*incidentally the title of a great Eliza Carthy/Imagined Village song.
So this is what it feels like:
the helpful young doctor pauses for a moment, sits back in his chair and sighs before broaching the subject: “it’s not easy to walk in to an appointment and just start talking to some stranger about how you’re really feeling, is it?” And I sit staring at my shoes. I’m not well. We both know I’m not well.
There are good days and bad days. The good days are rare, but they do happen: days when, instead of a yawning chasm, I find a person inside me, a fairly amiable 30-something woman called Angharad, who loves folklore and music and languages and wild plants, who cares for fascinating historical records and wants to learn new things. Waking up on a good day feels like returning from Oz and finding out that real life was in technicolour all along. It really *is* possible to get out of bed and just have an alright day, without worrying too much about it. This too has passed.
The bad days are harder to describe. Books help.
Terry Pratchett’s novel Soul Music describes a scene that has always stayed with me, in which Susan tries to go to bed, only to find acres of ground between her bedroom door and the space where her actual bedroom begins. Unlike her entirely human father, Mort, she lacks the ability to ignore the immensity of its dimensions – but unlike her entirely metaphysical grandfather, Death, she still has to live within these dimensions. So she begins to pick her way across, slowly and carefully, taking so much time and effort to complete what ought to be the simplest of tasks.
On bad days, the space between here (feeling hungry, feeling tired) and there (getting some food, getting to bed) can feel crushingly vast.
Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea – a book I read quite late in life – describes a gebbeth, a person inhabited by a shadow: “the body of a gebbeth has been drained of true substance and is something like a shell or vapour in the form of a man, an unreal flesh clothing the shadow that is real.” (Ref.)
When the abyss inhabits me – I hate myself for this – I can keep going, sometimes for weeks. And the longer I keep going, the more it takes hold of me, and the longer it will take me to eventually recover. So when should I stop?
When the abyss inhabits me, I can look around at my room, the things I have made or been given, the things I love wearing and doing, and not recognise myself. There is so much life in that room, and so little life in me.
Most days feel like a tightrope-walk over the abyss. Some days feel like groping my way through the darkness at the bottom. The worst feel like the abyss has taken hold of me and is wearing the empty shell of my life like a skin. But good days do happen.
It will get better, I believe that it will. I have started talking about it, to relieve some of the crushing pressure of always being okay. I have started taking time off to recover – just a little, a snatched day here or there – instead of dragging my heavy self through the motions of day in which my biggest accomplishment is resembling a human person sufficiently well that no-one notices. The physical symptoms are the strangest thing: how can a mental illness cause so many physical aches? The heaviness, the feeling in my diaphragm like a plug has been pulled at the centre of my being and I’m slowly draining out of it, the prickly irritation of my skin.
Just over six months ago I started taking medicine, thinking it would tide me over the winter and I would be better by the spring. But here I am, still taking it, having to come to terms with the fact that there is no easy cure. I have got so much better, but I constantly frustrate myself by not being completely well.
I wish I could end this post with some kind of conclusion. I started writing it when I first tried taking medicine and treating these symptoms as an illness – I could never write this much on a bad day, like today. But I can edit, and add comments. The only comment I can think of is: this too shall pass. And I try not to worry when the good days will come back again, or how long they will last.