My dad, when confronted with a complaint he considered invalid, would often turn his pale blue eyes on me and remark, "Sounds like a personal problem." Then he'd grin within his snow-white beard while I'd roll my eyes. I blink back tears now because he's been gone upwards of four years and some of his phrases have fallen from my vocabulary - I used to use "sounds like a personal problem" a lot but just as the sharpness of grief dulls, so do the... strength? frequency? of those little links that connect you to those you love and see most.
It is not the worst of times of late. It's not good, per se, but it's not the worst.
"Katie," my current boss said, eyes kind but mouth screwed into an impatient grimace, "I need you to get better. Fix this." And I nodded because I agree. I'm great - brilliant, even! - for a sequence of days. I fix problems, progress projects, coach team members and giggle with the team.
Then the fog I call "depression" settles over everything and I feel sick and disconnected. I don't much care, but when my feelings spark to existence, they're bad - dark dread, crackling anxiety, hunched-over-please-don't-notice-me guilt.
One day, I was settled in a private office in southern India, half a world away. Staying at a five-star hotel after a business class flight, I was staggered by the contrast of feeling like such a special, pampered snowflake versus gazing wide-eyed behind prescription sunglasses through the windows of my chauffeured car at the masses of people in the narrow, dirty streets with the endless honking of horns.
Despite the guilt of privilege, I was productive. I had tough meetings, made big decisions, guided discussions with knowledge, humor and grace. One evening, flushed with success, I FaceTimed Mom, as was my daily routine, and found her weeping. Chienne's lipomas had grown heavy and grotesque and we'd waited too long to have them removed, fearing the surgery would not return my old, blind girl. I'd made the appointment before leaving but procrastination punished Mom rather than me. The chest tumor had broken, leaving the house liberally splashed with blood and Mom inconsolable.
So I sat in my beautiful room overlooking the gracious pool in the foreground and slums farther afield and made frantic phone calls, begging for help from home - an earlier surgery date, please. "My mom," I explained, "she can't do this. We lost my dad - Jim - and were helpless to save him. This feels the same - we need help." But three clinics apologetically declined and I was reminded that power and self-sufficiency are elusive. I could get anything I wanted there in Bengaluru - food or drink, fabrics or jewels, massages, laundry service, towels folded into whimsical animals.
But I have little control over matters of importance. I bowed my head and prayed, reciting the Lord's Prayer, my favorite arrangement of words, and waiting in silence for guidance and peace.
I returned home to a post-surgery puppy-dog who'd done well. Mom clung to my hand after I tossed luggage in the back and rode home from the airport. Brother was here too, smoothing his hand over Chienne's greying-brindle head and softly speaking in soothing tones.
But as my canine companion recovered, I did not. Her wounds, carefully tended, oozed and scabbed grotesquely but slowly closed.
Mine did not. I was missing more work. Listless even when present. My favorite phrase - "I don't care" - came from illness, the fog that surrounded me rather than the Katie-ness that exists within me.
"I need to fix this," I told the nurse who shares my employer on the phone, headphones in my ears while I parked by the river and waited for Pokemon to happen by, desperate for the distraction. "I want time off, I think - half days? To join a gym. Actually go to the therapist my doctor has recommended. Try to learn to live within this disease and understand how to thin the fog if I can't clear it."
"You have a couple of choices," she explained, not unkindly. "It's either disability - where you'd be off full-time, likely inpatient care or daily therapy appointments. Or you could take personal time off - get your life together, organize your closet, stuff like that."
My eyebrows raised, the fog gleefully separating enough to let irritation arrow in. "Organize my closet?" I clarified, not waiting for a response before continuing. "It's between those. I'm not completely incapable nor I am completely capable. At least not on most days."
But she didn't understand - I suppose it's difficult unless you've dwelled within the fog of mental illness to truly appreciate the effects. So I thanked her for her time and looked forward to my doctor appointment the next day, preparing to beg for help again.