A series of three pictures taken during my honeymoon show me smiling. They are the only ones that do. And not just smiling – smirking, flirting with the camera. I’m wearing a purple sundress and am sitting on the front lawn of our rental house in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here is what you’d never guess, looking at this series. First, that dress is my wedding dress, even though the wedding is days past. Second, Eric and I should still be up in Taos, honeymooning. Third, I think I am Jesus (again).
Eric has the photos uploaded to his Flickr account online. He didn’t label the set, “Honeymoon 2002.” Instead the set is called, “August 2002.” Here are some of the pictures Eric took on our honeymoon in Taos: a close-up of some cosmos; a bone crucifix on a wall; a brown and white spotted dog standing in the crotch of cottonwood tree; me, in shadow, looking to one side; a wooden giraffe wearing sunglasses; a gnarled stump. There are no photos of us together. Several pictures of my face show something is very wrong. You might wonder, am I having regrets?
Five years or so after our honeymoon, Eric showed me the three smiling photos and said, “I know these are from an hour before I took you to the hospital, but I think you look pretty.” I looked at the pictures, tried to hold the word pretty in my head but couldn’t, not like he meant it. Pretty crazy. Pretty messed up. But not pretty. I opened my mouth to say so but then thought if there is one person in the world who ought to be allowed to think I look pretty even when I’m in the middle of a psychotic break, it is him.
So I said, “Thanks.”
Pretty crazy. Pretty messed up. But not pretty. I opened my mouth to say so but then thought if there is one person in the world who ought to be allowed to think I look pretty even when I’m in the middle of a psychotic break, it is him.
The last photograph in the set is the only one of Eric himself. He’s out of focus and in the background, looking to one side, his left arm crossing his chest, hand resting near his shoulder. If you squint, you can see the black glint of his tungsten wedding band. His face looks – Strong? Hard? Scared? What’s in focus at the front of the frame, is a lush green houseplant. Eric took the picture of himself using his camera’s timer and his brand-new tripod late one afternoon while he was alone in the house and I was pacing the halls of the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center’s locked ward. I know because I remember him telling me about the shot the first time we looked at it.
Our son has seen the photos too. He loves to look at his father’s Flickr account. He doesn’t think much of them. He is bored by the photos of objects and baffled by the photos of me and the one of his father. “Why is he blurry?” He’d rather look at shots from his first camping trip, or our family hike in the tent rocks. To him, our honeymoon photos are so much ancient boring history, as it should be.
I knew having a wedding was a risk. I talked it over with my psychiatrist at the time. She said to keep taking my medication and to call if I started having trouble. She thought I’d be okay. I was so self-aware, she said, so good at self-care and managing stress. In fact, she wanted to try me off medication, once the wedding was over. She wasn’t sure I needed it, really. I hadn’t had a break-through episode since my first hospitalization six years earlier, when I was diagnosed as bipolar.
Most bipolar people do need medication, but not all are willing to take it. Our moods swing from depression to mania – sometimes within hours, sometimes not for months, or years. The mania can feel pretty good. Lots of energy, lots of brain power. Often, other people like us better when we are a little manic. Some of us – me – don’t stop at mania. Our minds keep revving upwards; we get a little delusional. Delusions of grandeur are common. (Believing I was Jesus is as cliché as a delusion can get.) And, our minds can rev up beyond delusions, all the way to psychosis. We hear things that aren’t there, see and know things that aren’t true. Medication helps keep us on the right path, mentally, but break-through episodes happen when our madness blasts through chemical fences, runs wild. Stress, good or bad, is often a trigger for a break-through episode.
The month leading up to the wedding, I lived self-aware, self-care, and stress-management. I wrote about my moods in my journal, taking my mental temperature each morning, asking, “Am I crazy? Is this something a normal person would feel? Or not?” I made sure to get enough sleep. I didn’t let every second of every day get caught up in wedding planning. I worked very hard at not giving a shit about many things: the flowers, the music, the cake, what other people would be wearing (people other than Eric), or generally anything having to do with it being my special princess day.
I had wanted to elope. I was afraid of a wedding; a very special party where people flew in from across the country to celebrate my and Eric’s extra special love would be a pretty big mania trigger. I proposed getting married in a courthouse, or the drive-up chapel in Las Vegas. Eric said a small, warm, informal wedding would be a nice way to bring our families and friends together. I could have explained my real fear then, or sometime in the eighteen months leading up to our wedding, but I didn’t. I didn’t want Eric to marry someone too sick to commit to him in front of the people he loved. My small revenge was convincing him to wear a white suit. It made me feel better, him being in bridal white while I wore color.
The night before the wedding, Eric stayed out late with his sister, best man, and brother-in-law. I turned in early, telling my friends I had to get a full night’s rest. They all understood why. I went back to the room Eric and I shared in the Bed and Breakfast and slowly went about putting myself to bed, taking calm, deep breaths. Once I was in bed, all the lights off, the white sheet pulled up to my chin, I closed my eyes, waited for sleep.
Instead, the room, my head, the world, filled with a hum I hadn’t heard for six years – that very literal hum, a drone accompanied by a constant slight visual quivering, as if I can see everything dancing, glowing at the atomic level. “Shit” I can remember thinking, very clearly, “Oh shit.” All night I lay awake trying to will it away, thinking shit shit shit.
Eric and I met in Friends’ Housing Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin in 1994. I was twenty, had recently decided to be a writer who would save the world, then moved into an egalitarian, consensus-based, co-ed, cooperatively-owned three-story flat where thirteen undergraduates, graduate students, and crunchy food-co-op working types lived in a grungy and pest-ridden but generally genial approximation of harmony.
At first, I hated it. We held hands and had a moment of silence before dinner. (A remnant of the co-op’s Quaker roots, something I grew to love.) I often begin by disliking people and things that become important to me. Until age twenty I disliked poetry. Then I became a poet. These days, I try to reserve judgment on people my gut tells me to avoid upon first, second, and third sight, but I’m rarely successful.
I didn’t think much of Eric. First, he returned from a three-week backpacking trip in Alaska with a greasy mountain man beard and a six-inch stack of photos of sky, trees, water, kayaks, more sky, more trees, more kayaks, and more sky. Second, he was a nearly twenty-seven-year-old graduate student in material science at the Engineering School. An engineer. Who studied materials. What? Lead? Plastic? Burlap? I had no idea why he lived in Friends’ Co-op, but wished he’d step aside for a nice philosophy student.
The next morning, I stumbled, unshowered, from my first-floor bedroom into the kitchen, and encountered a clean-cut, clean-shaven, blond-haired, blue-eyed, handsome son-of-a-bitch who couldn’t stop talking. My face flushed hot as I masked my confusion by preparing my breakfast of homemade organic honey-sweetened granola drowned in homemade organic unsweetened soymilk. I heard the word “kayak,” then knew – this guy was Eric. I gave myself a talking to. Not my type. Too handsome. Too mainstream. Too out of my league. Too old. Too pretty. Too baritone. I managed mostly to tune him out for months. I’d successfully filed him away in the “both of us not interested” category.
I started to change my mind about Eric in February of 1995, right around when I turned twenty-one. A depression had been building in him all fall. I’d tried to ignore it, had promised myself I’d stop playing therapist to everyone in my path. Sometimes four or five of us would laugh and gossip in the dining room past midnight. If Eric was there, one moment he’d be showing off with his prehensile toes, and the next he’d be saying he had chronic fatigue syndrome, or a food allergy, or maybe a brain tumor. I didn’t know if something physical was wrong, but he was clearly depressed. I recognized the way he’d spin all conversations around to himself from my own experiences fighting depression six months out of the year. I edged out of rooms, his mood tugging at my own.
In February, I came home clenched with frustration over an issue in one of my favorite courses. Eric saw me, stopped me. We sat in the dining room, had a long talk. He didn’t share any insights. He was just really interested – asking questions, listening.
After that, I was more willing to talk to Eric. Sometimes I had to pull away before he sucked me into his verbal cycling, but sometimes I’d help him talk it through, convince him, for a while, his brain wasn’t completely broken. He was still getting through his PhD program, wasn’t he? The material he was studying was plasma, which seemed more interesting than plastic or burlap. Not the blood plasma, but the thing which isn’t quite a gas – something hard to define. He studied it by writing computer code, modeling its behavior with charts and graphs.
Let me write that again, because writing it makes me happy. What my husband does for a living is this: he writes precise lines of code in order to make models of the real world. More than once, he has given me permission to write anything I want about him, anything at all.
We live in a split-level house. We share a messy office on the first floor and sleep on the second floor. Our son Thorfin, named after his paternal great-grandfather, sleeps up there too. For many years after we got married, I didn’t think we would have a child. I didn’t think we would get to have one. I thought my mental illness and the medication I had to take eliminated that possibility. I didn’t think I deserved a child. I told myself we could live our lives side-by-side, Eric writing code, me writing lines of poetry. And we could have done that, and we would have been happy, I think. That we have a child is one the great wonderful surprises of our lives together. A surprise that is rooted in the sorrow of what came directly after our wedding and honeymoon.
In February of 1995, Eric started playing the piano for me. All year long, whenever he played the piano in the co-op’s living room he’d bang out Bach or ragtime at maximum speed. Starting in February, I’d know when he wanted my company because he’d play the same pieces, but slowly, delicately. I’d come out from my room, curl up on a couch, watch the curve of his wrists.
In late March, my usual spring buzz hit. Every spring my winter depression lifted and the entire world began to hum, softly. (The only season I liked better was fall when the world’s hum sometimes upped itself to a full-on thrum, like a drum vibrating beneath my skin.) I could feel everything coming to life – not just the tree sap and crocuses, but the actual air, the molecules of oxygen floating around in my lungs. The other thing that sprung to life was my libido and it finally occurred to me the whole piano playing thing might be interpreted as flirting.
Then Eric found me crying. The story behind it isn’t important, but I thought I’d lost a friend. Instead of hiding in my room, I sat on the sofa in the living room, exactly where I’d sit when he played the piano. It didn’t take long. He came in, asked if he could sit, put his arm around me. I nodded, leaned in, cried against his chest. Finally, I started talking. He listened. Eventually, he asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I agreed. We walked for over three hours, talking, leaving my problem far behind. It started to rain, softly. He said, “Sometimes when it rains like this, I think it’s acid and it’s melting my skin.”
I looked over at his face. I don’t feel comfortable looking directly at people’s faces, their eyes, very much or for very long. When I do, its a deliberate action. It feels like touching a griddle to see if the heat’s on. In the spring, or fall, or any other time when my mind has turned, it feels like touching twin, miniature, suns.
I looked at Eric’s face, his eyes, and could see he didn’t think maybe the rain was like acid or that it was acid rain. He was positive, completely, that it was melting him. I thought, “This guy is just kind enough and just messed up enough for this to work.”
I’ve told Eric this story before. He remembers the walk and the rain, but not saying anything about acid, or his skin melting. He doesn’t think it sounds like something he’d say.
Soon after we became a couple, things changed. I don’t know if school became more stressful, his brain chemistry went into overdrive, or having me around meant his subconscious felt he could relax, but Eric became much worse. His graduate advisor called him at the co-op any time between seven in the morning and eleven at night, demanding to know why Eric wasn’t working in the lab, so Eric made sure he was already there. He’d work anywhere from fifteen to thirty-five hours at a time, his work days moving in weird cycles with actual days.
I grew used to being woken up at three a.m. by his face hovering inches above me saying he knew he was dying from cancer, fatigue, a new, untreatable disease. I’d talk him down and he’d pass out on top of me. He had strange dreams. Sometimes we’d have entire conversations where I’d think he was awake until he’d start talking about something like the man from Blues Traveler sitting in the corner of the bedroom. Once, very early on, I woke to find he had me in a head lock. “I’m getting all the bad stuff out,” he said, shaking me. I broke his hold, woke him. He had no memory of the dream. But, also, he still seemed angry.
I didn’t know if depression, sleep deprivation, stress, or all of them combined were making him sick. He’d make doctor’s appointments, then either the doctor was a useless twit or Eric wouldn’t show. I knew I should end things between us, but kept remembering how kind he’d been. I wasn’t sure I’d find it again, not in someone tough enough to love me back.
If you ask Eric about this time, he’ll tell you it was bad, but he won’t think it was as bad as I say. The waking dreams, eyes blank and hard in the middle of the night? My head in a head lock, being shaken while he said, “I’m getting all the bad stuff out?” He doesn’t remember. Maybe faintly, but it doesn’t feel real. What kind, musical, intuitive engineer would believe it of himself? And his wife, who tells him these stories, she is, always has been, sensitive. She’s been diagnosed as bipolar – has delusions, hallucinations. He’s seen it, twice.
But he’ll also tell you it was a very bad time for him. He’ll say I helped him through, stuck with him when he didn’t have any emotional resources to offer. He’ll say when things got bad for me later, when I started lashing out, he stuck around not because he wanted to, not because he loved me, not even because he liked me, but because he was grateful. I had been there when he needed someone. He could see I needed someone too.
When we moved to Champaign-Urbana in the summer of 1996, he was – not great, but better. He had a PhD and a post-doc position, proving his brain was working. His anxiety and depression faded, with only occasional flare-ups. Our relationship, it needed repair.
In 2002, the morning of our wedding, I did not tell Eric my psychosis had returned after six years absence. I did not call my doctor. I promised myself I’d call her the next morning. Now the day had come, I wanted our wedding. I didn’t want our friends and relatives to have flown in from the Midwest to see me admitted to a psychiatric ward, or shuffling around lobotomized by Haldol, the only antipsychotic I’d had any experience with.
And, I was so flattered, so hopeful by my doctor’s suggestion I might not need medication. That I might be so self-aware, I could control my disease by keeping myself calm. I wasn’t willing to give up that hope. Even though I could see atoms dancing, light shifting with colors, even though I could hear voices whispering in vacant corners, I wasn’t willing to give up hope I could be self-aware enough not to be broken.
Even though I could see atoms dancing, light shifting with colors, even though I could hear voices whispering in vacant corners, I wasn’t willing to give up hope I could be self-aware enough not to be broken.
Instead, I grit my teeth, put down my head, breathed deep, and stepped slowly through the day. I spent a lot of time in my room. Eric spent the day in his best-man’s room. When I did have to go into the bed and breakfast common areas, I saw light shining through everyone’s skin. If I opened my mouth, I couldn’t help but speak their innermost secrets, so I kept it shut, my jaw aching from the clench.
The wedding photos were scheduled for right before the ceremony. In preparation, I put on my linen dress and its long jacket. A woman came and did my makeup; the only full face of makeup I had or have ever worn. I left the room feeling safely in disguise, every inch covered – serene. I couldn’t tell if the swirling around me was light, words, colors, or electricity, only that it was lovely. I entered the common room, my family, Eric’s family, and my three good friends waiting inside.
And they hit me, all at once, with a brutal, horrible force. I froze, cover gone in an instant, every nerve exposed, breath gone, head open, all of them inside me, shouting with color and feeling and thought a horrible desire which was light and sound – a shouting oh you look so beautiful don’t you look lovely.
If you have ever seen an animal – a dog or cat, say – frozen but for a tight quivering, the whites of its eyes showing, you have seen a panic attack. If it then bolts – that’s a panic attack. Or if someone tries to touch it and it thrashes or bites or claws its way free, all mindless terror – that’s panic. People get those too. Some freeze, some bolt, some talk fast, some think they’re having a heart attack, some can’t breathe, some shake, some lash out, some cry, some do things I haven’t listed. Some of us who get them learn to recognize others who do. We notice when our friends start to quiver, sit by them, breathing slow, or say in a low, calm voice, “Hey.” Sometimes, if it is the right thing to do, we might give them a brief, steady look in the eyes or a firm touch. Often, a look, a touch is exactly the wrong thing. There is no one right thing.
I have a brother. He is eighteen years younger than I. He is sensitive. I remember holding him when he could not yet hold up his head, knowing this. At my wedding, he was ten and he saw my terror, flung himself at me, wrapped his arms as tightly around my body as he could.
And what my every nerve instinctively wanted was run, hit, scratch, get away from the noise, the hurting, the shouting, the feeling, all the crashing. I quivered and in my life so far, the hardest thing I have ever done is not lash out at my brother, hit him away. I could feel his fear, his love, and only a tiny core inside me was able to keep myself still. I don’t know how long we stayed like that. Eventually someone, I think my stepmother, peeled him away. She did so just in time. When she did, I slammed myself backwards, got something solid at my back.
Through the noise, I could make out one distinct voice – my brother’s, “She’s so afraid,” and it was filled with every bit of what was in my head.
I have spoken to people about this moment since. Those who know panic have said they recognized it, but none thought it anything out of the ordinary order of panic attack. None thought by the time the attack faded and I was able to speak, I’d decided so much adoration could mean only one thing: I was Jesus; I hadn’t been wrong when I was twenty-two.
Eric and I married outside a bed and breakfast in a ceremony performed by a lay minister who was also a high school drama teacher. Eric’s parents walked him up the garden’s path. Then my own did the same for me. When we reached the arbor where the minister waited, I joined Eric, he took my hands, I looked hard into his eyes and he held my gaze. My fear faded. In my memory, the sunlight and his eyes sing so loudly that at times I cannot hear the vows.
The day after the wedding, I chose not to call my doctor. I told Eric I was a little manic but going up to Taos would fix it, all I needed was rest. I spoke slowly, holding in the floods of words. I had so much to tell him about how much I loved him, how much I loved the entire world, how much they all loved us, how wrong I had been to be afraid, but also how sorry I was that soon I’d have to leave, soon they’d all take me, soon I would become no longer human, no longer a person, soon there would be the long dark night and fear, after all. Instead, I was terse. I was the tersest, slow-talking manic person anyone has ever met. And through all my altered states, some small hopeful part of me still thought if I could talk like a sane person, and make myself sit very still, all the madness in my head would snuff out like a fire without air.
So Eric drove us up to Taos for our honeymoon. He never suggested I call my doctor, even after I told him I thought I was a little manic. I’ve seen people question this judgment – doctors, my parents – but they have no right. No one does. I’m not even sure I do. He made the decision because he trusted me. I don’t mean he trusted I was going to get better. He’s said he knew there was a good chance rest alone wasn’t going to help. But he trusted me enough to let me try.
And he drove us to Taos because he was there in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1996 when I was twenty-two. He sat awake all night in the living room of our apartment, guarding the door so I didn’t go outside. He heard me alone in the bedroom, laughing, dancing, screaming – insane. He spoke on the phone to my mother, my father, hotlines, gathering information. He was told to call the police, have them take me to the hospital by force, but he refused.
The next day, I took a long walk across Champaign-Urbana. Exhausted, he followed me, talking reason. I pretended he wasn’t there. Finally fed up, I sat in the lotus position, pretended to pass out. He tried to wake me, then called 911. This was how I ended up in an ambulance which took me to an emergency room in a hospital where I was put in four-point restraints.
Not long after my first hospitalization, probably during a long drive through Illinois cornfields, I told him, “I’m never going back to one of those places. If it looks like nothing will help, I’m too crazy and the only option is to be locked up again, then I’ll kill myself.” I said, “You have to promise you’ll never take me back.”
And he said, “I promise.” He made that promise when he was taking care of me out of duty. But he remembered.
When I was twenty-two, the emergency-room doctors said patients don’t remember anything, when they were as far gone as I was. Those things coming out of my mouth had nothing to do with me. He believed them. I would’ve wanted to believe too.
He came into the small room where I was restrained, once. I looked at him hard, told him to let me free. He refused and I screamed, shouted, in the worst, the craziest, the scariest voice you can imagine, “Let me go, goddamn it. Let me go! If you don’t untie me, I will never love you again. Do you hear me? I will never love you again.” I saw the blankness fall over his eyes. He left the room and I didn’t see him again until much later.
So he was somewhere down the hall when the worst of it happened for me. I’d managed to unbuckle myself from the restraints, once. This made things worse for me, angered the people working that shift, but I’ll always be glad I managed it; for a while I had some power, some agency. I’d been let out of the restraints a second time because I convinced someone I had to go to the bathroom by threatening to piss my pants. As the two guards, or orderlies, or nurses (mostly I remember men’s hard grips and silences), led me to the bed, I couldn’t stand the thought of being restrained again. Picture four-point restraints, for a moment – arms and legs spread, buckled to the sides of a hospital bed. Remember I was Jesus and you’ll see I thought I was being crucified. As we neared the bed, I panicked, dropped. Surprised, the men lost their holds. I tried to crawl, then run my way free but instead they descended, and within moments more men too. I screamed, thrashed like a panicking animal and in no time at all they had me restrained. I gasped, alone in the room again, thick trails of snot running down my face. I remember their taste and feeling ashamed at how I must look. I tried to slow my breathing, calm myself. I thought I’d be alone again for a long time.
Instead more men entered, surrounded me, faces hard, unspeaking. I screamed as they pressed their weight on me so I couldn’t move. Another man, for an instant I saw into his eyes, reached over, undid my pants, and pulled them down. I was, in that moment, completely certain I was being raped. I kept screaming. I think there were words in the screams. I think I was begging him to stop. There has never been a moment in my life when I had less power. He shot Haldol into my thigh, pulled my pants up, never said a word. Why would he? I was too far gone.
So six years later when I was twenty-eight, instead of calling my doctor, Eric remembered my screams, my recounting months later of the hours everyone said I wouldn’t remember, his promise. He packed my bags, drove us to Taos. I’m pretty sure as he drove north, he knew he was doing the wrong thing. I’m pretty sure he knew none of his choices would be the right thing, so he chose the one that treated me like a person. That’s part of why I trust him.
In the months after my first psychotic episode, hospitalization, and diagnosis as bipolar (along with the discovery my father was bipolar, as was his mother) when I was twenty-two, I insisted Eric and I save every Saturday for each other. I looked forward to Saturday all week long. My favorite Saturdays were the ones where we’d get in the car in the morning and he’d head out for nowhere in particular. He’d drive along two-lane highways sectioning the perfectly flat corn fields of central Illinois like graph paper. I’d lean back, watch it all drift by, feeling the road vibrating beneath us.
Eventually, I’d start talking. I’d tell Eric all the ways he’d misunderstood me when I was crazy. The things he should’ve said. Things he should’ve done. Then I’d tell him about all the things he’d done wrong up in Madison and about how perfectly I’d handled them. I’d tell him how unreliable he was, how cold, unloving, how incapable of real feeling. I’d explain why his previous relationships had failed, why his friends weren’t worth my time, why his job was mundane, why his family didn’t love him. By the time the car returned home, I was completely drained, exhausted, and sad but, also, feeling safer than I had all week. Saturdays were my best days, about the only fun I had. We’d stop for lunch, eat french fries from some random McDonalds in the cornfields, and I’d smile at how loved I felt.
Eric says every week as Saturday grew near his stomach twisted into a knot. Saturdays were his worst days; he’d rather be doing anything else. He’d have rather been working thirty-five-hour days in the basement of a building on the engineering campus of the University of Wisconsin. Instead, he drove me across central Illinois. My husband has a strong sense of duty.
And me. There’s nothing loving, admirable, or strong about latching onto a person who’s taking care of you, then kicking the shit out of him because all the other people you’d like to kick the shit out of might hurt you back. I’ve been that caretaker, in my childhood, and I hated every second of it. I never thought I’d do it to someone else. And once I came to myself enough to realize what I’d done, I told myself that I could never have a child, that I couldn’t be trusted with that kind of sacred care.
Eric should have ended our relationship earlier than he did. Late in the spring of 1997, he told me he couldn’t take it anymore. I sobbed, counting our relationship as another thing my disease had taken from me.
A few days later, I begged him for another chance, pleaded for time to find the self I’d lost on the streets of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I promised I’d go back to Madison, Wisconsin, if he’d visit sometimes. He agreed, though it was because I needed him so much, not because he wanted or needed me. I wouldn’t have wanted me either. I didn’t.
I returned to Madison and Friends’ Co-op, did a lot of thinking in my room with the door shut, a lot of walking, a lot of writing in my journal, and not much else. I spent little time in the co-op common areas. I worked a desk job which didn’t require much more than showing up. Eric and I spoke on the phone once a week for half an hour. Once every five weeks or so he drove up from Illinois for a weekend. We’d go see bad plays at community theaters, eat pizza, hide in my room. For the first few – no, many – visits, I couldn’t help but slip up at some point, tell him what a piece of shit he was. That’s why I needed so much time alone, to regroup.
In my journal, I mostly wrote about myself, trying to remember what I’d been like when I had friends, when Eric relied on me instead of the other way around, when my brain was my best gift. I wanted me back. I thought if Eric wanted me back too, it would be a sign. Eventually, we started to relax around each other again, started making plans for the future. He went on the job market. After fourteen months of living apart, he drove to Madison, we packed my things, and moved across the country so he could start his new job in Albuquerque, New Mexico – a city I’d never seen.
Taos was the town we slept in the night we agreed to marry. So, Taos was the town we agreed to honeymoon in. I wrote about those mad days in Taos so often in the five years after our wedding – journal entries, drafts of poems. It happened once. It has also been examined, reexamined, sliced apart, frozen, made into objects.
This is what happened in the ten days or so beginning on July 27th, 2002, the night before my wedding. I had a psychotic break. I hid this break and got married anyway. I did not call my doctor. I went on my honeymoon to Taos where for the second time in my life, despite being an atheist, I knew I was Jesus. I returned to Albuquerque and voluntarily admitted myself to a locked psychiatric ward. I was released from the locked ward and within an hour of coming home, received a call from my doctor telling me to stop taking all medications because I was pregnant. I felt the psychosis returning and apologized, silently, over and over again to my unborn son (I was sure it was a son) for all the ways I had already and was going to mess him up. I fell asleep. I woke up bloody, no longer psychotic and no longer pregnant. It was both a relief, and the greatest sorrow of my life.
In the year following, I did not work, sometimes went days without leaving the house. On the worst days, I wouldn’t shower or dress until an hour before Eric came home. I’d do as good an impersonation of normal with him as I could, joking, watching silly television shows. Most of the time, he seemed to believe me. In the two years following that, I held symbolic jobs, joblettes, one year substitute teaching, accepting one, maybe two assignments a month. When people asked, I said, “I’m a substitute teacher,” not mentioning how often. Once the wedding was a couple months past, Eric was loving, calm, seemingly content. If his anxiety ever started to spiral out of control, if he ever felt sad about what had happened to us, about our loss, he kept it hidden.
Being crazy is the most self-centered condition in the world. Mania, depression, and psychosis mean the world becomes me-me-me and the rest of you barely exist, except for how you illuminate me. Part of trying to be sane, is trying to remember the rest of you exist, are real people with real feelings and perspectives that, by God, outnumber mine.
Now that I have a son after all, the great surprise that I get to have what I once thought was lost forever, the great work of my life is not raising him, or writing poetry, but holding onto my sanity. I want to be a mother who looks at her child and sees him, not a reflection of herself.
I know that by one measure, I made no mistake in July of 2002. I have a disease, it isn’t my fault, it runs in the family, and no matter how hard I grit my teeth, I can’t stop my mind from turning mad by force of will alone. But I know this too: there is something I can control. My doctor was right before the wedding; I’m pretty self-aware. I had enough self-awareness to call my doctor the morning of the wedding, and the morning after. I chose not to call her because it seemed the easier choice, at the time – the easier choice for me. If I’d been thinking of Eric, I’d have called off the honeymoon, picked up the phone, asked for some better drugs.
On the second, or maybe third, morning in Taos, Eric tentatively suggested we drive back to Albuquerque and call my doctor. I don’t remember what he looked like when he spoke; I wasn’t looking. The whole scene is dim, as if I tried to erase it from memory as it occurred.
I imagine I was sitting at the round kitchen table in our honeymoon casita, morning sun playing across its surface. I would’ve arranged my breakfast carefully on a plate – a plum; slices from a round, mild cheese; three round, blue corn chips – but the sunlight would make it hard to eat. I’d be distracted by reflections on the varnished table, particles dancing in the sun-lit air. I’d be trying to read their codes. Eric’s intrusion would be unwelcome.
I do remember, in a blurry way, the hitch in his voice when he said he thought I might need to go to the hospital. I see how easy it would’ve been for him to skip that part. I might have bolted, deciding it was time to spend forty days and forty nights alone in the Taos high desert. Instead, he said, “I know this will be hard to hear but I think you might need to go to the hospital.” He thought I had the right to know.
I don’t remember if I said anything back. I remember looking, for a flicker of an instant, out of the corner of my eye, seeing how tired he was. I saw he needed help taking care of me, so I decided I’d go back. I’d go to the hospital even though it was the only thing I wanted to do even less than I wanted to die.
It took years to forgive myself for what happened beginning on July 27th of 2002, and when I did, it was because of that flicker of true sight through my psychosis, the way I held onto it all the way south, all those hours in the hospital waiting room, all the night back home waiting for a bed to open up in the ward, and all the long walk down a white hall towards doors I knew would shut behind me and was pretty sure would never open to let me back out.
After we got to our house in Albuquerque, I did let go of my flicker of true sight – maybe for an hour. The presence of the ward became too real so I returned to the comfort of my delusions. I took another walk, barefoot, the pavement so hot my feet blistered the next day. Eric chased after me as I walked in front of a moving car (believing I could stop it with my mind), looped around the neighborhood, finally came to rest just around the corner from our house. Things get fuzzy here. I don’t know what exactly connects this moment with the one coming next but the next is so clear.
In my memory, I’m standing on a driveway, its gravel sharp on my feet and Eric has grabbed hold of my left forearm, hard. I try to pull away, but he grips down harder, so hard I cry out. He grips down harder still and I scream. I scream like I did in 1996, alone in a room with strange men holding me down, one undoing my pants. The man pulling down my pants, his eyes were angry stars, like when someone punches a wall, bloodying his fist – brutal and blank. In 2002, I scream like that again, drop to my knees on the sharp stones, and look up into Eric’s eyes which, for a flicker of an instant, are blank, angry stars.
That moment brought my true sight back. I’d been reminded what could happen when someone got so very tired, was pushed beyond his limits, hadn’t been allowed to sleep or stay still. I followed Eric back to the house, reaching out with my Jesus-mind into his, telling him he was forgiven. The next day in the ward I wore a purple imprint of his thumb and four fingers around my arm. I thought it another kind of wedding ring, twin to my stainless-steel wedding band – both symbols of how we were – holding on tight, strong. Years later, I think, I had a point and, simultaneously, Oh shit, that is so messed up.
Though I write and talk about it often, my mental illness is the most private thing about me. Mine. I’ve been accused of worrying about it too much. Just let go, people have told me. More than one person has said I’m the most grounded person they’ve ever met. They don’t understand every grounded moment is an achievement, not a given – something I’ve worked for. Letting go is dangerous. When I’m unmoored, ungrounded, there’s no guarantee my word will count for anything. And now that I’m a parent, letting go would be unforgivable. I am no longer free to fly.
I’ve read each time the brain experiences mania or psychosis it learns to achieve the states more efficiently. Mad pathways in the brain become entrenched, the mind runs along them at greater speed. I know this to be true. I have better drugs now, can give myself a chemical hammer blow to the head when I’ve received too many compliments on an afternoon with too much sun. I take my antipsychotic every day, even with the many possible side effects: diabetes, tardive dyskinesia, glaucoma, seizures, and more.
I love those honeymoon pictures Eric took. The way he played with angles and light. The wonder he once expressed of the one picture of himself: “I really like this one.” I think I know why he likes it. It shows what it’s like, when he has to take care of me like that. There he is, indistinct and blurry in the background – the caretaker, not the one anyone cares for or about. And there it is – his strength, the weight he carries.
Both of us have learned even more about caretaking in the years since. We have a child now, the great miracle of both our lives. In taking care of him, I’ve been that blurry person in the background. I’ve focused so hard on our son that I even gave up writing for some of his early years. When I visit my current psychiatrist, I often speak more about my son that I do about myself. Eric captured it, and I know how satisfying it feels to capture a shot of your life, make it into something you can put a title on, even just “August 2002.”