May is Mental Health Month, and this year’s theme is “Live Your Life Well.” How is this catch phrase meaningful to me?
This is an essential directive and my sacred task. To stay alive. It seems ridiculous to have to say this, more so to write it because Healthy Me is standing on the sidelines, one hand on hip, the other smacking my forehead. Of course I want to live.
I have my son’s snotty, cookie crumby kisses, his warm hand on my cheek, his tiny body finding mine at night, spooning up against me. He needs me in the primal way four year olds need their Mommas, close and tight. He is my son but I am his sun—I am the one he revolves around (except when Christopher gives him the bellyache tickles or spears a worm on his fishing hook or cooks him from-scratch Chicken Nuggets). When I pick him up from preschool, he tackles me and says, “I love you Momma. Will you marry me?” The proposal is sincere—he wants me to live beside him forever.
I have my daughter who needs me more and more as each pre-pre-teen day passes. She is navigating the intricacies of being a seven year old who prefers dragons, bugs, and furry creatures over Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, and boyfriend-girlfriend role playing. So the teasing has been pretty merciless. And then there are the rapid-fire, shifting friendships which have recently relegated her to the status of “third-in-line” best friend. My heart breaks and breaks as she tearfully tells me how sad she is, how she has “a funny feeling in her belly all day long,” how she wants to move far away. “Vermont,” she says, “or Greece.”
And then there’s the beginning of body-consciousness: “I’m too short. My ears are too small. My belly is fat. I need to exercise more.” Have her antennae been picking up my own twisted agonies of the body? She needs me to live with the body I have. She needs me to stay alive in the body I have. She needs me to live a long life as her Momma.
And yet, despite these miraculous reasons to live, IT is always after me to die. There is, obviously and horribly, suicide. I’ve tried that again and again. At nine, the Flintstone's Vitamin Overdose. At sixteen, the middle-of-the-night swim into the Atlantic Ocean. At twenty, the deliberate alcohol overdose and a blood alcohol level of .39. At thirty-three, the would-have-if-I-could-have threat to jump off the Triborough Bridge. At thirty six, hitting a low, low body weight with all the associated nutritional (hair falling out, skin dry, exhaustion) and physical problems (low blood pressure, troublesome cardiac readings). And then later that year, swallowing a large handful of Lithium and waking up the next day in the ICU. All of this and I am still alive. Though as I told Dr. B. a few weeks ago, “The Eating Disorder allows me to punish myself without the external scars. Nobody sees IT.” (Which isn’t altogether true as several of my friends have told me in the past few weeks that they can see IT: the body, diminishing, becomes a visible sign of internal decompensation.)
Dr. B. put it to me plainly: “You have a choice. You can live a life of hospitalizations, of zero expectations, of managing IT. Or you can live a life of potential and possibility, of integrity, of recovering from IT. You can choose death or you can choose life. Which will it be?”
Which will it be? Which will it be? The answer should be so easy. And it is when I am with my family, and it isn’t when I am alone.
Live. In the end, I don’t have a choice. According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves and increases their risk of developing a range of major psychiatric disorders. I love my children too much for them to become statistics of IT. So I must live.
Here are the basic facts. I am thirty-seven, a wife and mother of two. I am employed by a small liberal arts college as an English Professor. I have Bipolar Disorder (and this will not change so I’d better make my peace with it) and, at present, am suffering from an Eating Disorder. I have one-hundred and three scars on my forearms, all self-inflicted. I have attempted suicide. I have been hospitalized ten times in the past three years, for as short at four days and for as long as two months. Because of all this, I am applying for Long Term Disability which will mean (devastatingly) that I will be giving up my tenure-track job.
Blah Blah Blah. All of the above is merely information, a roll-call of facts, the kind of statements that have appeared on my Inpatient Admissions Form and are meant to provide a quick clinical summary.
Inpatient Hospitalization #1: "This is a 34 year old white female professor who presents to the Emergency Room secondary to suicidal ideations with a plan. The patient states she has a history of bipolar disorder. The patient states that she is having decreased sleep, interest, energy, and concentration and is having feelings of guilt as well as poor appetite and some anhedonia. The patient states that she has a history of cutting. The patient denies lack of need for sleep. The patient admits to having racing thoughts. The patient is thin, with a high degree of grooming and hygiene. The patient cannot contract for safety at this time."
Nutrition Consult #1: “Kerry was a pleasant, anxious young woman who is reluctant to acknowledge that she has an “eating disorder” but acknowledges that “her eating is disordered.” Her current habits are severely restrictive and are significantly compromising her health. Kerry appears to have a good support system in her husband although she is not convincing in her readiness to truly address her eating disorder for her own sake. Her thought process regarding “normal” eating is extremely distorted.”
Is this my life? A sequence of increasingly dire diagnoses? The present threat that my next hospitalization will be six months at Warren State? That is no life. Not mine, anyway. Not any life I would want.
On the other hand, there is my other life, the one that involves a white washed house on the island of Thassos in Greece. Olive tins filled with geraniums on the front steps. Sky blue shutters on the windows. Christopher is in the back yard roasting tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes in the wood burning oven. He is, of course, sipping on an ouzo. Sophia, now fifteen, is crouched on the ground in a far field collecting beetles in a jar which she’ll investigate under microscope later. Alexander, now twelve, is hunting octopus down in Aliki, a peninsula comprised of three bays.
I can see the beach from my study window; it glitters with white stones and the water is clear, then deep blue and cold. I have been at my desk, bathed in all that brilliant sunshine, working on the final chapter of my novel. A vase of orange poppies is on the table beside a carafe of icy water. The writing hour has come to a close. I call for Sophia and Christopher and we walk down the road to the beach to meet Alexander for lunch at a taverna: grilled octopus in oregano and lemon, baked feta, a plate of wild greens, a village salad topped with oil-cured olives, taramasalata, a loaf of fresh, sesame bread. I am hungry and eat well, without guilt or the dark urges. A swim, then, to shake off the work-a-day morning and lunch time lethargy—snorkels and masks, searching the sea floor for sea urchin shells, those beautiful, fragile husks. Afterwards, the four of us collapse on the beach for a snooze to the cicadas whirring in the cypress trees.
And just because this is my dream, my other life, when I wake, my horse is waiting for me—tied up to an olive tree, and we go for a sunset ride into the hills, stopping for the goats that come out to greet us, their bells jangling around the scruffy necks. That night, after a simple dinner at the table in the yard, under moonlight and candlelight, Sophia and Alexander wander into the village to see what there is to see, while Christopher and I disappear into our bedroom and make love.
This is the life that doesn’t make it onto those forms. This is the life I am, at least in imagination, living.
As in “to the best of my ability,” keeping in mind that I need to make accommodations for the Bipolar Disorder, realizing that I need to have realistic expectations for myself.
But also Well: Better, recovered, healed. No longer at the bottom of the well. Flooded with love and life instead. Well-nourished, well-being, well-adjusted, well-balanced, well-done, well-grounded, well-ordered, well-beloved.