Embracing Resistance

In Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays, Hayden Carruth states, “Everything I know as a writer and critic, everything I know about poetry and life, tells me that the effort to analyze a feeling makes that feeling stronger, not weaker” (60).

As a confessional writer, I analyze my feelings often, but compulsive self-analysis can turn into self-judgement when I label certain feelings “unacceptable.” Debilitating sadness is unacceptable. I need to toughen up and become a productive member of society. Chronic anxiety is unacceptable. I need to loosen up and take charge of my life.

I assume that Carruth, who battled depression and anxiety for decades, understood the power of shame to compound suffering. Living with mental illness is hard enough. Fighting the stigma of mental illness, the shame I’ve internalized, is equally daunting.

Shame stifles my creativity and restricts my being. I write best when I acknowledge, without judgment, how I really feel. When I’m depressed, my body feels heavier than a pile of anvils. When I’m anxious, my body feels like a desert trapped in a grain of sand. I worry that sharing details like these makes me look bad, but if my depression and anxiety won’t shut up, why should I stay silent? To write freely, Carruth might remind me, is to heal.

But where my body is concerned, I’ll never have the last word. In the throes of a depressive episode, my body won’t get out of bed. Nothing and no one, not even me, can force it to rise. There’s an anger immune to reason flowing through me, a defiant inner child reclaiming his power.

When it’s fed up with the world, my body says no. It accepts that it doesn’t work right. My body owns what it lacks. Rejecting the false memory of a unity it never had, my body challenges society’s bogus requirement to always be rational, driven, and self-sufficient. My body pushes back against the double trauma inflicted upon it: the trauma of having a mental illness and the trauma of feeling ashamed about having a mental illness.

I keep using the word shame, but defining it isn’t easy. On my worst days I feel like my soul is damaged. I blame myself for being depressed and hate myself for hating myself. Hearing people I care about tell me they love me doesn’t stop my internal critic from judging me. I feel unworthy of love and acceptance despite the fact that everyone, by virtue of being alive, deserves both.

Depression is hidden; it doesn’t look like a broken leg or third-degree burns. People fear what they can’t see and judge others for exhibiting odd behaviors they can’t explain. We’re aware of the stereotype of the madman or madwoman. I know how alone they feel.

No matter how society tries to define me, I live my depression in my own way. I’m free to write that I feel like my soul is damaged, but I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that I have a soul in the first place. But writing that my soul is damaged is my (hyperbolic) statement; it is unique to me. Everything I write is an expression of my singularity. My resistance, too, is an expression of my singularity. Everything and everyone I resist, I resist in my own way.

If I wake up one morning and my body feels like a pile of anvils, the first step I should take to get out of bed is to not get out of bed right away. Stay numb. Be one with my mourning. When I feel depressed, to feel better later, I must do depression well.

It’s important to challenge negative thoughts, to take my meds, and to go to therapy, but it also helps to recognize that parts of me haven’t healed, can’t be healed, or refuse to be healed. My body is stubborn. I need to embrace its resistance.

A Work In Progress

I said goodbye recently to my therapist before she left for her new job. I know she’ll continue transforming lives, including her own. I’m taking a break from therapy now to clear my mind. I can resume treatment with someone else whenever I like.

Childhood trauma, I’ve learned in therapy, has altered my relationship to time. It’s been hard as an adult to maintain a coherent personal narrative, an uninterrupted story of my life. As a creative writer, however, I’m free to fill in the blanks and disconnect the “not’s”—those self-defeating thoughts telling me I’m broken, useless, and lost.

My imagination is a powerful tool of persistence. Showing myself compassion in reverse, I write a story, in present tense, about consoling my past self as he struggles to survive. In the same story, I write about consoling my future self as he continues his recovery, thanking him in advance for being gentle with me now and encouraging me to stay alive.

Whether I’m prewriting, writing, or rewriting, my life story remains a work in progress.

Trauma And Creation

In Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living, Anne Dufourmantelle tells depressed people looking for a quick fix that “medication only patches up the desire to live, or the heartache, or the professional failure, or the feeling of inadequacy; for nothing can sew up such a wound. Nothing except creation, what reopens the wound elsewhere and differently, but on less shifting ground” (86).

Three months ago, I published my third book, once again creating and re-creating myself through words. In the introduction I recall the pain of childhood traumas, (re)opening—in the pages of my book—old wounds that refuse to close for good.

Confessional writing is cathartic, but sharing my story reminds me how vulnerable I am, how lonely I still feel. I crave connection but worry that people outside my family won’t understand my depression. After years of living in protect mode, letting my guard down takes time.

Aware that trauma survivors—especially those abused as children—deal with trust issues, Dufourmantelle offers encouragement and hope. “When we are seized,” she writes, “by the feeling that nobody will ever come to us, that this solitude will not loosen its grip on us, ever, we must still find the strength to extend our arms, to kiss, to love” (98).

People live with pain in different ways. Some become artists. I am one of them. My books are an extension of me, a reaching out, a kiss. My writing is an expression of loneliness that challenges but never defeats loneliness.

Recovering Melancholic

Recovery Mode

I once performed mental
gymnastics upside
down on a tightrope over
the Grand Canyon

I once unzipped my flesh
and stepped out naked
in spirit astonished at
the jumble of my bones

I once rode a roller coaster
at a joyless amusement park
with my old friend vertigo
and a bottle of brine

yet here I am with my wits
about me and a new lease
on life ready to reboot
my drive in recovery mode

here I am with my wits
about me and a new lease
on life writing poetry
in recovery mode

c b snoad
draft 10-24-04
edit 1-28-17

The Thirst For Life Itself

Not long ago I was asked in therapy to consider my purpose. I thought for a moment, careful to select my words.

My purpose, simply put, is threefold:

  • to love and be loved
  • to be present for others
  • to accept help

I realize after years in therapy that I can’t discuss my recovery without touching on spiritual matters. Even without uttering “God” or “faith,” I’m restless for meaning in a mechanically operated, perpetually instant world.

Perhaps I’m a secret believer. A reformed cynic. Maybe identifying as agnostic spoke to my struggle with indecision and self-ambivalence. Maybe this mask no longer fits.

Has my writing taken a religious turn? A desert wanderer, am I longing to be nourished by the thirst for life itself?

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There’s been a delay in getting the book published. I have started working on a new chapter that adds a wealth of meaning to the whole project. In the meantime, here is an excerpt from the introduction regarding one of my main reasons for writing the book:

“Depression is a spiritual affliction. A dis-ease of the soul. Medication and therapy are part of a dynamic, lifelong healing process that also requires patience and surrendering control. Recovery is a moment-to-moment battle, and I commend survivors with wounds both seen and unseen for continuing to fight. I hope my story helps break the stigma surrounding mental illness and encourages others to speak their truths.”