Rocking the Boat
A few years ago, toward the end of a particularly intense session, I made the following request of my psychiatrist, “Try just for one minute to take your shrink’s hat off, O.K.!” Whatever was annoying me has long since faded in memory. His response hasn’t.
“But that is who I am,” he said. I remember the statement struck me so viscerally, a vision popped into my head. I imagined him sitting there in his suit and his tie and his sensible shoes, wearing a steel hard-hat, the word “shrink” emblazoned on it. The hat was firmly welded to his skull.
At the time, I was reading, How to Know God - The Soul’s Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries by Deepak Chopra. When I got home, I rifled through the pages in search of a quote I’d just read. It fit the situation perfectly. I had my doctor read it the next session:
“What’s the one thing you can do today to grow in spirit? Stop defining yourself. Don’t accept any thought that begins ‘I am this or that.’ You are not this or that. You are beyond definition, and therefore any attempt to say ‘I am X’ is wrong. You are in passage. You are in the process of redefining yourself every day. Aid that process, and you cannot help but leap forward on the path.” (1)
To his credit, my doctor read it, and was polite and open-minded. At that time, he still couldn’t take his “shrink’s hat” off. I think at that moment, it was more a declaration of my independence than anything else. In my journal, I also wrote,
“I’m a soul first - not a woman, not a teacher, not a mother, not the roles I play - I’m a soul first."
I was trying to tell him and myself too, despite all the drugs and the therapy and the frustration - I was, first and foremost, a person in my own right.
My diagnosis is Bipolar II - rapid cycling. I jokingly say it sounds like, “The Second Annual High Speed Bicycle Race between the Arctic and Antarctica.” You’ve got to use humour with this disorder. For “healthy people,” their moods are like sitting in a boat on the ocean. A steady sea gently rocks it with sadness or anger, or playfully ripples it with happiness. Once in a while, there may be a periodic but controllable swell of emotion. On the other hand, someone with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder has been knocked out of the boat, into the ocean - sometimes bobbing between drowning and treading water - sometimes floating on the surface to come up for air and sunshine, only to be dragged under into the murkiness by its paralysing and icy grip. All this can happen within the space of minutes or hours.
We’ve tried all kinds of “life-preservers” to get me back in the boat. Some of the drugs have felt more like tossing me an anchor. At the best of times, they can feel like wearing water-wings. I can handle that better. For the most part, I’ve had to adapt to life in “the ocean.” Riding the waves and the swells. Swirling in the eddies. Holding on for dear life when a storm blows up. I’ve almost lost my life to its depths a time or two. Above all, I am grateful for calm seas when they come.
Shakti Gawain said, “We will discover the nature of our particular genius when we stop trying to conform to our own or to other peoples’ models, learn to be ourselves, and allow our natural channel to open.” (2) As I tread water, I see I am not alone. I see Sting and Peter Gabriel. Robert Munch and Margot Kidder are hanging on too. He’s reading her, “The Paper Bag Princess.” Brian Wilson has found some peace in this ocean, though he used to be a Beach Boy. And Buzz Aldrin crashed down here for real in a space ship once. There are others too numerous to mention. (3)
And some no longer swim here, though they gleaned some gifts from time spent fighting the waves: Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams left behind their writing. Van Gogh, Jackson Pollack and Georgia O’Keeffe, their art. Handel, Schumann and Mahler, their music. (4)
Though I’m in the ocean most of time - soaked to the bone, seaweed tangled around one foot, my hand reaching toward the sun - I am not the water. It is not me. I am not this disorder. Or the emotions which sweep over me. I am not my diagnosis. Or my prescriptions. Or what other members of society whisper about people they call “mentally ill.” I’m simply me. Just me. In fact, I’m quite proud of myself.
I know why some so-called “normal” people might be scared by those of us free from our boats, those of us tossed about in these waves. It reminds them of their own vulnerabilities. Deep down they fear, what if my boat was toppled over? Would I flail and drown? We fear most what we do not know. If anything, those of us here in the ocean have learned to know ourselves very well. We swim strongly when we need to survive. Surrender to the current when fatigued. And even when it drags us down, down, down to the depths, most of us to do not succumb. We re-emerge. Bringing treasures from those depths - Empathy. Compassion. Creativity. Inspiration. Insight. And wisdom.
Winston Churchill lead England through the war using his ocean gifts. His stamina and intuition made him the only man for the job. He was not a disorder. But an inspirational leader. He had the ability to tap into the strength he gained from his personal challenges, and communicate that determination to the masses. His “particular genius,” as Shakti Gawain put it, was he conformed to no-one. The tenacity he learned in the face of his own depression shored up an entire nation.
This ocean isn’t to be feared. Even someone whose brain isn’t ravaged by its own unstable chemicals can lose his grip, tossed over by loss, or death, or guilt. Luckily, most people scramble back onboard after a while. They never lose the memory of the icy water, the taste of salt upon their lips. Some bring back lessons of strength and compassion and creativity, just as we ocean-dwellers have. Some learn to fear the ocean even more. Albert Camus said, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
Lucky for most of us, we have people around us to swim to. Firmly seated in their boats, they patiently tolerate the occasional splash we throw at them. For me, that’s my husband and my doctor and my daughter. Always ready with a shout of encouragement, or a tow-rope, or a lately, in the case of my shrink - a tip of the hat - in this seemingly endless swim across the English Channel. From Calais to Dover. To the White Cliffs. To home.
- Catherine Dale (copyright March 27th, 2007)
(1) Deepak Chopra, How to Know God – The Soul’s Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries (Harmony Books, New York, 2000) pp. 198 - 199
(2) Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, 1992, 2002) p. 69
(3) the following 4 sources a) http://stason.org/TULARC/health/mind/depression-fa.....n-and.html
(4) Touched with Fire – Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison, Free Press Paperbacks, 1993, New York