Bipolar Is A Riptide: Breathing Lessons

Bipolar Is A Riptide: Breathing Lessons November 19, 2018
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

I’ve written before that ~I write like a woman drowning. I write with a desperation to know and be known, to understand God, to see glory. I write to breathe again.~

I’ve been breathless lately.

Mental illness is a riptide on otherwise calm shores. It is the pull of deep waters lulling you further and further from safe and sturdy ground, all at once weightless and buoyant, caressed by the lapping tides. It invites you to surrender, to be carried away in the vastness of the sea. To be small and insignificant, a speck floating on the surface of an infinite blue horizon. It unmoors you and calls you calmly at first.

You don’t even know you are adrift.

One moment I am a fish in the waves, a girl with the sun on her face and mermaid hair. I am saltwater tongued and my skin is pure silk, watery limbs spread out wide like a starfish. Every cell in my body is alive and I can hear the siren song of the deep and hidden things  just past the surface.

When I am manic, I am lithe and beautiful and strong. I hold dreams cracked open wide like a chest full of buried treasure, glittering like gold. I can hold my breath for so long waiting to exhale. I can dive to the secret places where the shimmer of sunshine swirls like satin ribbons and the ocean floor is a ballroom, it’s sandy bottom streaked with the symphony of the spinning seas. I can open my eyes underwater and see the mystery and taste the briny grit of life in my dazzling teeth. The world is alight with wonder. I am the woman I believe I was created to be when I am cresting in mania. I see God. I am unafraid.

It’s a cruel truth that every peaking wave must eventually crash to earth.

This is the unavoidable truth of bipolar depression.

The first wave hits hard and leaves you breathless. You gasp and choke and your lungs burn with the deep black sea. You are smacked sideways by each wave, and when you come up for air you can no longer see the shore. Every direction stretches out limitless and empty. The heavens have turned cold as they’re dragged into the edge of the ocean at the end of the world. You feel the stir of dark things bubbling and churning under your dangling feet. You are so very afraid. Your skin in soggy, and your bones have turned to lead.

You think you might see God’s face again if He would just wake up and calm the seas.

Doesn’t Jesus care if I drown?

You are so tired of treading water and going nowhere.

All you want is to close your eyes for a moment and let your body go limp and sink into the inky midnight below where the whole world will quiet and still and you won’t have to struggle against the rift in the earth pulling you across poles. This is the bob and lure, the silvery hooked bait promising you every good and true thing, moments before it guts you.

So you pray for strength to keep your head above water. You keep seeing the psychiatrist with the kind eyes. You thank God for a nightstand filled with orange prescription bottles that quiet and still the storms. You don’t have those same brilliant days where the world is ablaze in wonder, you have to really search for it most of the time, but the bad days have taught you to see where no one else would bother to look.

It’s muscle memory to keep turning your eyes towards beauty. You remember faith is faith when you can’t see a thing.

Your life is like watching sandcastles be eaten up by lapping waves just when they’ve begun to take shape. You worry your illness disqualifies you. You wonder if you’ll do anything more than survive your days.

And then you remember the trick to riptides. You try to keep your footing, but if you lose it, if you begin to feel the pull and drag, you don’t swim against it. You swim alongside it. You accept that the ebb and flow, the crest and the crash are part of your life and you learn to live anyway. You get further away before you get closer. You rest when you need to so you’ll have the strength to get back to solid ground. You signal for help even if you can’t stand needing it.

You survive it so one day you’ll see the tempest calmed and the sky turned a milky pink.  You’ll stretch out your cramped limbs digging your toes into the powdery sand, soft and pure as milled sugar. You’ll walk tender-footed for the rest of your days but you’ll never forget the feel of the earth sturdy beneath you. You’ll run your fingers along conch shells fingering their magnificent swirled necks, hear the kick and clatter of sand dollars like brilliant chimes, and gather the glittering hues of velvety soft sea glass. You’ll remember what it is to see underwater with breath in your lungs.

You’ll marvel at the world again, beautiful and magnificent and true, mostly because the tide has changed and you’re still around to notice.

So you let dust settle on your laptop, you stop watching the news. You let the world get quieter and you don’t feel like you’re not holding up your end of making it a better place if you don’t like or share that post. You don’t care so much if you get retweeted by people who already agree with you. You smile at the checkout lady and let the woman with two items cut in front of you. You stop punishing yourself.  You wear your comfortable pants and don’t cringe at yourself in the mirror. You stop arguing with strangers in your head. You believe in small conversations about big things. You say no to that thing, and that thing, and that thing. You do less. You let people think what they will.  You practice loving yourself anyways. You make space. You say thank you again and again until you mean it.  You believe in grace for people, and you take some for yourself too. You leave your phone at home and step outside under the pines and let your feet sink in the snowdrifts. You watch your warm breath escape your lips in the frigid air and you let yourself fall like an angel, like a starfish, limbs spread wide under the cottony sky.

You learn to breathe again and again.

About Alia Joy
Alia Joy is an author who believes the darkness is illuminated when we grasp each other's hand & walk into the night together. She writes poignantly about her life with bipolar disorder as well as grief, faith, marriage, poverty, race, embodiment, and keeping fluent in the language of hope. Her first book, Glorious Weakness: Discovering God In All We Lack, is available for pre-order now. Sushi is her love language and she balances her cynical idealism with humor and awkward pauses. She lives in Central Oregon with her husband, her tiny Asian mother, her three kids, a dog, a bunny, and a bunch of chickens. You can read more about the author here.

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