A Stigmatic Society and a Little Girl’s Laughter

“I have a problem with stigma.”

I see this statement shared continuously over every feed of every social media platform that I use. It makes me ecstatic. I have spent countless hours in therapy agonizing over the ways in which to move beyond Bipolar and operate as a normal, functional human being. But here’s the thing, guys. I kinda don’t fucking want to. I have felt an immense pressure to appear as this beam of light, and an enormous responsibility to give that light to the darkness of stigma, to hold myself up so that the damage it causes is too well-lit for anybody to continue to put it on the back burner.

My main difficulty with the negative connotation surrounding mental illness used to be for reasons such as a combination of high expectations and little empathy. I had to reassure myself constantly that people just didn’t understand, that they couldn’t see the way that I suffered. Don’t get me wrong, these things still bother me, but there are other things that go undetected. Important things. People don’t see the way that I thrive.

They do not see me as I lay on my back, chin up to kiss the stars while combinations are twisted against thousands of safes, releasing my thoughts to tumble over one another. They do not see me swell in gratitude as words appear and I welcome them as if they were diamonds spilling from thin air into my open mouth until I glimmer from the inside. They do not see the kind of release it brings as I send them back to twirl in infinity. What ails me… it heals me, too.

I am never more creative, never more alive than during or directly following an episode. The closest comparison I can make is this: Sometimes, as I sit back and observe my 3 and 5-year-old nieces at play, I swear that they are one blazing billboard, a sign that my illness is also genius. For one thing, they feel. A lot. Loudly and unabashedly. They let me know over and over with their exaggerated moans of both delight and frustration. They do not approach any situation with modesty, and I’ve never heard either of them say “I’m not very good at that.” In fact, they are pretty damn certain that they know everything.

Most of the time, I’m pretty sure that they do, too. Once, after I gave one of them shit for running ahead, she replied “YOU are not the boss of me. You’re not even ANYBODY’S boss!” There were 2 things that occurred in this situation: 1) The thing that I actually did, which was force her to hold my hand and walk alongside me, because toward traffic is not a cool direction in which to gallop. 2) The thing that I desperately WANTED to do, which was to pull her close to me and tell her that no, nobody was her boss. To ask her to always to own this idea and to never believe in such a thing as a ceiling, glass or otherwise.

They also keep that shit so real. They ask whatever questions pop into their thoughts, and if the answer doesn’t give them satisfaction, they invent their own. They particularly like to do it in situations that make me, as an adult, uncomfortable. Somewhere along the way, we are all taught that a very small portion of our wildest visions apply to real life. We begin to learn that we may not grow up to be an astronaut and a ventriloquist and also a ballerina. We begin to understand that the place in which we imagine unicorns that eat broccoli and people who use their hearts instead of their fists is commonly referred to as “La la land.” This place houses everything that we see that is “never going to happen” because it’s “not real.” Maybe it is learned from our parents, or teachers, or that assbag 6th grader who guards the swings and yells truths that we did not ask to hear.

Being told to mellow out, to calm down, to get a grip is being told to unlearn everything that we are conditioned to do by nature. Whether this is necessary is another matter entirely, but it certainly isn’t easy. When I watch either one be told “no,” my heart breaks and bursts at once. Not because I don’t believe in discipline, but because the way their faces curl up in confusion mirrors a feeling that I am so very familiar with. Before Bipolar, before depression, before psychosis and before mania, I had forgotten what it was like to experience this series of discrepancies between what I felt and what was acceptable. To hear such beautiful symphonies and to feel such despair upon realizing that nobody else could hear them. To try my best to assimilate, wondering why the real world couldn’t be more like me.

Please understand that while I associate the confusion of mental illness with the confusion of growing up, it is not meant to say that it is childish or that it can be snapped or grown out of. There are plenty of reasons that I could list as to why it is much, much more complex than that, but that would take me days, and frankly, it’s not why I’m here. What I AM here to tell you is this:

Stigma says that we are an inconvenience, that our symptoms are a burden, a drain. Stigma says that we should be rewired and rewritten to be read in a way that is more fitting for society to accept. Reality says that we are precious, wholesome and magnificent, that our symptoms are the cracks of creativity. Reality says that we shall reclaim our identity and recover. We won’t grow out of it, but we will grow through it.

What I am here to tell you is that dirt is misunderstood. So often we gaze at the flowers and the foliage, paying no mind to the dark, fertile environment from which they sprouted. It is not only your transformation, your end result that should be loved and appreciated.

The next time stigma runs its slimy fingers over your hopeful face in an attempt to draw your eyes closed, this is what I hope your quivering voice will say:

“You speak so boldly of that which you do not know. You stretch my spine so that I may look more like a wooden soldier than a human being. You seek to blind me of the problem, blur my purpose, dress my voice in shackles and my face in a neutral expression. But when you speak, I do not recoil. I do not close my eyes to your lullaby of ridicule. When I stand up straight, it will NEVER be because you pulled me there. It will be because I have wept away the blur and I see more clearly than ever why my voice is so fucking valuable. I will pick every lock until it is your turn to tire and live in silence.”

I hope that as you haul lumber, shuffle papers at your desk or lay sleepless in bed, you will know that whatever you are at this moment is as brilliant as it is tangled. I hope that whenever stigma looms, pouting in your dusty corners, you will honour your inner 3-year-old as you mutter “YOU are not the boss of me.”

Bobby Borden and the Hunt for Happy

Robert L Borden on a string, fluttering in the wind.

I watch him dance and I smile. I think about how nice it would be to dance with him, but I know better. I haven’t always known better, of course. I’ve only just learned. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday in June, and I’ve spent the entire day chasing him around the park.

I felt the $100 bill brush against my wrist this morning as I lay in the soft grass, waiting for something, anything to happen. I reached for it immediately, my fingers turning to claws and my heart turning to an empty pit, ready to be filled. It darted away on a prairie breeze, taunting me, urging me to get up and work for the feeling of paper inside a closed fist. “Nothing is free.”

I knew this, and so did my feet, because they started to run. They leaped and twirled and pounced, trying to catch the bill. I came close numerous times, but never close enough before it took flight again. “C’mon Bob, don’t be a dick.” The sun flickered through the trees as I sat once more at a distance, waiting for the right moment. As it did, the light caught, blinding me a little too temporarily, and I noticed something just ahead. Invisible wire. I couldn’t touch it to verify, but all at once I knew this was not the wind, and not a windfall, either. Not pennies from heaven, but a prank. I raced alongside the glimmering streak, trying to locate the culprit, but the tears clouded my eyes until I could not separate the end of the wire from my beginning.

This is what an obsession with finding happiness feels like.

I keep looking for the answer, listening intently to anyone willing to let me in on their secret. It’s gotten so bad that I scroll through video after video on YouTube on nights when the bed is empty and closing my eyes feels eerie and lonesome. Search bar. Typing. H- Deleting. Typing. “How to Be Happy.” Go.

I put in my headphones, unsure if my best friend can hear this carrying down the hall. Hoping that she can’t. She knows everything about me, but in this moment I pretend that neither she or anyone else can guess that I have no idea what THE FUCK I am doing. “Exercise, it releases endorphins!” Okay, cool. I do that. I must be at least semi-close to my destination. “Travel, it releases prejudice and fear of the unknown!” Right. I can get down with that. I like planes and the idea of fruit that grows year round. “Meditate, it releases, like, everything!” I could probably benefit from letting my brain marinate for a while. “Just choose happiness!” Wait.

She says it like we’re at a movie theatre. “Junior Mints or Caramilk?” She says it like there’s a choice to make. She sounds like Cat Stevens in Moonshadow, telling me that she wouldn’t be upset about losing her legs. Are you fucking with me?! Still, I’m left feeling painfully inadequate that I don’t know how to make this non-existent decision.

I suppose part of me gets it. If the choice is “Go sing karaoke with that one friend you have who is bloody terrible and hilarious or stay in your bed and wonder why you have no social life,” Then it would seem that it makes sense what the happier option might be. But that’s not what Cat Stevens with a vagina said. Back button. Close tab. Imagine punching that condescending bitch in the face.

What she means I’m not sure of, but I know it can’t be the way I’m interpreting it, because I’m interpreting it as a slap in the face to myself and every other person who sees happiness as a dart on a map that can’t be reached by any form of transportation that we are familiar with. A blow to people who work their asses off, hearts vulnerable, open to receive it, only to catch debris.

I don’t want to make it sound as if I’m not content. I am, exceptionally so. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to evaluate as I wade through the how-tos of happy that are constantly put in my path. Should I want more? Should I be doing more? How do I know what it is I should want? How do I know exactly what life should feel like? Lately I feel as if I’m failing every time I get angry. Every time I do something that isn’t considered 100% selfless and efficient for everyone. Every time I have a shitty day, I cover it with the idea that I SHOULD feel gratitude.

Why?

Some days are shit, and there isn’t a trace of gratitude in my veins. Some days I don’t feel like thanking the universe for sprinkling fecal matter all over me, and I certainly don’t feel like thinking about all of those who might have it worse. I am unbelievably tired of everyone trying to solve the problems of other people with “Just think positive!” I know that positive thinking is an asset in overcoming, in becoming; I’ve seen it. But I don’t need to do it every minute of every goddamn day.

If you ask me, sadness and anger are just as important. They have had an equal part in my metamorphosis, in building my character. I would even venture to say that they have provided far greater incentive to reach for more than any great day I’ve ever lived in. On great days, I celebrate, and on shit days, I evaluate. That’s healthy, and to do otherwise would be to deny myself a basic human requirement. I wish we had evolved beyond the need for tear ducts, but we’re not there yet, so I’m damn well going to use them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne compared happiness to a butterfly. I think it’s so beautiful, and I feel in my soul that it is accurate. It’s fragile and fleeting, and a butterfly couldn’t inspire laboured sighs of awe echoing through the world if it were trapped and squished in our fists. It’s okay not to be able to catch it and make it a pet. If someone is building a railroad through the centre of your angry town, if they’re calling “ALL ABOARD: DESTINATION HAPPY!” It’s okay not to take the train. Walk until you feel like experiencing change, because there will ALWAYS be another one sending its joyful choo-choo down the line. And, if not, there will always be another plane, another electric car, another path.

I imagine myself watching ol’ Borden as he dances, and I imagine seeing a young boy finally catch him. The jig is up. I don’t feel jealous or inadequate. My only thought is “Well, damn. Good for you.” I get the feeling that the bill wasn’t mine to catch, and I lay back down in the soft grass, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

What To Expect

I keep getting the same question when I run into acquaintances:

“When are you going to start making babies?”

My reaction is always the same. A quick “ha!” and a change of subject. Look, I get it. It’s a question that’s been asked for ages and it’s not intended to make me feel inadequate, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I don’t want to come across as if these words have never fallen from my own lips, because they certainly have, but I’ve learned a thing or two about myself and the world since then.

It’s difficult for me to explain why, but the short answer is that I’m not ready. I would gladly let it go and ignore that it was ever said, except for the fact that I am almost always met with a response such as:

Nobody is ever REALLY ready to have a child!”

I agree. It’s hard to prepare yourself to push a human out of a hole in your vagina, and it’s even harder to prepare yourself to be sleepless for the next however many years in which that human decides that it is afraid of the dark or their bladder is too small to carry you through an 8 hour slumber. There is no real study guide for the first conversation about mortality, or for the first time your child points at someone with a huge nose and asks them about their beak. That shit is not lost on me. But while you’re busy describing the trials and tribulations that come with motherhood, I’m busy with all of the thoughts that I do not feel prepared to share with you.

I want to tell you that I’m not worried about any of that. I want to tell you that this isn’t the first time I’ve mulled it over. I want to tell you that it’s not about “me time,” or having 7 more years before that dreaded biological clock that you speak of starts to tick. It’s not about body image or focusing on my career (though, if you ask me, these are all valid reasons to remain child free.)

I want to ask you if you’ve ever been so distracted by a noise that you’ve walked away, forgetting your newborn and leaving them to roll off of a changing table. I want to ask you if you’ve ever been so sleep deprived that you’ve walked out of your house ass naked, babbling about paint. I want to ask if you’ve ever had such an out-of-body tantrum that you glanced at your child in the aftermath and noticed their terrified expression as they backed away from you slowly. I wonder if you’ve ever cried because your toddler asked “Mommy, who do you keep talking to? Is it a ghost?”

I wonder, but say nothing, because this is not on your radar. I say nothing because I don’t want you to feel like the one who is unprepared. I say nothing because I don’t want to see your smile of encouragement stretch into a straight line. I don’t want to see your eyebrows lift in shock. I don’t want to hear your voice shake when you say:

“Well, you’ll adapt. A lot of good moms face these challenges.”

Indeed, they do, and more power to them. I applaud the brave mother who puts aside her own monsters to chase the monsters that really matter out from behind a little girl’s dresser. I am so proud of the women who lose count of the cracks in the sidewalks and the number of red things in the room to answer the question “What is 5 more than 9?” But I am not those people.

I am me, and I’m still learning that this is okay. I’m still learning to walk atop this rough new territory. I’m still telling myself that if I get out of bed today, and if that’s all I can muster, it’s alright. I’m still adjusting to small victories like hitting every green light in town or concentrating hard enough to read 3 pages of The Wind in the Willows. I know you care, and I know that you think these things are just fine, too. So when you argue about my ability to procreate, I am sent into a tailspin. Instead of being enough, my thoughts get darker, angrier. They turn into thoughts of being more, and so begins the burning frustration when I don’t know how to achieve that.

I love children. I love their minds, and watching them put together the puzzle of everyday life. I love witnessing their transition and the growth in their perspective as time passes. I love to colour and play Twister and to see how many marshmallows I can fit into my mouth. I love to sing and skip and count and ask questions.

But this is not enough.

I need to know that I am in a position to provide the safety, discipline and time that is necessary in rearing a child. I need to know that they will not run to their father 5 days a week and say “Mom’s in the basement screaming at the walls.” Most of all, I need to become comfortable enough in managing my illness so that if I have a child who struggles like me, I won’t be shamed into running from them. I need to know how to reason with myself before I can offer that kind of support to a tiny, needy being.

If that day never comes, I need you to understand that I’m okay with it. I’m okay with it because I have everything that I need to be content. I have 2 dogs, and though they are not comparable to two toddlers, I still get the chance to nurture, love, and train them. And just because I do not actively plan on having children of my own does not mean that I cannot care for the children of others, because I do. I love my nieces and nephews. I love pushing them on swings and giving them shit when they’re talking back to their mamas. I love seeing the kids in my morning exercise classes running wild and attempting to hug the other women while they do push-ups.

I will take your advice. I will be open to whatever comes next. Now, take some of mine, and stop asking that fucking question, okay?

Here’s To It

It’s New Years Eve.
I don’t usually buy into the hype that is December 31. I mean, yes, I put on a cocktail dress and proceed to get belligerently drunk, but that’s about as far as it goes. I’ve never been the type to make any solid resolutions, and if I have, they were usually carried off in a cloud of smoke before the ball dropped. However, I feel a bit of magic tonight, my friends.
I’m spending the evening bundled up in front of my screen, and I feel great about it. Tonight there won’t be any tights or heels or curls or company, and I think I need it to be this way. Something is tugging at me, calling to me to reflect. The more that I sit here reflecting, I feel the urgency behind my fingertips, so here I am. When I sit with the weight of 2013 in my lap, I recall just how heavy it was. I say heavy because it feels right, but a lot of the weight is made up of triumphant moments, the kind that never leave you. As I run my fingers along the months passed, I feel both fearful and delighted to leave it behind.
2012 was the year I refer to as “the Aftermath.” 2013 has been the year that I now call “Adaptation.” I feel as though I’ve grown into myself a little more as every day was taken down with the sun. I have been confronted with the truth, which has been bitter and hateful, and yet, full of clarity and immense beauty. I have come to understand that life can never be any one thing at a time, and in a way I feel grateful for its erratic patterns, I don’t know if I would find the world interesting enough to live in without the burden and blessing of feeling everything at once. I won’t let this year unfold. This year I want to unwrap it, finding whatever I find. And so it is that I will name 2014 “The Change.” I want to dive in headfirst, step off of the edge. I want to take accountability, make goals, and rise to meet them.
Like a great many portions of the posts that will be written tonight, I’m going to share with you my resolutions. There is a certain freedom (and fear) in putting them out for the world to observe. I don’t want to let life happen to me this year, I want to make life happen for me. So though they are few, here they are:
1- Expect nothing:
This sounds ridiculous when I see it on my screen. What I mean is that I do not want to walk through the door of the new year with expectations of what it may bring upon me. I think that these kind of expectations create limits, and limits are one of the things I’m saying “Auf Wiedersehen” to, for I no longer need them if I know the truth. The truth is that there are no guarantees for golden years, and I no longer wish for them, either. If I expect nothing, I am prepared for anything. Just because life paints guidelines doesn’t mean I can’t paint over and beyond them. I will move through the inevitable storms with desire for something more. Along with that hunger I will need to…
2-  Have Courage:
It makes me sad to think of the many opportunities that have slipped through my hands because I was too afraid to hold them. It’s kind of sick, isn’t it? The way some of us would rather fail by default than to fail as a result of trying; really, truly trying. I want to be brave. And if I can’t be brave, I want to take the leap anyway. I want to thrust myself into chaos, dance with chance, and, when I thrust myself into a number I can’t move through gracefully, I want to trust myself enough to follow the tune to the end. And with that being said, I’m going to need to learn to…
3- Accept Failure:
It’s just not feasible to imagine a future where failure doesn’t exist. It does. It licks bungholes, but it is a very real and necessary part of whatever this life is. I am going to try to imagine failure as less of a feeling of defeat and more like a minor hiccup. If I am failing, I am learning, growing. I want to be tall, like a sunflower under the sun of experience. I’ve been told that it’s okay to fail quietly, and while I’m sure that works for some, it won’t do for me. I will fail colorfully. I will fail with a face twisted into an “ugly cry” and a mouth full of foul words.
4- Embrace the Quirk:
I want it out in full force for everyone to see. I guess, mostly, this year (along with the help of the internet) taught me that my quirks aren’t all that quirky. They’re pretty normal, actually. I won’t hide beneath the blanket of normalcy. I don’t think it was concealing much, anyway.
5- Choose Life:
The final and most difficult resolution. While it’s fun to have grand, sweeping thoughts of finish lines and warm embraces, it’s quite another thing to apply this passion to everyday life. To wake with purpose, to choose to create these moments and these milestones under the weight of the pressure and the expectations of other people. To do the work that is required to feel a beating, grateful heart. This is what I desire and fear most of all. To choose life, to say yes, would be a feat to be celebrated.

Oh, yeah. I have to mention that I’m so glad to have you along for the ride. Thank you to everybody who clicked “follow.” Thank you to everybody who has had the great courage to share with me their wounds and given me perspective. Thank you to everybody who shown up to hear me speak when I was sure that I had nothing to say. I’ve always had the voice, but you gave me an audience. This blog has been the best journey I’ve ever started, and I can’t wait to share with you the trials and the triumph that awaits me in 2014. I can’t wait to see where 2014 leads you.

“Somehow, we’ll  find it. The balance between what we wish to be and what we need to be. But for now, we simply have to be satisfied with who we are.”