This is Bjorn. He’s happy to meet you. Bjorn sits on the corner of my laptop while I work and he sticks his yellow tongue out at me.
Before I tell you his story I should warn you that if hearing about people’s struggles with mental illness are upsetting or distasteful to you, then this isn’t the blog post to read. Bjorn doesn’t care if you stay or if you go. He’ll give you the razz either way.
He may not look like much to you. After all, he’s just a Mr. Potatohead toy, and a cheap one at that. He didn’t come with dozens of interchangeable parts, just the elements you see here. (Remember when Mr. Potatohead came with felt eyebrows you could stick behind the eyes? I always thought they made him look like Groucho Marx). In fact, to every human being in the world, he’s nothing more than a silly toy.
But to my wife and daughter and myself, he represents a lot more.
I’ve talked in the past, on this forum and others, about my struggles with mental illness. I’ve talked about the soul crushing depression which began when I was very young and continued through my adult life, coming to a head in 2009 when my son entered the military.
At the time of my first hospitalization in 2011, I was at the lowest point in my life. I’d like to say that that visit turned everything around for me, and started me on the road to the place I occupy today, (which, it is important to emphasize, is a much, much better place). And maybe it did. But it certainly did not feel that way.
I don’t remember a lot about what I thought and felt during the days I was there. I can’t even remember off the top of my head how long I was in… it feels like maybe ten days? Regardless, I worked hard during the time I was there to convince the people that mattered that it would be ok to let me out. That was pretty much my only goal because it took me about twenty seconds on the inside to realize that I needed to be outside.
However, when I got home I was, in all honesty, probably in worse shape than when I’d gone it. I was now living on a daily cocktail of psychopharmaceuticals which may very well have been restructuring my brain chemicals but were also wreaking havoc on just about every other part of my body. I was a hateful, horrible way to live.
My poor wife and daughter were amazing, however, and one of the first things they did when I got home was to ask me if there was anything I wanted. I remember, through the fog of the medicines, asking them to get me a toy. A few hours later they brought me my buddy, Bjorn.
They were a little nervous that I wouldn’t like him. I hadn’t given them much to go on, after all, just asking for a toy. But for not being sure what to get, they couldn’t have made a better selection.
I remember looking at the box he came in and being attracted to its bright colors. It was a happy box. Then I opened it and his half-dozen or so parts tumbled onto the bed next to me. The act of putting him together was both the first constructive and first creative thing I had done in a very long time. Seeing him come alive piece by piece, (which sounds very Mary Shelly-ish as I type it now), was an exercise in victory. With each limb attached, he became a little more whole, and eventually, when I pushed his hardhat down onto his head, he was complete. Even in my diminished state, the metaphor was not lost on me. If I could put Bjorn together, maybe I could do the same thing to myself.
After he was done, I kept him on my nightstand, and I looked over at him often. Knowing that he’d be there, giving me the razz, was a comfort, an anchor.
For the next few years, I led a pretty miserable existence. Getting through the day at all was a win. Eventually, though, my wife and I realized that I wasn’t getting better, and if anything I might have been going downhill a bit.
There are photos of me taken during that dark stretch, but I do not like to look at them. I’ve never been much for looking at “dead things in the water” as Frodo says, and that is exactly what I see in those photos.
So it was decided a second stay in the hospital was needed. What I didn’t know at that time, for she has only recently told me this, was that if I didn’t improve during and after this stay, my wife, who clearly was being put through way more than she signed on for, was considering placing me in a group home on a permanent basis. She had reached the end of her personal resources, emotionally.
But I went in not know this, as I said, and instead had only my own motivations to work through. This stay was different. I decided that I wanted to do more than convince my doctors to let me out. I decided I need to work through my own darkness and see about the possibility of coming out of it.
There is irony here. During my first stay, I was a very model patient. I attended group therapy, I spent a lot of time in the community room, getting to know the other people on the ward, watching a lot of TV and playing board games.
During my second stay, I remained in my room pretty much constantly, reading books. I read more books during that stay, (which I think was a little longer, maybe 12 days), than I’d ever read in such a concentrated amount of time. I read all three of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, a volume from Barns & Nobel which contained five full H.G. Wells novels, and then I started reading books from the small library on the ward. In total, I think I read fourteen books during the time I was there.
I didn’t go to group therapy and I didn’t interact with the other people who were on the ward.
But here’s a funny thing: the doctors responded by beginning to decrease my medications. A couple they just cut out altogether, till eventually, I was only taking two. And I started to feel better. Between the removal of the vast number of chemicals I was ingesting and the total literary immersion, I started to see things improve. I started to see things differently. I started to experience a foreign, funny feeling that at the time I could not identify. I gradually came to realize that it was hope.
Now, I’d like to tell you that from the day I got out the second time, everything was great, but I can’t. I was still seeing a therapist weekly, still taking two psych meds and in the midst of everything, we moved from the house we’d lived in for 16 years, which was an experience that tested my coping abilities to the maximum extent. I hated every minute of the task, and it seemed to me like it went on for years, though it was only a period of a month or so.
Eventually, though, Kimmy and I got into our little apartment. It was small compared to what we’d been used to, and it required that we divest ourselves of huge amounts of possessions collected over the course of our lives together. There just wasn’t room for all of our stuff.
That proved to be cathartic. It’s amazing how much of what we carry around with us from place to place is nothing more that: moveable chains with no function other than to be carried around. When they were gone, freedom broke out like an uprising.
I’d like to tell you that since we moved everything has improved… so I will. We moved into our apartment in May of 2015. Since then I’ve written and published three books. I write constantly. Aside from these blog posts and the novels, (the fourth of which, as I’ve hinted here recently, is almost two-thirds complete), I have my own website, I’ve published numerous poems on the website AllPoetry.com, I maintain a good old fashioned pen and paper journal, and I’m a regular annoyance on Twitter and Facebook. Let’s face it I’m everywhere!
And earlier this year the final medication, which I’d been taking primarily to help me sleep, went the way of all things, and the only thing that alters my brain chemistry is the rush I get when I read something that I wrote and realize it’s just about as damn good as it could possibly be. And the occasional Labatt’s Blue. Let’s not be ridiculous here.
So now my old buddy Bjorn watches everything I write, sitting constantly at the periphery of my vision, his tongue still poking out to remind me not to take myself too seriously. And to remind me that if I never sell another book, if no one ever reads another word I write, I have still won a victory far too major to discount.