During my depressive bipolar cycles, a river is what remains in my mind. Always. The sea, now that you can forget—the way the wind ruffles the surface or falls calm like a lake– but a river is what remains after my memory of it has seemingly passed, even after my imagination stops adorning it with riffles and dark wet holes and oxbow lakes. It lingers.
I am an Alaskan woman in love with a river. I love the muskeg along the banks of that river, the crooked black spruce that struggle for the sky but always fail, their bark wet with the effort, their limbs broken from the start by their own soggy roots. In Alaska, muskeg means a river is nearby. In the case of my very own river, the Delta Clearwater, it means it is flowing, slow and cold and spring-fed, somewhere beneath the tundra at my feet, and somewhere beneath where my grandparents built my family’s rickety old cabin.
Someday, during one of my times of extreme mental pain, I think that this river will give me my last chance. I will be sitting on the corner of my bed, staring into my closet, as I always do when I feel this way, and I will find myself overwhelmed by the thought that there is only one way to end my pain. And then I will check the impulse to end that pain, put the pills or the weapon aside, and I will pack a few things and start my truck. I will leave my family and drive the seven hours to my river, and I will watch it, as my mind tries (again) to kill me. I will let the river take its course, and maybe my course, as it either pulls me into it or, possibly, hopefully, pulls the suicidal thoughts from my mind.
If I was given only a day to live, if my own mind gave me only minutes to live, then I think I could force myself to make it a day, and I would drive to my river, the site of so many childhood memories, this source of natural beauty, this place that I go to in my mind when the nurses take my blood pressure, to the river I imagine myself floating upon as they take my pulse.
If, after all, I am going to die, then I am going to die by this river, somewhere back in that struggling muskeg, or perhaps in the cold water itself. If I am going to die, why not go to my favorite place one last time? That river, the source of so much childhood love, could convince me to change my course. Or it could give me my perfect last panorama, eyes wet but open, looking up at those crooked black spruce for the last time, my back stained red by the low-bush cranberries.
I am going to give this river my final chance, and it will give me mine. These bipolar episodes are so short that by the time I pass the Matanuska Glacier, as I drive north along the Glenn Highway, the logic will slowly start seeping back in again. And then, five hours later, by the time I reach the Rainbow Mountains, I will have forgotten why it was I wanted to take my own life in the first place. And then I will be at the river, into which my grandparents’ and my aunt’s ashes have been released. And to the place where my father taught me what it meant to “just watch a river go by,” how to write in a journal on the cabin’s sloping deck, and where my mother first taught me to fly-fish.
These depressive episodes are like the mist that forms upon my river on some evenings. It is a passing fog, like the way my family’s remains looked when my parents and I gently dropped them into our river, and it is like the underwater cloud I once saw as a child, swirling beneath the convergence of the wild, glacier-fed Tanana River and the soft, clear waters of the Delta Clearwater. It is a cloud, like this episode. I tell myself, in the words of my mother and my therapist: Carin, it will pass. It will pass. The fog in my mind will fade, as I flow, from the edges of the cloud underwater towards the shore, where I am clear again.
Every time my mind tries to kill me, I will think of my river. Perhaps I can measure the episode out in time on the Glenn Highway, as I drive north, following the bends in the road. After two hours, the great expanse of the glacier to my right, with its blue beauty, will remind me of one reason to live. After I have driven for several more hours, the Rainbow Mountains’ multi-colored scree slopes will make me realize that I am very much, and tentatively glad, to still be alive.
By the time I paddle the canoe across the river and arrive at my cabin—and make what was supposed to be my last cup of coffee—and as I sit calmly with my journal on the chair my parents crafted from spruce sticks when my sister was only 14 weeks old, and as I watch the river just go by, I will find a way to survive. By the time I again see the white pebbles on the bottom of that clear, cold river, I will decide that, if nothing else, the very beauty of a river—for me the ultimate natural wonder—is something, in itself, to live for.