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I first tried to read Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar twenty years ago, while I was in college.  But I got about fifty pages in, just to the mass food poisoning scene, and I quit.  And I didn’t pick up the novel again until this past weekend.

I wish I’d finished the book twenty years ago;  I also wish that I hadn’t had a serious case of OCD and depression, both of which are what stopped me from finishing the book.  I had such fear of food poisoning that I couldn’t even read about it. How’s that for neurosis?

Esther’s descent into depression is one I’m well familiar with, and Plath is able to nail it with poetic language and startling imagery.  Esther seemingly has it all:  she’s smart, driven, focused.  She wins a scholarship and travels to NYC.  But during this trip, as in everywhere else in her life, she fails to connect to others.  As she grows more and more depressed and realizes that she can’t envision her future, she starts planning her suicide.

Esther becomes very paranoid about others; as her own confidence fails, as her disinterest in her life grows, she begins to distance herself from others, and from her life.  This is classic depression:  losing interest and beating a quick retreat from everything.  If life is too painful, just quit.

After Esther makes a good attempt at suicide (modeled after the author’s own first attempt), she is sent from hospital to hospital, eventually ending up in a private country club sort of facility, the 60’s version of a psychiatric hospital.  She has shock treatments, first at one hospital, then the private hospital.  There aren’t many details about the treatment itself, but it was common at the time.  ECT is still in use today, but not as common as chemical treatments.

The other treatment Esther is given is Insulin Shock treatment, which makes her gain weight, but seems to have little other effect.  Talk therapy is ineffective as well, so what is it that changes so that she is freed from the hospital?  Is it time that makes her better? Is she really better?  Is she back to her ‘normal’ self?

In the throes of depression, this is a thought that often surfaces for me:  why can’t I just be myself again?  The problem with this line of thinking is that, most likely, I wasn’t really feeling like myself before the sudden onslaught of depression, and most likely was already feeling unlike myself.  Romanticizing the past (and thinking of what you’ve lost or given up) is detrimental to you, but it’s a self indulgence few can resist.  Esther is no exception:  she looks back at her life and wonders why she couldn’t enjoy her achievements.

Again, is she cured?  Has she improved?  In the last few pages of The Bell Jar, Esther’s thoughts:

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. 

I am, I am, I am.” 

Bragging over still beating, or bragging because she failed at her suicide attempts?  The ending can be seen as positive, with Esther returning to school and leaving the hospital.  But what has changed?  Is she cured, or will she return to a similar state in the future?

The answer depends on your view of mental health and psychiatry.  There are no known cures for depression or anxiety or bi-polar disorder; there are only ways to control the symptoms.  Every generation has its panacea for these ills:  electroshock therapy, lobotomy, life commitment.  Our generation has seen Prozac and other SSRI’s claim to battle our ills with little white pills.  Even further in our past, there were holes drilled in heads (trephining), blood let from our veins.

Mental illness doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s more of a spectrum.  It can also be episodic, with remissions lasting years, decades.  I don’t know what happens to Esther after she is discharged from the hospital, but i do know what happened to the author.

I’ve written about this so many times that it feels like a broken record.

Pills: tiny, mostly white, totally innocuous in appearance. Normal, even. Pills are the answer to everything, if you believe Big Pharma. But for me, pills are still one formidable foe, one I haven’t been able to defeat entirely in eighteen years.

Why eighteen years? In 1996, I was an undergrad at UT Knoxville, living alone, isolating, yelling at my cat. I was miserable and had no idea why. It was one of the hottest falls I can recall, and walking to school each day, I felt the heat. I had headaches for hours on end, for months, yet each time I made the trip down to the local drugstore (many, many trips), I stood in the pain reliever aisle and stared. And moved bottles around. And obsessed. And walked away. I could not even purchase a pain reliever, much less get one down. So I suffered until the headaches went away.

This was just me in the very early stages of what would become a very serious journey into OCD. Not only could I not make a decision on taking a much-needed pain reliever, I couldn’t make decisions about anything.

Indecision seems like such a small thing. For me, it’s a sign that things are not quite right. It means that I may not be able to do the things I should do, the adult things, the things most people find easy. It might mean that I am wearing out already thin grooves in my brain. Those obsessive thoughts are easy to resurrect, happy to torment me once more.

It’s time to take stock: it’s been 18 years since I was diagnosed with OCD, and how far have I come? What have I accomplished since then? That’s not fair to myself, really, seeing as there’s no cure for OCD and I have done remarkably well for extended periods. I’ve worked, finished grad school. Finished a book, even. And yet, pills.
Pills still haunt me. Pills still have the ability to ruin an entire day.

OCD makes my life much more challenging. If I’m having a bad day, whether due to obsessions and anxiety or whatever else, meaningless, habitual tasks become mountains.

So what did I accomplish today? I got out of bed.

Recovery from any physical or mental trauma takes many forms. Sometimes, the road to recovery can surprise you. Mine was in the form of 100 steps.

The Hill, located on UT Knoxville’s campus, is a place of legend and mystery. Haunted by the ghosts of Civil War soldiers, and possibly a wolf, the Hill stands as the oldest part of the university. Walking up the Hill, from any side, was a veritable hike up a mountain. If you were unfortunate enough to have classes on The Hill, as many engineering/science/psychology majors do, then you were whipped into shape, and quick.
On the far side of The Hill, looking towards downtown Knoxville, you had a perfect view of the giant golden phallus, or as it is properly named, the Sunsphere. I was privy to this view several times a week for one or two semesters. I also had the best ass of my life, from climbing the 100 steps that rose up that side of The Hill.
For two semesters, I rented an apartment right on the river, close to downtown. This meant I had to walk down the main street towards campus; The Hill is the first building you come to from that side. Once you got to that side, you either had to bite the bullet and climb the steps, or you had to walk several blocks further and walk up another easier set of steps.
Steps are steps, right? Not in this case. The steps that faced the Student Center on the other side of The Hill were wide, with rails, and large landings between flights, so students carrying their weight in books could rest.
The steps on the downtown-facing side of The Hill were small, narrow steps, with few landings. They were steeper steps, inclining at an angle that was nearly straight up. By the time I reached the top of this flight, I was panting hard and my heart was beating nearly out of my small ribcage. But I did it every day and, with practice, and the help of two home-made cinnamon rolls from the Student Center bakery, I finally was able to climb those steps with ease. This was much more important than just climbing a mountain, this was saving my life.
How did the 100 steps save my life? Here’s how: exercise increases appetite, which forces one to eat more, which causes one to gain weight. And I needed to gain weight.
When I moved to Knoxville (for the second time) in 1998, I weighed in at 75 pounds. When I left in May of 1999, I had gained up to 95 pounds. And I owe it to two things: persistence of will, and that Hill.
I had an 8 o’clock class at least three days per week, and I would walk from my apartment to the Student Center most mornings, if I had time, and get two large cinnamon rolls. Then I would gather my courage and my books and walk up that Hill. I had to stop for breaks often, but I never quit. I even tried to drive to classes on the Hill on occasion, but there is a small circle of parking and with nearly 30,000 students on campus, chances of getting a space on the Hill were slim, almost nil. So I sucked it up and walked up the Hill.
On mornings when I didn’t go to get breakfast first, I had to walk up the less traveled back side of the Hill, the narrow steps. I met other students occasionally, but there was much less traffic. And when I left classes, I would catch a view of downtown and the Sunsphere, as I made my way back down the Hill.
During Christmas break, I came back to Nashville to visit with my family. They were so shocked to see how much weight I had gained that they took pictures. An aunt or cousin actually took a photo of my ass. I still have that photo, a happy reminder of what I had overcome. A happy reminder that even if you are down, you can pick yourself back up again. You can conquer whatever it is that has attacked your mind and body. You can do anything you set your mind to. Anything.

I’m eternally grateful for that Hill, though I cursed it during those long treks up. When I was finally able to go and purchase new jeans, I was thrilled with the muscles in my legs, and in my butt. I was proud. I had reason to be. I had gained twenty pounds, and it was because I had the courage to walk up that Hill every single day.

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