when i was curled on a hard chair in the mental hospital, the TV blaring, trying block out some sort of tiff between the other patients last august, i thought my life had plummeted to the bottom of the bottom. it was the first day of school and any time i pictured someone else putting backpacks on my children’s shoulders, i cried tears that i wiped away with the cuffs of my sweatshirt. it was some sweet agony to be away from my family. to be in a building full of strangers. to have all my movements restricted. to not feel exactly safe, even though i knew i was some sort of safe.
i would have given anything to have my own pillow.
and, i hate and apologize for ambiguity, but now here i am even lower. it’s amazing how the heart expands as easily for anguish as it does for love. that it can accommodate pain the size of texas, with room, i expect, for more. i feel like i am crawling up a mountain, treeless and covered in cactus for cinematic effect. the sun blazes. the spines poke my knees. but i know that if i stop crawling what little i have will be taken away from me.
as i crawl, i slowly learn that being hurt does not make you immune from being hurt again — it doesn’t give you a divine pass, one year off from stuff that sucks. instead, trials can come thick and mighty, piling on top of you until it’s hard to breathe.
and what do you do when you suddenly discover that instead of being the princess, you are actually the pea?
V told me the other day that i should have three more boys so that H wouldn’t bother her. then she thought a moment and threw in two girls to the mix so she would have sisters. i laughed. but it was an empty laugh.
i always shuffle around the question of kids. it’s not that i ever imagined that i would be driving around a special van with twelve little munchkins in the back, but i admit i imagined a family more like the one i grew up in: as in, more kids than two.
i’m definitely not claiming to know how it would feel to want children and have none because i wanted children and got some. but sometimes i feel like the universe lied to me a little bit. i had postpartum depression with H and then postpartum psychosis with V and so there was never a whole lot of holding and loving babies for me. i held them, and i loved them, but it was all under an umbrella of panic so fierce i couldn’t see the sun. (we were in cleveland, so there wasn’t much sun to begin with…. ) having babies is really hard on me physically, emotionally, mentally.
from where i sit now, i know i could never have another baby. it would take as many people as staff downtown abbey to get me through it and even then, i might not make it. my doctors have all advised against it. my own logic and reason center sees that having another baby would put me over the edge and it would be a fall so fast, i might not ever climb back up.
but even so, i watch my friends having babies. i see the tiny fingers, the eyelashes, the squishy faces and i wonder why my family got stopped at four. i try to tell myself that i’m glad i’m not changing diapers or getting up at night or bouncing back and forth in the kitchen. but am i? my mormon culture comes with an unspoken (so far, in my experience) pressure to have children. and sometimes i can’t separate it out. am i sad i don’t have more children because of me? because of what i see around me? i don’t really know.
my inventive little people still manage to have all sorts of shenanigans together even though they’re only two of them. they play duck, duck, goose with two. they play musical chairs with two. they build forts. they lay on their backs and listen to ramona quimby on tape. they build legos. they fight. they scream and hit each other. they write each other notes not to enter their respective rooms. in short, they manage all the same sorts of things me and my siblings did, on a slightly smaller scale.
i suppose, in the end, it’s a matter of coming to terms with an adulthood that doesn’t look the way you dreamed it when you were dreaming it. and that’s something we all have to get used to, one way or another.
in the bible, ruth gathers sheaves: leftover bits from the harvest. i imagine her stuffing bits into a turned up apron—though i’m hardly a biblical scholar and wouldn’t know whether she had an apron or not. i see her scurrying behind broad men with scythes, sweeping down the wheat in one smooth motion, and ruth in her hunger ducking in to scratch the bits left behind off the floor of the earth. and ruth is hungry. not just for food, you can see it in the way that her ribs jut out and catch the fabric of her smock, but for friends, companionship, belonging. she’s a widow. a widow who has followed her mother-in-law to a different land and a different religion. no doubt there are physical signs that mark her out as a newcomer, as someone who certainly doesn’t belong. the story in the bible is slight, but the shunning from the other women is implicit. you can’t help but feel sorry for ruth because no matter your story, we’ve all felt that moment: the moment when we are the stranger, when we are hungry for something, be it food, or friendship, or reason.
there must have been a moment in my life when whatever genetics play games with my brain switched on and i went from being a child to being a woman who would carry a diagnosis on her back, an anvil wrapped like a child in long fabric swaths and tied round my waist. it’s a moment i don’t remember. my decline has been quieter, subtler and perhaps more terrifying, as one bird after another comes to roost until one day you look up and notice thousands.
that’s the day you drag yourself in for professional help and spread open your innards for someone else to examine, prod at, and then nod when it’s all right for you attempt to stuff them back in. and somehow they never go in as easily as they came out. for me the first time was as a 19 year old, sitting in the office of a career counselor (because he was the only one available on short notice at my college—all the professionals were busying themselves either with grading or everyone else who was feeling suicidal near exams). we sat together in his office. i remember he had big ears. he balanced the DSMV on his knees, a tremendous volume used to diagnose everyone with brain palpitations of this or that sort. we stared each other down. and after listening to whatever it was i had to say that day, the doctor ran his finger down the list of diagnoses, a moment’s hesitation, and then i could see determination play across his face. yes. “i think you have bipolar disorder. i think you should be on lithium. how do you feel about that?”
i was still mentally gathering my soul and trying to stuff it back in my torso where it belonged. bipolar disorder. the words slapped me with their emptiness. it meant nothing to me, except the word “disorder” which carried such a heavy connotation of having done something wrong. i messed up somewhere. that’s all i could hear.
i gathered my backpack onto my lap. i looked at his ears. “i don’t believe in lithium,” i told the doctor, mostly because i had no idea what lithium was or what it would do to me. i still lived in a world where drugs were supposed to be avoided—they were an external force that acted upon you instead of adding to your brain’s necessary chemistry. but it would take me so many years to realize that.
so ruth gathering her leftover sheaves might not seem to have much to do with mental illness or the story i just told you, but i have this little suspicion that her story has more to do with my story than farming would seem. she’s gathering sheaves like the lost little bits of her brain. and then there’s that moment that she goes to talk with boaz.
and after gathering what she can of her reason and clarity into her apron she says to him, “why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?”
and he says to her, “the lord recompense thy work, under whose wings thou art come to trust.”
and at this point she is probably feeling how i felt earlier this week when a dear friend just showed up at my house and hugged me and helped me gather my reason and clarity without me saying a word.
and that’s when ruth says this: “thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid, though i be not like unto one of thine handmaids.”
do you see how this connects? this stranger lets this unknown, afflicted and bedraggled woman come to his garden and gather her sanity. he speaks friendly to her. he comforts her. and he does all this, even though she isn’t like all the other girls. man, i love ruth. that woman is brave. she’s not afraid to walk in front of everyone with her differences and gather what comfort she may from whatever is leftover. here’s a woman who never flinched.
this past week i woke up one morning and the magic was gone. just like someone somewhere snapped their fingers or clapped their hands and i’m back to that place where everything makes me cry. macaroni exploded in the microwave. i cried. there was a commercial about families during the olympics. i cried. H told me he would not put on his pajamas. i cried.
i’m back to standing very still and staring into space and forgetting that i’m standing very still and staring into space until one of the kids says, “mom. you’re staring into space again.” and then i cry. because i don’t remember my mom ever staring into space. she was always doing something Useful.
i’m back to the place where V is asking me over and over if she can have nerds for breakfast and i have to listen to the question six times before i remember that nerds are candy and she probably shouldn’t have nerds for breakfast and then i say no. and then, when she isn’t looking, i cry. i cry because it takes me so long to remember things. things that i should know. i cry because it hurts to think about breakfast.
i won’t lie. it has been a very bad week. i marked it “couldn’t be worse” on my mood chart.
i tried visualizing, something a therapist a few therapists ago suggested. i think it’s supposed to help you out of a bad place. this is how it went for me. i started imagining bipolar disorder as a giant cake. a giant cake as big as a swimming pool. a chocolate cake and the frosting is fudge. and someone has written bipolar on the top of the cake in chocolate frosting. and i’m sitting on top of the cake in a lawn chair. and i have a tiny plate and a tiny fork and a little napkin with strawberries on it. and i’m sitting there and the sun is shining and there are birds chirping: i can hear cardinals and chickadees because they’re my favorite. and there is an oompa loompa on the cake with me (because all visualizations have oompa loompas in them) and he cuts me a tiny piece of the cake and puts it on my tiny plate with his tiny cake server and i eat it with my tiny fork.
i look around, satisfied, but as soon as i finish, the oompa loompa cuts another piece. and i eat it. and the whole scene repeats. and at first i’m happy to be eating the cake, because it’s cake, y’all. but then after a while i’m tired of cake. that’s when i realize that i can’t leave the lawn chair until i have eaten the entire cake. at the same time i realize if i manage to eat the entire cake, then i won’t have bipolar anymore, i will just be normal — so i keep eating these tiny cake pieces and eating and eating and eating and eating. but the whole time i’m thinking about a triple creme brie on a warm baguette or a bowl of steel cut oats with brown sugar and cream or spring rolls wrapped in lettuce and dipped in fish sauce.
that’s where my visualization ended, with me sitting on a lawn chair atop a giant cake, choking on frosting.
the thing is, i don’t think i can ever eat the whole cake. and it makes me sad inside my sadness — knowing that this sadness will always be there. it’s like sadness wrapped inside sadness inside sadness trapped in a hole of sadness.
so i’ll probably add something to my visualization. i’ll probably add as many friends as will accept the invitation to come and have a piece of cake. and maybe that way we’ll get a little closer to eating the whole thing.
if you’re reading this, you’re invited.
after writing and then hearing from so many of you, i felt as though i was picked up and carried in your arms. it may seem strange to claim that words and love and typed letters on a page can turn into a physical feeling, but, this is where everything turns miraculous. friends, i was in a ditch. i think you know that. i was in a dark place darker than tikki tikki tembo in his well and when i reached out and you reached back to me, somehow it pulled me out of the deep. well, that and a marvelous collision of miracles. i’ve been titrating up endlessly on this new medication (and for those of you who have been on brain meds know how painful this can be) — but eleven days ago i struck balance.
you heard me. i have been completely stable for eleven days. this is equivalent to eternity in my little world. this means i have only cried when things are sad. i have only laughed when someone says “knock, knock” and i say “who’s there?” and they say “a wookie!!” and run away laughing hysterically and that someone is usually short and under the age of eight.
i am holding my breath. every day i mark on my calendar “good” is a tiny victory of me against the demon, but you know it’s always there. it can rest quietly, oh so patiently, and take me when i least expect it. my victory is sacred, but not without trepidation.
thank you for coming with me. the power of so many people walking beside me makes me feel awesome, to put it bluntly. here’s to another eleven days of awesome. and another eleven after that.