‘How long until I’m better?’ gnaws at my insides.
When I ask my psychiatrist that question, he always answers honestly:
‘I don’t know how long, but you will get you better.’
That ‘I don’t know’ even when it’s followed by a promise of eventual wellness, is brutal.
Many years ago, my husband and I took part in a cycling trip over the Pyrenees from the south of France into Spain. The route followed the same path as the Tour de France sometimes does. The first day took us up the Col du Tourmalet, one of the longest and steepest climbs. We rode around twenty kilometres to the base of the mountain and then climbed for close to another twenty, each one steeper than the last, the air getting thinner and thinner.
The last two kilometres were gruelling. Mist closed in. We could barely see the drop off the edge of the mountain. We rode on our lowest gears. Our bones turned into burning jelly and our lungs felt as though they were trying to extract oxygen from water. We were forced to stop to catch our breath every twenty or thirty metres.
But there were markers to show us we were getting closer to the top. Mental footholds in the misty, painful, breathless soup. We had answers to ‘How much longer?’. And with them came hope and the tenacity to keep going. Although it was unbelievably challenging, we had an end point to work towards.
When I am swallowed up by an episode of Bipolar Disorder it can feel like I am stuck on the hardest part of that mountain. But instead of knowing exactly how long it will be until the pain is over, I have no idea. It could be two weeks. It could be a year. It feels as though it could be never.
The first time I got sick the concept that no one could tell me when I would get better was incomprehensible. I had to be talked into staying in the psychiatric hospital for what I honestly believed would be just one night. In hindsight this sounds laughably naïve. I got much sicker before I got better. It took four months to get me well enough to finally leave hospital. But no one could tell me at the outset:
‘This will take four months.’
Instead, I battled the fear that I would never leave the hospital or be well again, every day.
Mental illness is slippery to confine to a time frame. It has absolutely no respect for not only deadlines, but anniversaries, birthdays, holiday plans, or any other meaningful milestones. It is almost impossible to accurately predict when an episode will end. With experience, patterns can emerge for individuals. But there are no guarantees. Never knowing how long we will suffer and have our lives disrupted for is a psychological challenge on top of the symptoms of the illness.
I feel this discomfort particularly acutely because facts and logic are my comfort zone. The idea of having blind faith in something has always felt like being handed a parachute that looks as though it is made of spiderwebs and being told it will get me safely to the ground.
But I’ve learnt, the only way to get through the quagmire of time from the onset of an episode of mental illness to its end, is finding your faith. And It looks different for everyone.
I was dumped into mental illness with very little in the faith department. I am not religious. I am a sceptic, a cynic, a realist, and an atheist.
The only God I have ever briefly believed in was the one shoved into my head by psychosis. Religion was never going to be my source of faith.
I have had to find it elsewhere. I have found it in the slow unclenching acknowledgement that I have little control over the time it takes. I find faith in moving my body, and in poetry.
I take books of it into hospital with me and cling to the words of long-ago poets, like Rumi:
‘So let us rather not be sure of anything,
Beside ourselves, and only that,’
Often there is not much left of me to be sure of. But I don’t need much. When the horror of what I am living through overwhelms me, I clutch at one sentence:
‘I am still me.’
It becomes a mantra I repeat to myself until I am well, however long that takes. And over time I have learnt to focus not on the ‘I don’t know’ of my psychiatrist’s response to ‘How long?’, but on the ‘you will get better.’
So far he has been right every time. I have always made my way back to wellness.
(Poetry quote from ‘Zero Circle’ by Rumi)
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