Saturday, February 2, 2013

Always Darkest Before the Dawn

When I was a small child, I was fascinated and frightened by the ferry ride between the mainland and Vancouver Island.  We had relatives on the Island so we would take the ferry several times a year to visit them.  I loved the ferry.  I still do, even after four summers and three winters of working like a dog on that ferry while in University.  The West Coast is spectacular, there are whales and sometimes seals or dolphins, and the coastal mountains and forest wilderness are unsurpassed for beauty.  The ferry itself is so big and fast (especially when you are a kid), and I used to sidle up to the edge and give myself delicious chills looking down at the dark water laced with ferry wash and thinking about how cold and dark it must be in the water.

I loved it, and feared it, wholly.
The Pacific Ocean this far North is cold all year round.  We have some of the best scuba diving in the world because of the diverse marine life that flourish in our waters, and the vast array of plant life species and interesting animals that live among them.  But it is cold.  In the winter, around 7 degrees Celcius and in summer around 13 (surface temps).  If you fell overboard, you'd be chilly.

When I was twenty, I moved to Vancouver Island to transfer from my original (private) University to a public one in Victoria, and I got to ride the ferry more often than I wanted to.  It was a lonely move, I didn't put down many roots that year, but I learned lots.  It was a year of introspection and personal growth, and a year where I realized that although I paid a fraction of the tuition at my big, public, famous new University (and could study Creative Writing, my major, and take classes like Women's Literature and Canadian History for English, my minor), I was really getting a fraction of the value of education that I had been getting before.  At my tiny, liberal arts University where as an English major (there were were no specialized majors like Creative Writing; heck, there wasn't even an Art major at the time) you literally had to take all of the English courses on offer whether you liked them or not just to have enough credits to graduate.  I had to take Chaucer.  Medieval English.  Victorian Literature.  Barf, barf, barf.  Yet still, my experience was that the fancy, diverse, wildly intriguing classes at the Big Name school were of lower quality than my stuffy, sleepy, Victorian Lit class at Little Name school.  For various reasons.

I also prayed a lot that year.  A ton.  I spent an hour every day praying, sometimes more.  I wanted to see where that level of meditation could bring me.  Some pretty wild places, lemme tell you.  Most days it was pretty routine.  I spent a good portion of the hour redirecting my focus back onto the task at hand, some of it listening silently, and some of it praying for things I felt passionate about.  Some days I felt incredibly close to God and was almost certain I could hear Him breathe beside me.  I had vivid visions and saw very beautiful things, which I still feel compelled to paint even now, fifteen years later.  Each canvas has some small tribute to those beautiful scenes.  Mainly, I felt pretty small and ridiculous.  Which makes sense, given that we're human and God is God, and us sidling up to Him at all is kind of audacious and really very beautiful.  I didn't explode with happiness, I still felt lonely, but I did feel a deep sense of centeredness. Not exactly peace, but somewhat.

Partway through that year, I started praying for a man named Bin Ladin.  I had read about him in a magazine article in the waiting room of my cardiologist's office two years prior, and something about him stuck with me.  It was something about his eyes.  And that the article said he was an influential fundamentalist Islamic with his sights on the Western World, which seemed contradictory to a sort of softness and genuine quality to his eyes in the picture.  For two years I kind of forgot that article, but in the middle of praying one day I had this strong sense, like a shout: "Pray for Bin Ladin."  No details.  No indication what I should pray about him, or why.  Just, Pray.  So I did.  Each day I spent half an hour praying for him, and half an hour praying for other things or wrestling to keep my focus or trying not to fall asleep... you know, common problems when praying.  I prayed for his health, for his family, for God to bring him messengers of peace and ambassadors from the Western world who would change his view of us from enemy to fellow human.

That gives me kind of the chills, in retrospect.  I had no idea.  I had no idea.

One of the other things I felt in all that prayer was that God was nudging me back towards that Little Name University.  Like He had a plan for me, and it wasn't here in this city at this University at this time.  I really balked at the idea.  Go back?  No.  It was cliquey.  It was full of rich kids.  It was backwards.  Small.  It had no specialized majors or cool courses and it would be like admitting I made a mistake or, worse, that I couldn't make it on my own.
I had a boyfriend at the time, who went to Small Name University and I knew, I just knew everyone would think I moved back for him.  Which I didn't.  I moved back as a step of obedience.  In the end, I decided that I would go if God did three things: first, if He made this intuition I felt regarding Him directing me back continue.  I fasted for a day and prayed about it, and if He didn't want me to go and this was all a wild fabrication of my imagination, He was to make it pretty clear.  Second, my parents had to be supportive of it, or I wouldn't go.  Third, He had to provide me money for it.  There was no way I could actually afford it anymore.  All three fell into place.  So I went.
(And everyone thought I moved back for my boyfriend.  Which I just swallowed.  What was I supposed to do?  If I kicked up a protest it would only make people think I was too adamant and thus, it must be true, so I just took it and let it be what it was regardless of what everyone thought).

Re-entry was hard.  I failed to make the dance team.  Many of my friends had moved or changed.  My classes were high quality but not always what I'm most interested in studying.  My job was stressful and sporadic.  My boyfriend went all Airborne Toxic Event on me.  I injured myself.  My family was far away.  I was depressed.  I had been depressed for years, and started cutting my arms as a way to release some of my inner pain.  The winter months marched in and the grey, monotonous rain rolled over and boxed in my soul and everything I did, everywhere I went, felt incredibly hopeless and empty.  I still prayed, but it made no dent on my darkness.  I cried a lot.  Change is hard.

Then my boyfriend cheated on me.  He didn't just take another girl on a date, he slept with her, which when I wasn't sleeping with him felt like a double whammy of a cheat.  Double betrayal.  Not only did I kiss her but I had SEX with her, you prudish, frigid, stuck up woman, you're such a fucking mess you can't even keep me faithful.  You're not worth it.  You're a failure in every way.

I died.  In every predictable, sweet, boy-meets-girl, girl gets her heart broken way, it broke me absolutely in two.  Granted, there were heavy fissures in me before I ever met him, but he was what took me to the breaking point that November.  I lost hope of ever being happy again.  I was certain I would never meet anyone who would get me and love me, both.  I was certain I was fundamentally flawed, too broken to be healthy again, and was facing a lifetime slog of loneliness and the kind of pain only the deeply depressed can feel, all over.  I had confided in friends, asked my parents for help, seen a psychologist for treatment (who told me "I can't help you if you won't help yourself" when I asked to use naturopathic remedies instead of pharmaceuticals, and refused to see me again), prayed my heart out, and still I had been depressed for years and it was only getting worse.  And worse.  And worse.

I quit going to classes.  I stayed in my bed all day and cried.  I didn't have the energy to cut myself.  I didn't eat.  I didn't shower.  I had nothing, I was so empty of anything but pain.  My roommates tried, but that kind of bleakness is beyond the scope of a roommate, plus they didn't really realize how critical it was, they just thought I was sad over my boyfriend and that would get over it.
I fantasized about driving onto the left side of the road into oncoming semi trucks.  When I thought about death I was awash with relief.  Dying felt like a sweet dream, a way out, a utopia.  I didn't want to destroy a truck driver's life by making him responsible for my death, so I came up with an alternate plan.  It was November, and cold, and I worked for the ferry, on call.  The next time I got called in to work, I would shower, get dressed, go to work as usual, and on my break I would slip out the back in the dark and jump in the cold Pacific water and drown.  I had heard that the end stages of drowning and hypothermia were actually euphoria and a feeling of warmth, so it would be maybe a nice way to die.  Plus, no one could feasibly hold themselves responsible.  If I was lucky, no one would even find my body so they would not have to live with the trauma of the memory of my corpse in their mind.  I was trying not to be selfish.  That deep, cold sea that thrilled me with delicious fear as a child?  It was my escape route now.

I felt better once I had that plan.  I absolutely intended to carry it out, and I would have, had I been called in to work that week.  I had a singularity of focus and relief on the horizon and nothing was turning me back.   Normally?  I got called 2 to 3 times a week.  That week my phone stayed silent.

It makes me want to scream now, thinking about it, at all this beauty I nearly missed, all this life.

At the end of the week I pulled myself out of bed and suddenly I realized, What the fuck.  I don't want to die!  What. Did. I. Almost just do?!!

That week scared the crap out of me.  I didn't know how, but I wasn't going back there again, ever.  I wasn't going on pharmaceuticals (I'm not anti pharma now, but I was then), I couldn't afford a therapist, I couldn't trust one if I did (I was afraid of being committed, plus that bad experience from the previous attempt at counselling), but I was damn well getting better.  I hauled myself up out of depression by the skin of my fingernails, and it was paiiiiinful.  Every time I felt depressed, I would say out loud, "I choose life.  I choose happiness.  I will not give in to depression.  I choose to live."  Which often resulted in me muttering while walking around in public, like the lunatic I was, but I didn't care.  I wanted to be better, so fiercely.  I made rules for myself: no sad music.  No radio.  No news on TV.  No sad books.  I read up on how to eat better for depression: high protein, minimal sugar, lots of vegetables.  I was a dancer, I already exercised a million times a week, but I added walking outside, whenever I could.  I got extra lamps for my bedroom and was very careful to turn on every single light in whatever room I was in, including the hallway, to get as much light exposure as I could manage.  And I prayed some more.  Sometimes I would be crying in pain and yelling out "I choose to be happy!  Oh, help me God!" all snotty mess and wilted stubbornness and it was so, so hard.  But I kept snatching myself from the darkness the only way I knew how.

That winter was a miracle.  I can't describe it any other way.  It was the sunniest winter I've ever encountered here, before or since.  It was clear and cold, often.  The sun shone, and it made it infinitely more possible for me to choose happiness over depression, every minute, every hour, every day.  I never cut myself again.  I never dreamt about swerving into oncoming traffic, I didn't allow myself to feel hopeless about finding a life partner who would both get and love me, and when darkness sat with me I turned and walked away.  I never again felt that same sense of relief in thinking about death.  That spring, the tulips arrived early and brilliant, and I felt like I had stepped from a grey world into one electrified with brilliant colour.  I spent many hours in the garden, with my face buried in a tulip, or pulling out weeds and mowing the grass around them.  They are still my favourite flowers, because of that spring and its tulips.

Sometime in early spring, I got called for work as usual.  On my break I went out on the deck and looked over the side, and for the first time since November, I felt afraid of that cool, dark water again.  It was miraculous.

I feel like I've been run over by a hurricane force of beauty and blessing in my life--look how full it is now, how many amazing people live in my house and fill my circle of friends, how much I love what I have and how I have to choose between the many things that I'm passionate about and love to do.  There was this wild, colourful life waiting for me just over the horizon and (hard fought and dark times of its own though it has) it was so worth fighting for.  Every day, I'm grateful.


Emilie D said...

Hi Mel,
I knew you were a sensible soul but I had no idea you went through all of this and alone. Thank you for sharing your story and for being so inspiring.

Louise Chapman said...

Mel, thank you so much for sharing and being so, so, so vulnerable. There is so much more I want to say but not sure exactly what. I'm so glad you are here and I'm sorry you went through that. And yes, look at all this vibrant, chaotic, hilarious life that was just around the corner:)

It hurts to see how many people struggle with depression and I wonder how many people are and we just don't know....

As a random side note, I also looked over the side of the ferry with delight and fear as a kid. We used to yell `Shampoo' because of all of the bubbles.

Caryn Ouwehand said...

Thanks for sharing Melissa. Man, what a tough ride this life can be. I wish I had something really great to type in response, but my pregnant brain is empty. I really appreciated this post though.

Helen said...

Wonderful. Thank you.

melissa v. said...

Thank you, wonderful ladies. It can be hard to put this out there, but I felt like it was the right time for this story to be told.


kristen said...

So awesome to know more of your story. Thanks so much for taking the time to share.

Tamie said...

I was very moved by this post. One of the things I loved most was how meandering it was--just lots of stories, put together, about this time in your life. Thank you so much for taking the risk to be this vulnerable. It means a lot to me.