My concerted efforts to avoid relapse can make me emotionally unavailable. I have to exercise, meditate, and write each day. When I add in parenting and teaching, there’s little left over for Dave.
He says he’s glad he married me, that he would do it all over again, and I believe him. But I wouldn’t want to be married to me.
I wonder why the depression is hitting me right now. I had some drinks over the weekend. That could have triggered it. I also stopped breastfeeding at the beginning of the month. Hormones could be to blame. But it’s like what I always say about being sad: Why do you need a reason?
I reassure myself that I am seeing my psychiatrist on Tuesday. Just have to grit my teeth until then.
I am still at the kitchen table when my phone rings.
It’s my sister, checking in. I take the phone outside. Wearing my stained blue bathrobe, I walk circles around the gravel path in the backyard.
“How are you?” my sister asks.
“Not great,” I say. “But it’s chemical. There’s no point talking about it.”
I can’t talk about it. I don’t know how to put it into words.
I ask my sister to distract me from my mood by telling me about the latest antics of her rambunctious eighth-grade students. My sister tells me that a girl in her English class tried to set a standardized test on fire but couldn’t get the flame to catch. The paper only smoldered a little. My sister says that the plant I gave her for her classroom is, by some miracle, still alive. It got knocked off her desk a few times, and a kid poked some pencil holes in a leaf, but the plant is still green.
After I hang up the phone, I feel lighter. I wash my face, and brush my teeth, and make myself a cup of chamomile tea. By the time I’m applying my evening acne cream, though, the thoughts are back.
“How are you doing?” Dave asks in bed.
“It’s pretty rough,” I say.
“I’m sorry, love,” he says, and squeezes my hand. “Is there anything I can do?”
I know I should tell Dave what’s going on in my head, but the thoughts are unspeakable. Shameful. An insult to the life Dave and I have built together. And I’m afraid he will think my thoughts of suicide mean I’m suicidal.
My thoughts are not my thoughts, I imagine saying in an attempt to assuage Dave’s concern.
This brings to mind a Bible verse: “ ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts,’ says the Lord. ‘And your ways are not my ways.’ ”
Dave is asleep. I try to make out his face in the darkness. I have missed the window to give him a window into my head. As I listen to my husband’s steady breathing, the toxic thoughts intensify:
I’ll buy a gun at Walmart. Can’t do it in the house — don’t want to make the house feel haunted. Or the car. No, they could never use the car again. The beach. An empty stretch of beach. A parks employee will find me. He doesn’t know me. He can handle it.
Surrendering to the fantasy is sweet relief.
Except I’ve never fired a gun. And I’m way too depressed to drive to Walmart.
When the suicidal fantasy subsides, I rebuke myself. By surrendering to it, I have deepened an unhealthy groove in my brain. I’ve lost ground I can’t afford to lose in this fight. What if, one day, I get weak enough to give in?
I reassure myself: Statistically, the biggest indication that a person will attempt suicide is a previous suicide attempt. I have never attempted suicide. I did get pretty close when I was eighteen, though. It was my first depression. I was naive. I trusted my thoughts:
I’m beyond redemption, the Voice of Doom told me, worse than Judas. God’s given up on me. There’s no hope. I cannot survive feeling this wretched forever. I cannot spend a whole life carrying this weight.
I wrote suicide notes. Then I went into the garage, tied an extension cord into a noose, and swung it over a rafter. I found a box to stand on and kick out of the way. I hesitated. I wasn’t sure I’d made the noose correctly. I tugged on it. It seemed like it would work. But Catholic theology nagged at me. According to my research, suicides ended up in hell. Hell lasted for eternity.
I undid the noose. I went outside and sat on the cement and called a friend.
When I found the suicide notes in a colorful hatbox ten years later, my cheeks flushed. The notes were facile. Superficial. Lacking in original word choice and sensory detail. So stupid.
Suicide is stupid — a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It’s the worst thing you can do to the people who love you. But the depressed brain is myopic. In a room growing dense with poison gas, suicide is an open door with a flashing EXIT sign.
I fall asleep and dream that my teeth fall out like kernels of corn.
In the morning I sit on my bedroom floor and watch my daughter unspool a roll of dental floss. She wears only a diaper and has one foot in a green toy grocery basket. She is filling one of my husband’s slippers with plastic fish. My daughter is a gift I did nothing to deserve, the embodiment of grace. She catches my eye, then runs to me with her arms spread wide. I hug her.
I picture a gun in my mouth.
I let go of my daughter, afraid the thoughts in my head will poison her. She returns to her floss-unspooling project, oblivious to the toxic mess inside me. Thank God for that. But she’ll surely pick up on my mental distress when she’s older, and kids tend to blame themselves. I don’t want her to blame herself. Maybe I’ll call the depressive spells “migraines” and lock myself in my bedroom until each one passes. No, that would damage her small spirit. I picture my child standing outside the door, anxious and afraid. Honesty would be less distressing. Maybe I can say to her: Mama is grumpy and sad today. We’re going to watch movies and eat strawberry ice cream. [Pause.] You’re going to have to get the ice cream, though. Mama is stuck on the floor.
At the thought of this scenario I laugh out loud.
“It’s time for preschool,” I say to my daughter. “Bring me your shoes.”
She brings me the left shoe. The right is missing. I drag myself up, and we spend twenty minutes looking for a matching pair of shoes. I don’t even try to brush her teeth. We get to preschool an hour and a half late. It is already recess. I chat with the teacher, wondering if she can see through my impersonation of a person. When I get back to the car, I rest my head on the steering wheel.
At home I make coffee. I sit at my desk. I can’t meditate. I can’t write. I can’t draw. I can’t pray.
I want to die I want to die I want to die.
Maybe I can grade some essays. Where are the essays? Back in the car. I am so tired of fighting.
I can fill the tub with steaming water. Slice my wrists. I’ll leave a note on the door to warn Dave.
The cells in my body are asphyxiating. I am a trapped rat, scratching and desperate.
The razor blades are under the bathroom sink.
I should pray, but God has grown tired of my relentless narcissism, my ingratitude. All my apologies are worn out. I can’t find the words.
“Help,” I say.
Perhaps I can redeem myself by doing the right thing now, which is to go to the car and get the essays.
I spend fifteen minutes looking for my keys.
When I open the front door, an enormous German shepherd bounds into the house and jumps up on me, wagging his tail.
I don’t know this dog.
I step outside and scan the streets for an owner. The sidewalk is empty.
I kneel and hold out my palm for the dog to sniff. He jumps on my lap and gazes at me with shining eyes. I pet him tentatively, feel the warmth beneath his black and amber fur. The creature’s beating heart is an overwhelming force of life, a naked, animal joy.
I have never been a dog person. Dogs lack decorum and demonstrate little respect for personal space. Dogs are shameless, messy, sloppy, in-your-face.
I think this dog might be God.
But the dog has a tag on his collar, so possibly he is just a lost pet. I retrieve my phone and call the number on the collar. Turns out the owner is my neighbor. The dog must have chewed a hole in the fence, he says. My neighbor is at work and won’t be back until six.
I tell him I’ll keep the dog in my backyard until then; my daughter will be thrilled to have a dog for a day.
I lead the dog to the backyard. He races through the yellowing artichoke plants, sniffs the compost pile, and inspects the rosemary bushes. Then he bounds back to me, eyes bright, and jumps up, knocking me over with the force of his leap. I am on the ground, gravel on my palms. The dog licks my cheek: shameless, disgusting love. His breath is warm, his paws smell like compost, and I am laughing. Darkness is scattered for the afternoon.
The toxic cloud will return that evening. It will haunt my next pregnancy, cling to me postpartum. I will fend it off a day, a week, a month at a time. It will leave me wretched and powerless. It will always, always come back.
But for now I am rescued by a dog who chewed through a fence. A trapped animal who found an opening. A way out.
I am grateful to Kathleen Founds for her essay “My Thoughts Are Not My Thoughts” [February 2022]. I experienced crushing depression after the births of both my children and throughout my second pregnancy. Like Founds I played peekaboo with my baby and snuggled my toddler while being pelted by graphic thoughts of suicide. I did not want to die, but neither did I want to live in that excruciating state of numbness and disconnection. I was terrified that my horrible and unwelcome thoughts would become reality. And in the meantime I worried they’d poison my kids through mere proximity.
Time, therapy, and medication helped bring me back to equilibrium. I also found solace and perspective in Buddhist teachings that showed me how to separate my thoughts from who I really am. But for me the greatest key to becoming whole again was giving up alcohol, which I was using as an emotional crutch, and which invariably made things worse. In September 2018 I took my last drink, eight weeks after the birth of my second child and nine weeks after my father died of complications related to alcoholism. It wasn’t easy, but it was the single most powerful thing I have ever done for my mental health.
Kathleen Founds’s essay “My Thoughts Are Not My Thoughts” [February 2022] hit me hard. Her struggles with depression and inner dialogue are familiar to me, and the cumulative effect of her writing is profound. Observing my own thoughts through mindfulness and meditation has been life changing, but Founds’s phrase “the soul is that which chooses” has bestowed the agency I have been yearning for.
I know a few people who are living with bipolar disorder, and I have seen the havoc it can create. Even so, Kathleen Founds’s “My Thoughts Are Not My Thoughts” gave me new insight into this mental-health condition. Her honesty and vulnerability were enlightening.