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Lasers and Pinholes

June 11th, 2010

The people you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore, they push and shove and won’t bend to your will.

I’ll keep them still.

[elliott smith]


I am scared on a daily basis.  Daily, hourly.  By the minute, sometimes.

On a bad day, the second.

Scared, worried, terrified that I will not be the person I want to be.  Not scared for the future (though, yes, I must admit, scared for the future).  But scared for the present.  Scared of my body’s own inertia, of my own history.  I’m scared of my story—not for what is has already been, but of what it will be.


On a Friday afternoon, when most people are relaxing and letting the pressures of the week slide off their backs, we stand behind a hood in a laboratory, tagging mice for future experiments.

We talk about how we are the same.  “You’re just like me,” he says.  “But someday we’re going to have to grow up.  We’re going to have to become the people we want to be.  We just have to do it.  That’s it.  You just do it.”

He keeps going.  I look at him and think about these things he is saying.  He’s older.  But, these days, most people are.  I’ve landed as the almost-baby of the group of people I’m always with.  Young, but not too young to be acerbically cynical.  Not too young to be sad or worried.  In fact, I usually don’t feel very young at all.

“I’m not a bad person.”  He says.  “Neither are you.  We’ve both done bad things.  But we’re not bad people.”

We just have to be the people we want to be.


Once upon a time, I thought (or perhaps simply wished or dreamed) that the pills would be magic, that they would take everything away.  Even as I was telling myself—and everyone else—that the pills would be no sudden cure-all, I hoped they would.  Still, I sometimes feel gypped and let down–by chemistry, by life, by psychiatrists who never told me that the Lamictal is brilliant for depression and sometimes-kind-of-really-lousy for the hypomania.

Nobody wants to do the work that it takes to manage a mental illness.  Nobody welcomes that burden.  Nobody wants to go see a psychiatrist and tell them the absolute truth.  Nobody wants to give up all those wonderful bad habits.  My disease feels comfortable, like a sweater you’ve had since junior high school or a hug from someone you’ve always gone to church with.  I am comfortable in it, riding the highs and lows in a Cadillac, sleeping stretched out in the backseat and never worried about crashing.

I am often flooded with conflicted feelings, plagued with the shadow, with the devil, with a sense of longing that winds itself into my pores and kicks out the bottom of my stomach.  I am overwhelmed, like the detectors on our microscopes when too much light hits them.

I see the diagrams in class, and I understand.  The light source is my brain.  I need filters to keep everything in.  To protect everyone else.  The pinhole is my heart.  I need filters to protect everything else from getting in.  To protect myself.

So, I close my eyes and turn the filter wheel.  Or let someone else take the reigns—for a day, for an hour, for a second—and let them turn it for me as I sink into their arms or just fall asleep, exhausted.  Turn, turn, turn—and believe that somewhere out there (in here) there is that girl that I want to be.  I just have to keep going until I find her.  I just have to be her.

Woman overboard

May 18th, 2010

Sharp and invasive pain, not seen with the naked eye.

The wounds created long ago, continue to re-open and re-play themselves as a form of private torture.  “It’s not fair”, I scream quietly to myself, calling out to the universe, begging for it to all stop.

Looking for the escape hatch, the trap door, that pathway through the ceiling.  My knees have scratches and are bleeding, visual proof of my endless attempts to find the way out.

It wasn’t always like this, I remember good things, events, feelings.

Perhaps a spell cast upon me by an evil witch, unknown to me, unable to break it’s binding upon my soul until the Dark Horse arrives to rescue me knowing that I am the Dark Horse, not something outside of me.

The searing sadness, each time I think about the task before me wondering if I have another fight in me.

There really is no permanent happily ever after.  I often think someone should have to take accountability for that. I want my money back you lying motherfuckers, I’m not buying it anymore.

Spiraling, so tired, unsure of what my next action should be, I pray silently, with desperation for this to run it’s course so that I can move beyond it.

I know it’s there, I know I’ll find it, I know I can float.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

April 27th, 2010

When I first met her, I didn’t think I’d like her.  We were supposed to be friends, we’d both been told.  We’d both been told we’d like each other.

She has blond hair, and she’s thin.  Her teeth are perfectly white.  I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I’m judging her.  She knows I’m judging her.

At the end of the day, I write my friend.  He used to be in the lab—he knows how it used to be.  He knows me.  I tell him that I don’t know if I’ll like her.  He tells me to send him a picture of her in a bikini.


There’s nothing like going crazy.  Having already gone crazy and then recovered and forgotten what it felt like, I feel uniquely qualified to say it.

In my head, I try on metaphors:

Going crazy is like drowning in a deep warm ocean.  At first, it shocks your lungs.  Your limbs flail and you struggle against it.  You fight.  You fight so damn hard.  But eventually, you sink too far and you just give up.  You let it wash over you, fill your alveoli and stop your heart.  You let it have you.

Bipolar disorder is the color of water.  Bipolar disorder is the heat of the sun on a day in December.  Or July.  Or both, all at once.  Bipolar disorder is wanting everything in the world at the same time, wanting everything and knowing—without question—that it’s already all yours.

Bipolar disorder is pain.  On your couch, in your car, in your bed.  In the shower, sitting in your seat at the dinner table.  In your head.  Pain that moves down your nerves and makes you hot and shaky.  Makes you not eat or sleep until you’re nauseous and immobile.  Makes you so much less than what you ever wanted to be.


Sometime after I fell in love with her—in the passionately innocent way that only girls can fall in love with their friends who are also girls—I told her about the crazy.  We both have chronic illnesses.  We both have friends who didn’t want to deal with chronic illnesses.  We were both dealt shit hands, and we spit in the face of the dealer.  She’s better at it than I am.  But sometimes, I can get a good shot in too.

Still—I never wanted her to experience it for herself.  To see the crazy unleashed in full-force, wild-eyed and swirling patterns of dust around my existence.  Didn’t want her to see how it could consume me, steam-roll me, hold my head underwater just to see me squirm.  Didn’t want her to see how it made my legs shake and stomp, my teeth clench up in my mouth, my hands curl into fists until my nails leave half-moon patterns in the skin of my palms.


Bipolar disorder is a devil, a demon.  Real-life, with hot hooves that burn you and sharp horns that gore you, right through your abdomen, and pin you to walls.  Think back to all of the literature you can think of, all the ones about Satan and his minions.  Animal-shaped and furious, they dance with you—grab your hand and spin you around and around.  You are dizzy.  You are exhausted.  You sweat through your clothing.  You don’t know if you’ll make it.  You’re not sure you’ll survive.

Do you even want to survive?

The sole purpose of a devil is to tempt you.  To hold your hand out toward all the shiny things you think you could be.  You want to smoke weed, drink too much alcohol and fuck.  You want to run—as fast as you possibly can—in the warm streets on the darkest nights.  You itch in your own skin.  You are uncomfortable.

You want to be uncomfortable.  You want to lose yourself.  You are tired of holding it together.  The devil tells you that you don’t have to.


I didn’t want her to see it, but she did anyway.  She knew where I was headed.

My head lit up, hair messy and undone.  The previous day’s clothing, my fast words spewing out of my mouth.  A sideways wicked smile.  I was unraveling.

“Tell me how you’re feeling.”

I tell her I don’t want to.  That I’m sick of people who leave when I’m sick.  If I pretend that I’m not sick, I rationalize in my fucked-up head, then people will have no reason to leave.  I don’t want to get her involved with the nasty tangled web of my mind.

But she jumps in.  “I’m not going to leave.  I just want you to be honest with me.  I just want to help you.”

So I tell her about the monsters in my head.  Tell her I’m drowning.

I cannot see, in my own mirror, how crazy I am.  How crazy I look.  But in the reflective pool of her concerned face, I can see it clearly.  Because she is scared, I suddenly am too.  She’s pulling me back out.  And then, I do something I’ve never done before, not with any other person.  Not really.  I let her.

When I write that I feel run-out and done-for, she writes that she’ll pick me up.

When I say I’m glad she’s in my corner, she promises she’ll be princess of my corner forever.

When I remember that I once thought we couldn’t be friends, I think of how stupid I can be.

Here, with her, there’s hope between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The Friction In Your Genes

March 1st, 2010

It’s not until he mentions it that I realize that he’s funnier than he’s ever been before.  I’ve been sitting here, drinking coffee with him—my middle brother, 3.5 years my junior—for an hour, maybe.  And I’m just now realizing that I’ve been laughing with him far more than I usually do.

Funnier, yes—and talking fast, loud.  I can barely get a word in edgewise as he quips, his words darting faster and all around me.  He pulls faces, laughs, then stops.

I feel stupid, because I maybe wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t said anything about it.  Quieter, now—“I’m going to go see somebody, one of the counselor’s at school.”  He talks about how he’s fucked things up, how he lost his girlfriend of more than a year by being stupid.

He’s the same age I was when I fucked things up.  21 and change.  The age where everything starts to come together, when your body feels electric with the burden of the future and the prospects of freedom and responsibility start to wind themselves around your ankles.

And I envy him, if only a twinge, before I am suddenly scared for him.


(remember)  What it’s like to be told in a room by a man that you have a chronic illness that will never go away.  And it’s something that’s inside you—it’s something that you’ve always thought is you.  Because it’s in your head—in your brain—it’s hard to separate out the sick part.  You start the never-ending data-mining, the perpetual jump through funhouse mirrors—you decide what to keep and what to put away in a box marked “other.”

You are stricken by two dual forces.  One.  You would never wish this fate on your least favorite person.  Think about childhood bullies and mean bosses.   You may wish for them to die, but you’d never wish for them to feel this way.  Two.  There’s a genetic component.  A much higher likelihood than you’ll admit that someone you love will do this too.

These forces get inside you and they explode your heart.  Pieces of it go everywhere, flying into all of those they love.  You understand that quote about your heart walking outside of your body.  You live with it every day.


And still, I dare to dream about a normal life, ignoring the fact that I took a left turn from normal years ago.  Once upon a beautiful time, I had a coherent line of sight.  I was engaged, had a wedding planned for June 14th, 2008.  I wanted to go to school, get married, start thinking about children.

The words “bipolar disorder” make everything so fucking complicated.  When they find out that we’ve been dating for seven years, even casual acquaintances ask about a ring.  I laugh it off.  I say that we’re taking our time.  I don’t mention that we were engaged.  I don’t tell them that we’re not engaged now because I contracted a case of the crazies and went about fucking schoolboys while my fiancé worked at 5 AM on Saturdays to pay for my ring.  When I think about it, my jaw starts to hurt from the clenching of my teeth.  My lungs are filled with air that won’t be pushed out.  I take a look at the path at the fucked-up path of burnt-out bridges that lay behind me.  How do you explain this?  How do you make sense of something that feels so senseless?  How do you do anything but move forward, blindly, spouting platitudes and bullshit about taking your time.  Taking the long way.  Going the whole distance around your ass and still, somewhat improbably, coming out ok.


In the review session for my neuroscience final in my first year of medical school, the question is posed: “What is the heritability of Bipolar Disorder?”

The answer I’ve learned to parrot is:  “Autosomal dominant, but with partial penetrance.”

In my head, it sounds more like: “You are playing Russian Roulette with your future children’s lives.”

In these moments—among others—I am forced to contemplate the ghost-children who will someday tumble out of my womb, with so much potential for brilliance and pain lying latent their skin.

In the dark, I will whisper to them that my genes do not determine their fate.  Then—and now, even now—I will whisper it to myself.

Playing With Fire

February 22nd, 2010

I have recently reconnected with someone from my past.

This someone was the most important person in my life for many years.  He was instrumental in my highest-flying moments of joy, and in the worst, dark depths.  He was my best friend and my worst enemy.  In the end, he fulfilled a pattern that had been present in my life since childhood:  the ones who say that they love you are the ones that hate you most when no one else is looking.

I focused almost all my energy alternately on pleasing him and rebelling against him.  Relative to how I am now, people say that I looked smaller then, more like a ghost.  (Physically I’m the same size as I was.)   I was more of a sidekick than a wife.

I don’t blame him.  I know his past, and how it shaped him.  After the divorce, I read that two only children should never marry.  You’ve both been brought up as the centre of attention.  You never had to learn to share.  We were two only children in a battle to be at the centre.  He was dominant.  All our space was his space.  All our plans were his plans.  All our friends were his friends.

And yet, he was my best friend for twelve years.  He was my high school sweetheart.  He had some wonderful qualities.  After I left him, despite how bad things had gotten, I missed him unspeakably.  I felt as though I had chewed off my own leg to be free.

Time passed.  Close to ten years after I moved out, I have reconnected with him online.  I barely thought of him anymore by then, but it was nice to share some memories together, and catch up on news.  We started writing more often, re-kindling the friendship side of our connection.

At first it was fun and easy.  But it’s been getting more difficult for me.  The more I know him now, the more it feels like he’s a real presence in my life, the more all those unresolved feelings come floating to the surface.  There were so many things we never talked about, near the end.

Sometimes after an e-mail from him, I can’t sleep at night.  I wake at 3 am with a pounding, racing heart.  All the insecurities I thought I had outgrown are being triggered, almost as though no time has passed at all.  I thought I had forgiven him, but I had only forgotten.  Now that I’m reminded, I can time-travel back to my old self instantly.

I have to stop, look around at my new home, my new life.  I remind myself what year it is, how old I am.  I look in the mirror and see that I’m different.  As soon as I stop focusing on the now, the past snaps me back like an elastic band.

Why don’t I just cut him off again?  Same reason why I can’t sleep at night.  There are too many unresolved issues begging to come to light.  I hope that if I can weather the anxiety, we might be able to talk through some of the past, and heal it.  He has changed.  He went through his own personal hell, and it humbled him.  I can’t bear to lose him again.  I’m willing to let it be messy, difficult, and awkward.  The possibilities are worth the risks.

The Ones We Leave Behind

January 28th, 2010

My mom has an incredibly annoying habit of starting conversations with me with the phrase, “What’s wrong?”

Example:  It is the day after Christmas.  I have been downstairs eating cake for breakfast in my pajamas.  I walk up the stairs and see my mom.  Startled, she looks at me.  “What’s wrong?”

Nothing. I say.  I was just eating cake downstairs.  Everything is perfect.

Example:  My mom calls me on the phone and leaves a voice mail.  I return her call.  She answers the phone—no “hello”—but “What’s wrong?”

It wasn’t always this way.


I don’t know what it is, what makes her do this.  It unnerves me to no end, makes me feel like she’s always on edge.  I have my theories, of course—that our relationship is forever changed by the knowledge of my mental illness, that she feels guilty that she didn’t know I had so many problems.  Guilty because she discouraged me from getting treatment the first time around.  Scared that it could happen again, a snap of the crazy finger and everything changed, or gone, again.

Once, when I was 21 and in the middle of the arduous task of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I spent the night at home.  It was Daylight Savings Time, the one where you spring forward and lose an hour, the same lost hour that started everything the year before.  The boy and I were both upset—him with me, and me with myself.  In the middle of the night, I slipped out of my bed and left a note saying I had gone to sleep at his house.  Later, in the early hours of the morning, someone shot a gun outside my house.  My parents awoke, saw I was out of bed, and immediately feared for the worst.  I got my mom’s panicked call on my cell phone, out-of-breath and hysterical.

I’m here. I said.  I’m alive.

But it was eye-opening, having a glimpse into the fears they had about my life and my illness.  The fact that they thought it could have been me has always shaken me to my core.


An essay on suicide and its presence in my life:

In 2002, a month before starting my senior year of high school, one of my best friend’s fathers committed suicide in the woods outside their house while no one was home.  Her mother, out of town and worried that she couldn’t contact him, called my friend on the phone and my father, brother and I drove home with her.  While we were in transit, he was found dead.  One of his employees knew me and knew that I was a friend of his daughter.  Trying to track her down, they called me.  We were halfway there.  We pulled over in the rain and I got out of the car.  At the age of 17, I had to tell this girl that her father died, that he’d committed suicide.  And then there, in my arms, were the pieces he’d blown apart with his gun.  I held the one who’d been left behind.

Last week, one of my closest friends called me—after a string of numbed-out half-started words, he finally choked out that he’d lost his college roommate.  I went over to his house and we sat outside as he smoked cigarettes.  He told me about the questionable nature of the death, about the erratic driving and an overcorrection of the steering wheel that flipped a car and left its driver DOA.

“His father told me that he’d been on pills, and I knew that he was having some problems.  But nothing like this.  And he never told me how he was feeling.  He never told me.  Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

He was asking because he knows about my experiences with mental illness, because he knows that I’ve been depressed.

So, I told him the truth.  That sometimes we don’t tell the people who are closest to us because we don’t want to change their perceptions of us.  We don’t tell them because we can’t bear the sideways glances, the frightened looks that make us feel crazier.  That we can’t stand the thought of hurting and worrying the ones we love.  That when we tell the closest ones, that’s when it really hits us.  That’s when it’s real.

It’s easy to tell strangers and people you’ve just met.  They don’t have any emotional investment in you or your well-being.  They don’t worry at night or when you call them on the phone.  They never will have to ask you, “What’s wrong,” and be scared of what the answer might be.

So he’s quiet and drunk and upset—all the things I’ve been before, when someone I knew unexpectedly died.  And he looks at me, and repeats himself.  “I just wish he had told me.”

And here I am, once more—holding in my arms one of the ones who’s been left behind.


It’s not my intention to proselytize or blame.  I’ve been on both sides of the matter, flipping back and forth like a metronome from experience to experience.  I know what it’s like to wallow in desperation and sadness that feels like it will never end.  I’ve visualized it in my head a thousand times—what it would look like to rake a razor down my wrist, what my feet would look like hanging from a rope or the moment of clarity I would have just as I jumped.  I’ve wished for cars to hit me in crosswalks, and I’ve thought incessantly on rough days of turning the steering wheel and careening into a tree.

But I know, too, about the ones we leave behind.  Friends, family, teachers and acquaintances.  The ones who will sit in doorways, mouths drooping with cigarettes and veins running with vodka, the ones who will ask “why” and “how” and blame themselves, no matter what anyone else tells them to the contrary.  I’ve been there too many times, and the pressure of these times is always enough to push me back.

But in the light of this most recent experience, I feel guilty for being so frustrated with my mother.  She asks “What’s wrong?” because she worries that the time she doesn’t is the time it will matter.  I want desperately to tell her that she shouldn’t worry.  That the truth is that, if that time came, she wouldn’t be the one to know.  No one would.  Our hearts are full of secrets and lies, of deceit and worry and fear, of questions that have no answers.

But I want to reassure her.  I want to reassure all of them.  “Don’t worry,” I want to whisper.  And even if I can’t guarantee it, I’m pretty sure.  If I could, I’d write them all promises.  “No matter what, no matter how hard it gets—I won’t leave you behind.”

New Year’s Revolution

January 4th, 2010

In the ensuing days since December 31st, I keep finding new bruises.  One on my shin (darkening, still, as of this morning), a smattering of small ones on my thigh and arm.  A large one on the back of my thigh, two square inches and a deep purple-black.  All self-inflicted, not on purpose—not really—but the result of a few hours of banging around drunk.  Purposefully drunk.

Every New Year’s Eve since I turned 21 has been same verse, same as the first.  I have spotty memories of them, woven in and out of drinking games and one final magnum opus, the moment when it all reverses and I vomit until I no longer can.

It’s cleansing, in an exceedingly fucked up way.  I start each new year with an empty stomach and an insidious headache, sleep away that first day.  Sleep away the memories.

That first year—21, the end of 2006, the beginning of 2007—is full of other meaning and connections.  The last time I was completely untethered, the end of the Big Bad Hurt, the almost-end of us.  By the end of the day, January 1st 2007, I would have lost an engagement.  I would realize, truly, for the first time how close I was to really losing everything.  I would realize that I had lost my mind.


My best friend eschews digital cameras, for the most part, sneering at a technology that allows us to have what he refers to as “instant nostalgia.”

This semester, my friend Charlie has dutifully toted his camera around at night, documenting our drinks and the way we sink into each other as the night progresses.  In the mornings after, when I wake up on someone else’s couch [or when he wakes up on mine], I download the pictures into a folder on my hard drive.

I take advantage of this so-called “instant nostalgia,” track all of the pictures he has surreptitiously taken.  Pictures of the side of my head, or my pointed glare into the camera—wielding a smirk, dimples blazing.

And one picture from New Year’s Eve—post-ball drop, at the very edge of my memories.  1/10 of the nights of the year I wore my hair straight and down.  1/3 of the nights of the year I wore high heels.

A genius picture, really—though probably not intentional.  “Serendipity,” as it goes.  “A beautiful mistake.”

On the right side of the picture, I am laughing.  Loud, it would appear.  And on the left side, an expanse of kitchen between us, the same boy who broke an engagement three years ago.  [He’s laughing too].


It’s been more than a thousand days since that first year, the first time I ever puked from over-drinking and the day I almost lost everything.  The days since then have seen the biggest changes—I’ve gotten used to nightly meds and psychotheraphy, gotten used to feeling desperate in the grocery store when I’ve forgotten the previous night’s Lamictal.  I’ve gotten used to trying to decipher my moods—and used to sometimes failing.  I’ve gotten used to divulging my bad habits to my best friend and my psychiatrist.  I don’t know if I’ll ever spend a New Year’s Eve without feeling sad, without wanting to empty my stomach or hurt myself crawling up [and falling off] banisters.  And I’ve stopped pretending that I’ll never feel the hard things ever again—I’ll never be done with sadness or frustration or longing.  And I’ve stopped pretending that I’ll ever be 100% ok with the idea that I can’t have a 100% normal life (whatever such a thing is…).

So, on January 1st of this year, I wrote this:

“At the end of the year, I sometimes feel pretty. And sometimes hurt or overwhelmed. Sometimes filled with soul-shattering longing. Sometimes blessed and fulfilled. Sometimes invincible.”

The most I think about these words, the more I feel the gravity and the truth in them.  The reality of my life is that I have an illness that sparks a shift in emotions, that once swung me in and out of moods that I could barely recognize, much less control.  But now, I get to experience the most beautiful and real emotions—crushing sadness, blossoming anger, the frustration that makes me shake in my shoes.

And happiness.  The kind that leaves you laughing in a kitchen with someone who could have left.  But didn’t.

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