While struggling with the incongruence of the possibility of recovery and the path of my life, something occurred to me which may be of some help to others. Many others, I venture to guess, have come upon this contrast between the recovery model and their own life experiences. What I kept coming back to was that I worked hard all my life, got a degree, had a career, got married, bought a house, and started a family just to have it all fall apart beneath the weight where the pieces were too weak to hold up my ambitions. And I was left in this arid desert, groping for meaning in what seems like a meaningless, pointless, (and forecast when I was diagnosed at 19) statistically speaking, shorter life. I felt that recovery was not something that I could do. I couldn’t choose it. I couldn’t make it happen. I could not bring it about through the very strong will that I have shown all this time.
Instead, recovery is something I do despite the odds, when I am confronted with the hard truth of my life. It happened today; I was prescribed a new medication. My family members all weighed in on the host of side effects. I responded that the risk in the short term outweighs the long term effects. If you have been around the circles in the mental health system, the truth of this is plain. So many of us with my illness don’t live all that long. If we do, often we face times during which we wish we hadn’t. I told my family that there was “no seventy year old me.” Therefore, the long-term risks of a medication are not a factor. And likely my doctor knows this. I said, “If God would be so kind as to take me due to a complication from the medication, it would be no less than his mercy in my life.” I fell apart after that statement. I always knew the expected lifespan of a person with bipolar disorder I is significantly less than the average life span in our society, but what I did in the silence and solitude thereafter was what recovery really is.
I turned my phone off so I wouldn’t continue the conversation that was going nowhere and worrying those in my support system. I slept on and off. I sat outside. I took my dog for a walk. We came in and I took this picture of her and titled it “I ‘herd’ you knew some cats.”
I call my dog, Sarah, “little shadow,” after the song of the same name by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When I call her this, I am pushing past my first inclination, because the lines “Little shadow, little shadow./To the night, will you follow me?” make me worry too much about what fate will befall my wonderful, smart, and beautiful little five year old daughter. She has a bipolar father and a mother with anxiety and depression. I could not have chosen such a perilous course for her to face. But I did. I did choose it. So I give her all of what I have learned, in little snippets catered to her young age. And I hang on, trying to teach her more and more in a way that will help her step around all the troubles she may see in her life as we grow together in our bond. And that bond is the love of a father for his precious baby girl and the overwhelming joy in the reciprocal love of a little girl for her dad. My wife and daughter gave me a wood plaque. On it was a picture of me holding her on the couch and saying “goodnight”. And the words read, “Any man can be a father, it takes a special man to be a Daddy.”
I give her things sometimes as soon as I learn them. And this is the newest thing that has occurred to me: recovery is not a thing one obtains and then is done. Recovery happens every time I dare betray what darkness has befallen my inner world, and instead turn my eyes outward. Recovery is what happens in that space. It is where I re-focus. I focus on something else. It begins a path that shifts my thinking which leads me out of the depths of despair to something else, something better. It started tonight by turning my phone off and not getting sucked into a hopelessly damaging conversation about how short my life will be. Instead, I took pictures of my dog, took a walk, had a cigarette break, did some deep breathing, and after a few hours, I was laughing at the caption I envisioned for the picture. Usually it is not that extreme. Often, success at it is just to get through the hard evening to the point where I can do what I do every day: take my meds, go to bed, hope for a better day tomorrow. That, in a nutshell, is recovery. I no longer have trouble hearing about recovery. In the past, it felt like it was my fault that I was not “recovered” from my illness. Some days you do it. Some days you do it better than others. But every day I’ve survived with this illness is a triumph of the human heart and mind.
In fact, every next day I see in this life is a triumph of my heart over my mind. Recovery isn’t magically sprouting a new leg. Recovery is getting around on the other one. The heart can do what the mind cannot.
William lives in mid-Michigan. He is married and has a four-year-old daughter. He has written poetry for 28 years, wrote for a spiritual blog for five years, and writes for various blogs and newsletters.