A Reawakening (in 3 Acts)

My mental health can be measured at any given moment, with alarming accuracy, by when I get out of bed.

If I wake up (and actually manage to successfully exit the bed, stage left) at 5 or 5:30, I am likely fueled by clarity and feel like myself. If I stay under the deceptive comfort of my sheets until 6:30 or later, I am likely in an icy mental fog and feel distant from my true self. It’s uncanny how consistently true this is for me.

Well, today is the first day I’ve managed to pry myself out of bed at 5:30 in roughly 75 mornings. My mental windshield has been frozen and fogged up for close to 3 months. And I’m achingly ready to hit the defrost button. For me, hitting that button means doing what I’m doing right now: writing. Writing about fatherhood. Writing about mental health. Writing about anything at all, really.

But I know these things take time. And repetition. So I will try to do it again tomorrow. And I will try to do it again the day after that. And if I manage to wake up early and write 2 or 3 times this week, I’ll consider that a win.

New beginnings don’t begin themselves. You have to put in a good-faith effort. And my leap of that good faith consists of trusting (blindly, it seems at first) that if I let my body step out of that warm bed at 5:00, my mind and heart will step out too.

But on the first day, it feels a bit like stepping off a cliff.

Now it’s 2 days later. I slept through my alarm yesterday, and my body (or really, my mind) told me all about it for the rest of the day. I felt un-lucid and un-awake. Arcade Fire once said “Sleeping is giving in… so lift those heavy eyelids.” Well, I gave in yesterday. And my eyelids felt as heavy as steel curtains all day.

But I did not give in today. So here I am, writing by the glow of my laptop in the pre-dawn darkness. 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. It’s a whole lot better than 0 out of the previous 75 groggy, uninspired, wake-up-as-late-as-humanly-possible mornings.

There is an alchemy to the act of writing that triggers my clarity. When I’m in a funk, I wearily tell myself I can’t write right now because I have no clarity. And while that feels true in that moment, here is what’s more true: I have no clarity right now because I’m not writing.

My mind enters hibernation mode when I’m not making any attempt to express my inner monologue or carve out an interior life for myself. Without the act of writing, my creativity, my optimism, and my confidence all gradually shut down. It is alarming to me how stark the emotional swing can be.

The last year is a perfect example. My mental health was good from mid-January 2021 through April. Then it was terrible from May through July, as I’ve blogged extensively about. Then it was good to great from August to early November. And it’s been scattershot at best (although manageable) ever since.

If you look at my blog during the last 13 months, almost the only time I wrote anything was during the “up” months. There are no blog posts documenting, in real time, the weeks and months when I was in a funk. (I only blogged about my depression after it had fully abated.) So during the times when I felt good, the question is: Was I writing because I felt good? Or did I feel good because I was writing? Both are likely true, but I’m inclined to think the latter is more relevant. The mental and physical act of writing always colors my greyscale mind and infuses me with an energetic sense of purpose.

I think back on how joyous and lucid I felt last October when I camped in West Virginia with my college buddies and saw 2 Caspian shows in Massachusetts with Danielle, and it makes me ache. Where did that unencumbered version of me go this winter? Why do the cold, light-starved months almost always seem to erase my true, buoyant self? (And sometimes the summer too.) Where did this Jekyll-and-Hyde mental health cycle originate?

I’m not entirely sure. What I know is that the gentle clacking of these key strokes in the dawn’s early light — which has now appeared outside the previously darkened window — has always been, and will continue to be, the soundtrack of my emergence.

In my last blog post, from back in mid-December, I talked about the Dylan Thomas line “Do not go gently into that good night,” and how I was determined not to do so.

Well, I did. I let the dark days of December and January get the best of me once again.

But every new day, as well as every new March, is a chance to turn it all around.

So I will wake up in the darkness.

And I will write.

Now it’s Saturday, and I woke up with my early alarm for the 3rd time in 4 days. This, I must say, is a promising development. Inertia has been my prevailing feeling (or un-feeling) since November. So it’s a deep relief to feel — dare I say it? — a bit of momentum. Only time will tell if I can sustain it.

Having 90 minutes to myself before the kids wake up is vital to my well-being, and spending a good portion of that time writing down my thoughts affirms my sense of identity. Which is something that a parent can easily lose in the deafening grind of raising young kids.

Yesterday, when I woke up early, felt almost the exact opposite of the day before, when I slept in. I took the kids outside both days, but yesterday I felt calm, confident, and patient as a dad. The day before, I felt scattered and impatient and stuck in the cramped confines of my head. Establishing my sense of self in the early morning made all the difference for the rest of the day.

We ended up spending the entire afternoon yesterday at Codorus State Park. The kids, who are impervious to boredom and fussing when they’re outside, played endlessly on a half-decent playground and were thrilled to discover a yurt. They climbed on some big logs, sang lots of songs, and made up goofy stories. We left only when the daylight started to fade and the kids got a little chilly in the late winter twilight.

As for me, I let the day slowly unfold, without hurrying or forcing anything. The simple wonders of nature and a nearly-forgotten sense of clarity combined to make the afternoon playful and serene. It was the most enjoyable 6 hours I’ve had in quite a while.

Mental health is a vast spectrum of light and darkness. I have lived in every color of that spectrum in the last few years, from radiant joy to shadowy depression. And at this moment, I feel ready to let the light back in to my murky, fogged-up, winterized soul.

So I will set my alarm for 5:00 each day. I will fiercely resist the deadening lure of the snooze button. I will grab the morning by the scruff of the neck. I will stand up and carve out the day rather than sitting back and letting it carve me up.

The Saturday morning sun just came up, and it’s time to rouse the kids from their slumber.

After an hour alone with my thoughts (and a keyboard), I feel like myself.

So I’m ready for Greyson and Violet to be awake again.

Because I finally feel awake again.

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