I am not a therapist, a doctor, a shaman, or a cleric. I didn’t earn a doctorate in magic or “find myself” while residing at an Ashram in India. I don’t cast manifestation stones or consult with the stars, and I haven’t rejected razors, given up meat, or purchased a hybrid vehicle. If you’re looking for a sage, I’m not your girl.
I do, however, have a modicum of perspective when it comes to negotiating balance. As a working mother and lovesome wife, I am trying to nurture an identity of my own, and this is as good a time as any to mention that I must attend to those responsibilities while simultaneously struggling with attention deficits and bipolar disorder.
I wish I could say that these particular facets of my life were insignificant, but they are not. Every time I open the medicine cabinet in the morning to reach for the toothpaste, I remember that I have to take my medicine before I make the lunches; and if perchance I don’t remember, my trusty phone mouths off with alarms—many times a day and often in public—to remind me of who I am. Every time I rage or cry or write poetry or binge on Pinterest, I have to worry that these are signs of an impending episode and take an appropriately offensive stance. Every time I hear someone use the term “bipolar” as if it’s synonymous with “That person is crazy!” I have to stifle feelings of shame and fury.
Even this article, which I have to write anonymously so as to protect myself from the mistrust and fear of others, is a reminder that I live a secret life. It’s just not copacetic to be manic-depressive in the worlds I inhabit, one of which is a school. (Gasp! A lunatic teacher? How dreadful! How simply uproarious!)
Let me ask you this: If you found out that your child’s teacher manages bipolar disorder on a daily basis, would you feel completely confident in her efficacy and stability? Would you trust that your child’s experience would be up to snuff and that her overall well-being would be guaranteed? As a parent, I can tell you that even my faith would be tested, and I AM that teacher. I am a competent, beloved educator who is supported and protected by the very same administration that scrutinizes and silences me, and I am sought after by the very same parent community who would see me shunned if my disorder were made known. Riddle me that!
How do you tell a story that unfolds every day? There is as of yet no ending, and there wasn’t even a discernible beginning. I spent the better part of twenty years drifting on the ebbs and flows of my moods. At times, I’d be lost in the terrifying depths of depression. With no predictable end to that despair, I turned to alcohol, pills, and razor blades. But when that anguish finally gave way to unrestrained vitality, I vibed on a plane unknown to those who have never experienced the highs of mania.
Oh, Mania. She’s a sexy and seductive beast. She lures you with her illusions of inexhaustible energy while blinding you to your own demise. Worst of all, she recruits the world around you to celebrate your ruin. Most cannot see what she’s up to; they witness you ablaze and are astonished by your spirit. They compliment your drive and marvel at your achievements. But what they perceive as dancing, they should perceive as frenzy. They don’t notice you unravel. They have no knowledge of the reckless spending, the compulsive stealing, the illicit love affairs, and the neglect of your children. They know nothing of sleepless nights and a mind that runs itself ragged. It’s only when you fall off the map that they scratch their heads and wonder what the hell happened. I was fated to vanish one way or another, whether they saw it coming or not.
After the birth of my second daughter, I lost all semblance of equilibrium. I couldn’t abide, couldn’t recover my footing. I finally reached a crossroads where I had to choose between my life or the lives of my girls, and that was not a fair fight. I wish I could say that I changed my course with finesse and some pretense of dignity, but it was a shit storm from which I will never fully recover. That said, I know all too well what it’s like to grow up with a mentally ill mother, and she knew all too well what it’s like to grow up with a mentally ill father. I was determined, and remain so, that my children not meet with the same fate.
Rumi once wrote: “There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard they can’t hope.” If this is to be any kind of story, let it be a love story. Let the narrative be about reconciliation and salvation and the kind of sacrifice that only a mommy can make. I don’t really know who saved whom, but I do know this: today, a student assigned me a superlative of “Most likely to win the “Best Teacher Ever Award,” and my husband sent a text to tell me he loves me and that he will take charge of dinner. One of my daughters demanded a second hug before letting me leave the house this morning, and the other sang all the way to school. I mean that literally, all 19.9 miles at the top of her glorious little lungs.
There was a time that I would have been unavailable to experience, or even recognize, these rare and precious moments because I was living on Planet Elsewhere. Today, I am planted firmly in good ol’ terra ferma, and I’m fully engaged to boot. Yes, I am forevermore beholden to doctors and pharmaceuticals that keep me grounded, and without which, I’ve been told, my life will be imperiled. Yes, I have to bide my time until I’m invited to the table, not just tossed the scraps. The hard truth is that the world is not yet ready for all of me. Those of us struggling with mental illness have, for the time being, been banished to the shadow lands, but you know us just the same. We drive the carpool and go out to dinner with you on your birthdays. We run next to you on the treadmills at the gym and talk to you on the subways. We help you shovel your driveways after we’ve been buried under snow. We shop in your stores. We sing with you at concerts. We teach and love your children.
If you can live with that, believe you me, you can live with us. There are so very many chapters, so very many volumes, left to write in this story. Please, let’s do it together. In the end, it belongs to all of us.
The writer of this article is a teacher, artist, and music enthusiast. She insists that her daughters write thank you notes, and she champions the penny reclamation campaign. Her favorite springtime flower is peonies, and she once swam in a bioluminescent bay on a moonless night. Life has been good to her.