The Occasional Guest

snapdragon: a journal of art & healing, fall 2017

I awoke in the wee hours one night to find something hovering in the dark just passed the foot of my bed, staring back at me. Some…thing—haunting, grotesque, crablike in its appearance, bobbing in place as if suspended by wire and blocking the bedroom door, its pincers moving slowly—open and closed, open and closed. My eyes, shocked into focus, widened in disbelief at the sight of it—this thing that could not be—and I blinked long and hard to interrupt what surely was some play of light and shadow, of tree branch and moon glow outside the window behind me. Blink as I might, whatever it was, remained. Panic building, I asked myself aloud, “Am I losing my mind?” 

Within the first few sessions with my therapist, a year or so prior, she’d cautioned me of the work ahead for someone with my diagnosis—code 296.63 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV or “Bipolar I disorder, most recent episode (or current) mixed, severe, without mention of psychotic behavior”—hyperbole I never bought into. I was simply sad. 

It was an especially tumultuous time for me. I had relocated cross-country from DC to Los Angeles, where I struggled to find my footing. I lost a seven-year relationship, had my car repossessed and got evicted from my apartment within the first year or so. With each of those bitter pills, my outlook dimmed until one morning I woke up unable to open my eyes or raise my head, my body a leaden mass from the weight of it all. Sleep, when it came, was a boon. The only respite I could conjure during that time came from drugs, sex and Häagen Dazs by the pint.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

With the appearance of this apparition, I questioned whether therapy was doing any good or merely stirring up old demons, of which the dark intruder could be one. My therapist suggested medication more than once, but I resisted, insistent that whatever ailed me could be dispensed with by will. I was reluctant to even call it what it was. Reluctant to call myself depressed because men don’t get that, especially not Black ones.

“Do you read?” she asked me one night early on in our relationship as if struck with an idea.

I hadn’t cared enough to be insulted. I shrugged. “Yeah. I read.”

“Take this down.”

In his memoir, A Darkness Visible, William Stryon wrote, “A phenomenon that a number of people have noted while in depression is the sense of being accompanied by a second self—a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster or decides to embrace it.” Styron’s book is aptly subtitled A Memoir of Madness.

In my bed that night, I lacked the energy or wherewithal to do much more than hoist myself on my elbows to study the apparition floating before me. The energy emanating from it seemed more mocking than menacing, more observer than attacker, which settled me somewhat although its appearance still troubled me.

“I don’t wanna lose my mind,” I told my therapist during our next session.

“You won’t,” she assured me.

During the worst of it, this phantom, or whatever it was, would visit me on one other night, an occasion no less upsetting than the first. I found comfort in Styron’s words: I could “struggle against the oncoming disaster, or decide to embrace it.”

And eventually I would embrace it.

I relinquished the fantasy that this thing, my condition, could simply be willed away with the blink of an eye. I eventually accepted medication and stopped it when I could safely do so. The specter of my depression remains with me always—an occasional guest that rises and recedes like the tide—and I continue to steer my way through it. The figure at my bed couldn’t harm me, only I could do that. It hadn’t moved against me as much as I had resisted it. 

On the second visitation by the thing, I rested my head to my pillow, leaned into Styron’s words, and accepted that it would linger there even after my eyes were closed to it. I was comforted in the knowing, however, that come morning, it—like all darkness—would be burned away.