When I get my discharge papers and walk out into the North Carolina spring, I am like an infant again. I am soft, hopeful, frail. I have one task: to learn how to live in this world.
A spunky social worker in her twenties talks to me in the hospital. “I like to call mental illness brain disease. We understand liver or kidney disease, but mental illness is just a disease of your brain. And there are things that we can do to treat it. Not cure it, but treat it.” We go through a list, different ways of self-care. Sleep, food, exercise, sunlight, relaxation, relationships, healthy thoughts.
I am a person obsessed with percentages, praise, plus signs. I want to tell her the right thing. I want to be good.
“How much sleep do you get?” she asks.
I want to be good, I think. To tell her the right answer, get the perfect score on this quiz. No, I want to be perfect, and as I think it, I shiver like someone who has just avoided a car wreck, hit the ground to avoid a bullet. I want to be perfect, and perfect will kill me. I tell her the truth: “Um, usually about five hours. Or four. Or six. It just depends on school.”
We move through each category. I do not exercise regularly, skip meals more often than not. I should myself to death. “Grad school is really busy,” I tell her. “Sometimes I just need to let things slide.”
I don’t need her to tell me that letting things slide is how I got here. I don’t need her to tell me this is serious. I open my eyes and see right for the first time in a long while. I start again.
Day by day, I am saved by small, solid things. I make sandwiches and eat granola bars for breakfast. I drink no coffee since I don’t need the jitters or the racing thoughts. I put my head down on the pillow and wake up eight hours later. When I can’t calm my mind, I walk miles around the neighborhood, sun on my face and my back, in the North Carolina spring. When I would be swept away by shoulds and self-accusations, these small things–pots of soup, risottos, bedtimes, and long walks–these hold me to the ground.
The week after I am discharged from the hospital, fragile as a newborn, I drop one class, Pass/Fail another. I email professors and TAs and ask for extensions. The blue pills make me throw up, and I call in sick from preaching class the day I am set to preach and run the relay between my bed and the trash can. I repeat mantras to myself: No paper is worth a breakdown. Permission to fail. I will not sacrifice myself to the idol of the perfect sermon.
As the days die, I put the books away by eleven. I shut off Facebook, ignore the fact that something interesting might be going on right now! “Lord, you have now dismissed your servant in peace,” says the Book of Common Prayer, quoting the words of Simeon. Every night we die. We lay ourselves down to sleep and we make our amends with each other and with the Lord, and then we are gone. And every morning, we are born again. “Open our mouths, Lord, and our lips will declare your praise.”
I feel wobbly and tentative as a child taking first steps, learning first words. I do not go back into my mother’s womb to be born, but I am born again all the same.
I wake in the morning, and I open my eyes. Yesterday was a bad day or a good day, and I am ashamed or proud of what I’d done. I am terrified, anxious, or hopeful, excited about the day. I make myself get out of bed. The old day dies, and the new one begins.
I start again.
This post is part of a series, 31 Days of Healing. Check out Day 1 or the complete list of posts. If you want to follow along, you can also subscribe by email or subscribe in a feed reader. Or “like” the blog on Facebook. (We’re all about options here.) And thanks for reading!