The cliffs of Hoy, Orkney. 2012. Copyright www.andreapaterson.com

I sometimes think I’m totally sane.  Weeks might go by where I have this strange feeling of ease. Things go my way; my baby sleeps. There are stretches of time when my five year old is kind and generous and helpful. I might find that the days are passing without conflict and I begin to think that my mental health is miraculously stable. I feel capable, perhaps even accomplished. I sleep at night. But inevitably I get a reminder of just how close the cliffs of insanity are.

Here’s my theory of mental health: Mental illness is like living near a dangerous cliff edge. Some of us live a very long way from the edge, so the chances of going over are relatively slim. It might take a very big event to push a person into the abyss, or they might never go over. Some of us live in very close proximity to the edge and so must be eternally wary of the dangers. Our proximity to the cliff may shift over the course of our lives, but for some of us the edge is never very far away. My life is built right on the precipice. I can go from feeling light and joyous to being overcome with anxiety and plagued by insomnia in the course of an hour. One night of lost sleep is enough to cause an irrational fear that I’ll never sleep again. Even THINKING about sleep deprivation can reduce me to a sobbing mess on my kitchen floor. Two nights ago I slept a grand total of 1.5 hours. My body refused to rest. My nerves were buzzing and I felt dizzy but I could not fall asleep. And so I tumbled down into the underworld of anxiety and depression. I was out of control and terrified, groping around in the dark trying to find some magic solution to my insomnia. I stumbled through the next day like a zombie. The next night I slept and dreamed my way back to the top of the cliff again. In the morning I had a completely different vantage point and the world around me seemed stable again.

So it’s funny, I suppose that one of my favourite places in the whole world are the cliffs of Scotland and Orkney overlooking the North Sea. I think that space is a concrete representation of what my daily life looks like–the peace, joy, and wind whipped serenity of the Scottish moors combined with the wild and unpredictable terror of the North Sea. It is a space that can literally claim lives but, oh, the view! And the power of the wind and the spray of the water. There is nothing that strikes me as so elementally stunning as that liminal space where the rocks meet the turbulence of the sea. You walk along the edge and feel the earth beneath your feet, the ragged power of the air, the relentless crash of the sea, and in your soul a fire is set, made out of dry tinder of the things that no longer serve you. They burn.

And so go my days. I wander the border between sanity and mental collapse. I pick flowers on the moors of my life when the mental weather is fine and my body feels strong. On the stormy days I take shelter, and try to keep from being blown over the edge. Sometimes I stand too close to the edge. Those are the days when I’m not taking care of myself. And sometimes I go out into a beautiful day only to be surprised by a freak storm and those are the days when the tempest is too much and I go over. The key thing is to claw my way back up and start over. I’m a nail biter. My hands are ragged and torn from the effort of making that climb over and over again. The evidence of the struggle lives in my finger tips.

But when I clamber back over the top and plant my feet on solid ground again; when the wind comes softly and dries my sea soaked clothes–then there is only the lingering smell of salt and tangles in my hair. And oh….the view…