I decided to try some short-term therapy when I realized I was close to considering suicide. Six years later, I was done. Or so I thought.

Yes, I was done with a decades-long addiction to falling in love with men who didn’t love me. And yes, I’d crawled out of the deep dark tunnel I’d somehow managed to get myself trapped in. Yes, I’d learned how to sit quietly, my feet flat on the floor, spine straight, and breathe in, watching the breath as it travelled through my body, helping bring me back to myself in order to feel.

But I still needed to learn how to live. Mental illness has a life of its own. When it’s gone, or, as in my case, significantly weakened, a wide space yawns. That’s where the real life is supposed to fit.

None of this was apparent to me the day I sat across from my second therapist, Lori, and let her know I might be done. At the time, I only understood that the unending crises I’d needed her help unravelling had mostly packed up and gone. At ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning for several weeks in a row, I’d had nothing to say to her. There didn’t seem any point in paying a clinical psychologist to listen to me if all I was going to say was nothing at all.

After saying goodbye to Lori for the last time, I walked down the polished redwood stairs and out into the sun. I was ready to go on with my life.

A life I once wouldn’t have dreamed of

I am sitting in my garden now, listening to bird songs and crows cawing, mingled with the whine and roar of construction equipment on the busy road a few blocks from this house. Every day I come out here, usually at least twice, to see how the orange ice poppies and the madly mauve dahlias and unassuming Mexican sage, old pale pink roses, cherry tomatoes, corn, basil, and thyme are doing, but also to marvel that I’ve come this far. Once, I wouldn’t have even dreamed this—a loving husband, a house, a garden, a car. That’s why I keep coming to look, to make sure I haven’t made all this up.

My small city has nearly perfect weather, surrounded by hills that turn golden in summer and acres and acres of vineyards for making world-famous wines. A 1950s ranch, my house lives in a neighbourhood filled with others of its vintage, fronted by manicured lawns and colourful native plant gardens. As part of the healing work I’ve never quite stopped, I take daily walks around the neighbourhood. I start here, where the houses are small but with two-car garages, cross over busy Farmers Lane, go past the shopping centre whose name the neighbourhood carries, and on to where the garages are only big enough for one car. I keep going past Yulupa Street, to an area with circular driveways and front yards long and wide enough for playing soccer.

When I reach this point, I often think about my life. What would it have been like to have grown up with happy, loving parents, in a neighbourhood like this one? And then, of course, I ask myself how it might have been for me if I’d had any kids myself.

To recover is to confront what might have been. “If only” this or that floats through your mind again and again. I never wanted a life of marriage and kids and PTA meetings and packing lunches and all that. I was way too depressed to believe that such a life would make me happy. Now that I’m here on the other side, married and happier, too late for children, I know I’ve missed what I wasn’t capable of. There is nothing I can do with these regrets but feel bad about them.

I never imagined, or for a long time even wanted, a house. I grew up knowing every place was temporary. In fact, I made sure not to tie myself down with possessions or a job or relationships. I needed to know I could always move on.

Buried in my subconscious, I believed my only hope was to be free. Freedom meant no ties. If I was unhappy in a job, I quit. When I didn’t get along with my roommate, I got a different one. If I’d grown tired of the city where I lived, I moved to another. Freedom to leave was all important to me.

Only it didn’t make me happy. I was so busy changing my life, I never managed to have a life.

Plant a seed, water and weed

So here I am now in my garden. Making a life, I think, can be as simple as this. Plant a seed. Water and weed. Watch the small shoots peek up through the soil and grow bigger.

Seeds growing up through soil - Making a Life excerpt

That is what I do now. I plant a seed and learn to make a meal. I stand in my kitchen and marvel at its modern conveniences, having lived in so many haphazard places most of my life.

The small blue Toyota I drive sits in the driveway next to my husband’s newer silver one. Sometimes when I drive to the supermarket, I feel as if another woman has taken control of my car. As I leave the store and walk through the parking lot, I palm my keys, the way other women I always envied did.

To recover is never to forget how far you’ve come, even when you still have such a long way to travel. It’s easy to get tangled up in what could have been, especially for a mind such as mine, so comfortable feeling sorry for itself feeling sorry. At times, I have to picture myself the moment before I realized I needed help. I was sitting in my bedroom, hardly bigger than a walk-in closet, and it was dark, with only one small narrow window at the end of the bed. The light was muted and gray, in part because the city where I lived, San Francisco, was frequently foggy, but also because the window looked out on the feet-wide space between my building and the one next door.

Recovery shouldn’t be measured in things, and yet, I never had them before. Cabinets are now bursting with white porcelain plates and matching cups and pans I use to cook, using liberal handfuls of herbs I pick from my garden. I stand in front of the sink chopping cucumber and tomatoes for a salad, and step aside for a moment to observe. I look like an advertisement for a life, with a nifty new gas range and dishwashing liquid that’s supposed to make my glasses sparkle.

Recovery is never taking anything for granted, even sitting in the small bedroom my husband Richard and I facetiously refer to as the media room. There, black folding TV trays in front of us, Richard is talking over the movie as he always does and I’m getting annoyed. I jokingly scold him to quiet down, telling him to “put a sock in it,” knowing that he won’t. And yet I also know I will go on loving him, as he will keep loving me, for what I’m certain every day is beginning to resemble a life more and more.

Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, has been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award, and has had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Her second book, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), was a finalist in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2016 International Book Awards. “Making a Life,” a slightly revised version of which was published in Open Minds Quarterly, is an excerpt from Somlo’s book, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (forthcoming from WiDo Publishing). Find her at www.pattysomlo.com, on Amazon, or follow her on Twitter @PattySomlo.
image 1: Psychologist talking with happy woman via Shutterstock; image 2: plant growing via Shutterstock