September. This past week especially, the change has been palpable. Cold, crisp mornings. Breeze slightly more cutting, bit of an ominous edge to it, alluding to the season that has yet to descend upon us. Warm afternoons that lull you into complacency, cut short by a sudden evening darkness, noticeably earlier day by day, one week to the next. And so it goes. Shifting seasons, a brand new page.
September. This year it's not just the transition to fall and the end of summer that's lending melancholy notes to my days. It's not just the forest fire smoke hanging heavy in the air. It's an anniversary. It's one year. One year since I lost my mind, went insane, got locked up in a psych ward. One year since my world fell apart - no, shattered apart - violently, suddenly, with great force.
Anniversaries can be triggers, my therapist warned me.
But with the cocky certainty of late spring, I assured her that one year would be a celebration - one year of sanity, one year of stability, one year on the other side.
And now, winter is coming. Winter with its icy focus, its cutting gaze, its unblinking stare into the depths of our fears. Winter, and the reminder that this was not a year of stability, no - not at all. A year of recovery, sure. A year of the highest high and the lowest lows and the most uncertain times imaginable. A year of loss, a year of grief, a year of surrender.
A spring of getting back up again, of tentative steps forward on shaky, unstable legs. A summer of learning to step up again, to find a voice, to own my experience, to name its worth and value. To claim my sensitivity. To receive it as a gift. A cycle of seasons. Full circle. Come back again. Pain is there. Feels are there. But they come up and out with less tension, less story and explanation, less resistance and struggle.
In Chinese Medicine, Autumn is the season for grief. For dying off, for letting go, for release of the unnecessary. For preparation for the dark, cold days ahead. For the hibernation, for turning the gaze inward, nothing to distract ourselves from what arises from within. Some things are easier to set aside in the summer months - easier to look past in the hustle and bustle, the social, busy, and outgoing times. What's coming back for me now again are the more difficult parts of this summer - the parts I made it through, but maybe didn't completely integrate.
June brought death face to face. Watching a body's struggle to resist what a mind and heart and soul had long decided what it was ready for. Sadness. Understanding. Love and regret. Witnessed and carried. Difficult, painful, but expected - scheduled, anticipated. And then in July - sudden, devastating news. A tragic death that hit far too close to home in many ways. A smiling face that had been appearing in my workplace on and off for several months. A respected practitioner, teacher and writer - who clearly had something all figured out, who seemed above the challenges that the rest of us face. The widest range of emotions moved through me as the details were revealed - the initial all-encompassing fear and panic. The feeling of understanding exactly what type of mind could lead to these decisions and outcomes. Of remembering the tendency to grab hold of an idea with such conviction, with so much certainty that it was the right path to take. The complete inability to recognise risk, inability to doubt that the overwhelming internal sense of rightness might actually be wrong. Might actually be pathological. I understand it. I remember it so clearly. It could have been me. It could one day still be me.
Grief, heart-wrenching pain at the injustice of this tragedy. That terrible things happen to such good people. Good people with wives and children and students all over the world. And then comes anger. Anger that I try to resist, but anger that pushes forth with persistence and undeniable force. Anger that someone with such a solid reputation, with such wide reach, a public figure, someone in a position of unbelievable power - a well-respected white man - hadn't done more to be public about his struggle. Yes, there is stigma - undoubtedly, we crazy people face it every single day. But with power comes responsibility. Responsibility to admit your humanity. Responsibility to share your challenges. The world does not need more teachers pretending to have it all together. We don't need more gurus denying their own humanity. We don't need more idols, we don't need more perfect examples to place on inaccessible pedestals.
We need raw, honest humans. We need people who are willing to be radically open about their struggles. We need to tell our stories, for it is the stories - and nothing else - that will stomp out this stigma. I understand the desire to keep personal struggles private, especially a struggle that leaves you feeling as out-of-control and helpless as Bipolar does. Believe me, I understand. I understand too well. But I can't help but imagine what-if.
What if, when mania was threatening to spiral out of control, we didn't have to seek out an opiate to calm our minds, to keep us level so we could carry on with all our responsibilities? What if we could publicly admit that we were not well? What if we could cancel our workshops, our lectures, tell the world that travel wasn't safe for us right now?
What we if we could explain that we were blessed with systems that can't always handle being in front of a crowd of people? If we could tell groups and classes that we appreciate their energy and enthusiasm, but that it leaves us feeling spun and not able to wind down, to sleep properly for days afterwards?
What if we could realise that the stress that might have fuelled us for decades - forced us to achieve more, create, shine blindingly bright - now has such a profound effect on our nervous systems that it could prove deadly?
What if we could allow ourselves to be nursed in reduced stimulation?
What if we could admit that small things, simple things - a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a strong asana practice, an hour of travel, speaking honestly in front of a group of people - have the potential to send us spinning in ungroundable directions? That's not to say these things can't be done, can't be experienced, just that we need to know our systems well enough to learn how to balance these basic situations that have been known to contribute to extremes.
For me, getting to the wildest edge of uncontrolled manic behaviour was an undeniable learning experience. I have had the highest high. I have been there, I have seen far. I have tasted insanity. And I know that I have no need to go there again. I know the rapid acceleration. I know that how unstoppable that rocket is once it's launched. I know that once I'm in it, I don't have the ability to objectively see what's happening. I know how painful the crash is, how slow and frustrating the recovery process is. I'm exhausted by it, and yet - I'm still in it. And so, I am learning how to feel the slightest early warning signs in my body. Learning how to tell my support system where I am at and what I need. I have found allies - foods and herbs and supplements and treatments that can balance unsteady states. I have come to see the value in extreme sensitivity. In seeing things that others don't. In feeling things that go unnoticed. Mental illness is deadly. This fact is impossible to not notice.
I have a dear friend who's recovering from a manic episode. She's depressed, she's unbelievably hard on herself. She feels like a drain on society, like a terrible burden. I imagine what it could be like for her to have a role model. A teacher, an author, someone who's contributed undeniable good to the world. Someone who's admitted when they're simply not capable. Someone who's willing to be honest that at times they are unable to contribute in a meaningful way, that at times they need to be reclusive, need to stop, need to be in recovery, need to be taken care of, need to be held. It's hard to give ourselves permission to be in this state, this state of needing others, of needing time off, needing what feels like endless support.
So, for all who find themselves faced with mental illness, faced with the impossible - I wish that you can allow yourself the space to be unwell. I hope that you can ask for help, be transparent and open and honest about where you are at. I pray that recovery time is seen as essential, not as pathological. That depression following mania is perceived as a necessary and unavoidable period of enforced rest, not a symptom to be medicated and made to feel guilty for. We need to create a world in which we are human beings - not human doings, in which our value comes from deep inherent worth, not from "contributions" to a mostly unconscious, often unjust society.
Be well, friends. It's a crazy world out there. The struggle is real. And the stakes are high.