Sarah R. Callender


In Heath, Parenting on September 7, 2016 at 6:20 am

“The problem with having a mental illness,” I tell my husband, Jeff, “is that it makes me feel a little crazy.”

Jeff is making spaghetti sauce because making spaghetti sauce is one of his spiritual gifts. While he chops and sautés, the kids and I watch MLS soccer and fold laundry because watching soccer is one of my spiritual gifts, and the laundry, well, it needs folding. My son’s folded clothes don’t look much different from the pile I dumped out of the hamper. My daughter’s shirts, pants, and undies are origami.

“You know what I mean?” I say.

Jeff knows exactly why I am bringing up this topic.

“Seriously,” I continue. “How do I know when I’m being crazy crazy vs. normal crazy . . . like how Erica gets a little . . .” my index finger makes circles at the side of my head, “you know, twizzy.”

Erica is one of my best friends from college. She invented the word “twizzy.” She is a most wonderful human being, without whom I would be lost.

I scratch my cheek. “Did I do what I did because I have mental illness or because I’m me?”

Jeff turns to our children. “Hey, kids?”

“Yeah, dad?” my son answers.

“Your mother’s weird.”

“Really, Dad?” my son says. “You’re sure?” At thirteen, he is honing his spiritual gift of sarcasm.

Jeff and I laugh because while Jeff is peace and I am war, while he is slow and I am quick, while he is stoicism and I am passion, we share the same sense of humor, an important thing to share every day. Especially important on those days, years ago, when I thought it might feel very good, very comforting and relieving, like chicken noodle soup or a bubble bath, to drive my minivan into a concrete wall.

I get up off the floor and join Jeff at the stove. “The problem with having a mental illness is sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s the illness and what’s just being human. You know?”

He knows. On the soccer field that afternoon, I flipped out. My daughter’s team was playing the Marauders, a team of little girls who played downright dirty: two-handed shoves to the back, intentional tripping, illegal tackles. And their parents, the trees from which these rough little apples fell, spent most of the first half yelling at the ref and the linesman, questioning calls, questioning fouls, questioning whether the ref could benefit from an eye exam.

At some point in the second half, I erupted. “Hey!” I called over to the Marauder’s parent area, left of the midfield line. “Knock it off! Quit yelling at the ref!”

“Oh, lighten up,” one of the fathers called back to our team’s parents, the right side of midfield. “We know this ref. He knows we’re kidding.”

Our girls don’t know you’re kidding,” I said. “They only hear you yelling at the ref. How about let’s keep it classy!”

Another marauding father chimed in, “Well, someone can’t take a joke.”

I don’t care for it when someone tells me to lighten up, and I can take a joke when that joke is at least ten percent funny. Without considering ramifications, I abandoned my base and strode into enemy territory.

“Who said that?” I asked the cluster of dads, each of whom was a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than I. “Whoever said that, you need to apologize.”

A guy with a head like an Easter ham mocked me with his grin. “I’m so sorry.”

“That,” I said, forgetting I was speaking to a grown man, “did not sound sincere at all. I’d like a sincere apology.”

From nowhere materialized one of the marauding mothers, a squat lady with flinty eyes. She shoved me hard in the shoulder. These parents, like their daughters, had certain spiritual gifts.

“You need to get back to your team’s end,” the lady said. “Look! The girls are all staring at you.”

When I turned, I saw she was right. Play had stopped. From the opposite side of the field, Jeff was also staring. He had been snapping action photos of the game while I was losing my cool, demanding apologies, and believing I could convince other adults to behave themselves.

“What happened?” he asked, joining me as I returned to our team’s parents, all of whom were dying for a play-by-play of the altercation.

I shook my head. Hot with shame and dizzy with adrenaline, I wasn’t sure.

Now, alongside Jeff at the stove, I start unloading the dishwasher while he chops carrots. When the kids take their folded laundry to their bedrooms, I lower my voice to ask the question I am most worried about. “Did I lose my cool because I have bipolar?”

He pauses. “Maybe. But probably it was because those parents were rude and their girls were shoving our daughter. And sometimes your need for justice overrules your sense of safety.”

When we married nearly eighteen years ago and I stood at the altar and promised in sickness and in health, I pictured a really bad case of strep throat. Perhaps a herniated disk (him) or melanoma (me). I would take care of him and he would take care of me, driving each other to medical appointments or zipping to Safeway for Ibuprofen or 7-Up, for bags of peas to be used as ice packs. Young and healthy, we were eager to start what seemed like a till-death-do-us-part slumber party where we’d maintain DINK status for a while, then have a couple of kids who would exhaust and delight us. We’d raise those children, passing stomach flu and cold viruses back and forth. Maybe—God forbid—head lice. I never imagined mental illness.

Even though I was suicidal at sixteen, foggy and vacant throughout college, on the verge of mental collapse as a 22-year-old high school English teacher, and panic-filled as a mother of two kids under age two, I did not realize I had depression. I just thought I was broken and weird. Stressed and incompetent.

In my thirties, I finally received the diagnosis of depression, and ten years later, a new psychiatrist and I realized the illness was actually Bipolar 2. The diagnosis brought relief. Deep down, I knew my moods could swing: From psychic pain that felt as sticky as pitch, weeks where I was chronically teary, unable to formulate a clear thought, and incapable of doing anything other than focus on surviving the present moment, hoping I’d make it to the next, and the next after that. Then over to the light-bright electric end of my spectrum. During those hypomanic episodes, I sent weird and offensive emails. I wrote numerous blog posts and pages of nonsensical fiction. I believed I was not merely funny but hysterically hilarious.

That’s another problem with having a mental illness: reality gets hijacked. Driving into a concrete wall sounds comforting and relieving. Telling unfunny jokes to people I hardly know makes me the cat’s meow. I am lucky I did not do more harm. Lucky I have the husband I do. Lucky I knew where and how to get help. Lucky I have health insurance.

“I have bipolar,” I told Jeff when I came home after receiving the diagnosis.

“Huh,” he said. “OK.” As if a bipolar diagnosis was no big deal. That’s another of Jeff’s spiritual gifts: he rolls with the shoves. To me though, in the context of our marriage, it was a big deal. I didn’t want to have brought it into our marriage, possibly into the DNA of our children. I didn’t want to be a burden or create burdens for others. I said my vows as an equal. I didn’t want my brain chemistry to turn me into someone who was needier than my partner.

Back in our kitchen, Jeff pulls his roasted San Marzanos from the oven. They fragrance our kitchen as they did our garden on August afternoons.

“What scares you most about the bipolar?” I ask.

I wait. It can take him a while to answer small questions and just about forever to answer big ones. But if I give him forever, his words are always thoughtful, practical and true.

Tonight he doesn’t need much time. “After your last round of depression,” he says, “I realized this isn’t something that’s going to go away. And someday I might need to play a caregiver role in our marriage.”

His words sting. “No you won’t,” I say. “I finally have the right diagnosis. The right meds. I know how to manage it.”

Jeff nods. The baking sheet of tomatoes sizzles in protest, as hot and irritated as I.

But we both know I am stitched together with thread. Not fishing line or steel cables. Just cotton thread, the kind I can tear with my small hands.

“You’re like a superhero,” my friend Erica says. “Someday we’re going to realize that the mentally ill have the best brains of all. And then everyone will want to have a mental illness.”

I love Erica.

I love my husband. Plates of spaghetti and fruit, fresh Parmesan and olive bread with butter balance on our laps. We eat in front of the Sounders game with the kids, plus our puppy and two ancient cats sleeping alongside us. Steam from Jeff’s spaghetti sauce rises into my face, comforting and relieving.

“Hey,” he whispers. “Next time the girls play the Marauders, I’ll block for you.”

I laugh. “No way. I am standing nowhere near them.”

But I do like that image: a justice-seeking mother with bipolar disorder, charging the opponent’s stronghold in her husband’s draft, not broken or needy, just a regular gal with the spiritual gift of surrounding herself with those who keep her safe and sound.

  1. LOVE this; love your writing and your humor and your style. But most of all, knowing you and how blessedly “normal” and funny and compassionate you are, I love that you can share this story so that I can begin to create a better understanding of mental illness. Thank you Sarah. xo Jane >

  2. Love this so much and you. So great. I can’t even list all the ways. 😉 xo

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Sarah! Beautifully written and emotionally poignant.


    PS – soccer makes a lot of parents crazy!


    • I KNOW! What is it about that sport. I once had a mom who gave me a lollipop to suck on during a (baseball) game so I wouldn’t yell at the ump for making weird calls. I guess more than just soccer makes me crazy. Thanks, Jodi, so much for your comment. xo!

  4. This is beautiful. And so are you. 💗💗💗

  5. Wow, nightmare soccer parents straight out of fiction! I love it that feminist you marched over there under the power of your own juevos. Great post, Sarah.

    • Ha! Yes, feminist me. The worst thing? When Jeff and I walked back to our parked cars, we saw that we had parked right next to the woman who shoved me. Doh! Thank you for your sweet words, Jennifer. xo!

  6. So beautiful. Thanks for writing

  7. Oh, Sarah, I loved this so much. Thank you for daring to write about something so real and honest. I believe this is your spiritual gift. All my best to you and Jeff! Lorna


  8. Hi Sarah-

    I really love this piece. And I was especially struck by your “driving into a concrete wall” idea, because that was my idea as well, except I was going to rent a really flimsy little economy car to do the deed.

    Thankfully, I don’t have those thoughts anymore, but I never take that for granted.

    Thanks for sharing.


    ps. Saw you walking the dog this morning. Our morning was not quite so serene!

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Renting a car! That would have been such a much better plan! That said, I’m glad neither of our plans were carried out. Yes, the morning was serene because I finally have two kids at the same school! Ole! Welcome home . . . I hope it feels great to be back.

      I so appreciate your empathy! Makes the world a not-so-lonely place.

  9. SO nice to receive a blog post this morning! May I just say that I wish I were more sensitive? Often, as a working mother of three very busy girls, I feel that I am just a doer, not a realizer or a deep processor. I am finally reading the Glennon Melton Carry On book and will probably read the new release as well and it is startling how awake people like you and she are while I am just executing another day of work demands, carpooling, cooking and homework help. I LOVE reading this stuff and letting it tickle my brain in ways that I would never explore on my own. Keep helping those of us who don’t have the time or the skills for this type of rumination. We love it.

    • Oh the rumination! The rumination! 🙂 I envy those with a cleaner brain though yes, I know I wouldn’t be able to write if I didn’t ruminate on the weirdest things. I love your comment and I love Glennon. I’m so glad you are enjoying her too. Hugs and happy fall to you and your babes. Thank you for your sweet comment!

  10. Oh my gawd. “Struck!” No pun intended!

    Sent from my iPhone


  11. As always, in awe of your bravery and talent. Erica is absolutely spot on. Those who suffer as you do are blessed to have your voice speak on their behalf. March on brave soldier. xx
    (on a side note – soccer mom incident is something i often want to do…. thank you!)

    • Ha! And thank you, Shannon. I would advise against the soccer mom event as it has caused me many months of feeling crazier than I really am. 🙂 That said, I know you would be so much more graceful and elegant in the reprimanding of The Rude. I am grateful for your words today. Thank you.

  12. I thought you were funny the whole time.

    I have missed your way with words and ideas for a long time, and just yesterday sent a link to your post about emergency notes to a friend who has to write one for the first time. I don’t think there are “human things we do” and “mentally ill things we do”… that’s one of those false dichotomies, to be all fancy about it. There’s just an amazing list of Sarah Things You Do, and when I’m grace-believing, even Alison Things I Do. Your spiritual gift of gathering good people – that one’s my favourite Thing We Both Do.

    I’m grateful you put your words out there this morning. I really, really loved them.

    • This is the best comment, Alison. Thank you, thank you. I am blessed to have such a solid, faithful group of people on Team Sarah. I know you have the same on Team Alison . . . not that you have a mental illness; you just deserve a great and faithful team. I pray that you are grace-believing every day. Grace-believing = brave living. xoxoxo!

  13. Beautifully written and painfully accurate. I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to share this on Facebook. I have a little of the same kind of crazy, as do several of my friends, and we can all use the reassurance this provides. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Kim, for these words and for your empathy. Please feel free to share. It’s much less lonely once we realize how many of us there are out there. 😉 I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. Means so much!

  14. You are beautiful in every way.

  15. Sarah, I was teary-eyed reading this post and by the end I was blubbering. My sister Mary Jo (who passed away two years ago with cancer) was bipolar. We went through many ups and downs with her through the years. She was one of the, if not the, most talented, creative person I’ve ever known.
    Your writing is so good because it brings us into your world–your sense of humor just shines right through.
    Jeff sounds like a wonderful person to be there for you. Thank you for sharing what you are going through.
    You’ll be in my thoughts.

    • Oh Sandy. Thank you! I didn’t know about your sister, and I am so sorry to hear about her (and your family’s) difficult bumps. It is not easy. I so think it’s so fascinating how, so often, people with mental illness are also creatives. I really believe that we with “fragile wiring” get to experience the world in a deeper, more intense way. It certainly doesn’t make for an easier life, but it’s my way of finding the blessing of he illness. 🙂 Thank you for reading and responding. Big hugs to you and your sweet family. xox!

  16. Sarah, I was sooooo glad to see another post from you, and such an excellent one at that. I’d like to (doubly) preface my next statement, by saying that (1) I don’t usually read the USA Today (okay, sometimes, at the hotel, because it’s free), and (2) I don’t want to endorse the idea that we need celebrities to validate how we feel, but here is a link to an excellent article, which I think will do much to raise awareness and reduce stigma, much like your excellent posts and utter honesty.

    Hasta lasagna,

    • Miguel! I know you don’t read the USA Today and I know you aren’t suggesting that we need celebrities to endorse how we feel or who we are, but thank you! I haven’t clicked yet on your link, but I think The Boss has the cover story on the new Vanity Fair, talking about his demons. I (and those of us who struggle) really are in good company. Thank you, amigo mio, for your comment. xo!

  17. Sarah, I am so glad to hear your writing voice again! Thank you for your boldly vulnerable honesty. Clearly, you never stopped teaching, even if you left the classroom. And, by the way, I appreciate the heck out of your sense of humor, and empathize thoroughly with the beauty of finding someone to share your life with that gets “you” and appreciates all that it means to be you.

  18. Dear Sarah. Welcome back. Welcome home. I have missed you and your heartfelt stories.
    “Pressure makes diamonds”. – to quote General George S. Patton.
    You are the Hope Diamond xox Rayleen

  19. Sarah – I love this – so relatable and thoughtful on that intersection of emotions and self-doubt. (That other team is way out of line!) Great post.

  20. Thank you for this post. I am also bipolar and the daughter of a bipolar-schizophrenic. Only now in my late 30s-early 40s have I found some measure of peace on the health front.

    So much of this resonates with me, from the humor to the justice-seeking mentality, and yes, in my worse moments, contemplating the most dramatic of dénouements. Your post gives me hope on so many levels, including finding my own supportive partner (and perhaps even have a family of my own).

    Your bravery in sharing this part of your life also serves as additional encouragement to continue my own efforts in eradicating the stigma that prevents so many from mentally ill from obtaining their own well-deserved happiness.


    • Thank you so much, Tina. Yes, I can empathize with the log journey to peace and health. Mental health conditions are not for wussies! If you want, check out this cool network of professionals with mental health conditions. There are quite a lot of us out there (one in ten at least) with some kind of a brain disorder, and it’s so comforting to realize we are not alone…even if people aren’t always able to share publicly. Bless you and thank you!

  21. I really get the part about for better or for worse – my husband was the one who got saddled with the wife with CFS – and now mobility problems. I was there for him with the quadruple bypass. You don’t know what life will serve you, but the determination to do it together, and to do what’s necessary gets you through. (With an enormous amount of work, I should add.)

    I know about wondering if you’ve brought something into the marriage which has now been passed on to your three children. Discovering something you didn’t even know – well after the kids are already here.

    My husband is the slow talker, too – with the intelligent answer.

    I’m not going to say ‘enjoy’ about your post, because that would trivialize it. More ‘resonated.’

    • Thank you, dear Alicia, for sharing. It really means a lot. And CFS … gosh, these chronic illness/struggles/challenges are so draining, both on us and on the loved ones.

      It’s so true that you don’t know what life, marriage or kids will serve you, and somehow we humans keep on choosing what’s behind door #3. We must like surprise. Or we must just be silly and naive. Or brave!

      I love seeing you here! Thank you.

  22. Powerfully and poignantly written…thanks for sharing. It is obvious you have a wonderful family and great friends!

    You are not alone in your passion and belief in fair play and your abhorrence in unsportsmanlike behavior…I have vocalized my “opinions” to opposing players and parents on more than one occasion, incredulous that obviously dirty play is tolerated by referees and parents. I have told our two daughters on multiple occasions that if I ever witness them playing intentionally dirty that I will halt play and drag them off the field. Soccer and winning are NOT the most important things to learn on the field, and if opposing parents are not going to teach their kids the RIGHT things, then I WILL…yes, I have to learn to turn the other cheek….or not.

    I stand in solidarity with you! I will be your wing man anytime!

    See you on the sidelines! 🙂

    • Thanks, Craig. I LOVE that you are my wing man. And yes, I am very lucky to have great people on Team Sarah. I’d be in big back trouble without them. Thank you for reading and commenting . . . see you on the sidelines–Saturday at 9:30.

  23. What a wonderful post, Sarah. I just love your candor and your wit. I have depression and I always tend to pin my passionate outbursts on that, but sometimes I think it’s my real desire for some justice coming through, even if it comes through with an extra helping of emotion. I look forward to reading more!


    • Thank you, Elizabeth. And thank you for YOUR website. That’s the (or one of the many) fascinating thing about mental health conditions: that it’s hard to understand or identify what’s our personality and what’s the illness. Our brains are fascinating places, no. Here’s some empathy for you–a virtual hug. Thank you for your honesty and your lovely comment. 🙂

  24. So glad I saved this post to read in my first free time!
    I adore your writing.
    I also adore Erica and the word “twizzy”
    All the best!

  25. Hauntingly beautiful and familiar. I get it though. My doctor diagnosed me long ago with bi-polar. It wasn’t very bad. I’ve noticed to see and feel the signs. It is scary though. I’m proud of you as a mother for being so open and honest about something so very personal. Most folks shy away from and hide their mental illness, while you embrace yours. It’s humbling.

  26. thank you for this column, Sarah. I work with women who are trying to recover from addiction and many from a co-occurring mental health diagnosis. they also happen to be in jail. Not a happy combination, yet they open themselves to the possibility of healing and flourishing. I wish you lived around the corner so I could take you to work with me and let you share your amazing spiritual gifts. Bless you. I look forward to checking in more with your writings.

    • Oh, Linda. Thank you so much for taking the time to write! And bless YOU for the good work you do … Mental health conditions, addiction challenges and jail. What a difficult trifecta. But there you are, offering hope and encouragement as you show these women that you see them and value them. I wish I could meet them too … and YOU. Thank you for your encouragement, Linda. 🙂

  27. Sarah, it was so lovely to meet you last night and I got right down to it and started reading your posts! I love your sense of humor and honesty. And I used to get yellow-carded playing field hockey in high school (talking back to the refs)…it could be our red hair? 😉

    What a fascinating and challenging question, though…to not know when to attribute behavior to mental illness or to being human. But I suppose those are the same thing, aren’t they? I just had that thought, and am processing as I type. Mental illness is of course one aspect of your humanity. We all have our “disabilities”, which are part of what make us human. Lots to chew on. Thank you!

    • It is absolutely our red hair.

      Thank you so much for this kind and thoughtful comment (and for sharing empathy regarding your passion for justice on the field) … I loved meeting you too. I was just doing an interview with a professor who is researching people with mental health conditions (who are also thriving–most days–professionally) and she asked me whether I would, if I could, take away my diagnosis. I almost immediately answered, “No!” I guess I do feel like it really is a part of who I am … just like the red hair. 🙂

      I hope to see you again soon, sweet Kelly!

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