“I don’t want to rush towards the sunrise,” I told a friend a few years back, while describing emerging from a six month-long depressive episode. “I want to hang out a bit in the pre-dawn.” She looked at me across from the Café Coffee Day in McLeod Ganj; a kind of gentle skepticism on her lovely dark-eyed face. The hardest thing to do is to stay in the dark when the sun is rising; and that in itself I found appealing. The popular wisdom would say, “Why on earth would you want to?” But by that time, popular wisdom was like a vitamin pill for cancer. Popular wisdom was the murmurings of those who hadn’t ‘been there’. Couldn’t even find it on a map.
Perhaps if I’d had therapy (which I would eagerly have taken full advantage of if I hadn’t been stuck in India) all this would be different. But I can’t know for sure. When I stumbled upon Andrew Solomon, my Pixie Guide to the Inferno, who had suffered severe depression for two years and written about it, the question that he kept asking was, why are some people more resilient to depression than others? After years of research, this was his answer.
“A lot of it has to do with integration. There are some people who go through depression and as soon as they’re feeling okay, they want to shove it aside, and not think about it, and not look at it, and not talk about it, and in the course of doing all that , ironically, they make themselves more vulnerable to its next ambush because they have dissociated themselves from it and therefore have no new coping mechanisms. And there are other people who have been depressed and who say, “Okay, I would never have chosen this, I would never have wanted this, but having had this experience, I’m determined to find some kind of meaning in it….It won’t prevent you from getting depressed ever again, but it will allow you to tolerate the fact that you do get depressed from time to time.”
Find some meaning in it. Of course. But I went a bit further than that. For some reason, I wasn’t allowing myself to leave at all. It’s the liminal state—the in-between times—where all is decided. Do you move forward or fall back? And if you move forward, how do you proceed? I only felt comfortable in uncertainty. I had become attached to the perils of the threshold.
But now that I have not gone through a serious depressive episode, apart from a few brief blips, for almost two years, I still hesitate to write about it. Because to write about it, I have to, in some way….return. Sure, I’m not empty-handed now. I have a home-made abseiling kit for that unexpected abyss, a nice long Gandalf staff, a nose mask for the stench of batshit. But I know that I can’t be certain of getting out. I wonder if Andrew Solomon found himself despairing a few times during his brave scrawlings on the walls of the underworld. To return with a candle flame flickering in the wind is the only way most of us can return. And there is nothing that delights the Dark Lords more than a flickering candle. But it is also, I have to admit, what delights the nihilistic daredevil in me.
As more space-time has wriggled its way between my present state of functionality and the sulphur-spewing border regions, it has become increasingly difficult to say anything that either makes sense or seems helpful. So, I’ve stopped trying. The following are a couple of Post-It notes that make a tad more sense than the one I discovered on my bedside table the other morning that read: ’64 hexagrams in the I Ching, 64 codons of DNA…we are time machines!’
In the liminal state, ordinary mundane things have enormous consequences. Like eating regular meals, exercise, not sending that text that you think will explain it all. It’s like training under extreme weather conditions. Nothing feels conducive. But it is possible during this time, to notice our behaviour patterns, as absurd as they might be. It is almost impossible to change behaviour patterns directly in this state, but simply extending our reaction time to events can have a moderating effect on how our mind and body behaves. To learn to respond, instead of react. It is a gruesomely slow process. How can making a sandwich or taking a shower make any difference to such enormity as this? But it does. We can’t see this effect though, in the same way we can’t see photosynthesis, or a wound heal. It’s operating at a molecular level. And so we feel little encouragement and are always ready to give up. But when we choose the sandwich over not eating all day, or we take choose a shower over itchy and stinky, for a while we are not choosing despair. And it is those ‘whiles’ piled on top of one another, that become the boxes we clamber over to get out the window of our mental basement.
As the negative thought loops begin to recede we may make the mistake of thinking that they no longer have the power to affect our behaviour. But they can slam into the back of our head like a boomerang from Andromeda when we least expect it. It is excruciating sometimes, the balance between maintaining a positive outlook while being realistic about where we are. But optimism is not the same as blind hope. It doesn’t mean that we think things will be okay. It doesn’t even mean that we believe we can handle everything. It simply means that we learn to trust in our capacity to respond in an authentic way to what happens to us. A large part of the problem is the tendency to over-react to periods of defeat. So much energy is extended in berating ourselves for succumbing to bouts of despondency. The question, “Why did this happen again?” is not as pertinent as “So, what are you going to do now?” And I’ve found that answers like, “I’m going to overcome this if it kills me” aren’t as helpful as, “I’m going to eat a mango,” or “I’m going to write a birthday card to my niece”or “I’m going out to look at the moon.”
These days, I visit the liminal states less often. They are easy to enter but hard to exit, even after all this practice. The secret doorway is never in the same place twice. I try to make the most of my time there. And I sometimes forget that the pig-nosed guardians at the exit are my own doubts about my right to leave.
To try to unravel the ins and outs of circumstance and events that intersect with our own little nodule of being is a Sysiphian task. You may as well ask why is the wind blowing the leaves of that tree? It’s an impossible question. In the liminal state, such questions haunted me for a while. The wind is not blowing, the leaves are being blown, I would think. Or then. The leaves are not being blown, the wind is blowing them. Perhaps the blowing is taking the form of a wind or is it that the being blown things are taking the form of things being blown? Is there a difference between the wind and its blowing?
I’ve blown it so badly. My mind is now totally blown.
[If you can dedicate blog posts to people like pop songs on the radio, this one goes out to Marty, who first named me the ‘Liminal Gal’ . Oh, and he also said this as a response to this blog post. Perfect.]
Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: `The flag is moving.’The other said: `The wind is moving.’The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them:`Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.’
Wind, flag, mind moves.
The same understanding.
When the mouth opens
All are wrong.