Into the Woods

By Rose Uscianowski

Here’s the post. I don’t plan to make all my submissions this dark or personal in nature, but I figured that it worked well as an introductory post. It’s meant to set the tone for the book I’m hoping to write on bipolar disorder and describes a manic episode I experienced in Sweden. 

‘There are giants in the sky

There are big tall terrible awesome scary wonderful giants in the sky’

From the song “Giants in the Sky” from the play “Into the Woods”

Sweden is a funny place in June. By the time that summer solstice hits, it’s a veritable land of the midnight sun. Sunsets bleed into sunrises, the moon shares a sky with the sun and even in the deepest dredges of its ubiquitous woods, light still manages to shine through the pale, thin trees at all hours of the night. In that never ending light, nothing feels real but anything feels possible. In other words, it’s pretty fucking weird.

I visited a quaint little self-described hippie farm in Sweden late last June. It was on a small but wonderful little island named Ekerö.

I was miles away from the only city in Sweden that most Americans have ever heard of and far from civilization, but it was a wanderer’s paradise. Ekerö is the type of place where moose are known to roam the wheat fields, horse are known to roam the streets, bikers share space with off griders and you’re never too far from the woods.

That summer, I volunteered on an organic farm in this land of misfits with a team of ever changing wanderers from around the world. This may not be the most obvious way to travel, but it sure as hell beats Carnival cruises and lonely planet getaways. Coming from a big geometric city of grids, lines and laws, Ekerö’s woods felt like a jungle gym of novelties, wonders and pure freedom.

Even though I was a foreigner in a strange land, I felt oddly safe while surrounded by the towering spruces and pines. Filled with light and an eerie beauty known uniquely to Sweden, I couldn’t imagine that any harm could come from those woodlands.

A childish part of me even wanted to believe that I had an unwritten pact with those woods and like a dutiful lover, they would protect me from unseen harms. In this mindset, wandering through them was like walking in some fantastic dream called Swedenland. The real world existed somewhere miles away on the far side of the Atlantic but the rules of that world hardly mattered and didn’t apply.

It didn’t take long for those woods to become my favorite evening escape. In them, I could get lost for hours. It was while hopelessly lost one night that I accidentally discovered a large, empty gorge. (No, really, I’m pretty sure it’s one of those things that could only happen in Sweden.)  Wandering downhill along an old dirt trail while distracted by the local flora, I noticed a clearing at the base of the descent. Stepping out from a clump of trees, I found myself surrounded by a wall of rocks and pebbles.

The most reasonable solution would have been to go back out of the canyon via the same path that I had taken down, but I wasn’t in the mood for reason. Buoyed by my naive sense of invincibility and propelled by an insatiable desire for adventure, I made a rash decision to forgo the path and scale the walls to get back up. From the ground, they looked steep but not insurmountable.

The rocks looked secure and a few scraggly trees growing stubbornly from the walls seemed to give the promise of anchor. It would turn out that I was a bit naive. By the time I got to the top, my entire body was pressed flat against the rocks of a nearly vertical cliff.

Every step felt like a gamble and it was only through a tree growing at the edge of the precipice that I was at to pull myself up over the edge. I felt accomplished but shell shocked as I made my way back to the cabin with a few pebbles in my pocket as a keepsake. By the time I got under the covers of my bed, I was trembling. Back in the comfort of my safe little cocoon, the sheer ruthlessness of my actions that night fully hit home. I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t be so stupid again. 24 hours later I was back in those tainted woods for another stupid adventure. I found myself wandering back to that same canyon, but to the top this time.

Leaning against the very tree that I had used for anchor the night before, I was spellbound by the view. Staring down into the abyss, I felt tiny and lost between the void and a warmly blushing midnight sky. To break the spell, I needed to do something reckless. I thought about scaling the walls again and crawling down into the canyon instead, but that just seemed boring and passé. It was then that I noticed the tall, thin pine tree towering above me.

With its low growing branches, towering height and beautiful symmetry, it looked almost like a ladder to the sky. Throwing reason aside, I elected to test how far my ladder could take me and worked my way up the branches while hanging over the open void. My stairway to the heavens turned out to be more of a mess of hopelessly tangled steps than the neatly stacked open ladder that it resembled from below, but I continued climbing anyway.

By the time I got to as high as I dared to climb, I was on top of the world and it felt exhilarating. I was wrapped in a pure freedom of the ‘because why the fuck not?’ variety and I loved it. Positively drunk on that freedom, any concerns about the dangers of my situation were thrown aside in a quest for some bullshit poetic idea about inner emancipation.

Call it silly if you want, but when you’ve spent a life torn by eating disorders, anxiety and mental illness that has been complicated by an endless fight for control over a mind that you can hardly fathom, dangling from a tree for the sheer hell of it feels pretty damn good. The gulf between reason and reality grew larger as my fingers eased their grip and I imagined letting go and screaming ‘fuck it’ into the wind. I even laughed with ease as I imagined my wind jacket flapping in that wind as I fell towards the canyon walls, flailing like some poor injured bird.

In some far away chamber of my mind, I was fully aware that this was all batshit and letting go would probably kill me but that simply wasn’t a very compelling concern at the moment. The potentially fatal consequences of my totally badass stand against internal oppression were merely incidental.

Besides, it wasn’t dying that concerned me so much as it was feeling alive. Focusing on death during a moment of such daring and wonder would simply be morbid. I rather preferred to laugh into the breeze while feeling like some kind of a Nordic [by association] version of Pocahontas.

It was mid laughter that cold reality snapped back. In a moment I became fully aware that not only was I sitting alone in a tree in the middle of the woods, about to dive into a canyon that I never should have wandered into in the first place, but that I was afraid of heights. I was scared and lost and didn’t know what was happening. Like a kid lost in a carnival, I suddenly just wanted to go home.

Given that snapping my fingers and landing instantly in New York wasn’t an option, I gripped the tree like a teddy bear instead and cried while wondering what was wrong with my head. None of it seemed to make sense. When you imagine somebody standing at the edge of a cliff and looking down, its desperation and despair that you imagine going through their head, not euphoria.

If I was so hungry to feel alive, why did it push me near death? The irony was both dumbfounding and cruel. I still can’t wrap my head around that night. The scariest part of it was that it all made perfect sense to me. In the mindset I was in, the completely irrational didn’t just feel perfectly logical.

As far as I was concerned, it was perfectly logical.

It’s difficult to understand the link between reason and emotion until one of the two goes out of whack. We live in well-ordered worlds and like to believe ourselves creatures of logic, but the logic that we cling to can only exist in the context of a framework that our mind creates. When your emotions are out of whack, so is your framework.

Fortunately, I didn’t need that night to tell me that my framework is shit; I’m bipolar.

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