by Brittany Higgs
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
I used to have a very strained relationship with my mental illness, my mind, and my emotions. And considering that at the time I could not separate my illness from me, I had a very strained relationship with myself. Having read the poem, “The Guest House,” I thought to myself, if I could learn to somehow cohabit my body, alongside my illness instead of frantically seeking to rid myself of it, my suffering might just be a little less. I had to face the fact that even with the best medications, I would still experience symptoms of my mental illness. Therapy, medicine, and coping mechanisms could only take the edge off and make living with my illness a little more bearable.
In 2018, I underwent a spiritual and religious journey to connect with myself and my higher power. With each religion I encountered, I found value and comfort in which I learned more about myself, others, and my higher power, whichever name you know them by–if you believe in one at all. On this journey, I delved into Christianity, Catholicism, and Wiccanism, drawing practices from each to fuel my own spirituality. I had made a friend at university shortly after my exploration of Wiccanism who was Muslim. Our conversations then led me to Islam for my next religious experience and that friend became my guide.
When I delved into Islam, I was learning Arabic, listening to Nasheeds, reading the Quran, doing 5 prayers a day, and learning about holidays and different cultural practices. (A quick disclaimer, while these are things I did to expose myself to the religion, it in no way reflects all that Islam is.) During this time in my life, I medically withdrew from university for a period of 6 months due to mental health issues, and the same friend who had introduced me to Islam came to visit me. We spent a day out in the city and during our time spent together we got to talking about each other’s religious journeys with Islam and the place it has in our lives. While in the city, we came across an old tiny bookstore where every square inch of the place was stacked with books. She ended up buying me a book of poems written by Rumi, a well-known 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. That night I went home, opened the book and the first poem was “The Guest House.” I read it, took it all in, and it was like I had an epiphany. It was as if the pieces that made up my perspective about my illness had physically shifted and finally clicked into place.
Rumi’s poem soon led me to someone who I quickly bonded with over our shared trauma. For the sake of her privacy, we’ll call her Mac.Though trauma bonding was part of our friendship in the beginning, as we began to heal ourselves we came to have a very healthy relationship. But even back then, her mindset about her illness was far beyond mine in its resemblance to Rumi’s poem. She would say things like, “I am feeling extremely depressed today…and that is okay.” I would watch her just be with her depression. I would watch her personality shift as the depressive state took over. But she wouldn’t drown it out with distractions or knock herself for feeling. She would just let it be. She would just be depressed.
The intense waves of the depression and mania would come and go, but so would the seemingly fleeting moments of pure joy. The amount of space she gave her illness, the amount of respect she had for its existence and the acknowledgment of its presence in the moment, often reminded me of “The Guest House.” Mac and Rumi taught me that emotions are not our entire being, nor are they a destination. They are merely things that come and go. This is not to take away from the fact that mental illness isn’t purely mental; so much of it is physical, taking its toll on the body from muscle tension to heart palpitations, to so much more. But, the intensity of those things, as well as the intensity of our emotions, are temporary. As someone who for so long was in a constant state of depression, the days where I felt even a little less low were a blessing. Sometimes when I spoke to Mac, I would be speaking to her. Other times, I was met by her illness. Watching her showed me that sometimes my mental illness would take over the whole house but what is more is that she taught me that it was okay.
When I learned to separate myself from my illness, I realized my body is not just mine. I share it with my mental illness. And while I don’t like my roommate, they’re not going anywhere. To be trapped inside your own body, to not be able to feel like yourself, to not have control over your very thoughts, emotions, and impulses–it is a nightmare to say the least. The effects of mental illness can be so constant that I used to not want to separate myself from it entirely, because it felt as if it was who I was, and that without it there would be nothing left. So, whenever it tries to destroy my “guest house,” I take out my tools and I cope. Then, I put the house back together again.
So, to my past self, I leave you with this: the person you present to be when your illness takes over is not you. Mental illness takes space in the mind and merges with your thoughts and emotions. It can be extremely tricky to define who you are outside of it. It takes a while for you to figure that out, but you will always get there. Even now, sometimes the lines are still blurred: where do my medication and mental illness stop and where do I begin? But at least I now know the line exists somewhere. Speak this out loud: I am not my suicidal thoughts. I am not my despair. I am not my trauma. I am not my numbness. I am not my anxious, depressive, irritable mood swings. I am not meant to be an example of what pain looks like. To others who are reading this, it holds true for you too. These things are merely guests in our guest house.