I. The Dark
In the words of Blanche DuBois, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. But lately others’ kindness has stripped me of reliance on myself.
We know what finally happened to Blanche: swept into the abyss of madness. Her wobbly smile flashes through my mind after my therapist warns that I am on a “slippery slope,” refusing to use the tools to manage the anxiety that has me, on this chilly November morning, squirming like a child on my bed.
I am naked beneath my robe, belly bloated with terror and my recent reduction in anti-anxiety medication. I’m trying. I am. But as long as I am sobbing to my therapist and later interrupting the crisis hotline coach with complaints of sweaty palms, I am no better than some madwoman cliché.
Ten months earlier, I think I am better than the dozen people clustered around the conference table at my first (and last) bipolar support group meeting. Most of the people have a diagnosis of Bipolar I, defined by acute mania and even psychosis. These people cannot easily function. As someone with rapid cycling Bipolar II, manifested in quick-shifting moods, I am far different. The ludicrousness of this statement does not occur to me when I later explain to my boyfriend, Aaron, how the group is for people much worse off than me. “You may not be one of them,” he says, “but you’re related.”
I don’t believe him.
Now I have received my comeuppance, struggling to walk, drive, work, eat out, exercise, or look forward to an upcoming vacation—my first in years—to the Bahamas with Aaron and his mother, Carol. Instead of envisioning white sand beaches and clear blue water, I imagine having a panic attack on the four-hour plane ride. At 34, I am at the mercy of a mind I cannot control.
No one believes me.
Diagnosed bipolar at 27, I have spent six years grappling with my condition, indulging in too little sleep and too much coffee, reminding family and friends that I barely drink and have never abused drugs. I have implored God-as-genie, begging for solace in the pulsing flame of a votive candle. There are quick-fix revelations and triumphs: that time in the New York City cathedral when I merely observed my racing heart, my detachment forcing me to rise above the agony in my body, discovering restorative calm in the moment.
But mostly I tiptoe around my moods as if they are a singular force, a sleeping baby that will scream in rage if I disturb it. When the baby wakes, often without warning, my terror feeds the wailing further. I fear my own mind, not believing I can soothe it.
Belief is defined in Merriam-Webster as simply this: “a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or that something is true.” For many years, I did not think my oscillating moods meant I had bipolar. Even now I use it as an excuse to avoid life rather than a condition to manage on my own; it is a problem only the paramedics can solve when they come after I’ve had a panic attack and called 911. It is a situation only my therapist or Aaron or my medication can fix.
I have not believed I can help myself because I have not wanted to accept the responsibility, the burden, of caring for myself sufficiently. Instead I have resented it, resented having the condition at all. After a few shaky breaths, I have almost always given up because I think: “I shouldn’t have to go through this.”
After an excruciating panic attack the weekend before the Bahamas trip, my therapist agrees I should not travel. Then Carol texts how she is focusing on the beaches instead of her 14-hour flight from Washington State. I decide to take it day-by-day until our departure in three days, making an appointment with a renowned psychologist in Manhattan 24 hours before we’re scheduled to leave. My mind, at last, relaxes. It will be a hard road but having faced the worst—the resentment, deep down, the darkness—I can look up toward the light.
II. The Light
The morning before the Bahamas trip I am on edge, sucking down my half-Klonopin well before my scheduled dose. Arriving at the Harlem 125th-Street station an hour later, my heartbeat finally slows. Dr. Gelstein’s office is on the fifteenth floor of a well-respected hospital 20 minutes away by cab. Though the hospital is easy to find, the lobby’s rickety elevator makes me nervous. I practice slow breaths in a space cramped with a half-dozen other bodies.
Dr. Gelstein’s office is also too small, bright under the glare of florescent lights, tiny window obscured by textbooks. I sit on a hard chair at the corner of his desk. My heart thumps again. Digging inside my purse, I pull out my bottle of water and take a generous gulp.
Dr. Gelstein asks questions about my psychiatric history in a gentle tone that mitigates my discomfort. His uncalculated kindness is disarming. At the end of our session, I’m prepared to embark on a plane the next day, equipped with a detailed handout on anxiety (panic attacks are physically harmless), including coping skills (always try to behave normally).
Though I’ve long understood the innocuous nature of anxiety and its management, having words printed in black and white is pacifying. Despite spending years collecting stones marbled in black and white to remember life’s “gray,” I am still most at ease in the purity of the extreme. Negative emotions are like a knife wound: a paper cut to others can feel like a deep gouge. At the same time, joy is beatific, childlike in its simplicity. Even with medication, extreme will always be my language, the language of bipolar, to see life through the intensity of color or its absence.
The next day Aaron and I reach the airport in a record-breaking 30 minutes by taxi. Correcting my misspelled name on our itinerary, however, costs crucial time because the flight we forgot to double-check the night before is now leaving two hours earlier than originally scheduled. Passengers are boarding. I barely have time to down my chalky half-Klonopin before we rush through security. We arrive at the gate just before the doors close, before I’ve had time to buy a new bottle of water or use the restroom. I also have to check my one suitcase—containing my bipolar medication—because the overhead compartments are full.
Settling into our seats, I ask a flight attendant for water. We have had no time to think, only to do. In this frantic moment my usual anticipatory fears are obliterated, irrelevant. The plane engine roars. I clutch Aaron’s hand until we complete our ascent. Though my anxiety rises again when we encounter light turbulence, my relative peace shocks me.
“Breaking invisible barriers,” I jot into the journal open on my lap. Or not invisible, exactly, but barriers no longer so strong, barriers I can break, barriers, perhaps, I could always break.
When we land in Miami for our connecting flight to Nassau, my anxiety is gone. For now, I worry. I shake my head. “Right now,” I correct aloud, a determined whisper.
Our flight to Nassau is delayed an hour. Fatigue descends. I start obsessing over my luggage. “Should I text my doctor now?” I ask Aaron. “Just in case it’s lost? Will they have a pharmacy at the resort?”
As usual I want to plan ahead, craft my all-important contingency plan.
Aaron reaches for my hand. “It won’t make a difference until we’re there and know for sure,” he says.
So I’ll wait. I’ll wait and be uncomfortable and, as my therapist has urged, sit with the sensation of discomfort—accept it.
The flight to Nassau is brutal. As the plane tilts and shifts, I shove the seat in front of me with both hands in a futile attempt to create equilibrium. Aaron, seated behind me, grasps my elbow, which he attempts to stroke as our plane dips and plunges. “Thank God,” I hiss when we land.
My luggage is recovered without incident. Outside the air is gentle, the murmur of palm trees reminiscent of rolling tides. Like a mood or a feeling, the scene has again changed. I’m forced back into the moment.
At the resort entrance, we trudge straight past Carol until she calls Aaron’s name twice. I don’t realize she’s there until I turn back looking for Aaron. She avoids my eye at first. We don’t hug or shake hands. Instead we walk to the concierge desk together, dragging our luggage behind us. Carol chatters about her arrival earlier that day while I default-worry about not being pretty or smart enough for her only son. The evening is a collection of blurred moments: marveling at the decadent lobby, the soft island music piped overhead, the hasty late-night dinner of nachos; then, at last, sleep.
At 5:30 the next morning, the balcony beckons. Padding outside, I absorb the view of palm trees rustling below; breathe deeply. The air is rejuvenating, evocative of childhood days at the marina in my native Connecticut, the smell of salt and surf an intoxicant. I meet Carol outside her room for a walk while Aaron sleeps.
“You know,” she says in her soft Southern drawl, “Aaron was nervous about us getting along.”
“I just wanted you to like me,” she adds. At once I want to wrap her into a hug. Touching the small of her back, we meander downstairs, through the lobby, and outside into the cool sunshine.
Carol tells me about Aaron’s childhood, reveals family stories passed through generations, and laughs with a glow that makes her face light up like an eager child. Anxiety forgotten, I savor each word, folding each recollection into my own memory. Standing by the ocean, we are forging our own history.
It has been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to befriend someone new, especially a woman. The last few months have kept me nearly housebound on weekends, avoiding social outings unless forced by obligation. After laughing more over Aaron-as-young-child, we shift into silence to marvel at the crystal water and smooth beach. We are no longer interacting in our roles as mother and girlfriend. We are engaging as people, as women. We hunger for connection.
Our slow walk takes us to a high-end jewelry store at the corner of the lobby. We both like to window shop, sharing the same taste in classic pieces: long silver earrings, delicate, understated necklaces. I pause to admire a thin gold ring encrusted with silver, a small diamond at its center.
“Aaron will have to save some for that!” Carol laughs.
My heart quickens. When I met Aaron two years ago at a New York City subway station (both of us too unfamiliar with the city to safely meet at a bar), I fumbled my MetroCard over his beauty: gray-blue eyes, shy smile. In an instant he shocked me awake after years of dating ennui and before that, searing heartbreak. The reality of now standing with his mother perusing rings seems prophetic. My anxiety is background noise, almost forgotten. There is too much in the moment to do.
Carol and I move deeper into the shop. We notice the pearl necklace with its translucent, rainbow-tinted hues, at the same time. “You must try it on,” she insists.
I tremble when the clerk fastens it to my throat. The thick cluster of pink and turquoise pearls sits well across my chest, contrasting against the blue of my shirt, my eyes. “How much is it?” I whisper. It’s expensive, of course. I mourn a little when I finally take it off.
The next three days pass the same way. Carol and I enjoy our early mornings together, increasingly friends. Though she knows about my anxiety and bipolar through Aaron, she does not view me as a hazard, a Blanche Dubois in the making. In fact, she treats me as if I am normal.
I’m reminded of the core tenet of managing anxiety: behave normally when panic spins the brain into overdrive. Dr. Gelstein’s voice echoes: “It’s just the mind overreacting to stimuli. Nothing will hurt you.”
On our last night in the Bahamas, I change into a purple sundress I bought especially for the trip. It’s form fitting with a deep scoop neck and embroidered with beads. Carol coos when I drop by her room to show her.
“Ready for dinner?” I ask.
“First this,” Carol says, pushing a green box into my arms.
I know it’s the pearl necklace. Aaron fastens the clasp around my neck. Cool against my chest, the multihued beads dance under the soft light of the room’s single lamp. They reflect the light I have found in myself, the light that allows me to ride anxiety like waves, a mere part of my genetic makeup. There is nothing to fear. “Thank you!” I gush, wrapping Carol into a tearful hug.
In the three weeks since our return to New York City, I’ve enjoyed a significant decline in anxiety. Though my moods still fall and rise, I no longer try to control them. They are only waves, eternally shifting. My mind is built to reflect life itself: many times a roller coaster. I remind myself that—like my pearl necklace—I am many hued and do not need to change, only accept.