Adversity is part of the human condition, not just when a clinical label is put onto a ‘difficult swim’ or ‘uphill climb’. Even people who consider themselves “normal” may find my mental health analogies useful, especially when the unexpected strikes and ‘normal’ is not a helpful word anymore. Think of woes as oceanic trenches represent woes and mountains as ‘peaks’ for the sake of this illustration. English vernacular bundles “down” and “low” with melancholy — I could speak of deep “blueness”, knowing the seas seem blue. Since I am a musician, ‘blueness’ is too complex to include so I won’t talk about color (and timbre) for now.
I took a more direct tack to mental health maintenance and made rapid progress this past year. I wanted to share parts of my story in a way that could help others make the swim from the depths to the shoreline… …but I really wanted to make speeches from a pinnacle. Imagine I reach a mental-health-baseline-beach in recovery-phase gear: wet-suit, flippers, and other amusing amphibious paraphernalia. “Let me tell you how to recover from psychological challenges but,” I say with a snorkel still hanging from my goggles, “first, I’m going to summit that crag in the distance!” I doubt I am the only person tempted to hide my struggle until a mountain-top moment but I need to allow time and space to change my “gear” and strategies as I prepare to pursue ambitious aspirations.
I left my friends’ home after five years in the DC-Metro area to live with my father in Holland, Michigan. I did not want to do that. There was no ‘good’ time to transition but I’ve deployed healthy coping mechanisms: music-practice, other stuff I’m unmotivated to mention, and running. I visited the Saugatuck Dunes state park to jog its beaches, dunes, and forests. Sand steals energy from my stride* so I tried to stay on the wet, narrow band constantly licked by Lake Michigan. In my holistic health analogy, this strategy maps onto when someone reaches their familiar baseline. Leaving that more-solid zone takes so much energy; the cold, nasty water of “sickness” still gives some buoyancy while each stride on the beach carries our full weight. Plus, trying to gain traction is awkward; it’s easy to make-up reasons to flirt with the cold waves and (again) fall-in the water. Once we reach our metaphorical ‘beach’ we can stay there or graduate to new landscapes. Yet between the beach and the mountains are dunes: exhausting and awkward.
Dunes are beyond the idea of recovery, I feel: they require ambition. The traction-sucking sand makes itself into a mound, too big to go around. Mounting A HILL OF SUCK requires different muscle groups than our swim; getting back to normal is prerequisite and improving further is another task. A recovery mindset is “something is deficient in me but I can amend it” but an ambition mindset implies “I not only have abilities to share, now, but I am going to keep getting better ** .” Surmounting an actual sand-dune injects me with exquisite self-confidence.
My power-level rises from month to month but I’ve hesitated to go into detail — I’ve thrown most of the baggage off of my carousel but there might be a few more items to discard. On the telephone, my sister and I commiserated about our failed nuclear family. Basically, my mother is a riptide and my father is a beach umbrella — that’s all. Mom should be avoided and dad is nice but has scant utility outside of his comfort zone. There is a particular, falsely-comforting certainty in blaming one’s family of origin. My desire to be critical of either parent is a step backward to a cold, unforgiving shoreline… a familiar hell. Escaping the beach (before a storm) is paramount. A mental metamorphosis is required to finally crest this dune and reach a launch-point.
The word ‘metamorphosis’ conjures an urge, in me, to play with insect analogies. My first draft of this section was self-indulgent and too long. The butterfly example is too cliché, for my tastes and I begin a lengthy riff on other insects with complete metamorphosis; moths have a toolkit of evolutionary advantages over butterflies, like the sound dampening wing-fuzz that helps camouflage them from bat echo-location (*sarcasm* because that’s relevant to mental health). I speculated about a metamorphosis like that of the beetles, who begin life pale and vulnerable but don armor and a variety of weapons in adulthood (honestly, a better mental health analogy than my moths facts). Tiger beetles can be both breathtakingly beautiful and ruthless predators: an embodiment of violent knight-in-shining-armor fantasies. Dipterids make an astonishing transition from shapeless maggots to the world’s most sophisticated aviators but calling flies by their scientific name is distractingly geeky. Each example has a dramatic pupal stage where their insides liquefy and shift around inside of a simmering bundle. Larvae halt activity and turn inward to trigger a near-total change in both looks and behavior.
[Aside to the audience] I really wanted to talk about metamorphosis through the lens of bees because they fascinate me the most, scientifically and also as an artist (as an undergraduate, I wrote poetry about bees). Bees grow from helpless, unremarkable white grubs to creatures of both morphological and cognitive sophistication. I waxed poetic (see what I did there?) about bee body parts but it’s really bee behavior that justifies the analogy. Bees perceive the world with eyes that see in ultraviolet, they map their environment with memories, and they can communicate with one another through dance. Bee metamorphosis has a collective purpose; their helpless young are not just investments for the gene-pool (in fact, few are!). They are future members of a society. Beyond copulation and carnage, bees have community! Yet I have a better example.
Dragonflies and their cousins (damsel flies) fascinate me, too. Our personal narratives will be more like the dragonfly-nymph’s journey from the pond’s bottom to the air. The shoreline is critical. This transformation is often called “incomplete metamorphosis” but that term understates its ramifications. The nymph (baby/juvenile) spends a long time as an aquatic predator. Like the insects I mentioned earlier, not all of its genetic potential is interpreted at first; the nymph needs to grow under-water to a certain point and conditions need to be right before it can take its first leap. The “incompleteness” of the change stems from the fact that they never turn into a pupating mush. Kind elders say to young people “you could be anything”, as if everyone were a ‘mystery maggot’. Our talents and shortcomings are more apparent than caterpillars’. Like people, the dragonfly’s true nature is mostly apparent but some attributes remain unexpressed until a kairos moment arrives. Even “normal” adult humans learn new things about themselves after critical milestones.
Many times, I wished to pupate. “If my challenges went away and I could just hide-and-heal long enough,” I thought, “maybe I could emerge from beneath a pile of blankets as someone better.” Nymphs never stop being hungry. Each instar seems like deja vu but over a lifetime the progress is impressive. A climactic change happens at the water’s surface (the figurative beach, to bring us full-circle). The nymph splits its skin for the last time, on the edge of all it has ever known. When a critical threshold is finally exceeded, the hidden aerial genes are expressed and life changes forever!
They keep their shape and their appetites but now they can fly. Instead of becoming radically different, they become a more awesome incarnation of what was there all along. When the proverbial tides bring hopeless feelings, do not forget that we are dragonflies. Don’t stop hunting; someday we’ll be ready to put ourselves on the edge and learn what kismet has hidden. Patrol the pond long enough from below and, surely someday, we will patrol from above.
(left) This emerging dragonfly photo comes courtesy of “Here for the Planet”‘s article on Dragonflies and damsel flies. https://bit.ly/2GIGm8u
Great Titles I felt like I couldn’t use (but I still wanted to share):
- “Breaking the Chrysalis”
- “The Leap: Ideas about Metamorphoses”
- “Leaving the Beach”
- “The Beach: does recovery metamorphose into more ambitious empowerment?”
- “I promise this isn’t all dune analogies and insect metaphors, please read it”
*It also takes energy away from the impact of my steps. Reframing the conundrum, I embrace running on sand because I build muscles rather than destroy my joints (via concrete & asphalt).
** Original text: As I grow, my reaction to frustration is changing from “this is shit; I feel like shit; I’m shit,” to “this is a mother-fucker; you mother-fucker! I’m going to fucking prevail!” In lieu of saying something faux-sophisticated, I’m going to let readers taste my rawness.