Just a bit of slimy water beneath the eaves on the side of the house, it hardly even qualifies as a fish pond. A plastic, fifty-five gallon, kidney-shaped container surrounded by rocks. I didn’t care about the stupid thing when we left for Switzerland, I was tired of maintaining it and I knew there were no fish alive in there anyway. Some type of raptor had picked off the first little guy and my greedy Oliver had scarfed down the last miserable loser. And now it was an empty tub, an ugly eyesore of dead leaves and sludge.
When we came home in September it was a few inches of water, a mere puddle. For weeks I ignored it until the other day I took a stick and stirred up the gunky gumbo, all set to dismember the whole thing. But as my stick poked the mud a quick flash of silver and orange shot out and then disappeared back into the swirl of sediment.
The solitary old widower koi was alive, he’d been hiding out, hibernating, nearly paralyzed, just hunkering down and waiting for better days to come along. The muscular, bulgy-eyed little champ had survived, even thrived, with no care or attention, and with hardly even any water at all. I was so amazed and impressed that I went out to buy a little aquatic plant as a reward.
The man at the nursery didn’t believe me, koi need at least 4 feet of water to breathe and plants to survive, he said. But I’ve read up on pond “biospheres” and they actually need very little, their ecosystems are remarkably self-reliant. Koi can live off of a leaf matter and erosion from the rock sediment, and the wind and rain will naturally filtrate and oxygenate.
I’d assumed it needed a fussy charcoal filter, periodic draining, chemicals and special fish food. But all of that stuff just created waste and an artificial environment that became dependent on me. The fact was, if I left it alone it would do fine. So secretly I was thrilled – another cloying, needy presence in my life I’d managed to alleviate, how awesome.
Since we’ve been back there have been some significant changes in our household, my husband lost his job, my beloved Oliver is gone, an injury has forced me to cut back on my running and our sewer system has been backed up, and so on. Just run-of-the-mill things that might seem manageable to most people but are a challenge for me, because too much stress can mix with my biochemistry and put me off-balance.
My stubborn little koi in the pond sludge reminds me of life with bipolar disorder. I can be swimming along just fine, while gradually the water around me is evaporating, closing in and getting smaller and smaller. It can be so subtle that I hardly notice until one day I find myself in a very small circle, practically dormant, taking slow, shallow breaths. Sometimes there is a trigger, like a conflict or a disruption to my routine, lack of sleep or getting sick, but sometimes it’s just random, it’s just my body.
It can be pretty uncomfortable, everyday things feel harder, reaching out to people, even talking on the phone, takes a lot of energy. I get tired from too much stimulation, and my skin feels thin and vulnerable. But I know the drill so I try to slow down and take care of myself, my only goal is to regulate and stabilize.
I go to my safe pond space and I don’t leave it because I know I can’t survive up there on top, exposed to the rough elements. I have to go deep, cover myself, be patient and try not to get discouraged. It’s an annoyingly over-sensitive biosphere, but it’s all I’ve got. I’m not incapacitated, I’m active, but if I were a verb I’d be a reflexive verb.
It’s a drag sometimes because I feel like I say no to more things than I say yes to. And people don’t always get it, they sometimes take it personally. They may see me as selfish or as letting my illness define me. But mental illness is only a small part of who I am, and yet it is with me every single day of my life, it never goes away.
And denial is dangerous, because in the years before I was diagnosed, I struggled along in the dark and was so brutally hard on myself, and the illness ate away at my self-esteem. And so the gift of knowing about my bipolar has helped to illuminate things, not everything, but some. I am different – my scales feel brighter and more exposed, more vulnerable to the light, maybe like the weirdly bred little Japanese carp.
I think we all need to practice slowing down. Our society is so crazy and hyperactive and obsessed with image, perfectionism and achievement. Our outsides dominate our insides. We think that doing more is better than doing less. Activism is prized above contemplation, movement over stillness. Even though we say that self-care is important – who’s actually doing it on a regular basis? People get offended when you take care of yourself, they see it as a weakness or at best, selfish and indulgent.
Mental illness is tough because no matter how well-educated we all are, there is still so much stigma and self-stigma. And it’s confusing because the symptoms are so individual and varied and one size never fits all. A diagnosis is a complex continuum with mild to severe aspects. And bipolar symptoms can change constantly, not unlike a body of water – the surface may appear calm but it’s never static, there is always something lying dormant underneath.
So it’s tricky for people to interpret on the surface because I am high functioning and I can make it look easy. But underneath there can be excruciating effort and anxiety. And this condition is never cured, there are flare-ups even after long periods of remission, so my lifetime Rx is to simply stay well.
So now we are back in the U.S. and Mac is looking for a job and I’m doing my best to support him. And I’m trying to wedge myself back into the space I used to inhabit and the hole feels unfamiliar and immense. I’m a bit slowed down, stuck in my emotions, and yet I know it’s imperative I get back into the flow.
My brain lectures at me to get out and socialize, get involved, plug in to things. But my protective instinct says to go easy, take time. And this is the voice that deserves to be heard because it spent too many miserable years being shamed and told to shut up.
We’re entering the holiday season with parties and expectations and for me there must be a game plan in place, it has to be a balance. I want to be honest and pick and choose how much activity I want, what parties to go to, just how much to decorate and cook. And I will because every year it gets easier, I guess my re-calibrated normal is finally feeling more normal even to me.
Normal is accepting my small fish pond and not feeling bad or guilty about it. Normal is appreciating my sensitivity, not apologizing for it and trying to care less about what other people think. Normal is slowing down so that my mind and body can heal, knowing that strength is in asking for what I need, not in suffering silently.
Normal is caring so deeply about the world I live in but not letting it undermine my sense of worth. Normal is sometimes nestling into the murk at the bottom of the pond and taking the time to just feel things down in the soft darkness.
And it really isn’t sad or depressing down there at all, it’s just a change in venue. Sometimes it can be tedious but it’s also deliciously quiet and restorative. I’m away from the cacophony of the internet and the news media and all of the violence that saturates the senses. I turn the volume down, and I step away and slip down into the quiet. I’m listening, just trying to hear my own voice, to breathe deeply and find a way to write again.
And I know that eventually the water will rush back in, either from the steady flow of the hose or from the cold, sharp drops of November rain, and the fresh molecules will wash through my skin and I’ll move around in a blur of electric color. I’ll swim out from the detritus more than ready to re-enter the stream of life again.
These days it feels good to spend unexpected time with my husband, raking leaves, cooking, doing little projects – we even fixed up the neglected old pond with fresh rainwater and some new plants, we’re pretty optimistic about things.
So much can change in a few weeks, in the larger world news and inside of a body. And yesterday afternoon I sat on the front porch and looked down at the pond and listened to the wind chimes in the laurel tree just above it, and I watched the frilly Autumn fern tickle the edge of the dark water.
The cycle of news media about terrorist attacks in Europe, the presidential debates, even the problems in my neighborhood and worries about my family – all of the world’s chaos and madness seemed to coalesce into a three-foot oval, a calm pool of perfect life. And it pulled me gently towards it as if to whisper: look at me – we are reflections of one another.
And I gazed down at it and waited for the surface to become completely still, and for a glimpse of my gorgeous and elusive koi, but there was nothing there, just my own reflection looking up at me.
But across its small, mirrored surface, I felt my soul lift and spread and disperse along the water. And I imagined the bright koi cradled in the tangled pickle-weed down at the cool bottom of the pond. Just a cheap insignificant fish, but when looked at closely it was an Impressionist painting with original brush-strokes of black and white, silver and orange, it was art. And when I thought about its tiny presence it felt like grace.
And I closed my eyes and enjoyed the warm late Fall sun on my face and I felt oddly rooted to that familiar old porch step, whole and alive and filled with serenity and a gratitude for some indefinable thing. And I wondered: is this what normal people feel like all of the time?
And behind my eyelids I tried to imprint the mood into my brain – or to snap it in like a piece in a puzzle – but I knew from experience that it was impossible, it was too tricky a thing to hold on to, and as much as I longed to catch it and keep it alive, when I opened my eyes it was gone.