There are a lot of things we hear as little kids and never question. Or maybe I was just one of those kids who only questioned things I didn’t understand, and if a thing made sense to me – even a weird, convoluted, twisted kind of sense – I just kept my mouth shut.
Some of those things were fairly benign. For instance, I believed for years that the train on Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood carried its passengers through the wall to the ‘Land of Maple Leaf’. Yes, I acknowledge that make-believe seems far more logical now, but at the time it would have seemed completely plausible if it had been the Land of Purple Potatoes or the Land of… well anything, really. It was a kid’s show and my mind was open to possibility. Upon reflection, the Land of Make Believe is pretty lazy story-writing, really.
Which brings us to the under-toad. As a child I spent a lot of time at our family cottage; which provided a beach with relatively easy swimming, since the current didn’t pick up until much further out than I was generally wont to swim. I was about 4 or 5 when one day we hopped in the boat and motored out to the sandbar down-river. It had a great stretch of yellow-white sand perfect for beach-combing. We were allowed to wade in the water, but always with the caveat not to go too far out and to “be careful of the under-toad!” My mother would say this sternly, so I could tell she was serious… but it also confused me that she didn’t seem a bit more panicked. The notion of some creature waiting in the depths to pull me under initially kept me out of the water. I sure as hell wasn’t going to take any chances. I think she sensed my hesitation, and she gently admonished me and ushered me in. “You can go in, just be careful not to go out too far. No further than your waist.” I was beginning to wonder if my mother had my best interests at heart. This was starting to seem more than a little reckless. How the hell was I supposed to know what was too far?!
I started to imagine that big toad out there, watching me inch forward, eagerly plotting my demise. The damned river water didn’t make anything better, since the current made it hard to see what was going on down there and played tricks with my imagination. Ultimately I made a speedy retreat for the shore and declared the water too cold. I spent the rest of the day looking for beach treasure and checking uneasily over my shoulder to double-check if anything had snatched my little brother.
I don’t remember when I was set straight, but I felt a bit better about the whole thing after reading The World According to Garp, in which Walt suffers a similar confusion. ‘Undertow’ is sort of meaningless word, and I guess it’s just easier for a young mind to imagine the concept of a malignant being dragging you to your doom than a confluence of water catching you randomly unaware.
When I met and fell in love with my husband, I experienced a confusing mixture of exhilaration and terror. He was so level-headed and emotionally stable. He was kind and loved life. He was just so… normal.
No… that’s inaccurate. Better than normal, which sounds so boring and vanilla. He was engaged with life. He actively enjoyed the world around him and was happy. A lot.
And I became immediately convinced I would ruin him.
Even after I realized my emotional antics didn’t seem to be driving him away — that my bouts of irrational anger, paranoia, crying for no reason and separation anxiety were met with patience and an effort to talk and understand me rather than a withdrawal of affection or outright rejection — there were moments of deep depression that sunk in where I wanted to set him free from me.
Not because he couldn’t take it. But because I didn’t want him to have to take it. I would see him looking at me with pain in his eyes, caring for me and worrying for me as I sunk deeper and it would just add to my despair.
I was the under-toad.
Here was this sweet, kind man… and I was going to drag him under. I didn’t want to, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to help myself. I knew without question that the dark misery I was powerless to escape would transform me to the under-toad and drag him to his doom. Because there was no way his sunshine-y heart could withstand my black, poisonous soul.
I finally tried to explain this to him one day and he simply said: “That won’t happen. You can’t drag me down.” I tried to strenuously argue with him, but he simply stressed that he felt concern for me when he watched me suffering. Concern and sadness. And frustration.
I took this as confirmation of all my fears.
Once he calmed me down again, he stressed that he would not deny that he felt these emotions. But he was not overwhelmed by them.
That was a tricky one for me to wrap my mind around. The problem with mental illness is that it distorts reality. It amplifies emotion. There is a huge difference between sadness and depression. Depression is a whole-body experience. Your body aches. You sleep too much or too little. The world is too bright. Food tastes wrong. Everything in the world that you could trust is no longer to be relied upon.
I forget sometimes that other people don’t experience emotion the way I do. When you have bipolar disorder (or other mental illness), you start to assume that everyone is a slave to their emotions and anxieties the way you are. I first toyed with suicidal ideation at the age of about 4 or 5. I remember being a bit shocked to realize those sorts of thoughts never crossed other children’s minds.
Realizing that I wasn’t giving my partner (now husband) the credit he deserved for being his own judge of what he could and couldn’t handle was a revelation of sorts. I stopped being afraid of sharing my dark thoughts. As horrible as things were in my head, when I spoke them aloud and we talked about them, he became a welcome sounding board for helping me sort reality from delusion.
The experience has also helped me realize how much I have been drawn (in the past) to relationships with other people who suffer from mental illness. And how much that fed into my inability to pull myself above water. I felt like they would understand me. And they did. But when you are clinically depressed, another depressed person may be either too self-absorbed or emotionally incapable of saving you from drowning. When you say “life isn’t worth living,” they might just agree with you. We had a tendency to bring out the worst in each other.
Pessimistically, it never even occurred to me that a sane person might actually rub off on me.
There is no cure. I can’t be fixed. But having a positive influence in my life to help chase the demons away is something close to good.