Upside Down with Admiral Byrd

For most of my adult life, there has been a stack of books next to my bed. It has changed shape and grown and shrunk and been added to and subtracted from, and knocked down by curious cats, kids and labrador tails, then painstakingly restacked with a sigh and thoughts of “someday”.  It’s an eclectic stack; memoirs, fiction, recovery and self help, cook books, poetry, botanical guides and graphic novels.  In my iPhone notes there is another virtual “pile”– list of articles, books, movies, ideas to research, artists to explore.  And in the bustle of life, with the unending and ponderous responsibility of being a solo parent to three growing kids while juggling career and pets and a home and the thousand details and everyone’s minutiae, too often all of that frenetic “doing” ends up being all there is.  I lose sight of what I’m actually doing in the mire of surviving life with depression/anxiety and new sobriety.  I long for a time out of sorts, or an airplane where I can go up and gain some altitude and look down at the patchwork of my life and see some sort of pattern or meaning.

In the past, I’ve set a million reminders on my phone, hung post-its for even mundane things like “don’t forget to drink water”, wished away the very parts of me that make me me. The overactive brain and attention deficits and life long battle with depression have meant that I’ve tried to fight the very essence of myself.  Instead of seeing these things as just part of me, I falsely believed that they defined me as “other” or “broken” (as part of my growth these last two years, I’ve learned to visualize myself as the sky and the feelings of depression or anxiety as clouds that move across and then leave. They are not me, they are outside of me and I can observe them). Before, when I had a particularly tough week or month I would chastise myself for curling up with a blanket and taking a nap or doing something that wasn’t “productive”. I would double down on appearing to have it all together and actually cared less for myself as if somehow in not feeding into it or recognizing it, it would go away.  And we all know how well that works.   In recovery, I’ve learned a lot of about self-care and how it’s not indulgent or a waste of time but vitally important to my health and well-being.

In January, as a bout of restless depression rolled in and hung out, it became clear that I was going to need to rethink my usual MO of dealing with winter and low moods if I was going to continue my self-care goals. My hours at work were almost non-existent so I was staring down the barrel of a long dark winter and wondering if I might just tip over into an abyss.   I’m a person who loves solitude, but am living a life that rarely allows it.  So, taking inspiration from Admiral Byrd, I decided to just embrace my winter and give myself permission to embark on my own mini discovery in the hours that I suddenly found. If you haven’t had a chance to read his memoir Alone, written after spending five months you guessed it, ALONE at a meteorological station in Antarctica in 1934, then might I suggest you add it to your own list of things to read.  It’s fabulous.  He was an adventurer, a highly decorated military pilot, polar explorer, the third person to fly non-stop over the Atlantic and had the distinction of having three ticker tape parades thrown in his honor, but in spite of his successes and accomplishments, he wrote about what he called “a certain aimlessness”.. a nagging feeling that “centered on small but increasingly lamentable omissions”.  Though written in the 30s, I feel that’s a sentiment that feels true for many of us in our modern lives.

One passage in particlar about books and life hit home for me: “For example, books. There’s no end to the books that I was forever promising myself to read; but when it came to reading them, I seemed never to have the time or the patience.  With music, too, it was the same way; the love for it–and I suppose the indefinable need–was also there, but not the will or opportunity to interrupt the routine which most of us come to cherish as existence.  This was true of other matters; new ideas, new concepts, and new developments about which I knew little or nothing.  It seemed a restricted way to live.”

His rather extreme solution was to literally spend a winter in darkness, in the coldest place on earth with not a living soul nearby. Once the sun sets during the Antarctic winter, it won’t rise again until the spring.  He describes it as a “long night as black as that on the dark side of the moon.” And yet he chose that. Embraced it as a rigorous challenge. Solitude as a way to sort the wheat from the chaff. I wondered if perhaps this winter I could use the hours that I hadn’t wanted or expected as a way to do my own mini-version of Admiral Byrds’ experiment.

So instead of fighting it and making myself “do more”, I’ve dived into the books and podcasts and music listed in those cryptic notes to myself …  I’ve read long articles in Outside magazine and books that I might not have tackled before.  But the best thing by far has been time to check out some of the things that my tween daughter has been telling me about, and finally reading the DogMan comic series that my son has read multiple times.  He struggles with reading and yet the silliness of the books have made him persevere. They were great.   I’ve listened to music my tween has on her playlists (who knew Marshmello was so relatable and great to blast while tackling domestic goddess duties?) and have finally made good on my promise to watch a few of her beloved shows.  In my normal day to day I’m not much of a tv or binge watcher.  I more of a movie person.  I’ve always loved the “willing suspension of disbelief” and the experience of seeing them on the big screen while smuggling snacks and sodas into the theatre in my “ghetto bag.” But since becoming a Mom it’s difficult to find hours to devote to getting into long tv series. Maybe it’s my fear of commitment, but I seem to get behind and then never catch up.

So, a few weeks ago I set out to watch the Netflix series “Stranger Things”. I may be the only human over the age of 12 in North America who hasn’t seen it, and I admit I was skeptical and prepared to be unimpressed. I literally knew nothing about the show other than the name and that my tween was obsessed. So color me surprised when I started the first episode and lo and behold, it takes place in 1984 with a bunch of 12 year olds. And guess who was 12 in 1984? Yours truly.

Apart from the obvious appeal of the nostalgia factor (I had the exact same horrible glasses and haircut as one of the characters and the details of the show (music, pop culture references) have me grinning in remembrance), I found it cleverly written and the characters very relatable. It becomes clear very early on that the show’s mystery could never take place in the world of today with our smartphones, GPS and helicopter parenting. But that is part of its genius.

If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it as a way to pass some very entertaining time. To oversimplify, a group of tweens embark on an adventure where very odd things begin happening in their hometown, and a conspiracy involving a mysterious scientific lab and a parallel universe unfolds.  One of the characters, Will, is lost in a dark, shadowy dimension.  But the world where he has become trapped is a strange mirror of ours.  It is cold and decaying, with unspeakable monsters stalking him.  He attempts to break back through to our world, and his friends and family try to rescue him, without understanding fully where he has gone.  He is often seen huddling in this place of emptiness, despair, and decay. It’s a whole boatload of trauma and suffering and all of the characters are irrevocably changed in their quest to save him from this place. And it’s scary and funny and well, just go watch it… Then come back and we can chat.

About three episodes in, it struck me that the Upside Down (what the characters call this dimension) is almost a perfect metaphor for depression.  It’s like living in a parallel universe.  You may look fine.  But in your mind, things are distorted, and thinking is disturbed. It looks and feels utterly real. And if you are a person who has ever experienced a deep depression, you are aware that it is a very real monster and you can feel trapped in its world. It’s hard to tell others.  Much like in the show, where Will tries to communicate by flashing lights to reach his friends and family, it can be hard to communicate what it is like. Many of us have difficulty with expressing what depression is.  So we rely on metaphors. “Low, dark, like everything is colorless and muffled.  Like I see your lips moving but can’t hear what you are saying. It feels cold and like all the joy in the world has gone.”

Depression can affect just about anyone, regardless of external circumstances.  And it’s an invisible illness (hence the very popular hashtag #whatyoudontsee).  Those of us who have dealt with it in our lives aren’t necessarily the emo types you might imagine.  Some of the shiniest, brightest people may harbor a very deep darkness.  They literally feel emotionally upside down.  They may keep it well-hidden, and never let on until the day when they perhaps stop fighting. And then you hear all the comments of how no one “ever suspected anything was wrong. They seemed fine.”  The active, involved, soulful, sensitive, funny, positive person you know may fight anger, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide almost daily. The bravest people are the ones who can be honest about their struggles.

The largest theme of the show is how a group of people come together to solve a mystery and to help someone they love. The young characters are often seeing playing Dungeons and Dragons, and they identify themselves as a “party”; a group of diverse people with specific skills and roles, ultimately working for the good of the group. I can’t help think that people who struggle with mental illness and addiction need a party. A group committed to supporting the person, unconditionally.  We don’t survive alone. We sometimes just need someone to sit with us in our dark places and let us know that we are seen and heard and accepted as we are. Someone who believes us.

In the end, even those of us who consider ourselves lone wolves or lovers of solitude, are designed for connection.  Connection has proven to be a key component to overcoming any traumatic experience, and some would even say may be the key to preventing much of the addiction and violence we see ravaging our world.

Admiral Byrd did what he set out to do– he discovered how little “stuff” he needed to survive (in a total badass -70 degree kind of way), he found how vital physical exercise is to mental health, (I cracked up at one of his journal entries about coming back from an hour walk; ” it’s only 41 below zero today at noon.” So much for my reluctance to get out and run on cold days!), he discovered peace and power in routines or rituals, that beauty often comes of struggle, that nature heals, and ultimately he concluded that the most important thing was family and community (sounds a lot like recovery to me!)

So, my own winter continues, where I have some days of solitude where I deliberately think about the deeper things and read the words of other storytellers, and then days where I eat cheetos and watch TV shows about alternate dimensions or dance mop the floor listening to techno.  But I think that ultimately, though I may have set out to discover a different latitude of my soul, I will just rediscover again and again how we are all on the same journey.  How we get there is different.  Some of us only arrive at the starting point after years of pain and struggle. Some of us have to pack it up and go to Antarctica. Some of us fight a daily battle against monsters. But in the end, we can tell our stories, listen to others tell theirs, and find that we aren’t as alone as we think we are.