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.
i imagine my little internet self (who somehow looks like an oompa loompa, but i don’t have time or reason to explain that) standing in mountain pose with my hands at my heart and making a small and humble bow to all of you who have reached out to me since i rubbed myself raw on the internet. you remind me that even though right now making connections of any kind seems as difficult as scaling the outside of the washington monument barefoot, it hasn’t always been that way. and that, to me, is its own kind of hope in the middle of this inferno.
i have always felt compelled to write about this disease of mine because i can. i once had someone tell me in an interview, “you can do anything you want. be true to that, because not everyone can.” and while, the fact is, i cannot do anything i want (i will provide a list of things i cannot do if you require it): i can write about things. and i can write about things in a way that might make you understand a little bit about something you didn’t understand previously and that’s something i feel obligated to be true to, and not just because someone told me to.
this year, in lieu of resolutions, i decided to pick Words to Live By. because, another truth is, the only reason i’m alive is because i believe. i believe in a number of things. but most of all i believe that out there is a God who loves me. and not just loves me in the disassociated “there is a jes in a house somewhere in virginia i have to remember to send her the sunshine on tuesday at least once a year” way — but really loves me. loves me because He knows me. and knows me in a way more thoroughly than i know myself. and He knows why all of this terror and ugliness and sobbing is necessary. and because i believe that, i do not swallow a bottle of pills or walk into oncoming traffic: even though there are moments. i’ll be honest, there are moments when all i want is for the earth to crack beneath my feet and welcome me into its belly.
so here are my Words to Live By:
When I fall, I shall arise; when I sit indarkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me.
– Micah 7:8
There is time and hope if we combine patience and courage. . . . Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.
– Winston Churchill
Continue your journey and let your hearts rejoice; for behold, and lo, I am with you even unto the end.
– D&C 100:12
i don’t know what this year will bring. i don’t know if it will be even uglier than the last. but i think i’m prepared for the possibility that whatever i’m supposed to learn, hasn’t been learned yet and, as my children say, we have to keep walking on hot lava. but i will. i will because i honestly believe and trust and hope that at the end of all this, there is an end to all this. and waiting at the end of all this is a God who loves us and will gather us in His arms and wipe away the tears. my only job is to continue. to continue and to never flinch. (ok, so we all flinch now and then, but as long as we flinch and then keep continuing to continue). and when the darkness comes, to remember who brings the light.
since we have a fireplace and a polar vortex, along with a seven year old — we often have a fire. i watch him watching fire. the way he scoots up close to it, mesmerized by the blaze. not old enough yet to have been burned by a popping ember or a random flare. he loves fire, my seven year old.
and i sit there thinking of everything in my life that is going up in flame. the metaphor sounds so dramatic, especially without any story to bolster it up.
here’s a bit of what happened. we drove across the country and after our amble of five days, i arrived to an empty house and slept more nights on an air mattress. i could feel my demons. i wish i could explain them — but they turn me from an ordinary-peanut-butter-sandwich-making-mom into someone whose thoughts scatter like chicken feed thrown into the wind. i chase a thought, only for the thought to turn from putting silverware into a drawer into the idea that i should get into the car and drive into a tree or that my family needs me to leave, get as far away as possible and then they’ll be okay. it takes every ounce of self-control to keep from putting my hands over my ears, screaming, and running to my room. i’ve never screamed — not that i can recall. but i have run to my room. i have been found sobbing like my ribs will break underneath my dresses in the closet of my room, because the thoughts won’t pause, won’t give me room to breathe, because their suggestions turn from ludicrous to downright insane and there is some tiny sliver of my brain that knows it.
husband decided it was beyond him this time and gathered me up and took me somewhere safe.
i never thought as a twelve-year-old dreaming life achievements for myself that i would have few week stay in the mental hospital stamped in my little book of Things I’ve Done, but who can ever predict their achievements. i arrived with my bag and they took my comb and the string to my hoodie and said come on in.
it was an odd place that i’m guessing you would dislike, but i found it strangely comforting. the whiteboard and its list of rules. the tidy order of the day. the things we could do and the things we could not do. once i stopped being terrified of my fellow cohabitants, i found myself unwinding, a little. at the hospital i started ECT, which at first seemed like the miracle cure for my treatment resistant bipolar disorder — but now that i’m months out and lost half my memories and much of my brain and still have the treatment resistant bipolar disorder, i’m not so sure how miraculous it is.
i’m home now. it’s months since the move and the hospital and i’m supposed to be recovering, but when i stare at truth without flinching, it tells me i’m not really getting any better. it’s a terrifying place to be: to not be able to trust yourself, to not know how you will wake up, whether you will remember the road to your own house. i feel like a child, but a child with responsibilities large and looming that i cannot remember. it puts me constantly on the edge of tears. i’ve made few friends, met no neighbors, settled in nowhere in my new community. this disease is burning me alive. and it’s such a lonely place to be.
that’s why i’m writing. i’m writing in case you know someone going through this, so you can pick up the phone and say, here i am and i’m not leaving. i’m writing in case the person you know is yourself so that you know you’re not alone. i’m writing in case the person you know is me because i’m terrible at articulating verbally the depth of my sorrow and my terror.
and if you’ve made it this far, i want to send you here: when life is burning down because it is so exactly true. and the author quotes this song come close now by christa wells and i want to write the lyrics here because we all have times in our lives when we’re in the fire. i had no idea how hot mine would burn.
I’m afraid of the space where you suffer/Where you sit in the smoke and the burn/I can’t handle the choke or the danger/Of my own foolish, inadequate words/I’ll be right outside if you need me/Right outside//What can I bring to your fire?/Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?/Can I hold you while the flames grow higher,/Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now?/Can I come close now?//So we left you to fight your own battle/And you buried your hope with your faith/’Cause you heard no song of deliverance/There on the nights that followed the wake/We never though to go with you/Afraid to ask// What can I bring to your fire?/Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?/Can I hold you while the flames grow higher,/Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now?/Can I come close now?//Lay down our plans/Lay down the sure-fire fix/Grief’s gonna stay awhile,/There is no cure for this/We watch for return,/We speak what we’ve heard/We sit together, in the burn// What can I bring to your fire?/Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?/Can I hold you while the flames grow higher,/Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now?/Can I come close now?