Yesterday was Thanksgiving, a holiday I’ve never much cared for, no matter how I attempt to translate its meaning into pure spiritual gratitude instead of the grotesque consumerism it’s become in our culture. For many of us, holidays invite bizarre standards to live up to, memories strangely morphed by time, loss and expectation, and too often a sense of almost existential isolation: everyone else is doing (or feeling) that, why can’t I?
Failure. That is what Thanksgiving has forever meant to me. Failure to be fully present, failure to enjoy the presence of others and myself with others, failure to be a truly good daughter, granddaughter, wife, mother; failure to cook or enjoy cooking. Failure to let go of my cynicism about the historical origins of Thanksgiving. Failure to really appreciate the astonishing luck of my lot.
I have an almost obscene amount for which to be thankful: I’m dancing, despite all the injuries and my age.
I have an active yoga asana and meditation practice, despite taking care of three wild children.
And, of course, my husband, my family: I have given birth to three healthy, intelligent children, who love each other, love their father, love me, even with all my neuroses.
Yesterday, in the late afternoon, as my sweet family and I were taking a walk in the lovely light of dusk, I found myself unable to concentrate on the riches surrounding me. The abundance of food, of love, of company and security for reasons mysterious sent my mind back to a particular period, and a particular person with whom I had a short, intense relationship, in the summer of 2013.
It was the middle of July, and my mind had devolved to a husk of terror and suicidal yearning for oblivion. Pregnant, my world unrecognizable, I delivered myself to the care of West Pines Hospital, where I was promptly enrolled in that institution’s “partial hospitalization” program. This program essentially assumes that one isn’t crazy enough to pull the trigger during the evening hours, but also isn’t functional enough to exist in the world of regular, non-suicidal folk. If there had been a safe, real hospital for me that would have been ever so much better, but this was what was on offer, and we took it. For the next two weeks, I spent every day under the watchful eyes of the therapists and doctors at West Pines, and I spent every evening hunched and dodging nameless ghosts.
I got lucky. My “case-worker” was a thoughtful, deeply caring, and utterly non-judgmental woman named Sarah. She had curly dark hair, colorful glasses, a short plump body, bright warm eyes and a smile that soothed as much as it invited openness from those around her. Her voice, too, was perfect for someone in my condition: straightforward, low, friendly, unsentimental. Immediately I adored her. Immediately and irrationally she became, as I’m sure she had become for so many others, my life raft and savior.
Each morning, after “check-in,” Sarah and I would retreat to a tiny, windowless private office equipped with exactly two chairs and several boxes of tissue. Sarah would cross one ankle over her knee and face me as I emptied and laid before her every darkened crevice of my anguished history. She never blinked, she never flinched, and she always listened.
The rest of the day was usually taken up with embarrassingly absurd activities like “art therapy,” or making lists about ways in which to be mindful or assertive. Useless and silly for the suicidal, but it passed the time. Sarah made the time meaningful, and she reminded me over and over and over again that the “hormones would pass,” that I “would find the right therapist on the outside,” that “there really were the right meds,” and I would discover them, in time and after pregnancy.
I wish I could now write that indeed, Sarah was absolutely correct, and that all these things came to pass. After I left her care, however, I continued to disintegrate, and on many days, all these months later, I am still dragging myself away from the abyss’s edge. But there are lots and lots of days when the edge is kept at a safe distance, and I have found the right therapist, and the hormones of pregnancy have passed, never to enter my body again.
Sarah was wonderful, a gift of steadiness and sanity during a time of madness. It is, then, sadly appropriate that on Thanksgiving I find myself thinking of her, remembering her and the haven she provided, and wondering if in the future I will find myself in this unsettled place of gratitude and remembrance once more.