During recess I would cling to the teacher, usually crying over something neither of us could identify. Fortunately, the teachers took pity on me, tolerating my need to be attached like a barnacle until recess ended and some irrelevant subject resumed. School was a distraction from the acute sense I had–even in Kindergarten–that life would subsume me, that there was some imperative way in which I was ill-equipped.
I learned to appear normal, as we all do. Though I’ve had numerous hospitalizations and the egregiousness of my antics and strategies continue to surprise even me, people like to tell me there’s nothing to be ashamed of–even though I never mentioned shame in the first place. What I have is something I was born with and it doesn’t cause me to do anyone harm. I don’t molest children or eat rats. Still people would rather not hear about it. The fact is I struggle every day just to want to stay alive when really most of us do this quite automatically. We get up and live because instinct tells us to. We are similar to animals in this way. Conversely, each day I have to force myself to go on when really I’d rather not. Imagine your dog contemplating a dash into traffic each time you are paused at a light waiting for it to change.
I’m bored with people’s discomfort with my problem–a discomfort that is most often fear manifesting as repulsion. It’s true, I can be prickly or even hostile, paranoid, morose, withdrawn, phobic. I can also be the funniest girl in the room, kind and compassionate, a quick wit, a good fuck. I am all these things–in part because of Bipolar Illness and in part because I was cool at the same moment I got sick. I was born sick and I was born cool and then life molded me into what I am–just like it did to you. Why must I apologize for my circumstances? I didn’t choose them at life’s buffet. They were fed me along with everything else I didn’t select, along with the gay gene.
There are two classes of Bipolar Illness: I and II. The Bipolar I fun-filled travel package includes full-blown mania–and often psychosis–interspersed with prolonged suicidal, often agitated depression. Bipolar II, the diagnosis du jour, comprises episodes of severe depression and little spikes of mania–like maybe you once in a while clean your floor in the middle of the night. I have Bipolar I–a case for the record books.
I am not someone who usually writes autobiographically. I tend to write fiction. But what has happened to me and people’s obvious discomfort with it demands discussion. When I talk about having mental illness people sometimes blanch; it’s like I’ve dropped my pants and started scratching my privates. People want to flee the room. Many have fled my life completely. Those who stick around try to be kind–they proffer zucchini from the garden, Gillian Welch CDs, invitations for a quiet dinner (often with no alcohol served, as if one distasteful affliction suggests the presence of all others). The fact is, I’m just a person who was born with a brain in which the chemicals don’t work properly. Additionally, i was born with a brain that can make beautiful art and funny jokes, that learns with lightning speed, that can facilely understand things outside my realm of experience. Bipolar is a curse–not a blessing–but there is no denying that this misfiring of chemicals–while reeking havoc on my creature comforts–has also borne unusual gifts.
Recently I saw the Van Gogh exhibit at the Clark Museum. He cut off his ear, after all, so tormented was he, so devastated by his inability to relate to people combined with (what I imagine) was constant self-excoriation rambling through his labile brain. But he created one over-the-top, crazy-beautiful painting after another in his effort to overwhelm the ugliness of his thoughts with the luminescence of his heart. I think of Van Gogh all the time. I’m not sure why. He was a stalker of beauty. But he was less interested in sensual pleasure than in turning madness into something that was meaningful. I want to be this person, too. But for right now all I can do is try to tame my brain while, at the same time, get as much done as I can during this period of temporary stability. It isn’t an abomination–it’s an affliction. Therefore, you don’t have to whisper when you talk about it–in fact don’t. Talk about it as if you were talking about any other illness. Let people overhear you talking about it in the grocery store so that later, when they’re reviewing their day, they’ll remember this snippet of conversation they overheard, so voluminous it caught them by surprise. For a minute they’ll think they dreamed it because it seemed to have been impossibly normal and understated. A smidgen of a step in the right direction. Think of Van Gogh and how much easier life could have been for him. He might even have sold some paintings.