The Gentler Lessons of a Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
“There are no little things. Little things are the hinges of the universe.”
— Fanny Fern
I had been a bullet train at full speed before my hospitalization in my late twenties, working hard, playing hard. I had three jobs, while simultaneously working on my masters, ceaselessly relying on high energy drinks, bottomless coffees and junk food. I partied until the early hours just about as hard as I worked. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, my burnout and disintegration into full blown mania were almost inevitable. At the time I was completely unaware of my diagnosis and the damage I was doing to the state of my mental health.
In my first stay at a mental health institution, in 2013, I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was twenty nine years old at the time. Aside from the comfort of my books, I remember fondly the delicate, purple flowered orchid that blessed the window ledge in my room. It was a small touch of beauty and life in an otherwise bare space. The orchid had been a gift from my aunt, a wise woman who understands the importance of beauty in the everyday. Without medical aid and unwilling to fully recognise the failing of my mental health, I was committed to a public mental health hospital, and to say that they can be grim in my home of South Africa would be a euphemism.
While my heart goes out to all the good doctors and nurses there, who work tirelessly and are so understaffed, funding for mental health issues in my country is in dire need. With paint peeling walls, no art to speak of, and worn furnishings, my surroundings left a great deal to be desired. The initial stages of my hospitalisation, while I was still stabilising on my medication, were a deep and dark struggle. Patients were forbidden from the outdoors. Instead, I found myself gazing out at the sun-soaked gardens through barred windows, yearning to feel it on my skin. My little purple orchid was the one piece of nature I clung to in these dreary and difficult times.
I would leave after a month and return home, taking my books and my beloved plant with me. The months to follow would be arduous. Most days I would struggle to fight the despair that made a bedfellow of me. My depression felt so intrinsically a part of me now, I wondered if it would ever feel better, if the medication the good doctor prescribed would help. It was difficult to perform those ordinary daily rituals so taken for granted, before my mental breakdown and hospitalization. I had always been fiercely independent but felt no longer able to function.
On the better days I brushed my teeth, washed my hair, only to return to my bed, curtains closed to the world. But there my orchid sat by my bedside, ever blossoming, as if by some miraculous token of grace, and ever steadfast in the face of my malady.
The orchid served as a gentle reminder that nature blooms, even in dark times, a soothing balm to my sickly soul. And when I slowly began to emerge from my depressive cocoon six months later, growing stronger, with the focus of dedicating myself to completing my masters in English, my orchid was waiting patiently to join me in a place in the sun. Whenever I think about it, it reminds me that there are no little things in this universe. Even the littlest of things can be the stuff of magic. And yet, so often we fail to see the stuff of magic right before our very eyes.
Perhaps I had been given a second chance to see life all anew. In the throes of a deep depression, even the simplest of tasks can feel insurmountable. A new iPhone or a vacation abroad becomes the least of your troubles. So slowly but surely, I tried. I tried to prepare dinner for myself. I tried to clean my house. I tentatively left the comfort of my home to go to the shop for cat food. When a friend visited and consoled me with a few words and a warm cup of tea, I was overwhelmed with immeasurable gratitude. I found something in me changing.
I began to find calming reassurance in the everyday duties I was able to accomplish. I began to find greater meaning in the solidarity of friendship. I learnt that even a warm cup of tea can be a grand gesture of love. As I changed, and as I detached from a society of endless pressures, I exhaled a welcome sigh of relief. I knew now that it was okay to live an ordinary life. Now, with my diagnosis, it seemed more important than ever to re-evaluate my lifestyle choices, to accommodate a life of less stress.
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Today, over and over again, I become ever more inspired by friends who have chosen to live ‘off the grid.’ A more sustainable approach to living was perhaps the solution I had been looking for all those years… Before that total burn-out, like a moth winged and wingless, in 2013. So today, step by step, I am reclaiming my life. One of the first women born of the West to become a Tibetan nun, these words of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo have emerged as words to live by, in this personal pursuit for a sustainable and stress-free life, for the sake of my personal mental health:
We have to cultivate contentment with what we have. We really don’t need much. When you know this, the mind settles down.
I would have to learn to apply these principles not only in the economic sense but also in the emotional sense. Emotional and mindful sustainability are key for my healing. Sure, I may not have a piece of land like some of my pioneering friends, but beyond this, I can begin in my small rental, a cottage, and in my daily habits. So each day now, I begin with greed, saying goodbye to the burdens of unnecessary consumerism. And gratitude. Hand in hand.
Whittling away at my finances over the years, I have come to shop at thrift stores when I am in need of something specific such as winter wear for the colder seasons, or even a frying pan. I visit the local library when I am in need of a good book. And I dedicate myself to cooking creatively in the kitchen to stretch my earnings just that little bit further each month. I feel eternally full of gratitude for the simpler life I now lead of life’s smaller pleasures. With my diagnosis I recognise now how crucial it is to come up for air, to find time for peace and meditation and life’s quieter moments, so unlike the racing of a manic mind, endlessly trying to keep up.
It took an ebulliently dedicated Italian woman to teach me this in the kitchen, many, many moons ago. You see, given my oh-so-very-English background where dinner time was often simply a perfunctory affair, when I first visited the home of my dear friend, Renata, the experience was one that was entirely new to me. And I was enthralled, to say the least. Here, food was lovingly prepared by the entire family, and each character had a role to play. No matter if it was la carne deipoveri (‘the poor man’s meat’) or prosciutto on the table. It all left an indelible imprint on me. Now, when I cook, it is akin to meditation for me. My mind steadies, and I find myself entirely enthralled with the task at hand, no longer fettered by the stresses that might trigger my anxiety and escalate.
And when I find myself washing up dishes, I think of all the years spent at my grandparent’s where my grandfather would clean up after a meal with an almost saintly dedication. Or the way in which my mom, an artist, cares immaculately for her brushes, and my father, a chef, for his knives. There is pride to be taken in caring for the tools that serve you generously day in and day out, whether bipolar or not, in the throes of COVID or no, a ritualistic sacrament even in keeping as sacred spaces and means for ourselves and those with whom we lovingly share our tools, crafts and homes. It is in dicing vegetables for soup, or perusing my cookbooks, the alchemy even in the art of cooking, that on my lowest days, I feel I can accomplish something beautiful with my own two hands.
There is a vibrant, glimmering and almost hopeful German word for ‘room’, a space in a home: Zimmer. I keep it close by on my tongue. Slowly, but surely, I have come to see in all things and in all actions, the potential for gratitude, sanctity and simplicity. A glimmering. No matter how small. There is, to me, a kind of quiet unspoken beauty in domesticity. A ritualistic rite in the waiting. One that calms me and brings me back to myself after a day’s work. It’s no wonder that so many doctors are finding so many benefits to be had in culinary therapy or gardening.
And so it is, that personally, for me, it has so often become those littler, less obtrusive moments, seemingly insignificant or mundane that are sometimes the sweetest and most tender. There can be an enchanting quality to those everyday rituals, if we only take the time to notice. It makes me think about my deepest and darkest times of depression and how I am reclaiming my joy in the everyday. I find joy now in my thriving collection of succulents. I find joy in the flowers I can pick from the garden to decorate my home. I find joy in all the things that cost us so little but can fill our spaces with beauty. Just as my orchid once was to me by my bedside all those years ago. Prone as I can be to the rollercoaster of ups and downs, to racing thoughts, sleepless nights and mania, these rituals centre me again. An orderly and beautiful home is the conducive space for a peaceful and beautiful mind and soul.
And yes, and yes, and again yes, but of course, in so many ways I wish and urge one and all… Go forth, and live big and bold, and bright and beautifully! Climb that mountain! See the world! Whatever your heart desires… Whatever fuels your fire. Truly, madly, deeply!
But, while you’re at it, try to never forget that those littler kindlings of the heart can be equally rewarding. And once in a while, where you can, find yourself stopping to smell those roses. In a cup of tea. In a lasagna lovingly made from scratch. In the crisp sheets of a warm bed. In a book that rendered you to tears. In a song that reminded you of a lost love. In the first bud of a fledgling plant. In a home you get to call all your own.
In the everyday.
Each and every day.