Welcoming the Rain: Explorations in Ireland
It’s ten at night and I am sitting on the Seawall in Galway, Ireland. With my knees to my chest and my arms wrapped tight around my legs, I crouch on a low stone bench watching the last of the day’s fishermen pack up their coolers and head home. My gaze follows their slow procession as they vanish into the damp night. Then I feel the rain begin to fall.
Slowly and begrudgingly I put on my hood. The hood on the sweatshirt I have been wearing for weeks simply out of necessity, my shield from the reoccurring, ever-pouring rain. I remind myself that this is nothing new. I am from Seattle after all. And it is for this reason that I have a hooded sweatshirt rather than an umbrella. I somehow think that I can beat it. That I can stay warm and dry under a thin layer of cotton.
It is at this moment that my mind begins to slow down; the world around me begins to fragment. I watch an endless stream of swans move towards the shore, their heads slowly tucking beneath their wings. I listen to my friends talk drunkenly and adamantly about the importance of our frequent swims in the freezing Atlantic Ocean. I listen to the water hit the wall and the faint laughter of drunken teenagers across the canal. As I think about my recent trip to the five hundred foot tall cliffs of Dun Aengus, my climb to the top of W. B. Yeats’ tower, and my rapidly increasing need to stay in Ireland indefinitely, I begin to feel more than overwhelmed. I know this feeling. It is a frequent occurrence in my life as someone struggling with bipolar disorder. This feeling is anxiety, intensity, love, pain, and extreme emotional engulfment. It is everything at once. An overwhelming.
It is at this moment, as I look over at my laughing friends that I realize that I need a moment alone. Having spent almost two inseparable weeks traveling with new-found kindred spirits, I have not let myself take in all I have been experiencing. I have not let myself fully feel the power of the ocean crashing against those cliffs. I have not allowed myself to cry at the beauty and pain of Yeats’ poetry as I come to better understand his country. I have not permitted myself the joy of simply sitting quietly on my own.
I have always been an intensely emotional and passionate girl. I have been moved to tears over the beauty of a sunset, or a Beethoven symphony, or the sadness of someone else’s pain. I have been ecstatic when working on new and interesting projects, when seeing a political ballet, or when visiting new places. But it wasn’t until I was nineteen that these emotions overcame me, eventually landing me in several hospitals and earning me a new label: bipolar disorder. Over the three years that followed, my emotions spun and dove, making my life a whirlwind of confusion and intensity. Everything was an emotional extreme, from the most elated euphoria to the most excruciating misery. My first understandings of bipolar disorder, that I thought it merely made people either extremely happy or sad, became a true knowledge of the ever-changing emotions that accompany this diagnosis. It was not simply bi-polar, but multi-polar. Not simply happy and sad, but anxious, agitated, hyper, uncontrollable, sometimes-happy, or angry, lethargic, fearful, dangerous, forever-sad. It wasn’t simply one or the other, but sometimes all at once. Often it seemed like my life was a frequent spin through the limitless segments of an emotional “wheel-of-fortune”.
Slowly however, I began to know my body and my emotions. I began to find treatment that worked and I became more aware of approaching episodes. Eventually I even became stable, and stayed there. I stayed there for so long that I even began to assume I was “healed” while simultaneously becoming overly cautious and emotionally hyper-sensitive. It was in this state of stability that I decided to attend my school’s study abroad trip to Ireland. Being an English and Creative Writing major I was more than thrilled to be reading James Joyce in Dublin or writing poetry on the Aran Islands.
In preparing for the trip I made sure to be organized and ready for anything. I met with my counselor to talk about coping strategies if I felt unsteady. I met with my psychiatrist to make sure I knew what to do if things went wrong, to make sure I knew the most fragile times in my journey. I was told about the importance of sleep to someone with bipolar when experiencing jetlag. I learned how to manage my medication when eight hours of my day has been deleted, when I was required to race through airports feeling extreme side-effects. I had told my teachers that I may need certain accommodations, and I told myself it would be okay. I was ready and prepared for everything and I was elated at my opportunity to go.
Sitting on the seawall I realized that I needed to be alone. I realized that my mind had reached that fragile point of exhaustion and emotional over-stimulation. I knew that I needed to step away and allow myself to feel; something other students didn’t think about and may never need to do. It was at this moment that I realized the gift I had been given. In having a “mental health condition” (I won’t call it an illness), I am more aware of my emotions and the affect of my feelings on my body and soul, and therefore allow myself to spend more time thinking about my environment and daily activities. As someone highly aware of my emotions I am able to really think through my experiences, better realizing and visualizing the amazing things I have learned and seen. Unlike many other students I must make the time to process my day. Instead of racing around all day and partying all night I know that I need to take time to really think about the art of Jack Yeats, or the bodies of the bog people that Seamus Heaney wrote about. I needed to take time to cry after visiting Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail having truly envisioned the pains of Irish history.
It is in these moments that I realize, though I may need an umbrella to stay perfectly dry in the perpetual Irish rain, my trip would not have been nearly as accessible or active. Had I been encumbered with an umbrella I would not have been able to walk to the edge of the windy cliffs or to have run, and danced, down the Seawall with friends. Though an umbrella would be the best protection, I knew that I needed to move, to take my chances of getting drenched and enjoy that freedom. It is in my daily life with bipolar that I realize that I cannot spend every day worrying about stability, that I can’t spend every day monitoring my moods in order to seek the best protection. By taking my study abroad trip to Ireland I ran out in the rain, not completely un-hooded, but aware and prepared. I allowed myself to take chances all the while knowing my limits and my need to find space to soak in the meaning of the experiences. In the end, between my hood and my awareness, I have beaten the rain. I have navigated the things that continue to restrict me and recognized the richness of my days, realizing that the whole of who I am is certainly not my condition, and that I am even more in love with the world than ever before.