Sunday, November 15, 2009

Talking the Walk (4)


The phase after the aftermath is usually called recovery. It’s a word you hear a lot these days, often in connection with a specific trauma: in recovery from addiction, from abuse, from mental illness. But I think recovery, properly understood, is universal–something each person is, or should be, engaged in. If you think of recovery as learning how to make your wounds and losses part of your life–fully acknowledging them without allowing them to overwhelm or completely determine you–then I would ask: Who is not in recovery? Who has not suffered wounds and losses? Who is not trying to live with them? Who is not facing serious challenges in the present? Who is not trying to build, out of a heap of cracked and broken, along with beautifully solid, pieces, a whole life?

Clearly, recovery understood in these terms can never refer to a final or finished state. It can can only gesture toward a process, a continual set of reorientations that come from the willingness to tinker, like an amazed and persevering chemist, with the basic elements of your experience.

This means that every recovery is personal. Individual and changing, an ongoing negotiation. What works? It is intensely, even ruthlessly, practical: the person who wants to actively recover has to be as wily as a fox in sniffing out potential help, discarding harm, and bold enough to experiment to discover which is which. This is the search for what Pat Deegan calls “personal medicine”: the procedures and prescriptions that work for you.

My own personal medicine cabinet is stuffed, by now. Here are a few items from it, to give some idea of the range of idiosyncratic possibilities.

Diet. I'll spare you the details, but I eat a lot better now than I did in my twenties, and overall, I’m a little less crazy. I know there’s a connection.

Sleep. This remains one of my biggest problems. Especially since I know that accumulated insomnia is one of the surest triggers for my worst episodes. I’ve tried most of the mood stabilizers, but they’ve had side effects I couldn’t tolerate. I take clonazepam and lorazepam which help with sleep. I take another over-the-counter relaxant: alcohol. Naturally I worry about addiction, especially as I see my dosage climb with the years. But I’ve also wondered which would harm my liver faster: too much alcohol, or long stretches of 1-3 hours of sleep a night, which I suffer frequently. This isn’t an excuse or an apologia for booze. It’s a weighing. A balancing.

Light therapy during the winter, since there is still a seasonal component to my swings.

My biggest discovery of the last few years has been the benefit of large (very large) doses of the omega-3’s, along with other vitamins. I began this regimen four years ago and have no doubt that it’s given me more stability.

Hydrotherapy. The eternal solace of water. I seek it out wherever I can. Bathtubs. Showers. The overcrowded YMCA pool. Puddles, streams, rivers. Lake Ontario. I crave the ocean, but I am a two-day drive from the nearest one.

Longo’s supermarket. It almost never fails to pick me up. I like the bright lights, I like the vivid colours, I like the silver-haired produce manager who dispenses helpful advice (often with me lurking nearby to listen) on when a mango is ripe or why the asparagus lasted longer this year. No matter how dismal my day has been, I leave Longo’s with bagfuls of that most useful thing: food. In a hungry world this is no small achievement.

What I call the small-circle cure, which I take in small doses regularly, but in large doses a couple of times each year. This means reducing activity and stimulation to a bare minimum. Dimming the lights, unplugging the phone, cancelling social engagements. And, as I feel my ability to think in sequence ebbing away, scaling my reading down from the love life of Anna Karenina to the love life of Britney Spears...and then further, to just flipping through books of pictures or watching reruns of The Sopranos. To return to the idea of functioning: Someone seeing me lying on my side beside a single lamp, flipping pages of Rolling Stone or People, might see a low order of functioning...and it is, in a way...but it is a much higher order of functioning than I showed in the years when I tried to keep reading and writing through these spells, which can last six weeks or more, and added terrible frustration to depression when I could understand nothing, produce nothing. Self-acceptance, I’m coming to see, involves a better understanding of one of the simplest words: and. I am a person who reads, and writes, challenging texts...and I am a person who, at times, cannot read or write the simplest sentence. The two facts are not mutually exclusive; they mustn’t be, since I’m living both of them.

Understanding and. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the effort to include, and re-include, is central to both the word and the process of recovery.

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