My willingness to return again is the best thing about me. Since I have begun my journey to mental wellness in earnest, I have gained a variety of blessings: writing more frequently, a community of writers, sobriety, physical fitness, a greater sense of efficacy. My persistence, that willingness to return, has been the cornerstone of all these things.
The loss of persistence that I experienced was the loss of myself. In more concrete and descriptive terms: I spent a lot of time in high school, in college, and after college intoxicated and in an intense relationship that started out as one thing and ended as a completely foreign and helpless other thing. I spent years getting drunk and high with someone until our relationship crumbled and I found myself with my hands full of rubble, drunk and bullied and totally lacking self-respect. Bad habits form slowly from several “just this once”’s and hopeless relationships are the same way. Over time, my bad habits were cemented as the foundation of where I lived and worked and my mental health declined.
Declined, meaning, crying at work. Fighting at work. Never going more than a few hours without smoking weed, never going more than a day without drinking wine or gin. Eating, always eating, especially fast food in private. Packs and packs of cigarettes over and over again– never enough cigarettes. Declined, meaning, no other habits to speak of. No solid sleep schedule, no respect when voicing my need for one, no possible way to answer the question, “What do you want to do?” Declined, meaning, a New Year’s resolution to lose weight turned into a race against my body after years of binge eating to prove I could undo the shame. Wine, often, my only meal.
After a dramatic weight loss that could not go unnoticed (and brought forth mixed reactions from everyone around me and from myself–obesity was holding me back, but it was clear I wasn’t genuinely moving forward), the journey of renewed persistence began. I committed to a year of DBT, going to once-weekly skills group meetings and an individual therapist. At first, small changes. Eat three meals a day, every day. Try again next week. Be more than 70% compliant with this meal plan. Now be more than 75%. Try again. Try again, and how do you feel about your substance use? Set a goal for how many days a week you want to be drinking. Ask yourself, can you go one more day? What about next week? It may be worth noting that it was not my idea to commit to this therapy. It is definitely worth noting that I did so, fully, and put in work that can only be called my own?.
These small changes built up around me, elevating my mindset slowly and painfully above the unorganized and terrifying nest I had built around myself. I began to remember and embody the persistence that defines me. My habits and goals each week became more important. I stopped drinking most nights, quit smoking weed little by little. By the time I was ready to throw away a half-empty pack of cigarettes (half-empty, meaning, you are quitting, not finishing a pack to buy another), I was ready to end the hopeless relationships I was stuck in, to burn the drawbridge I kept lowering in foolish welcome to the past.
I want to note here: toxic relationships can be loving and still be toxic. Magical, beautiful people can be toxic. Sometimes two perfectly wonderful chemicals who are innocuous on their own combine to make poisonous gas. I believe that everyone is doing their best. I also believe everyone must do better, be better. Moving away from the people in my life who did not believe the first part of that about me and the second part of that about themselves was the most important step I’ve taken for my personal wellness. It allowed me to focus on my family: my husband, my sister, my self.
Gaining back the space I needed for persistence was also a practice in patience and in gathering momentum. I wanted to burst into the best version of myself in a month, better yet a week. Better yet, an hour. Better yet, yesterday! But I am willing to return, every day, to the practice of becoming myself. I have moved from drunkenly reciting half-imagined poetry in the backyard for a half-dog audience to hosting readings for a group of poets that I’ve joined, live-streaming poetry readings for a virtual audience, entering poetry contests, and reprising my favorite poems from times when I was writing more. I’m filling up my journals again. I’m having the kinds of ideas I had been terrified would desert me forever. I have moved from being terrified without the constraints of my past relationships to feeling free to pursue other friendships, new and established, without fear of jealousy or navigating volatile interpersonal politics. I have found that I’m a better friend sober and unencumbered. I have found, no one more surprised than I, that I can be sober. This has been trial and error.
Trial and error, meaning, at first I could go a week sober. At first I could only drink to celebrate. At first it was okay to smoke sometimes with close friends as long as I wasn’t using to numb my emotions. And then it became something further and further from the root of myself, and for now I must abstain and refrain from any chemical respite. This is smart and wonderful and makes me sad, the complex feelings fully felt and fully realized with a clear mind. Trial and error, meaning, I sure wish I could have a glass of wine with you but I have to pass this time. Meaning, Maybe I’ll drink at the concert a month from now but I can’t count on it. Meaning, If I need endorphins that badly I better get my running shoes on. Another gift of my persistence: a runner’s heart rate, a runner’s healthy appetite, a runner’s ability to run from the present moment without escaping it. The gift of my physical fitness is something I have given myself over and over again, constantly unwrapping the practice of sweat and cultivating healthy internal competition. I have been able to persuade my mind to lift my mood by moving my legs: what magic! What a mistake I’ve made all these years, thinking wistfully about running and choosing to sit on the sidelines. I will not live in a state of regret for who I was, but I am absolutely certain I am no longer that person.
When I gained the space to honor my persistence, and the space to be honored and encouraged in my willingness to repeat my practices and crafts, I gained myself back. This is not a fairytale ending. This “gift of myself” is still me: I am difficult. I am mentally ill. I am passionate and particular.
This is not a glass slipper or happily ever after.
This is better.
This is a real beginning.
In real and concrete words: when I moved out, moved across Cleveland to the west side, set up a real home with my husband and my sister, when I got sober and started running and sought and accepted real help, when I began writing again with varying levels of fervor and frustration, when I began meditating weekly at the Shambhala center, when I started practicing yoga at my local studio, when I started eating carbs again and trying to face down the short circuit constantly spitting sparks at the base of my brain stem, I began to become myself again.
And this is hard. This is scary. I have not been friends with myself for years. I gained myself, yes, but I also gained more work to be done. The practice of persistence does not end. Ever. That’s, as I’m told, what makes it true persistence.
I also gained an accurate diagnosis of my mental illness. I gained new understanding of what it means to live with hypomanic depression. Hypomanic depression, meaning, bipolar type two. Meaning, I may not gamble and have sex with strangers, I may not pick fights with bartenders or try Tokyo-drifting down the highway at 2am with no seatbelt on, but I am reckless. I am heightened, intense, cycling through pressured speech and an inability to sit down FOR EVEN ONE MORE SECOND and then always, somehow, back to empty. Back to sandpaper behind my eyes, back to being the exhale after a pattern of hyperventilation. And with this accurate diagnosis came a flood of understanding and self-acceptance, a torrential downpour of knowing myself better and being able to better explain my own behavior. This is also a gift, and this is also more work to be done.
But the best thing about me (the reason I have shaved minutes off my mile pace and become a writer, the reason I am with my husband and am raising my sister, the reason I am making plans and goals that carry me through the days I want to be buried in my own ribcage) is my willingness to return. To persist. To not abandon myself through all my own wild variations. I am willing to remember the childhood where food and bodies and sex were abusively treated, and I am willing to face down this new life where they are not. I am willing, after giving up the smoke and the drink, to also cut back on caffeine. To regulate my meals, to be honest about my exercise and hope that I can manage that habit with balance as well. To continue to whittle at anything I may be using to cope with these moods so that I can fully experience them and be ready to try (to try, to always try) the regimen constructed by a psychiatrist that I trust. To ready myself, raw and open-palmed, for the next step in therapy, even if that means accepting a higher level of care. To return each day to lace up my shoes, each evening to my library books, each night to the curve and comfort of my husband laid along our bed and as perfect as our cat.
I don’t know what I’m trusting in, why I feel compelled to continually rise to the occasion of attempting, but I do know that faith is blind. In this sense, my persistence is a super power: I can see in the dark. I can see a whole light somewhere right after my vision ends, and I will continue to persist toward it.
Persist, meaning, I respect the journey. I respect the process.
Meaning, I respect the revision and the editing, I respect the pavement and my own feet pounding it. I respect, most of all, the self in me that did not crumble under the weight and wine and feelings of worthlessness. And tomorrow, I begin again to become in the only way I know how: persevere. Write. Run. Rest. Repeat.
Repeat, meaning, I promise not to give up. Not this time for sure, and probably not next time either.
Meaning, making peace with suffering is badass. Making peace with suffering is the only viable option. I can run no other race, I can write no other words.