Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mother's Day: A Bipolar Love Letter to My Children

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When I was pregnant with my first child, Sophia, I felt invincible, like an all-powerful fertility goddess full of unfettered anticipation. I’m bipolar, so maybe I was a little manic, but it felt soooo good. Pregnant on the first try, breathing smoothly and holding steady in warrior pose in anticipation of labor. I even led a month-long student trip to Greece eight and a half months into the pregnancy, convincing my midwife I would be careful, would take it easy, and would rest at night. Instead, I trekked up mountains and across dusty goat paths, brushing my hands through wild oregano; on the beach, after snorkeling, I massaged olive oil into my stretch marks, and into the wee hours of the night, danced the kalamatiano. In one photograph, I float on my back in the blue, buoyant Aegean, my round belly rising from the water like the moon.
Sophia was a dream. Can I say that labor was easy, that she slid from me as if down a water slide, and immediately nursed in soporific contentment? She slept for long, quiet stretches, which meant I did, too, and giggled, first, at the dog’s long, swinging tongue brushing her cheek. She traveled in front carriers and strollers across Greece, Italy, and Mexico. If there were tantrums, I don’t remember any. We called her our “trick baby”: her easiness convinced us to have a second.
My pregnancy with Alexander was difficult. I was tired, full of self-loathing about my failing ambitions, and often dragged down into the mire of depression since I stopped my meds. No fallout the first time, but this time? I was convinced my depression would damage my growing son who was so intimately linked to my chemistry. Irrational, like a belief in medieval humors and black bile running through the umbilical cord into him. But not so irrational. Wasn’t he suspended in a body flooded with cortisol and deficient in serotonin and dopamine? Wasn’t this amniotic bath contaminating him?
In a first photo: I sit in the hospital bed holding my newborn son, swaddled tight, against my chest with one arm, the other arm bare, visible. The scars that run up and down my arm are visible, evidence of what I believed deep down was my maternal unfitness. It should have been a beautiful photograph, but I couldn’t look at it. Shame and despair beside beauty and hope. I had my husband delete it.
I fell deeply in love with my son, Alexander. His enormous brown eyes gazed up at me in unblinking forgiveness: love, love, love you. He nursed for hours at a stretch, as if reluctant to give me up, as if expecting already I might leave him. He was not an easy baby — rarely sleeping that first year for more than two hours; I staggered to his room and rocked him and nursed him and sang every lullaby I knew — My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea.... In those dark, sleepless hours, when I felt like a failed mother, when my bipolar disorder was wildly uncontrolled, I thought: Surely my family would be better off without me. Then I would look down at my son, who was looking up at me, and I thought: Just hold on a little longer, let him need you a little less.
From my journal, four months after my son’s birth: I am running, looking at the world flying past me, unable to see it, to feel how beautiful it is, and it is beautiful, it is April, austere tulips and dopey daffodils and crab apples blooming and I see them and I see through them, and all I do is occupy empty space. I am via negativa.
When he was nine months, I was admitted to the psych ward for the first time. My husband had to hold me down in bed because I threatened to run outside in front of any oncoming car. Depleted. Sleepless. Not eating. Manic. Depressed. What is called a Mixed State. I stopped nursing cold turkey. The hospital didn’t get me a breast pump for two days, so milk spilled down my stomach, soaking my pajamas and the sheets. How could my son ever understand my sudden and utter absence? How would I ever make it up to him? How would he ever trust me again?
For several years, that was the pattern: I was in and out of the hospital, trying to find stability, trying to find the right cocktail of medications that would allow me to slow down, trying to teach my classes, trying to make chocolate cake, trying to keep up with baths and lunches and field trips, trying to breathe and to breathe in my children. When I would come home from the hospital, Sophia and Alexander would insist on sleeping in my bed, each on one side of me, holding my hand or touching my leg for assurance that I was still there and not going anywhere, not leaving again, not trying to leave for good. They held me in place with their tiny, warm bodies with their insistent and unrelenting love: You are ours, they seemed to say, not yours, not anymore.
Their relentless love is why I am still here. They needed me in their world, so I returned to stability, self-compassion, and most days, even self-love. My children and I talk about the scars on my arms, and those years of my itinerant, unstable motherhood, and their fears for me — that the bipolar dragon might return and carry me back to its cave.
But it’s been years now, and I feel sound and steadfast, and truly, they don’t worry that I’ll be gone in the morning. Sophia is independent and bold, born of intrepid travel and buoyancy. She tells me her own fears, about boys and puberty, and about her dream to move to California and be an animator. Though he’s now ten, Alexander still crawls into bed with me. A sweet intimacy which I know is likely to disappear when he hits adolescence. But for now, I swoon over his long, skinny legs that bump against mine, and his head which sometimes settles close to mine on the pillow, and his deep, untroubled breath as he slips into sleep. And I understand that my children will never need me any less, and I will always secretly need them more.

A Love Letter to My Future Lover


Dear T. (Spaceholder):
Most of what I used to write was fiction. Inventing, stealing, and playing pretend. I read three novels a week, sinking into other worlds, other possible lives not my own. It was a way to escape myself, my life, all that I had failed to do. I could be anyone in my stories, anyone but me: a Ukrainian prostitute, a Polish home health aide, a sideshow freak. Those lives could be written as more meaningful than mine. I was sick—bipolar and aonorexia taking me down—and trying to die for so many years, that I had no hope for my story. Words brought clarity, meaning, and shape to my disintegration.
But then I began to get well, to surface from the black swamp of despair, and to imagine my own possibilities again and make meaning out of my life. It didn’t have to be about ending, but about redemption. And writing fiction no longer seemed as important as writing my truth, writing about vulnerability and pain, about rising up from the ash heap of the self and gaining altitude again with wings that were in tatters but still beating, still lifting me into the trade winds.
So I write what I feel and know about my experience in the world. This is me. I offer myself to you, Dear World. Be gentle or fierce, it’s worth the risk because the days have sharp edges now, and the hair on my arms stands on end, and my vision is acute, and I can hear my heart beating in my ears. I am permeable and the world rushes through me.
I used to ride horses at a stable that rescued abused horses. One afternoon, a new horse was alone in the paddock, galloping across the field and skidding to a stop at the fence line. Over and over. I thought it was playing. What’s the word? Frolicking. My instructor, Lee, corrected me.
“He’s wicky wacky,” she said. “After all the abuse, he’s terrified of being out there alone. He’s going to hurt himself rushing the fences like that. Watch this.”
She disappeared into the barn and returned with Chandi, a horse who had arrived skittish, but after long hard work, was now calm and reliable. She released Chandi into the paddock. The new, wild horse trotted over and immediately settled, nickering softly to Chandi as if in gratitude. No more wicky wackies.
Do you know that if you take one single heart cell, a myocyte, and place it in a petri dish by itself, it will go into arrhythmia, lose its steady rhythm and beat wildly? Wicky wacky. But if you take another heart cell from any other person’s heart in the world, and put it into the petri dish, the cells will immediately start to beat in rhythm together? As long as the beating cells do not touch each other, they beat at separate speeds. But when they touch? The side-by-side cells form interconnected sheets of cells, and beat as one.
That’s what it is like for me. I get wicky wacky when I’m rushing fences alone. It’s why, when I feel an intuitive connection with someone, a shared rhythm, I leap into that relationship. It’s how all my close friendships are: steadying, transparent, defenses lowered. Just seeing and knowing and accepting and hoping for each other. It’s why my marriage was a spectacular failure—we fell apart, cells in separate petri dishes, no interconnection, no shared rhythm.
You said, as if in astonishment, “You don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Your heart is your sleeve.” A few years ago, though, I was guarded, defended, remote, and inaccessible. My ex-husband once said (granted in the middle of my bipolar collapse), “Your misery exhausts me.” Death seemed better than failure, seemed better than life inside death. But coming through all that? The worst that life could throw at me?
Risk, real daring is not jumping off the bridge but walking across the bridge to the unknown shore on the other side. Allowing myself to be seen—stripping all the way down to truth and longing and fear and tender, terrifying hope. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje writes, “The heart is an organ of fire.” And it’s true, isn’t it? The heart is not just there to help oxygenate and circulate the blood, but to quicken a thrilling rhythm, to throb in our ears, to push against our ribcages, burning us from inside with all that we feel and want. It reminds us that we are alive, yet, that we respire and are inspired, circulating ideas and words and sounds throughout our bodies, asking us to take necessary breath, to swallow language and love. And to be a little less alone in the petri dish, and a little more in syncopation, and yes, in love with each other.
Love, with love, in love,
Me