We went roller blading over the school holidays. It was my first time. We arrived to loud music, children shrieking, the clank of skates hitting each other, and the thump of bodies crashing into the barriers. Roaming skate instructors, gave snippets of advice to the inept among us:
‘Lean forward and put your hands on your knees. Don’t look at the ground.’
With each instruction the tension in my body ramped up.
I scattered and clattered around the rink, hugging the barrier, eyes cast down seemingly in defiance of the instructions I’d been given. But I knew if I looked up at the people whizzing in front of me or falling over, I’d lose my balance. Fear closed over me like a poisonous bubble. I thought:
‘If I fall I could hurt myself badly enough to not be able to exercise properly for ages. It would be a mental health disaster.’
But I should have been able to do this. I have never roller bladed before, but I have ice skated…every winter from the ages of about six to thirteen, and it wasn’t in a rink. The lakes we lived near froze in winter, or we’d find a pond. We learnt to gauge the thickness of the ice, cautioned by tales of crashing through and drowning or freezing to death, yet tempted by the lack of barriers. If the lake froze suddenly in clear weather, the ice became a clean window pane, below which fish drifted sleepily, and water weeds wafted like green hair. We got to glide over that underwater world, through the crisp air for hours, stopping only for spiced biscuits and rosehip tea hot out of the thermos…
Back in the skate rink I’m just about ready to give up and relinquish my roller blades. Then, just like that, my limbs find the exquisite balance I need to glide; leaning slightly forward, my knees soft, arms swinging gently with each forward push of the legs. I go from moving as a raw beginner to almost effortless motion from one minute to the next. I instinctively evade the kid in front of me who is about to take a dive. Only it’s not instinct. It’s memory. Muscle memory.
As I skate on with greater and greater ease I remember this isn’t the only time I’ve experienced the sensation of switching from being unable to able to.
It happens after we have been immobilised by challenging life events, when the universe has picked us up by the scruff of the neck and given us a good shake, and then set us down outside life’s roller rink, looking on dazed as everyone else zooms past either in complete control or with little concern for their lack of control, while we think:
‘That will never be me again.’
But if we have ever actively and happily inhabited our lives before, we have a kind of brain muscle memory that eventually leads us back to having confidence in our place in the world.
For me that sense of exclusion from life happens during recovery from Bipolar episodes. I have written about how well medication and ECT have worked for me in previous posts, but that is far from all there is to it. ECT and medication take away symptoms. They vanquish the thick, black blanket of hopelessness carried in by clinical depression. Or they retrieve delusions from their alternate world and drag them back to reality. They put the brakes on manic thoughts and pressured speech. But these essential medical treatments do not re-inject joy and happiness back into my life. That is down to hard work…and trust. Trust in my brain muscle memory.
In the aftermath of symptoms subsiding there is always a time of sitting rink side, observing and feeling utterly excluded from the chaos and speed and joy of life. The fear of injury, or ending up back where I’ve just come from is ever-present, and a voice whispers venomous nothings:
‘No point in ever joining in. You will just get sick again.’
And then there’s the moment of re-entry, every muscle cramped, every thought anxious. The first turn around the rink is rough. The sight of others tumbling in front of me nearly has me on my own backside. I cling to my barriers. The house, my family. I take a break when my brain needs it. I remind myself again and again that I have participated in life before, so I will again.
Until, slowly at first and then quite suddenly, I unlock the door to the memory of happiness and functioning, and I am back.
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