So far I’ve talked about the stages of crisis, aftermath, and recovery. I’d like to touch now on the question of what happens when recovery is completed. That one’s easy. Nothing happens. It’s never completed. That may sound dire, but only if you’re the kind of person who thinks people “get over” tough things that happen to them. I don’t think anybody gets over anything...and thank God. Getting over a part of life makes it sound like a fence rail in a horse race. A more human goal, I think, is to try to weave the experience into the fabric of one’s ongoing life, making the past part of the texture of the present and the future.
“Unfinalizable” is a word that Dr. George likes, and I’ve grown fond of it too. Recovery is unfinalizable because you’re still living it. Can a life be resolved? Would you even want it to be? In my case, there isn’t any cure for the difficulties I’ve had and continue to have. They’re chronic. I manage them...sometimes well, sometimes not so well.
This, by the way, is why we didn’t want to use a conventional image of a water lily bloom on the cover. The kind of image you might see on a meditation book or a collection of Zen sayings. Beautiful–the lotus blossom of enlightenment. But too perfect. Too finished. Too pristine and complete. So we bought our big plastic bucket from Hamilton Kitchen Supplies and tried, from June to September, to grow our own lily plant on the apartment balcony. And got leaves, lots of leaves...but no bloom. Not enough sun, said my gardening advisor; they need long, pure hours of it. Which, in the end, we decided was better after all. We rinsed off the plant when it looked like it was starting to wane and photographed the whole length of it, from root mass, with a new shoot poking out, to long stems, to leaves. Complete...in itself. But not perfect.
It should be clear by now that I don’t believe any of these processes are unique to mental illness and its treatment. In fact, I’m often struck, when thinking of these subjects, how when the phrase “mental illness” is left out, the issues are existential ones common to everyone. Perhaps many mental health problems, even the severest crises, and however they may be caused, are intensifications of everyday human concerns and challenges. These existential concerns–of encounter, of crisis, of recovery, of living with the unfinalizable–are only more obvious in episodes of trauma, which shines a harsh light on questions of existence that are always operative, always urgent.
Unfinalizable. It ain’t over till it’s over. And even then, there’s probably no conclusion to any story, but only the sense of a new chapter beginning, in which the events of the previous chapter are incorporated and enlarged...and the question becomes: have you learned anything from what came before, anything you can apply in your life, now?
Writing this book gave me an object lesson in the meaning of unfinalizable. In many ways...but in one way I would never have wished, but which couldn’t have been a more powerful demonstration. After I’d written what is now the third section of the book, I thought the manuscript was done. I showed it to a few people...cautiously, tentatively. Their reactions were encouraging, but I had a nagging sense that the matters I’d been writing about were still hanging overhead, left undone, developing. Why? I kept asking. What’s next? What’s coming? Part of what was coming, as Dr. George pointed out, was simply more life, living with it. Something doesn’t end because you write about it. But what also turned out to be developing–and I tell this with her permission, as she generously and courageously gave me her permission to write about it–was my wife, Heather’s, deepening mental health crisis, which spiralled into an acute episode and her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Along with all the emotions anyone would feel–worry, fear, sadness, exhaustion–I wondered: Had I learned anything from my own experience that could help her? Or, even more simply, could we find a way to be sick together...to perform the often awkward, but sometimes strangely graceful, dance of helping and being helped?
The answers, I’m afraid, are the usual trinity: Yes. No. Maybe.