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