I pushed my laptop aside and curled back swelling with nausea, stomach creaking like a rusty hinge while my head swirled. All of my plans to sit down and write this post and others vanished and I was once again constrained by the limits of my body. I take pills every night to treat bipolar disorder. They keep my mind stable and running steadily along but I still deal with physical side effects from those meds that often derail my best intentions.
Those days are hard. It’s difficult not to believe I’m somehow failing when I crawl back to my bed and forgive myself once again for the undone things.
It’s hard to think of mental illness as a gift, especially on the days I’m stuck in bed while summer’s daylight carries on without me. But in some ways it is. Or at least it is when I choose to see the simple things that make life beautiful and worthwhile. Call it therapy or self-preservation, I call it small grace, but really it’s nothing more than paying attention to my life.
So many people are frayed at the edges, going through the motions casting their margins out further and further. We let our extremities go dead, it almost takes crisis or burnout to bring feeling back.
With bipolar, I had nothing but feelings or the hollow they left in their absence. Paying attention to rhythms and seasons and cycles was the story of my life. Maybe in that way, it taught me to be more attentive to the ways we live into rhythms and seasons less, and instead push and stretch our capacity to bound through them. We call that success.
I felt pressure to work hard, play hard, and find meaning in my days while doing what needed done.
With bipolar disorder, I’ve learned balancing it all is more fable than fact. It seems a tidy lesson to learn, a fantasy where duty and diligence are rewarded with a happy ending and laziness and sloth are a sure way to end up as a grim lesson paraded out for wide-eyed children. For me, self care could be mistaken for laziness by others. I do less than I might seem capable of. I never know when the bad days will come so I apply my no’s more liberally. If anything, I’ve cinched in my boundaries so the seams aren’t constantly at risk of tearing and leaving me bare.
My own lack of capacity has taught me mindfulness in ways my capable and busy self somehow missed in scores of to-do lists and days blocked off on my calendar like hash marks counting down my sentence. Endless productivity as a lifestyle spends our lives with less return than what we invested. We seldom break even.
We live in a society where quantifiable output is packaged and sold to us from the time we first learned to sharpen our number two pencils and measure ourselves with fully filled-in bubbles and right answers.
We love to show evidence of our hard work, of our worth. We love to measure up. Until we don’t anymore.
Suffering from mental illness taught me my measurements were skewed. The scales were always stacked against me because there is no measure for rest. No one applauds when you take care of yourself by doing less. How do I tally the sufficient reasons to live this one cherished life if productivity isn’t everything, if I seem to always fall short?
Why do we think rest means a full stop only after we’ve hit a wall? Rest means awakening to beauty and life, it means taking it all in. It means paying more attention, not less.
How do I weigh the breeze on my skin under a cold broad moon or the warmth of a summer sun on kids’ tanned limbs while they scribble chalk drawings on pavement like canvas? How much value lives in the simple pleasures of good wine or peonies in bloom or the burst of a ripe strawberry plucked straight from its curly vine? How do I appraise the bubble of laughter from kids at play or the wind whipping my frenzied hair with the window rolled all the way down on a day filled with pine spotted highways and fields of wildflowers? How do I value the swish of hips when that good song comes on or that first sip of fresh brewed coffee on a brutal morning? What is my life worth when I can’t do it all?
When we think rest is nothing more than a good long nap or a spa day, we tack it onto the end of our commitments like a child’s treat awarded for getting all the checks on their chore list. We need an excuse to earn rest and carry our exhaustion and busyness like a completed chart full of gold stars.
Society makes rest a privilege instead of a necessity. Only when it was all done did I justify my resting. I needed to be sick to get well.
It’s true my capacity has shrunk, but mental illness helped me untangle myself from the clutter of doing it all. I pay attention moment by moment and in that I find rest on the most wearying of days. Marilynne Robinson says, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, everyone of them sufficient.”