How My Experience with Mental Illness Helped Me Trust My Darkness.
A wise and wild coyote once told me, “It is in happiness that you will find the seeds of sadness. And it is in sadness that you will find the seeds of light.”
When I was a kid, I couldn’t bear to be in complete darkness. Even as a teenager, there was always a light somewhere: a nightlight in the kitchen, light in a window next door, streetlight outside. My journey has been to find that light in myself, instead of always seeking it outwardly.
I didn’t know what true freedom was like until I lived through this story. I had a conception of freedom and a lot of daring cliff-jumps, but the darkness remained a sign and a trigger.
Throughout my whole life, this specter of the idea of darkness chased and chased me. Or maybe it never actually moved — just stood, luminous and unending — and I kept running. I have messages written all over my body, to remind myself of the truth — about the dark, about myself.
I have always been a personality of extremes. This is my gift, in my new legend: to be able to viscerally feel, process, move through ecstatic heights and drastic lows, with not much in between.
The “not much in between” though was my own conception. The instinct to keep running, searching for higher ground, safer territory, more abundant provisions, without realizing perhaps I could, with time, just stay here. Grow these seeds of my own planting. Take some time, gaze into the night, into the earth, into the darkness, into the silence, into myself, and not only see and receive what is there, but to trust it.
This is not just a story about struggling with mental illness. It is a story about what every man, woman and spirit is here to grapple with: personal freedom and personal truth, and how they are inextricably intertwined.
My lens through which to view this was a hardened diagnosis, a label, but it doesn’t have to be. What is mentally ill is the conception that any of us, at any moment, are poisoned, pushed, bullied, abandoned, victimized, traumatized, forced, abused into thinking that we are any of those things. That our dreams are too big for us. That we cannot trust ourselves or others. That we aren’t enough.
The gift of this profound shattering is that inherently my world was dismantled — my stories, my legends, my truths. Personally I am on a path of spirit, which I believe we all have the capacity to awaken to and be embraced by.
We all have the potentiality to live, write, share a legend; to give and receive messages; to be spurred onward by dreams, signs, metaphors, unexplainable ecstatic experiences, radiant joy, divine truth, because having a fluid, flowing life of the spirit is the same as living a free life. I believe that it is all the same — no separation between real life and the legend, reality and the otherworld.
There is a phrase, a holy word, in Mexica culture, called Ometeotl — one of its meanings is ‘may what is dual unite to create’.
In my journey, I have been called to resolve the opposites — my dualities and bipolarity, the two poles so at odds in their forcefulness to express themselves I was nearly destroyed in the process.
Actually, in many ways, I was.
But this is where the resilience comes in.
For me, the starkness of the path began in several different places. I grew up with a powerful mother and father who gave all their blood to my siblings and I, but also showed all the violence of their love, their endurance of pain.
When I was 18 years old, two years into my first long-term relationship with my first and only sexual partner, I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant and also that I had an abnormal pap smear due to an STI. Shortly after, I was told of my partner’s infidelities early on in our relationship and potentially continuing throughout it. Still to this day, I am unsure of what is true.
In switching on my survival mechanism, in response to this first personal trauma of my adult life, I shut parts of myself off. And in the profundity of my hurt I wrote the core tenets of my old legend: Do whatever you need to be happy. Do whatever you need to survive. Love was how I survived. Love, and forgetting myself inside of someone else.
I splintered in the same way my beautiful parents did. I gave all my blood to what I loved, fought with a violence, stood and endured the pain. Put myself last, did what I had to. For love.
Before my relationship with my child’s father was fully over, a new love had bloomed from my hurt, and without processing the depth of what I had just been through, I was off and running to another adventure.
This became my pattern.
In the years that followed, from 18 to 28, I had one relationship after another, one inside the other — lying, compartmentalizing, overlapping. As long as I had an outward place to direct my love energy, as long as I could be loved by an outward being, I was doing what I needed to, to be happy, to survive.
In February 2015, I was proposed to by the wonderful, love-filled, troubled partner I had been living with for a year. In the agonizing span of three to five months, I had called off the engagement.
For the next three years, I grappled with my legend, deeper and darker than I had ever gone. By the end of that first year, 2015, I was simultaneously, secretly intimate with the tumultuous past love of my life as well as my ex-fiancé, and had fallen for a young graffito I got arrested for the first time with who vibrantly smashed the edges of my reality, and would ultimately smash my heart.
In suddenly experiencing the amalgam of the wound, I dipped into the kind of dark and dissociation that made me feel alien in my own body, alien in reality itself. I had no place of my own, barely any money, no job. I was holed up in my ex’s house, running my fingers over light and shadows on the walls, watching the steam billow out of tea cups. Deadened. Nothing.
Without diving further into the details, I kept this pattern. Lying, feeling, loving, crashing, back and forth, inside and out of my cherished wounds of the exes I refused to let go of, and then the next man, and the next man, I would fall obsessively in love with.
By last fall around this time, I traveled as far as I could in this pattern — I made a sacred covenant and pre-engagement with another powerful, damaged, beautiful human, which was abruptly destroyed in the fires of his infidelity, compulsive lying, and hard drug addiction.
With all of these men, I loved them with everything I had, even when I loved them simultaneously. Through the years, I did gain small semblances of what it meant to find self-love, to live a legend, to be a divine messenger, but these relationships were what I ran to when the darkness overtook me, the violence of the manic thoughts that had become more and more difficult to outrun.
They were narratives of self-hatred, but also vivid thoughts of veering into traffic, letting cars hit me, crashing my bike, and the most pervasive of all — jumping off my beloved Triboro Bridge in my hometown of Astoria, Queens.
The summer I met my soon-to-be boyfriend struggling with addiction, on the bridge’s birthday, I ran into a man perched on the edge, readying himself. After standing for infinite moments deciding what to do, I walked past him and said nothing, out of fear, but his eyes caught mine and they were so filled with fire I will never forget. In him I saw myself, my shadow self. The potentiality of what could be.
Icarus has long been my metaphor. I am fascinated by all creatures with wings and especially those who do not traditionally have them: Pegasus, griffins, winged lions, angels.
I saw myself as Icarus every time I visualized that bridge. Leaping over in the starkness of blue sky, seagulls hanging in the air, for one moment — flying — before crashing to the river below, literally, in the lore of the city and of Astoria known as the Hell Gate.
I trust now that these unbearable thoughts and feelings were signals. In Emerson’s words, they were the hieroglyph I was meant to decipher. But I was violent in my shame. Wracked, to the core. Trying so hard to just be okay when my insides were trembling so much I couldn’t force out a coherent sentence, go to work, sit at my desk, turn to the people I loved, those who I knew loved me.
I thought I could see myself, had given the space to accept, but there was something else at play here.
What was keeping me alive? What was it that had me stand up on that bridge over and over but not do it? Not even hang my legs over, not even get close?
After the most difficult night I had suffered through up to that point, I made a psychiatrist appointment for the first time in my life. To no one’s surprise, including my own, I was fitted with Bipolar II and anxiety disorder.
I filled the prescription for a psychotropic medication, coincidentally received some more awful news about a sex-related sickness in my body, and tormented myself to crying and nearly throwing up as I tried to ready myself to take it. I was at the lowest level of trust in myself I had ever experienced. I had been asked if I needed to go on disability, if I wanted to be hospitalized.
Before making the psychiatrist appointment, I said to myself with certainty, “I lack the discipline necessary to save my own life.”
But everything, everything in my fucking soul told me not to take the pills.
The next morning, I prayed to my Nana’s beloved Saint Jude, the patron of impossible causes, for help in this seemingly dangerous choice to manage Bipolar without medication. And I realized that somehow, somehow the tiniest shred, the faintest kindle of resilience, of hope, of trust, was still in there. I was still in there, and still had hope in myself.
This was late April of this year, 2018. I had four to five weeks of discipline, faith, dedication to controlling the factors I could — sleep, diet, good decisions, low stress, exercise, reaching out, showing up at work — but it didn’t hold. And now, half a year later, I understand why.
I had not learned yet of the fecundity in darkness. Of the abundance inside this dangerous gift. I clung so hard to my elements of control that I became fearful of all triggers and constantly terrified of the moment I would be swallowed by the darkness again.
In a recent conversation with the wise and wild partner I have chosen to walk with these past months — yes, one single partner — I realized I was letting the diagnosis become the legend. I was letting it cut my legs out from under me. The real mental illness at the core of this entire story is lack of self-trust — the law of the legend, the context, the meaning with which we frame the trials and tribulations of our lives.
For me, the specter of mental illness had an even more complicated layer. As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, I have given myself over to a living path of spirit. But when one is warned of manic breaks, delusions, voices, ideas of grandiosity, how can a woman of spirit trust spirit? Trust the legend, trust the helpers, the signs and symbols, the dictation, the meaning?
All power emanates from self-trust, and the resilience that proves to us we can find it. The resilience that brings us to the threshold of that dark door, somehow, still brave.
These months have been ugly, I have still been wracked, hurting myself in thought and action, taking tantalizing dips back into the comfort of past lives and multiplicity, breaking off, isolating, pushing away. I have looked up at the heavens, crying out, “Why has this been given to me? Who could bear this? How will I fucking survive myself?”
But in this walking, in this shedding, in this sharing, in this not leaving and choosing to stay, I have realized that this story, this supposed grave affliction, has always been my greatest gift of all.
Some weeks ago, I went up to the bridge and shouted for my soul. I stood against the fear that something would infiltrate my mind and just take me. That I would not be resilient enough to resist that one final push, over the edge.
The thing is, though, I did receive my push over the edge. And it wasn’t over the railing of my beloved bridge, into the twilight sky and the burning lights of this city I have called my own for 32 blessed, difficult years. It was a push into my true greatness. Resilience. Into the full force of the legend.
I felt that if I could keep a tether to myself, my true self, then I could walk into the darkness and always find my way back, not be hurt, lost, or nearly destroyed as I had been so many times in years past. But today I realize, it is not about going back to where you came from.
It is about walking through that dark door into the night, into the emptiness, that so deeply terrified you, and realizing that everything — everything beautiful, rich, and full of life — is there.
And you will let go of the tether, of your past conceptions of self, of anything that hurt or disempowered you.
And you will stare into the darkness, feeling not fear, but that fecundity.
And you will look into your heart, to see already blooming, resilient seeds of light.
Audrey Wildfire Dimola is a NYC-based alchemical poet, performer, curator, and adventurer dedicated to ‘living her legend’. When it comes to mental health, she believes that awareness is empathy, and is a staunch advocate for reclamation and radical recontextualization, healing through the arts and storytelling. Her latest book, Wildlight: Poetry and prose from inside the fire, was self-published in March 2018. She speaks at conferences, festivals, and schools from elementary to college; holds and facilitates safe space for ceremony and the arts; and has been actively writing, performing, and curating for over a decade. You could contact her via her website or Instagram.