Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Broken Mirrors

By Spike Gillespie

JANUARY 19, 1999:  The reflection was shattered. Perhapsnot the first time in my life, but surely the most jagged, shards of me scattered at my feet. I could hardly bear to look down, to catch a glimpse of these pieces of me glinting up, daring me to try to put it back together. Again.

When the mirror is smashed, I have learned, you have to be careful in any attempts to re-assemble. You must acknowledge that no matter what success you have in trying, no matter how closely you piece things back together, the image will never, ever, again be the same.

In the past, I would race through the healing process. Not recognizing all the resources available, I too often chose glue that was cheap, the mercuried-glass mosaic slapped together fast, whole blocks of it falling down again and again in chunks. The patterns they left open -- these blanks -- were recognizable. And though they were not pretty, I somehow took comfort in familiarity.

Last year, though, the whole mirror, what was left of it, crashed to the ground. There was, it seemed, not one thing that could go right. Twice my body failed me, twice I had surgery to remedy this. There were lawyers, God, so many lawyers, as legal battles I never dreamed of emerged. And then there was the emotional.

Depression is an odd beast. No longer denied its genuine existence, an odd stigma remains. Those of us who suffer it, who've suffered it forever, hate to categorize it for the mental illness it is. Still, somewhere in the back of our minds we cannot deny the effects. Those of us wrestled to the ground by cyclical depression fight valiantly -- like St. Michael and the devil -- for the heavenly reward of one more remission, and God please let it be the last.

When the Great Depression of 1997 hit, though, I was ill-prepared. It attacked with the tenacity of a concrete-jungle trained pitbull, a dog placed on a treadmill with a kitten dangling just out of reach. Have you ever read about dogs like this, what they will do -- run themselves into the ground -- as they reach for their prey?

To my advantage, I'd already suffered through enough bouts to recognize this thing for what it was. To my further advantage, I am mother to a child who makes every day, even the lowest day, worth living; worth saying once again, once again: I will lick this thing. And, sadly, ironically, to my advantage I have the "gift" of the memory of the friends who could not fight it anymore. They are in the ground now.

For the past two years, I'd have to estimate that I've spent at least half (seems like more) suffering some degree of depression. And I've spent many, many exhausting months fighting back now. Sometimes with a vengeance, other times like a child fighting sleep after waking up at 6am and running hard, hard, hard 'til damn near midnight.

illustration by Penny Van Horn
There are days when I want to give up. No, not suicide. This is one area I will not visit even in my imagination. But there is that fantasy that creeps in time and again: So what if I don't get out of bed for a few days ... weeks ... months? If it worked for Brian Wilson ...

Things contribute. Things of the kick-her-while-she's-down variety. For instance, there are those who say impulsiveness brought me to this. Choices poorly made. Plans for the future forgotten. But explain to me, I sometimes wish to scream at those who so easily dismiss: Explain to me the tumor. Tell me why losing the one job that ever really paid was timed so well to coincide with the dead transmission. The other random acts of unkindness foisted upon me by the universe. Did I will these, too?

None of this matters. What matters now is that I am standing here. The waters of depression are receding. But, as after any flood, there are many puddles to be mopped up. And, as with a flood, I need help, and help is always slower in coming as the need for it increases.

Along the lines of that analogy: Just as even those who love you most grow tired of coming over to help you move more water-logged furniture to the curb, get sick of hearing how your insurance coverage will not afford you the new floor you need to replace the warped one, so too do friends grow weary of hearing how "sad" you are. They mean well, oh they do. But can they take one more moment of catharsis, another second of rehashing, the 200th report that yet another thing has gone wrong?

Often, they cannot. And so, far quicker than floodwater, all but the hardiest recede. Because they must. Deep inside your brain, relegated to the part that works perfectly well when there is no depression, you know they are not out to punish you. Nevertheless, it's still hard to avoid the deep end of self-pity when the troops pull out.

Catch 22. Because, in times like these, the most healing potion of all is catharsis. Which might be why therapists do brisk business when comradeship falls by the wayside. It is this same catharsis that drives others away. The phone rings less because no one wants to hear about the pain anymore. But if I cannot say it out loud, and say it a million times, how will I ever exorcise this thing from my soul?

The cycle spins in other directions, as well. There is the danger of putting off new acquaintances by being that "girl who is so bummed out." And so you hide when you can. Either in your house alone or by hiding the thing eating you most. "If only I keep a smile on, maybe this one will stick around."

I'm getting good at this, though. I am examining this condition in persons both first and third. My pain has built my compassion. I don't hate those who bailed, because I know they had to. I fight to not hurl myself at the new ones, to latch onto them and scream, "You must come over, we are having a glue party at my house tomorrow! I just know you can help put me back together." Because, ultimately, I am the one holding the gun here. The glue gun. And I know this. The shattering effect, the broken pieces must ultimately be reconstructed by me.

As with physical therapy, the mental variety involves endless hours of going through the motions. I am a beginning swimmer once again, aquaphobic no less, a kickboard in my hands, a life vest on my chest. I am not swimming really, I am only pretending. It is remembering that pretending, though, is the only way to manage that first lap -- how many times have I swum it now? -- all on my own.

And so I set out. Each morning I make my bed. A silly thing, perhaps, but always -- regardless of all chaos around me -- a single sign of orderliness I can retreat to. Retreat to without falling into and hiding beneath the covers because I'd hate to rumple them.

I take the vitamins. I walk miles daily, knowing somewhere in the recesses that, while the first step will be hard, by the hundredth the endorphins will be unstoppable. I force down lettuce and beans and rice. I shy from the temporary comfort of fat-laden, sleep-inducing options. I listen to music. In the car, I let the tears out in measured drops, allowing only the dog to play audience. I plant a garden.

At first, nothing grows. The ground remains dark and dry. The salad tastes like crap. The hike and bike trail seems endless. And loathsome. The dog looks confused.

In the mornings now, I wake the child up and pour his cereal. This is progress. A year ago it was so awful I could not do something so simple. Got to the point where my son -- by nature children adore fast food -- would bemoan, "Not breakfast at BK again!" A year ago I put him in childcare often, trusting more the steady stance of skilled professionals than my own inclination to weep randomly.

No. Now it is still here, it is still with me. But it is receding. Daily we walk through the puddles together. After Cheerios, we go to the garden. Look, the corn is coming up. And the squash and the beans and the peas. In the afternoons we go to a field and he tests out his newfound bike-riding skills or lolls beside me on the blanket. He can read now. We can sit, engrossed in our respective books, apart yet connected.

I call on my friends. The ones still there. The ones who know. The ones who have been there. They can stand it. They do know. No. It is not easy for any of us. For me to talk. For them to listen. But they do. And the new ones, I move slow. Slow as I can. I am learning boundaries. Of what others can stand. Never again do I want to be left alone in this flood, moving myself the ruined furniture to the curb.

I look at the shards at my my feet. They are coming together now. Slowly. The picture they reflect back is far different than it once was. It is broken. But it is, or will be soon, whole again, flashing back some different image of me that I will learn to accept as ... as ... acceptable. Maybe even beautiful.

There is the knowledge, sometimes frightening, that one day the mirror will again fall. But I am, oddly, less frightened at the prospect. Less scared with each shattering. Pictures -- of the ocean, an angel, the child, myself -- are always able to offer something. Even when the angle shifts.

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