“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.