A Me to Hold Onto

Reading Catatonic Kid’s post, full of poetry as all of hers are, about how she experiences the disparate parts of her mind, I started thinking once more about what it is that holds me together when so much within seems to be breaking apart.

I work every day to keep myself in a mindset of recovery. Change, as Revellian often says, comes from the inner strength of the individual, not from a government, not from any source of professional benevolence. I agree that the struggle for a changed life out of mental anguish depends on the individual taking charge instead of waiting for doctors, medications, implants or electric convulsing of the brain to cure what’s wrong. I run into a problem, though, when I reach inside for that strong individual because I experience the illness as a self-estrangement, a losing sight of the core of who I am. Suddenly, when depression is breaking into my mind and feelings, I am looking at many faces, all of them mine. I’m no longer sure which is the self that knows the skills of survival. Which is the one among so many?

I search for the center that is my truest self, for the strength that I can draw from, for the sense of direction about where I’m heading. But what I keep running into are layers of identities, some shoved on me from without, some springing to life from my own mind, some demanded by work or family or money. I’ve seen myself, and the selves others have pushed onto me, as so many different people – the wrong son, the brilliant student, someone worthless and less than human, a power-hungry male, a success, a failure, a person of scorned ethnicity, a victim of illnesses, a survivor, a racist, a peace-maker, a writer, a manipulator, a spiritual man, a friend, a father, a husband, sometimes reliable, sometimes absent. There is always the fear that I will choose the wrong one and strain against my deepest drives to satisfy the idea of a self that is not all me.

Once I saw a production of the ancient Greek play about Oedipus the King. When this confident man strode on stage at the height of his power, four other actors, capturing other versions of his soul, crowded behind him. As he spoke his commands, these other selves revealed the scope of his inner conflict – one was fierce with angry violence, one smiled with approval, one writhed in agony, one quietly wept. These conflicting selves tore at each other constantly as the king strode along his tragic path to the doom that awaited him. That image stays with me always.

If I could draw the layers of identity and the inner energies supporting them, I suppose I would start with a sphere and a series of surrounding concentric spheres, none of them touching but each kept in a stable formation by their common center point. They can rotate in different directions, at different speeds; they can light up in turn or all at once; they can nurture the emergence of new selves, new spheres. All that can be contained by the stable center of a balanced mind and soul. But unwell and in depression, the center is suddenly gone – the spheres of the self float off alone, the ties among them lost, a relentless anxiety about who I am or who I should be consumes me. I don’t know where to turn – reaching for that inner stable self is like trying to reach for the surface of the water when I’m drowning and desperate for breath.

What I need at those times is a me to hold onto, a stable center that concentrates and moves the forces for life that I contain.

Years ago I came across a poem by Rilke that has never left me because it captures an endurance amid doubt that keeps me going. I’m roughing out my own version here:

I live my life in growing circles

that spread out over the things of this life.

Perhaps I will not reach the final one

but I will be seeking it.

I circle around God, around the ancient tower,

and I am circling for a thousand years.

And I still do not know: am I a falcon, a storm

or a great song.

Perhaps the real strength I reach for is the simple will to keep going, to keep circling. Recovery, after all, is no straight line.

What do you find to hold onto when your sense of who you are starts breaking into pieces like glass?

Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by paintedmonkey at Flickr

9 Responses to “A Me to Hold Onto”

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  1. Revellian says:

    While I could write 50,000 words answering this, I’ll keep it as short and simple as I can.

    I stay connected through breath – my awareness in my tan tien or center of gravity about 2 1/2 inches below my navel – breathing with my diaphragm. This is something so ingrained in me it is impossible for me to not be aware of this. I envision a whirlpool in my center of gravity in which all stress, all negativity and all self doubt pours into and it is expelled into the void – out of me. I do not count breaths or anything like that, I just breathe. I’ve been doing this so long, I know no other way. This is he root of my existence connecting me to life.

    The only other concept I really apply is my gratefulness to be here right now and know what it means to be alive.

    I have fallen apart and been shattered endless times, but it is through my basic beliefs I pull myself together. Like Svasti said, we are not separate from God, we are part of God as is the entire universe. We are all one:)

  2. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    A couple of comments.

    Our relationships are part of us.

    When we are fragmented we can talk to the different parts. When we do this we are on the way to finding/building our core again – we have already begun to transcend the fragmentation.

    Trust this makes sense.

  3. Stephany says:

    I just stand and look at the pieces at my feet and pick them up.

  4. Thanks for the shout out, John!

    As always fascinating and a great pleasure to read your thoughts =) I’m really intrigued by the image of the spheres of self. That makes a lot of sense to me.

  5. John D says:

    Revellian – It’s awesome to hear about the beliefs and practice that sustain you! That’s a wonderful image of the whirlpool carrying the negative stuff away. Images that have occurred to me work so much more effectively when tied to physical action. I really admire your focus, discipline and gratitude for being alive – you offer such an inspiring example. Thank you.

  6. John D says:

    Dano -Thank you! Losing a sense of time and memory of certain phases is something I became more aware of over the past few years. It’s so true that the mood I’m in blanks out what the previous one was like, though I know from experience that the moods will swing again. I know generally what the bad was like when I’m feeling good but when it comes round again I’m always shocked. As you say, writing has made a huge difference in the process of recovery. I hope writing keeps on helping you – as it helps me.

  7. Dear John,

    Your writing is so rich, that I often wonder where to begin. Like talking about a Persian rug, there so many threads that could be followed.

    I have found over the years, that my mental fragmentation is mood based. If I see my therapist one week and I’m depressed, if I’m better by the following visit, I will have blanked the previous one out.

    I know from repeated mood swings, that I lose a sense of time. When I’m low, I feel like I’ve felt that way for ever and always will. It’s taken my best friend telling me that I was fine a day or so before, for me to realize how much my perception had been warped.

    Writing has been quite helpful, for me. I am able to read how I felt in other states, as well see that this mood, too, shall pass.

  8. John D says:

    Svasti – It’s wonderful that you have such spiritual practice to restore harmony in between episodes. My wife practices yoga, and it always helps give her balance and calm in the midst of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. I’m coming to have a deeper awareness of the connectedness of all through God – I believe that is another key to moving out of these up and down cycles. Thank you!

    Evan – You always make great sense! That is a powerful idea – that when we’re fragmented – there is already an energy stirring to rebuild. Thank you! That’s a lot to work with.

  9. Svasti says:

    Recovery, after all, is no straight line.

    How true this is… I’m only just beginning to find out.

    I’m very fortunate I think, in that I have a wonderful spiritual teacher and a whole swag of teachings, and fellow yogis to rely on.

    Of course, these are what I return to in between episodes. But over time, the episodes reduce and I return more quickly than before.

    Much of what this means to me is remembering to breathe to the depths of my being and also – remembering that I’m not alone, I am in fact, not seperate from god at all…

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