At 4 am on January 1st I woke up, and for a few seconds I lay there in the dark, oblivious, but then I remembered and I thought WHAT HAVE I DONE?
What I had done was to commit myself to a month-long at-home retreat with no text, email, Facebook, Twitter, news, nothing but the good hard work of getting through depression. While we were on vacation over Christmas, and I was lying in bed in Key West, unable get up or face anyone, I decided this was what it was going to take. I opened up my laptop and started writing a piece about my depression.
On the morning of New Year’s Eve, our first day home, I read and reread what I had written. Was this really necessary? I knew as soon as I shared my post there was no going back.
After two weeks of deciding what to share, now came the impossible task of actually sharing it. I sat in bed staring at my laptop feeling sick. Finally I clicked “Post” just to end the misery. I figured it would reach the people who needed to hear it (you can read it here). I had no idea my last day of the year would be spent responding to a quickly accumulating list of comments, texts and messages saying, “I get you. I get this.” I copied every one and pasted them into a page in my retreat notebook. If I was going to do this, I wasn’t going alone.
The plan was to carry on with my regular tasks (homeschooling Dylan, feeding everyone, housework, dog walks) with a schedule of added “healing” activities. Since this was retreat-on-the-cheap I tried to think of everything I could remember people describing at actual retreats. I had, what I thought, was a pretty long reading list to order from the library of books on solitude, philosophy, happiness, and finding direction, including one called Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death. There would be lots of reading, lots of meditating, lots of walking and not a lot else. But as is the way, life had other ideas.
Challenge #1: Food Poisoning
After our Christmas trip to Key West we had made a quick trip to Cuba for Iain’s 60th birthday. Six hours after a pleasant enough dinner at a café, Dylan and I woke up at the same time and shared the bathroom for the next 12 hours. At around 3 am I begged Iain to go find us some water to drink and when he came back and handed me the ice-cold plastic bottle I knew something was wrong. The bottle burned my hand. Instantly I remembered my friend Beth describing neuropathy that had resulted from her cancer treatments. She described wearing gloves to take things out of the fridge. The next time I washed my hands the tap water burned. Luckily most things in Cuba are warm, but when we returned home to Gloucester our house became an obstacle course of things that hurt: silverware, my laptop, metal pans, a head of cabbage, the floor. In addition, there was the expected weakness and exhaustion for a week afterwards. Scratch long walks off the to-do list.
Challenge #2: Insomnia
I have had regular bouts of insomnia for a week or two every month for six years. It has become my part-time job. There is not an herb, doctor, bedding, tea, ear plug, sleep mask I haven’t tried. We flipped the floors in our house, swapping bedroom for livingroom to beat my insomnia, blacked out all the windows, removed all the electronics, so that we sleep (or try to) in a pitch-black silent tomb. I’ve contemplated sleeping on the deck in a sleeping bag in the winter but was too afraid of coyotes to try. So when the insomnia arrived during week two of the retreat I went back to my friend Google and asked for more help.
Normally I try to roll with it, but this month, with the food poisoning, the depression, the long get-better to-do list and a clock that was ticking away, I had reached my breaking point and then some. This time Google came up with, “Drink This and Sleep Like a Baby, It’s Delicious!” If you think at this point I’m at all concerned about ingesting a new and untested concoction you’d be wrong. I don’t care what the source is, what the ingredients are, what the side effects are, I’m trying it. So I made the drink as I scoffed at “Dr. John” and his miracle recipe. He had met his match. The next morning, I woke up at 6:05 am. Not 2:30, not 3, not 3:30, but 6:05. So what did I drink? Warm milk. WARM. MILK. I had rearranged my house to sleep, carried a king-size bed and couch up and down stairs, had Iain rewire the entire house so there would not be the smallest blink of a light in the bedroom. And all I needed was a little warm milk. Needless to say, I’m still scouring Dr. John’s website and gathering every nugget of wisdom he’s got.
Challenge #3: My family
Things that have interrupted my evening meditation: a 16-year-old belting out numbers back and forth in Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Hebrew; dance shoes pounding on the floor over my head; action movies shaking the house; Iain on NBC Nightly News; carpooling Dylan to and from rehearsals in Boston; dogs barking; a dog chewing a bully stick (smoked bull penis) next to my foot; dogs engaged in sex play; a dog staring at me and moaning. And those are just the more interesting interruptions.
Despite all of this, I read lots of books, practiced a good amount of meditation, took a lot of walks, took a lot of notes, and learned quite a bit about myself.
What was it like to live without news, social media or people for a month? Not blissful. I had read lots of account of people blissing out on retreats, but that didn’t happen for me. I didn’t grow to love the silence and seclusion, the time to think. I thought living without the news would be blissful, at a time like this, but from the murmurs around me I was starting to gather that I was needed. I’ll be glad to get back into the fight. Social media was easy to let go because when you’re depressed the sad posts make you sad, and the happy posts make you sad. The other drawback to the news/social media fast was having nothing to offer at the dinner table. Having nothing to talk about at a retreat is normal and encouraged, when you’re retreating at home you just become an exceptionally boring person to be around.
I missed my friends and wondered how they were. There were a few lovely surprises along the way: a card with a message of love from wonderful neighbors that I used as a bookmark, a box found on my doorstep with little healing trinkets, and a surprise meeting with a friend on the street, who was so effusive with love and kind words that she made up for a month of loneliness. I also had a friend report he drove next to me on the highway and waved and yelled like a maniac, unfortunately I never noticed.
So what about the breakthroughs, what did I actually accomplish?
Breakthrough #1: During one rare evening of quiet meditation something came to me. I hear people describe having things come to them during meditation and it always annoys me, because nothing comes to me during meditation other than the above list. So when this happened I jumped up and wrote it down (and quit 15 minutes early). I still haven’t quite worked out the proper wording, but it’s something like this: the only relationship that has to work is the one with myself. As much as the people around me seem like a solid part of my life, they’re not. They’re fluid, and they will move and change and wander and return (let’s not visit all the depressing possibilities). I have no control over who is sitting across the table from me each day, if anyone, as bizarre as that seems. But I can control how I feel in my own skin.
Breakthrough #2: During the lowest moment of the month, when insomnia had kicked my ass to the curb (before warm milk), and I lay on the couch not doing anything on my retreat to-do list, a new idea for a portrait series came to me fully formed, with subjects, a theme and a purpose, and I can’t wait to share it with you.
Help us to be the always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
– from The Invocation to Kali by May Sarton
Breakthrough #3: During my physical low moment of the month, when I tried to do my weekly 4.4 mile round-trip walk to pick up groceries I hit the wall. I reached Cripple Cove and I couldn’t walk another step. I sat down on the curb and called Iain, who was at the Paint Factory, 5 minutes away by car. The phone rang, he said hello, and my phone died. The phone I had carefully charged before I left and carried without enjoying any music or podcasts, just so I would have plenty of battery in a situation like this, died. If he was really insightful, since he knew I was out walking, he might realize that I probably wouldn’t be calling just to chat. But I couldn’t sit there hoping, so I stood up, flung the 20-lb pack on my back and kept walking. As I was passing the remains of Smokin Jim’s I saw a flash of red in the distance. As it came closer I could see it was a red Mini. Funny thing is, there are a lot of red Minis in Gloucester (learned from many embarrassing waving incidents), even red Minis with white racing stripes, but only one red Mini with white racing stripes and Union Jack mirrors (other than, maybe, Austin Powers). Red mini…white stripes…Union Jack mirrors, bingo! The car swerved into the parking lot next to me, Iain got out without question, took my pack and bags and stowed them in the back and opened my door. A smile took over my face that was so big and ridiculous and out of place on my exhausted, beat-up and depressed body. It was the most joy I had felt in months. It was still in there.
In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing three new portraits from my retreat month on my Facebook page and Instagram, and as I wrap up the Selfie Series I’ll be sharing my idea for the next series. I’m going to continue to meditate and walk and read and draw, but for the first time in a while I’m looking forward to conversation, catching up and hugs. Lots of hugs.
Not till we are lost…not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. – Thoreau
[Featured image: the view from my retreat, Gloucester harbor]