One of the nastier gifts of a nervous breakdown, or my nervous breakdown anyway, is the sudden, incomprehensible inability to travel. Depression and anxiety inherently contain within them shapeless terrors; just as one struggles to name the nightmare it shifts to a different form. Two fears, however, have not for a moment left my side in the last 17 months: fear of travel and of sleep. How cruel that the latter was always for me a sweet pleasure unanalyzed, and the former a desire and intention that shaped the very form of my life.
The provenance of a breakdown is mysterious. Mine took on its full gale force on June 18, 2013. I was almost five months along in a long desired pregnancy, and we were scheduled to leave for Arroyo Seco, New Mexico the next day. There is a house in Arroyo Seco, a magical, large, private house, set back from a hidden dirt road that leads nowhere, and thus is almost always untraveled. We rented this house, sometimes multiple seasons a year, for several years, and it had become a place of refuge and retreat for me, for my whole family. I associated this house, this house with a blue door and Taos Mountain for its backyard, with uninhibited happiness, with love, with naked joy. After a lifetime spent in raw fear, this house was a haven.
The night before we left I oddly couldn’t sleep. I felt stalked, haunted, strangely guilty and wildly unsafe. I felt…. wrong. My body, wrong. My brain, wrong. The child inside me, horribly wrong. As we drove down the familiar highway leading to New Mexico, I felt both an emptying and a possession come over me: the void.
Unlike other maladies, depression can only be spoken of in metaphor. One reaches it through gesture, even as it devours one’s mind, one’s family, one’s daily life and history. So it is impossible to give a clean, simple, accurate accounting of exactly what happened to my brain that summer. A phantom came to visit, and then to stay. And then the phantom was me.
While we were in Arroyo Seco that summer it was hot, windy, unsettled. The children were unusually grumpy, and seemed uninterested in being there. I spent the nights in sweat-soaked terror, the days in fear of the nights. Every moment I felt less and less the presence of my own identity; I slipped away and demonic despair took my place.
Once home I became worse and worse and worse. From the hollowed out places of what remained of my mind I began to associate my breakdown with leaving home. Every time I had so much as a thought of travel, even as I longed for it as I always have, the terror of it would draw me back: impossible.
In mental health lingo, getting relief from depression, or from just being fucking crazy, is usually referred to as having “a window.”
I like this phrase because that’s exactly how it feels. The phantom still lives with and covers me – I think I should name her, maybe we’d get on a bit more peacefully – yet somehow, after the unending hours on the shrink’s couch, the bank account emptied, the absurd amount of drugs ingested, the meditation practiced, the assurances from the saintly husband, somehow there has recently been a flare of light in my darkened mind. A window.
So I crawled through it. And went with my infant daughter on a road trip. Just the two of us. To New Mexico.
I desperately wanted her to see Taos Mountain before her first birthday. And she did.
Together we sat in the brilliant desert light, the kind of light that expands outward, and inward, and permeates every shadow and corner, and makes one keenly aware of the limitlessness of earth, sky, rock, sun. The kind of light that allows one to see that one is no different from these elements, as they are no different from one another.
On our adventure we saw a decaying building. I wanted to rescue it.
The building contained some lovely secrets, secrets of light:
Some of the light looked like piercing rain:
And there were a lot of windows. Even as we walked through the dying timber, there were windows and beauty all around:
In Taos we went to a magical playland and toy store called Twirl. My baby discovered instruments made from tools, made friends with the lovely local hippies, and played with a duck.
And a horse:
While she explored this new world, I found myself enrapt with gratitude: this old familiar town, a place I’ve known since toddlerhood, was new to me as well. The world felt washed clean of haunted darkening fear, and all I knew for those two days was light, illumination from without and within.
The most everyday objects appeared gorgeous, needed, and truly seen.
Now we are home. The window hasn’t closed. Well, the nights still bring down the shades. And one never knows how long the lifting of the weighted darkness will remain: once afflicted in this way, I’m not sure one ever feels free of the heavy hand that brought it down. But for now… but for now… but for now… the residue of light remains.