Hope is the Thing with Feathers

“Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.”
~ Emily Dickinson ~

Goldfinch enjoying nyger seed at our backyard feeder.

Goldfinch enjoying nyger seed at our backyard feeder.

When I was a child and teenager, most people outside my family thought I was a happy person.  Friends to slight acquaintances praised my wide smile as I negotiated the hallways at school.   I learned that people responded positively to a happy face and they wanted to believe I was the optimistic person behind the smile.

Despite my learned behavior, something was amiss.  Young children  should not have insomnia, but I did–a condition that grew worse in pre-adolescence and blossomed by adolescence.  It has plagued me all my life.  On top of the insomnia, I was also very depressed by the time I was eleven.  Part of this melancholia was hormonal, but it never went away.

Anxiety and melancholia were not unknown in my family.  My father displayed these symptoms after his years in the Mediterranean Theater of World War II.  I now know he suffered from PTSD.  His mother, my Grandma Harris, lived with us while I was growing up. She had her melancholic spells as well, apparent with her silence and sad face.  Aunt Louise, Mother’s older sister, was often described as “moody.”

Mother had no tolerance for mood swings.  She believed I chose to be melancholy, just as her sister had.  Her sister received a great deal of pampering for her moods, which irritated my mother.  I believe my aunt suffered from depression too, as did her mother, my Grandmother Rockfield.

Mother believed that a dose of heavy lifting chased away any and all “indigo blues.”  She was relentlessly busy, all the time, from childhood to her last day of life.  She firmly believed if I just got up and scrubbed the floors, or tackled a challenging task, I would feel better.  Exercise probably would have helped, but she had no idea what darkness lurked inside me.

I believe I was lucky to have escaped doing myself harm.  If I had ended up in a mental hospital, I might have endured heavy pharmaceuticals that played havoc with my system.

Maybe I am wrong about this, but struggling through years of mood swings, darkness, bad life choices and the consequences of all of these, has at times been a gift.  I have journals filled with my scattered thoughts and scraps of poems that describe what I envisioned happiness to be.

Attitudes about depression have changed over the years.  I don’t think my mother ever accepted that my mental and physical symptoms were anything but my choice.  However, during her last years, Mother wondered about her own frenetic pace.  She asked me, rhetorically, why she couldn’t stop being in charge, why her friends never inquired about her health or state of being.  I now realize that everyone thought she was indomitable. Why would Betty  Harris need help?

In many ways I have been indomitable, too, because I have never given up.  After a diagnosis of Bipolar II in 2006, I understood that mood swings were part of my genetic code.  When the psychiatrist described the symptoms of Bipolar II, I knew immediately that this profile fit me to a “T.”

Bipolar is the clinical description of what we used to call manic depression.  Bipolar II is a new diagnosis for behaviors that fell between the cracks.  If you draw a line on a piece of paper and call it normal happiness or contentment, a mood swing to that line would be a “manic” high for me–which isn’t really manic at all.  My “normal” line on that paper hangs .5” below, and the doldrums would be an inch below conventional normal.

I’ve taken Prozac, or Prozac-related medication since it was first introduced.  It has been a godsend.  It keeps me from dropping too low, but it never brings me quite up to the conventional normal line.   For a while I tried lithium, then another drug, to bring me up to normal–but then I wasn’t recognizable as me.  I stopped taking any drugs except my Prozac.

My beloved psychiatrist told me years ago that I would always be slightly melancholic and that I would need to spend my lifetime on Prozac or its “cousins.”  To keep the sad demons away from my door, I am fine with that.  My husband knows when I don’t take that RX, so I realize it makes a difference.

Many depressives, who are often creative people, write about depression as a traveler in their souls.  They wouldn’t want to be without it, and I understand that perfectly.  With my depression, I wouldn’t perceive the world as I do, I wouldn’t be me.  It is always there, leaving a bittersweet taste in my mouth.

Despite my melancholia, I am an optimist.  Since life has been more than just difficult most of the time, I believe that  someday I can grab the golden ring.  The glass is half full.  There is always hope.

The vision of a bird in flight best describes my optimism, as my soul continues to move on and up.  Wings are a symbol of that uplift for me–a moment of soaring that I have held briefly for a few golden moments in my life.  I believe I can soar again, life is hope, a a thing with feathers, and wings.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson