Mercy within

Content warning: Please be aware there are discussions of mental health and its challenges in this piece.

***

“I seem to have fallen out of time.”

It’s my final year at high school. We’re watching part of The Hours, a film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Like Richard, I’m walking through some fractured timeline, where my long days and shadows of my past have all blurred into one. Once the girl who would dance and sing and speak poetry, I am now a ghost cowering in a corner. I am in limbo, stagnating and lost — and I can’t place why. It’s frustrating and disappointing and hopeless.

I am always praying. Even as I’m praying, I’m feeling an emptiness that nothing can fill.

I am a dead girl underwater, holding my breath.

* * *   

It’s my penultimate year at university, and I start up a conversation with a student on campus. When she turns to ask about my endeavours, she seems enthralled by them: pursuing major passion projects, opting out of my program to move toward my “real” purpose, applying to exciting jobs and master’s programs interstate.

In my rambles, I mention that I’m torn apart despite experiencing what others would find exciting. This eventually turns into a confession to a kind stranger on campus:

“I just want someone to tell me something’s wrong.”

Why aren’t I centred when all these beautiful things are happening for me?

Stepping forward with newfound courage to share my burden, I meet with a best friend and mention my bad dreams about drowning. I’m flustered and looking down at my feet.

Calmly, she says,

“What’s so bad that’s happened to you that you want to kill yourself?”

I’m deserted.

It is horrible to say, but it’s much simpler to place depression on the repercussions of childhood trauma. When I think back, nothing particularly bad has happened to me, and I feel even less worthy of labelling my sadness as depression or feeling at all valid in my experience.

Being told to “cheer up,” to “not make contact until you feel better,” shows me that I am sick in some way.

Digital note, 26.05.18. What it looks like to beg for mercy during heartbreak.

***

It’s the beginning of my master’s year. I receive a newsletter for a free psychology service at one of my alias email addresses. I walk into the clinic to a hijab-wearing Bengali Muslim woman smiling back at me. The Psychologist, a version of myself, only older.

“I don’t care what happens to me,” I stutter.

It’s a feeling that permeates sad times, self-sabotage, and experiences when I would put myself at risk. When I’d make elaborate plans to run away from home and leave behind everything I know. When I’d plan to do things that could harm my well-being. When I would reject sincere expressions of love because I couldn’t imagine myself deserving of it.

We perform a body scan and I’m crying in the first moments of the exercise. I’m ravaged by guilt. I’m a burden on my family who once saw promise in me. I don’t deserve their prayers for me. Whatever I’ve achieved is not my own. When she asks me to meditate on my shoulders, they hurt. When she asks me to meditate on my chest, it aches.

After a moment of quiet, she asks why I’d had such an extreme reaction --but I’m a broken heart without knowing the cause. How did this happen to me?

Diary, 26.06.19. This is the sound of my own heart destroying itself. Can you hear it?

* * *

It still took a year to see a psychiatrist, even after the GP had ticked beside “crisis situation” on my referral form. I waited a few months for an appointment with a renowned psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute, one of the most prominent mental health institutes in the country.

Through pressing questions, I describe my persistent melancholy as a “veil of sadness washing over my life,” feeling guilt and shame despite the hopeful experiences in my personal and professional lives. I feel “volatile,” a conflict, a “resistance” within that I can’t quite place.

The psychiatrist is nodding and jotting quickly on his notepad. I can see myself being measured and like a game, I wonder what score I’ll get.

Just how screwed up am I?

He confirms that my psychologist was right in wanting to treat depression; I exhibit obvious symptoms like “brain fog,” poor memory, lack of concentration, and, at my lowest, suicidal thoughts. From feelings of being “torn apart,” he probes my bouts of hope with characteristics like creative excitement and energy, contrasted with my usual fatigue and comatose lethargy.

 

                                                                                                               He then starts elaborating on bipolar II disorder.

 

As if to convince me, he pulls out fact sheets detailing its common emergence in mid to late teens, when I’d felt my moods and personality had drastically started to change.

I’m told that most people with bipolar II reach out when they’re in tough depressive episodes — that their bouts of elevated mood and activity can go unsaid, unrecorded, and untreated. To me, experiences of hopefulness and confidence and excitement are not things you complain about; rather, they are hopes for healing and becoming better.

As our conversation grows deeper, I start to see that my “highs” are more destructive than I’ve led myself to believe; these “hypomanic episodes” are recognized in hindsight: a million rummaging ideas; spending dusk till dawn working on projects that would never fully manifest, come into being; planning to jeopardize my life when I’d only felt “newly enlightened” and meant for better things.

In hindsight, I feel like such a “neurotic” person because I have these “up” moods of immense frustration or enlightenment then back down to my “lows.” Oftentimes, these moods of hope and despair would happen all at once and manifest in a frustrated, conflicted endeavour that crushed my heart.

Even after relating to the sheets I’ve been given, I struggle to accept my diagnosis. I still feel like I’m making things up. My mind is fighting a frustration that I might have needlessly suffered for all these years.

The reality is: now in my early twenties, I feel like I’ve already reached rock bottom. I can’t sink any lower. There’s no reason for me to resist medication, despite a quiet fear that side effects will sabotage what I have left of my mind.

* * *

11.12.20

This day, my mother asks me what those pills are. When I change the subject she keeps on going back and back and back, so stubborn; I am my mother's child. It’s a back and forth of missed eye contact and fractured words and then something cuts the air --

“What’s wrong with you?”

As someone who craves self-sufficiency and honours my independence, acknowledging the internal benefit from something external like a pill is quite literally a bitter pill to swallow. I won’t deny that I can still doubt myself sometimes and stop taking my meds, before my depression intensifies and I realise why the hell a doctor told me they’d help.

Through furrowed brow I burst onto my shallow breath about how I’ve been crushed and that I take the pills because something has been ruining my life and that it’s no one else's business if I’m taking something that is helping me out of bed for the first time in a long time. I am rude and crass but my anger is melting away and I feel something break apart, and then a sweetness in my heart. Just as I’d said I had ruined my life, I realised walking against the wind in that darkness that my urge to disappear completely over the years had dissolved so much. I exist now, and I felt liberated being with myself. I wasn't alone, and I wasn't alone with God. I was with God, and I was finally with myself. I was finally my own friend.

I’ve found clarity in something written by frontman Jonathan Higgs of the band Everything Everything that’s my everything everything; he so poignantly talks about seeking help as a manifestation of being “wise enough to know yourself”: instead of weakness and a fight in the dark, talking about what we're going through is wisdom and self-understanding, and can extend understanding about mental health experiences through being “the audience for others".

JH on his mental health experience referencing mental health awareness song ‘Don’t Try’ from Everything Everything’s second studio album Arc. Their own remix of the song extends its lyrics.

There are ways to make an outlet for feelings, but really getting to the base of it and seeing it eye to eye is much easier said than done. It took me many years — that many time-lapses — to actually drag myself to therapy and adequate medical help. This is because I felt ashamed and harboured harsh self-judgements and doubted my experiences were valid; I’d sit in my community prayer room with my head down trying to cry it away and pray it away because I felt like a bad person because of something that is far more common than many realise: that you can be a grateful person and a suicidal person at the same time. There are maladies of the heart that can be cured by gratitude in faith but when it's your mental health that's the cause, you need something outside of yourself.

Lyrics from Everything Everything’s song ‘Don’t Try’: “I know you’re waiting for a miracle call but/ I could disappoint you, I could disappoint you now/ You shut the door and get your hibernate on/ It’s never gonna leave you if you never talk it out”.

When my beautiful Bengali Muslim psychologist version of me said she doesn't know how I get myself to come to appointments because it must be so hard, I was so proud of myself. It was damn hard and it damn hurt but I was frantically searching for my saving grace; I had always been searching for God's mercy and living ”by the grace of God" and then, for whatever reason, mercy also looked for me like lifting as hard as I could myself out of my bed, carefully taking myself an hour and forty minutes by bus and train to the clinic, sitting through a half-hour session, taking the hour-and-forty-minutes back, and crashing in my bed in agony. It sounds gruelling and it's not what everyone should do, not at all. But getting myself with that much effort, however it was, to some form of therapy, was one of the first amazing things I did for myself that has now changed my life. It was one of the kindest, greatest acts of strength I ever did.

Yes it was hard and yes I slowly convinced myself to stop going, but then the agony was drowning me and I needed to push out. I saw a new GP and lodged to see a psychiatrist, choosing not to share with my family doctor. No matter how I’d get there, I pushed for that bigger appointment, anticipated for months, carefully took myself to the psychiatrist’s on a blazing hot day in a black dress and shimmering headscarf and sat in that chair and answered the questions as best I could. I kept asking him questions, saying what I was experiencing was probably normal, that this or that which is happening is probably normal, that I've done these things but it's probably all fine — and all that time I really knew that this shouldn't be “normal” and I want to see what other people call “normal” and it was all so heavy and disheartening and I wanted to curl up and withdraw.

But I was also yearning for something to tell me that I have this ‘thing’ and I can do ‘this’ to solve it because I wanted to be merciful to myself, which is seeing suffering and wanting to heal it. We are much better at doing this for others than for ourselves, often burning out. But, this time, instead of suppressing, even while I kept saying my doubts aloud, even while I was shooting back at myself that it's probably all fine, I was edging closer and closer to becoming a force of mercy for myself. It's something I genuinely don't think I had ever experienced before: the feeling good enough for yourself and just letting yourself live for a while. For just being good enough with yourself and the day you have, and the things that sustain you. Just being there.

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage. — Seneca

When you step out of your closed self to a place of vulnerability and sharing, you are showing yourself mercy. Going to therapy is an act of mercy. Acknowledging your struggles and needs and wilfully improving is a complete act of mercy. You change your life for the better with these acts of mercy, like falling in love: opening your heart and honouring someone's humanity without judgement. We deserve this for each other, and you deserve this for yourself, even from your own place of pain. 

And how you do this is by cleaving yourself open. Even in fury at the injustice of your life or feeling lost and hopeless, saying something is your protection, your self-defence -- when you recognise yourself as something valuable worth defending. Even while you are small inside that deep cold well where your feet are chained at rock bottom and the water is rising to your mouth that you need to keep your head lifted just to breathe and keep from choking if you let down your guard for even a second. Inside that well, where your despair is swallowing you, enclosed in that place where nobody exists, where you look up in the blackest dark but there must be a tiny light -- the sky, God, something, anything -- and it is so far out of reach. 

Saying something is the way that you reach. Reaching something outside of yourself; outside of your shattered place of pain; and breaking your stone wall if only for a moment. As you speak it breaks further, and you can feel your shackles coming loose as you are pulling the ropes to lift out of that place -- easier when somebody is pulling with you. And as you are getting closer to seeing the outside world -- outside of your isolation, outside of your well and towards the sky -- your foggy mind is clearing as you are reaching a clearer version of yourself being suppressed by something you can now begin to heal from.

The statement that Muslims read before they perform any task. Bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīmi: In the Name of God, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.

There's a statement I read before beginning any task: in the Name of God, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. It’s affirmed, over and over and over, that God is the Most Merciful, the Most Forgiving, the One who sustains. But it's also a reminder: if I believe the highest force of kindness in my life is Most Merciful, denying mercy to myself is only bringing needless pain. Standing in the way of my healing is only causing hurt. 

Today, I find the wisdom in beginning everything in the name of Mercy. I begin with an acknowledgement that whatever I am feeling, I am worthy of kindness. No matter what I am going through, I am worthy of compassion. After all and before anything else, I am worthy of mercy. I take a step and go outside.

I stop to catch my breath. She goes silent, then walks ahead. My eyes close as something breaks apart, and then a sweetness. And then, walking against the wind in that darkness, just as I look to the starlit sky for God’s mercy — I look within myself to give me my own.

***


Mental Health Resources

For mental health resources, services, and support, visit the Black Dog Institute's website here. More information on bipolar disorder here.

And if you or anyone you know needs help in relation to some of the things written in this story you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue.


Numa Sarker is a freelance writer and social change advocate based in Sydney.