Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.”
I have always loved writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s opening to her novel A Wizard of Earthsea. It is the perfect epitaph. In these five lines is the enormity of life and both the vitality and emptiness of existence. Le Guin confronts the value of turning to life’s turmoil and recognising that only in each imperfect moment are we alive. Thinking about Le Guin’s trilogy and the meaning we attribute to our lives, I wondered about my life and the intersection of meaning, voice and truth.
When I was 25 I was diagnosed with ‘long-standing dysthymic disorder’ (also called dysthymia – a beautiful word meaning ‘ill-humoured’ that now wears the tedious label ‘Persistent Depressive Disorder’). I was (perversely) quite happy about this – this wasn’t depression, but a persistent low mood. The diagnosis seemed less dramatic, like being in a valley rather than at the bottom of a pit. The low mood (the low mood – something distanced from the self) responded to Prozac – a new drug at the time, requiring a $200 visit to a psychiatrist to authorise the prescription. It is not until recently I realised that such a diagnosis could be a life sentence, indeed a sentence I’ve been serving out for twenty-five years.
So, Prozac, the new drug. Soon after I took the first green and cream capsule, I was on a bus between Ponsonby and Queen Street. I noticed the people, alone, in small groups, all wrapped up in their own moments, the morning sun tipping the waves, the calm symmetry of Rangitoto in the background, a young woman talking to an older man, the red jacket the man was wearing, the way the traffic surged around the bus. The world was animated. The world was in colour. More than these things, I noticed the move and shift of moments. I could speak in my own mind – an internal dam had given way, and here was a flood of words and images.
The flood of words and colour and thought – was this what the world looked like? Was this the absence of dysthymia? Did the green and cream capsules give me the words and the thoughts or was this the sound of my own voice? The change was not just the shift from monochrome to colour, the shift was also a dropping away of a darker narrative. Where did this voice come from?
I had reason to be low. My family was deeply troubled. I’d had a rough time as a teenager. I got through university on the (free) weekly student health counselling sessions that were a stand in for absent parents. Silence was a learned helplessness; it was dangerous to trust myself. I drank (surprisingly little) and smoked pot (even less) but disliked the queasy danger of these dizzy states. I’m still not sure where my degree came from, how I managed to pull a First amid such misery. Looking back, I had solid reasons to struggle.
But the most difficult struggle was invisible – I was trapped in the fog of my own moments. My life was deadened – but the words and images were clear – I was worthless, somewhere in the fog was a cliff-edge and I was teetering. Much of my energy was spent blocking the voices in an effort to create a place to exist, but this place was also one that held me. When you’re lost, Search and Rescue advise you to stay put: so in the fog I crouched. And life went on. But this metaphor seems too ethereal – the fog was more like wearing a wreath of chains. There is no need for a door in such a prison.
Prozac enabled me to see detail and colour – the stone in my hand was threaded with quartz, there were specks of mica now that the sun had come out. The clarity was so unfamiliar I felt as though I was on holiday. What would happen when I went home to an unmedicated self. What if the sparkle was fool’s gold?
Heather Bauchop is a Dunedin writer and researcher.
Part 2 of Heather’s four part essay on this topic will be published on Corpus next week.