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Lions Roar : May 2014
My parents are former hippies. My sisters and I went to an alternative school and were raised on homeopathy and co-op foods. In my family, if you’re feeling “blue” you eat a little more kale, go on another hike, or write a poem. But I was no longer in control of my brain function; none of the things that had helped me with depression in the past were having any effect. It took all of my focus to drive those two and a half hours home to the Berkshires. The Mass Turnpike was still relatively empty as the sun began to rise. Looking at the colorful morning sky, I realized I wasn’t responding to beauty. It was like the chan- nel through which I perceived life had turned a muted gray. People who have never experienced severe depression often imagine it to be an extreme sadness. Those of us who have lived with it know that it’s beyond that. It is a profound dullness, and it manifests in the physical body as tangibly as any major illness. As I drove that morning, I had lines from Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time” stuck on repeat in my head. They were lines I had painted on my bedroom wall as a teenager: in a dark time, the eye begins to see, i meet my shadow in the deepening shade... What’s madness but nobility of soul At odds with circumstance? Those words seem like foreshadowing to me now. I felt myself sinking down into the deeper recesses of my subconscious mind, wondering what I might find lurking there. I focused on the word “nobility.” I thought, let me handle this absolute confusion with some kind of nobility. I pulled the car into my mom’s driveway and walked up the path to the house I was born in. “I have never seen you look this way,” my mom said. I saw the first wave of fear cross her face. As a child, I was so happy and calm that Mom used to call me “Buddha baby.” I’d always been emotionally self-sufficient, and my response to adversity had been to work harder and stoically wait it out. yet now I couldn’t solve my problems on my own, and it was beyond the abilities of my family too. For several days my sisters tried everything—salt baths, warm food, massage, slow walks, sleeping medication, valerian root, therapy—but finally we agreed it was time for the hospital. Fortunately my younger sister was studying for her master’s in social work and was able to educate all of us about psychiatric illness and advocate fiercely for me. I checked myself into the psychiatric inpatient unit at Berk- shire Medical Center, where I was diagnosed with bipolar disor- der and stayed for twenty-one days. I fought to stay alive with my whole being while the illness ravaged my brain and made me des- perate to escape my body. That is where this story really begins. Because my brain was so compromised, I had a tremendous opportunity: I had the chance to see what remained. I didn’t have words for it yet, but what remained was a deep thread of consciousness connecting me to something at my core. A breakdown, I came to find out, is actually a kind of accelerated spiritual lesson. So much is accomplished so rapidly when the brain undergoes a terrific malfunction. One’s entire identity is shattered. I was suddenly stripped of everything I had ever counted as my “self.” I was wearing a combination of my sister’s clothes and hospital pajamas. I was sharing a desolate room with a total stranger. I wasn’t allowed many personal possessions, and none of the food resembled anything I normally ate. I couldn’t concen- trate long enough to read even a paragraph, and when I looked in the mirror, my eyes were so dark and my face so thin that I didn’t recognize my reflection. None of the ways I’d defined myself in the world had any bearing. On a psych unit, no one cares if you were a straight-A student, if you were a three-season varsity athlete, if you were popular or successful. your personal narrative is useless in there. In fact, I experienced a strong allergic reaction to my own ego. I was over- whelmed with memories of my arrogance and competitiveness and felt a strong regret for all the ways in which I had judged others. Reality is totally up for grabs on an inpatient unit. When I said, “I’m a folk musician and I was on tour in Europe,” I got the same impartial stare from the social worker in group therapy as the guy next to me received when he claimed there was a devil living in his neighbor’s garage. I had none of the tools left with which I’d always oriented myself in the world. Instead, I discovered a deep knowing that was a witness to my experience and guided me even when my brain was failing. What remained was a quiet gentleness, a belief PHOTOBySTEPHANHOgLUND Meg Hutchinson SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2014 72