Back-To-School season. Impossible not to feel revved up. Pushing the shopping cart up and downthe store aisles, hyped up on the SALES!!!, the lure of “Buy 1 Get 1 Free!”, the idiotic sense of accomplishment as I check off once, then twice just to be sure that I’ve managed to score the yellow highlighters, the jumbo packs of No.2 pencils, the pens, the 48 pack of crayons, the 5 multi-colored folders, the 5 marbled notebooks, the pencil-tip erasers, the pink ear buds, the locker mirror, and the pencil sharpener. But what about the locker magnets and mini-dry erase board and extra loose-leaf packs and extra-extra notebooks?
Can Back-To-School shopping induce mania? I know when I got home, I went right to work organizing my daughter’s backpack, which would, within the first day, become its usual chaotic mess—a jumble of pens and pencils and anime drawings on the back of handouts—a disorganization that makes sense to her. But there I was putting all the little pencil tip erasers in one zippered pocket and the pack of crayons in another, and sharpening half the pencils and lining them up in the same direction inside her blue pencil case.
This has been the one reliable (and perhaps annoying to others) effect of my Bipolar Disorder: my thoughts and emotions might often be a disordered mess, like getting stuck in the middle of tangled briar patch, but my tangible external world, the rooms, the cabinets, the purses, the pencil cases, these places and things can be orderly and rational. So that when I look at them, I don’t have to get lost but can see a clear and reliable way in and out. No mess, no tangles, no getting stuck.
I do these “clean-outs” all the time, often to the consternation and panic of my husband. He’ll come home from work or a trip and I’ll have cleaned out the attic closet or the kitchen cupboards: what were once cluttered, suffocating mazes of old lamps, boxes of outdated receipts, clothes too big and moth-eaten; or packages of stale crackers, cans of weird soups bought at a close-out store, bad chocolate, or furry olives are now orderly shelves and racks, only what is needed is kept, surfaces bleached clean, insect husks vacuumed away, everything with a place and in its place.
What inspires my husband’s panic is a few past zealous mistakes on my part—I’ve thrown out some things that should have been saved—some documents that were, after all, necessary; food items that weren’t past date (though they looked it to me); objects that were not-so-lovely but had sentimental value. So I’m more circumspect—checking for legal or love references, sniffing and, if warranted, licking, and asking thrice (“Soooo, do you really, really, really need this?”)
But when it comes to my junk? I’m ruthless. Maybe it ties into my longing to take a stiff broom to my brain, sweep it clean--a blank slate. Sweep up all the suicidal impulses, every last desire to hurt myself, sweep up all the hurt and emptiness and sadness, all the trauma. A nice big pile, sweep it into a dustbin and fling it out to sea. But this is just a fleeting image. The re-cycling mania and near constant rumination prevent any permanent housekeeping. Bipolar Disorder creates constant clutter—it’s like wandering the stacks of a University Library at hyperspeed grabbing this book on Chemical Thermodynamics and that book on Nautical Curiosities and this book on the Butterflies of Jamaica and that book on the Jamestown Settlement.
Which brings me back to Back-To-School. I miss the purpose of going back to school. As a kid, it was a container for my impulsiveness, for my speed, for my intensity. The school day offered order and direction, and because I loved books and learning, it showed me how to channel my drive. It showed me how to slow down my breathing and make it a game: complete my tasks, watch the clock, beat the clock, have time left over
And I had my pencil case. Hello Kitty. Magnetic Lid. Everything I needed to survive the day was inside. 3 sharpened pencils lined up in the same direction. 1 eraser. How could that be enough? In the time left over at the end of official tasks, I wrote my secret stories in my extra notebook. Story after story after story. 3rd grade. 4th grade. 5th grade. I’m still writing stories, though they’re no longer secret anymore.