The knife sang silver across my skin, sunshine sweet and soothing as the rain. Smooth and slow, rich red blood welled from the slight wound and dripped gently, a maple tap of my life. Relief rushed through me, heady and exhilarating; for a moment I was sated. But lighting on the heels of that joy was dark, bitter shame. It tasted like pennies in my mouth. Lying back on the bed, my arms and legs splayed of their own accord into a snow angel, one that was a mere echo of my best self. My shadow mind tornadoed, carrying me away, and I shut my eyes to the storm. In the morning light would come, as it always did.
As far back as my memory stretches, I waged a hidden battle with that shadow mind. Hateful and morose, breathlessly terrifying, it rose over and over in a steady tide of sadness and anger. Some days all I could do was keep breathing. Countless days, I have wanted nothing more than to end my own life. At 19, standing on the far side of the canyon between child and woman, I was given a gift: a diagnosis. Finally. A precious flower placed in my outstretched and sweaty palm, the words put my feet on a path I couldn’t have foreseen. “Here,” she said, “you have a mental illness.” That, the simple act of naming it, lit a torch in the darkness; the monsters you can see are so much easier to fight. For so long after, those words were my monsters. They loomed over my shoulder and opened yawning pits in my stomach, but at least I knew what they were.
But for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, yes? So it was that in my most terrible moments, I began to cast frayed lines of hope to those closest to me. I became a fisher of men, desperate in my belief that maybe, just maybe, there might be one or two who could find a way to love me for all of myself. That tentative trust was given and then astonishingly returned. Brothers and sisters of blood and heart, friends, dear mentors: all of them in ways towering and tiny offered hands at night and gleaming words of encouragement. They planted flags all over the Pacific Northwest: you can always come here, you are safe. It has been by the grace of these loving hearts, and my own stubbornness, that my feet are still firmly above ground.
I hold a winning hand. But there are so many people who don’t have the luxury of stepping, even briefly, away from their shadow-minds. These are the ones who get lost in the world, who end up in little hovels and cardboard boxes, they are the ones who walk by us muttering on the street, the ones who take their own lives. As much as we want to think we have evolved as a society, these people often still stand alone. It can be a sad world no matter who you are and when you have a mental illness that greasy, slick isolation stretches into infinity. My lesson recently has been to realize that it takes people being brave enough to say “Hey, this is part of who I am, but it’s not the biggest or the most important part” to start normalizing it. There is a beginning here, stepping stones to start bringing those of us who fight daily into a world that is just a little brighter.
I’m coming out ahead in this fight. My end isn’t for years and years. This is part of who I am. It’s not the biggest or the most important part, but it is the one that makes me most proud of the life I have lived so far. My shadow-mind is just that: mine. It tests me, pushes me, and forces me to be stronger. I have become better because of it. This is my newfound joy, my adventure, my celebration. In fact, I do love every part of the woman I have become. The shame has fled, banished to corners so far away that it can’t begin to find a way back.
Now I am 30. I have marked so many months around the sun, watching for the paperwhite moon in the sky at night. In the last three years, my world has expanded with the birth of two little girls. They are my nieces, the children of my beloved older brother and his amazing wife. As only small children can, they force selflessness, spontaneity, dizzying happiness. Their upturned faces, blueberry stained and streaked with dirt, offer me faith. Some afternoons we blast Michael Franti and dance, some evenings we go on expeditions around the block in the snowy woods above Arendelle. The oldest is always Elsa; the youngest Anna. I am most often Sven. I’ll take the reindeer. He always makes them laugh.
I gave myself a gift this year too: new tattoos inked on my wrists. One is a fern, lithe and graceful; the other is an apple blossom, new life, and beauty. They are a tribute to my nieces, whose middle names are Fern and Apple. They are also Cerberus guarding the gates of hell. All those times I almost caved, gave in to the silky whispers in my ears inviting me to die—if I had listened, I would have gone in ribbons of that sticky blood. My wrists are my weak spot. But now, even when those voices call, I see in stark relief what I would be giving up.
This year, I locked myself into living. Towering above all other victories, and all my inky black choices is this one: stained with light and holding the hearts I value above all others. My survival, a question for so long, is no longer in doubt.
There are days when my feet still linger on rock bottom, scraping along a reef of sadness and frustration. The ghosts of grief haunt me from time to time, and there are days when the brief hallway between my bed and my shower is a bridge with so many slats missing. I get lost in the maze of this mind I have been given. That will happen for the rest of my life; this is not a diagnosis I can escape. My heart knows that, my head knows that. My bones and fingers and toes and blood vessels know that. There is, however, a world of difference between living with a mental illness and simply surviving it.
In this season of summer, the leaves turn green and the grass springs up high. The mountains shake off their skirts of clouds and reach snowy peaks to touch the belly of the sky. The Willamette River flows faster and colder; the salmon jump ladders. Calves emerge, wobbly-legged, into the purple morning light. In this season of summer, the world lives; it does not solely survive. So we rejoice: here we are, again, at this pinnacle of celebration and adventure, this summer season, when the days are longest and the sun shines the brightest. Here I am, for the first time, celebrating that which I never thought would be a cause for joy.
Here’s to a world where those with particularly dark shadow-minds are granted a light by others.
Here’s to a world where we are brave enough to love the hard parts of ourselves.
Here’s to a world where we are compassionate to those who need it most.
Here’s to a world with ferns and apples and laughter and love.
Photo credit: Dmitriy Nushtaev