How One Word Restored My Life
None of the things I had done in the past to make myself feel better—getting myself to the gym, swimming, going to museums or galleries, planting in the garden—worked. Even my love of art, literature and poetry seemed to have left me.
One morning on my way to work, I jaywalked across 42nd street to get my coffee. I did this every morning and knew the exact timing of the lights. But this time, I was so lost in thought that I didn't see the green. A car accelerated through the intersection, only braking to stop—with a screech—a few inches in front of me. Once I'd made it to the sidewalk, I reached my hand to my chest to slow my racing heart. I'd been so close to being hit.
I wondered: Was I testing my own fate?
Still, not much changed. I was locked inside myself. I felt as if I could no longer speak, except to negotiate my family's daily needs: who was going to pick up food for dinner or change the hall light. At work, where I could forget myself, I was functioning at my normal pace—always making sure I was one step ahead—but there was something wrong. We live in a moment where everything is labeled—attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, OCD—but none of these labels described exactly what was happening.
My dreams left me in a panic. Sometimes, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking that there was something important I was supposed to have done, but I could not remember what it was. I wondered whether I was slowly losing my sense of reality. Once, I tried to explain to a close friend that I thought I might be suffering from depression. She looked at me quizzically, as if she didn't believe me.
Part of the dilemma was that I had always made it a point to take care of my appearance. I took time in the morning to blow-dry my hair. I rarely left the house without lipstick. My clothes were always ironed. I looked like someone who was successful and content and put together, and so no one knew what was going on inside. This, perhaps, was at the root of my sadness. I felt utterly alone but did not know how to connect to anyone, or if indeed that was what I needed.
Worse, it seemed childish for a woman of my age—in a time of political and racial unrest, where people were losing jobs and living under threat—who was so fortunate, who had a wonderful son and husband, a good job and professional success, to give in to my own suffering.
As a girl, I had witnessed my mother falling in and out of depression. It scared me. And so, I pushed myself harder. First, in college and graduate school, I supported my education by taking on work-study jobs and the lunch shift at the cafeteria while also staying up nights, writing papers in the library. Later, at work, I stayed late and worked all weekend to advance my career.
Perhaps this was why the word "gentle" caught my attention. I saw it on a flyer at my gym, where I was doing my 30 minutes on the elliptical. "Gentle Yoga," it said. I had never tried yoga, but I knew in that moment that I needed the gentle part. I was not sure I had ever been gentle with myself. The longing for it was suddenly overwhelming. And very, very clear.
That day, I signed up for the class and learned the poses. Over time, I learned to breathe and let my mind go. Yoga turned out to be incredibly helpful. But getting my life back started with that tiny, mind-blowing moment when I recognized my own needs in a single word. Sometimes, I feel bad for not finding that word myself. Sometimes, I feel grateful that I found it typed on a random piece of paper and pinned to a wall. Unlike sleep and eating right, gentleness is not something people tell you to seek when you're in a crisis. Yet, for me, it revealed—in a flash—that I no longer had to push so hard, that for the first time in my life it was okay to stop and simply live.
Jill Bialosky is the author of the memoir Poetry Will Save Your Life; three novels including The Prize; and four collections of poetry.