“Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”
J.R.R. Tolkien, “Lament for the Rohirrim,” The Two Towers, Book I
The Two Towers was always my favorite book of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, and to me, the most powerful part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation was Theoden’s (Bernard Hill) recital of the above lines as his steward arms him before the Battle of the Hornburg. (In the embedded video clip, the speech starts about a minute in.)
I’ve felt a good deal in common with Theoden of late. Trying to put myself back together after leading a largely ineffective life for so many years, I often echo his question: “How did it come to this?” Yesterday, I had some vague idea of engaging with my physical world. In the deepest parts of a depressive episode, I lose the ability to act on my environment in a meaningful way. I can see the cat hair piling up in corners and the grime in the bathroom sink, and I have some idea these are unwelcome. But the effort of doing something to change them, to clean the sink or sweep the floor, requires some investment I don’t have. I know my environment is filthy, possibly disgusting, and I know I wouldn’t want anyone to see how I live, but I don’t care. No one besides my husband is going to see it, and even if I tidied up, things would get dirty again anyway, sooner or later. Why bother to begin?
Whether this latest dip is starting to let up or whether I simply let things go too long, the mess has been getting to me more and more over the last few days. So I did tidy up a bit yesterday. I didn’t tackle the bathroom, as I meant to, but I swept and dusted the living room. It took me an hour, and by the end of it, I was exhausted and in pain. Once again, I asked myself, “How did I come to this?” I was a dance major in college. A walk of three or five miles was nothing to me. How did I allow myself to get in such terrible shape that an hour of light cleaning had me in tears?
Tolkien adamantly denied that his works were allegories for anything, but readers always find meaning that authors never intended. Part of the poignancy of that arming speech, for me, is that Theoden knows the answer to his own question. He listened to the voice of depression, in the guise of his adviser Grima Wormtongue, and it turned him old. He left the work of ruling to others. When Rohan was meant to be the Western shield against enemies bent on invading Gondor, he refused those who would keep the old treaties any aid, although it cost him his only son. He drew into a small world where his depression ruled and hope was futile. And it resulted in the last stand at the Hornburg, and arming children for war. How did you come to it, Theoden? You did it. You did it to yourself.
And so did I.
I’m not implying that I could in any way have fought off my mental illness by force of will. I spent many years saying “This too shall pass” on bad days and getting through as well as possible. When “getting through” became impossible, I got help–or as much as I could. I do have a tendency to consider low level depression normal, so it takes my being in a bad state, indeed, for me to look outside for answers. And a lot of the help I got was barely better than the alternative. I don’t hate or blame myself for my depression, most of the time.
I think I could have responded to my circumstances better, maybe. Some of what I did, I did for good reasons. I gave up “dieting” because I truly believe it’s more hurtful than helpful. I renounced excessive exercise in the name of weight loss for much the same reason. The trouble is, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I stopped moving at all. Like Theoden, I drew inward. My world contracted to the size of my house. It was comforting, and besides, why challenge myself to walk downtown to the post office if my husband is willing to pick up the mail, or to join him on weekly shopping trips if he’s willing to do them alone? Many “self improvement” systems, good and bad, make much of getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is hard for me, I admit. I’ve had little comfort in my life; choosing to do uncomfortable things is not high on my list of priorities.
So now my legs and back hurt if I’m on my feet for any length of time, I have asthma and no stamina, and there is no Gandalf coming to fight my demons for me and restore me to health. Medication and therapy will only do so much to banish my personal Wormtongue. The rest is on me.
Because of my background in dance, I know what to do. My back hurts because my abdominal and core muscles have atrophied for lack of use. My legs hurt for much the same reason. I’ve lost most of my flexibility, which I once prized. A combination of yoga and Pilates would go a long way to remedying these things, as would getting out of the house and simply walking around the block a few times a week. I know doing these things would help, not only with the pain and the muscle atrophy, but with my constant hunger. The problem is doing them. I’ve always found my motivation in self-hate and bullying myself into doing what I didn’t want to. These even made up a great deal of my life as a dancer: “Look how fat you are even moving as much as you do! You can’t ever stop or you’ll be disgusting! No wonder your boyfriend wants to hook up with other women!” I’ve managed to avoid going back to that mindset so far, but I’m terrified it’ll return the moment I start moving. Moving, you see, wakes up the damaged child inside me (and, by the way, I feel extremely silly using those terms), and starts it crying. All it wants is to be left alone and let to sleep and feel no pain. I’m not sure it can feel anything but pain, and that terrifies me. I don’t want to re-experience that every day of my life; it’s horrible. How does one integrate something like that? Of course, beating myself up, telling that damaged child to suck it up and stop whining because that’s getting us nowhere, doesn’t help, either.
How do I deal with this? What do I do? My former therapist used to tell me, “Baby steps,” but baby steps are abhorrent to me. I’m made of all or nothing, highs and lows. Why bother taking a step so small you can’t see you’ve gone anywhere? Why bother with a small step if even that causes inner weeping? If I sit on the couch on my ass, my back doesn’t hurt either. My current bad health distresses me, but in a distant way. On another level, it doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s as if, perhaps, the shrieks of that damaged child are so loud and demanding I have no attention for anything else. I suppose parents feel something similar when a colicky infant won’t stop screaming for days on end and all they want is for it to SHUT THE FUCK UP! I don’t know any way to silence my internal screaming other than to remain still and small. The damaged child inside me controls my whole life.
When last I saw my doctor, I got a referral to physical therapy. My first appointment is tomorrow. I’m toying with the idea of doing Pilates again. Both these things terrify me. If I can’t find some internal meaning and positive motivation, they’ll go the same way as everything in my life: I’ll do them for a while, maybe even a long while, and then give up.
How did I come to this? The real question is “How do I get out and never come back?” I haven’t got a clue.