how do i explain to her
that it doesn’t get better
that it will smother
then soothe and drown her
until battered but still unbound,
she no longer fears the undertow
learning to float,
she will be better
The girl had received bad news for the umpteenth time in the last few months. Her sobs of despair reverberated down the hall as she asked the powers that be, “What’s the point?”
“You’re the point!“ The cosmos answered in the form of a lanky young man charged with keeping order the school. “People like you are the point, “ he repeated. “Don’t you know that you all make us better?“
I smiled as I leaned my head towards the doorway to listen from my classroom. I was on standby for hugs and comfort, but my young coworker was already working his magic. And, as he elaborated on the ways our students make us better, I thought about how Thing1 and Thing2 have done that for me every day over the last 19 years.
Just before Thing1 was born, I still didn’t have a handle on my bipolar disorder. My depressive episodes sporadically threatened jobs, and manic phases spurred spending sprees and other self-destructive behavior.
But then Thing1 happened, and I knew I had to be better.
“Every day I go home after work and think about how to be better,“ my coworker said to the girl who was now listening quietly. “You do that for all of us.“
I thought of all the ways I have tried to be better for Thing1 and Thing2 over the years. I thought of the therapy I’ve sought and the examples I’ve tried to set.
Then I thought of all the ways our students spur me to be more organized, to learn more, to be better for them. It made me smile as I thought of how no matter what we will ever do for our own kids or for the ones we take care of during the day, we will always owe them far more for every day making us a little bit better than we were the day before.
It’s 2 am and Jim-Bob is trying to decide if his lumpy human will be still long enough for him to pad a nice tummy wallow to sleep on . I’ve tossed, turned, shut off my screen and turned it back on half a dozen times since I first crawled into bed for some desperately needed sleep two hours ago. I know he thinks I’m about to fly right out of the room.
In my head, I’ve been flying for hours.
For hours I’ve been playing with the possibilities in my head. How hard would it be to do two master’s at the same time? I’ll finish the drawings for both books this weekend. I can finish this assignment , design that database and then check another online illustration course. Ooh, that story would be great as an animated cartoon.
For most of the last few weeks, I’ve been still, seeking sleep whenever possible. Depression wraps me up like a wet carpet, and I’ve been a good human to sleep on.
But living with bipolar is like living with a volcano. It rumbles in the darkness until it’s time to explode and let the steam and fire out. Sometime heat is power. It drives me out of bed into my office to write and read and paint. It also, however, can become a wild fire easily out of control, coaxing me to take on more commitments than I handle in a lifetime, spending on things no one ever needs, and torching anything in its vicinity.
So even though the screen is off, Jim-Bob knows my tapping hand is a sure sign the mania is still burning, ready to send this lumpy lady back into space, and he decide to stay put until the fire cools.
Even shielded from news most of the day because of the internet ban at work, it’s impossible to avoid all awareness of an earth-turned-inferno and humanity’s own seeming desire to immolate itself in war. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, “What’s the point?”
But the minute I start asking that question, I know it’s not the news. It’s me.
Hammering out a few words each day has seemed to be a Herculean task, and, until last night, I hadn’t touched a canvas in months. I know that, even though in some cases, things really are that bad for some of the world, right now, depression is warping the lens of my mind’s eye.
Sometimes depression is like seeing through a fog, but there are times when it is like living with a lens stopped down to the smallest aperture. It throws everything into sharp, extreme focus. There are no soft edges. There is no cropping out ugly details that make the world seem like an overflowing landfill that hardly needs anymore pointless paintings or posts.
And I know it’s not the world, it’s me – at the moment.
I like to think the depression isn’t who I am, but it’s been with me, off and on, since I could crawl. It’s at least as much a part of me as being near-sighted, and there are even times I’m glad for the hyper focus (this isn’t one of them).
I was driving home tonight, still struggling for what to paint or draw. I knew my head needs me to but couldn’t reconcile my need with the resources it would use, the waste it might generate, or the pointlessness of making anything.
Usually Facebook is the opposite of an anti-depressant, so it was against my better judgement (already shaky this week) that I launched it on my phone when I got home and sat down to decompress. The first photo that hit my feed, however, was a screenshot of a September tweet from Dan Rather that went like this:
“Somewhere, amid the darkness, a painter measures a canvas, a poets tests a line aloud, a songwriter brings a melody into tune. Art inspires, provokes thought, reflects beauty and pain. I seek it out even more in these times. And, in doing so, I find hope in the human spirit.”
It was one answer to a question I ask all the time – especially when my focus is sharp but corrupted .
Is art selfish?
I know art is therapy – a softening of the lens. When continents really are on fire, when children are living in prisons and adults are making more misery from war, however, I hope for it to be a light in the darkness. For tonight, the hope is enough to let some softness into my view.
Poem – Stopping Down
I stopped all the way down
And now my field is deep,
Focused and sharp,
Too treacherous to roam.
Depression may inspire creative bursts of energy once it’s gone, but, more often, I’ve found that giving into creativity has to happen before the depression can truly start to recede. Sometimes, that surrender starts with trying something new.
I recently stumbled onto a quote by Plutarch that goes, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” The quote has been rumbling around in my brain for a few days now, seemingly more accurate each time I recall it.
I often paint because I cannot find words that vent emotions without being destructive. Whether or not it leads to good or bad art is irrelevant. The creating on canvas is the path away from hurt and from hurting others.
Lately, I’ve been writing more and painting less (it goes in cycles), But there are still nights I struggle to distill ￼churning feelings and events into text. Last night, watching our orange tabby embrace his carefree, hedonistic identity and, as always, still wondering about my own, I got stuck between picking up a brush or opening the keyboard. Then, instead of sitting and stewing about it for another half hour until I was too tired to do anything useful, I got up and retrieved a journal from my office and decided to try something new.
I decided to try and make a painting that spoke.
I’ve written maybe three or four poems in the last seven years. It is certainly not a forte. As with the act of painting that leads me away from hurt and hurting, however, trying to write poetry was not about making something good, it was about actively surrendering to creativity.
Poem: The Business of Being
Fat, orange, arranged on the table
Like an idol on an altar,
The tabby invest his life, without reservation,
In the business,
Not of being born or changing or dying
But of being the libertine he is.
And I, still changing, still searching,
Craving substance, loathing indolence￼￼ but filled with envy,
Can feel the faith of one who’s found
A￼ business of being meant just for him.￼