I have known I have bipolar disorder, better known as manic-depression, since September 1999. Actually, I knew about it for several years before. These days, because of my life situation, I run toward major depression. The manic, “speeding” aspect of the illness hasn’t had much of a chance to surface in the last couple of years. My life makes me very sad. Sometimes it’s like a bad dream from which I wish only to awaken. At other times…well, I’d like not to wake up. Henry Fuseli knew a lot about what it looked like.
Henry Fuseli was a great English painter who saw something–experience, imagination, or both?–that he translated into a painting I hate to look at but that I can’t avoid. That lady on the bed is me. The goblin or demon parked on her (my) chest is manic-depressive illness. Some days it weighs down. It mocks. But unlike the lady with the cauchemar, the demon is there ever after I wake up. That’s what makes manic-depression a source of constant entertainment.
So, so many people wrote about it far better than I can. Consider Robert Lowell, whose “Skunk Hour,” is a (best sense) terrible description of depression from the inside of the mind enduring it.
Robert Lowell, 1917 – 1977
For Elizabeth Bishop
Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill–
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
‘Love, O careless Love . . . .’ I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air–
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Today was one day among man when I felt “my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,” a weight sometimes so palpable, so insupportably heavy, that I I feel as though it’s been part of my body forever. Perhaps it has been. Note this: Jane Kenyon’s meditation on her lifelong depression. Lowell’s poem may be “better,” whatever that means. But Kenyon focuses more directly on the awfulness of a lifetime lived enduring this illness.
If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV The Cherry Orchard
1 FROM THE NURSERY
When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.
And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad — even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.
You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”
I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours — the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.
Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.
3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND
You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.
Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.
5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.
6 IN AND OUT
The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .
A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.
Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.
There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.
9 WOOD THRUSH
High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
The first time I really “got” this poem was in the summer of 2008. I was in the middle of a depression attack. I read the poem on a train coming out of New York, headed to Long Branch, New Jersey. I sat on the rush hour train, tears in my eyes and choking back sobs. I understood, finally, that this was a poem about my life. To this day, I would give almost anything to be able to write like Kenyon about the awfulness that at times overcomes me. For the moment, this blog of random rambles is the best I can manage.
“Well, what’s the matter, Ken?” On days like this, everything. But more specifically, money, or the lack of same, The fact that my bank account is overdrawn and, if I’m lucky, it will be even more overdrawn before the end of the week. I have two terrible habits that demand feeding. One is smoking (don’t start in on me). The second is eating.