It’s hard for me to answer when the doctor asks how I’ve been sleeping. She asks what time I fall asleep, and I flub the answer every time, because I don’t know. I sometimes fall asleep with a sweaty head pressed against my shoulder. He’s 8, and she’s 6, and they still like snuggling to sleep. Sometimes I’m able to stay awake and read or watch tv after they fall asleep. Sometimes I’m so tired that my last pill of the day eases me to sleep all on its own. It could be 8 o’clock. It could be 9 or 10 or 11 or even later. I make up an answer that sounds right.
I try to count hours when I’m in that office. How have you been sleeping? How many hours? Is it hard to wake up in the morning? Those are questions that feel beyond my control. I wake up sometimes by hearing them arguing. I wake up sometimes when my husband goes to work and I can hear my son saying a cheerful but distracted “Bye Dad.” Some days I get out of bed and cheerfully say hello, pulling on clothes and walking into the kitchen. On other days, the hard days, it’s someone bellowing GET UP, MOM! I stay in bed, remind them that yogurt is in the fridge, bread is on the counter, bananas in the basket, peanut butter somewhere. But it’s not enough. Not enough until I have pulled myself out of bed, stumbling into clothes, throwing the first pills of the day into my mouth. I’m not fully real to them until I’m standing there, making coffee and slapping a sandwich together. I grumble that making a sandwich is easy, and they can do it themselves. But then I remember how much better things taste when someone else makes it for you. It’s why going out for dinner is tempting when I’m a little off, when making dinner is too hard, or I’m too scattered to settle on something, when I’m too hyped up to feel hungry. My dad says my grandma said food someone else has made tastes better because you “can’t taste your hand in it.” Days like those, she’s right.
My dad’s father died when he was a child. I didn’t hear much about him growing up. It would be a long time before the stories would start coming. They were stories that matched other stories I heard, other relatives both dead and living, spread out like that proverbial tree. I was stuck there on that branch, looking up and out. There were shiny apples there, and blossoms, and there were apples on the ground, bruised or rotten, smelling strongly of cider, bees resting and flying away, trying to make use of what was left. It was tempting for my dad just say “crazy.” Say things like “my crazy family” or “goofy in the head.” It was easier to say that. Growing up a tiny farm town full of first and second generation Norwegians, there were no words. The DSM did not exist there. There are no words for mania or schizophrenia, no words for clinical depression, agitated depressions and mixed states, mixed mania, worse in the summer when there is more sunlight. There are secrets there, and hopes that it was all left behind on that gravel road when my dad made his escape.
But now we have learned words for mania, and words for depression. There is a word called bipolar, and that’s what I am. It’s the same thing my dad’s family had in spades, spread out on those branches. There are others sitting there, uncles and aunts and cousins, and when we are gone, there might be other people sitting there. It’s woven into us, somewhere we can’t reach. Somewhere we cannot see unless it consumes us for a while. Mental illness doesn’t choose, it spins around, eyes closed, and points. It pointed at me, and here I am.
Back to sandwiches. I make them, I set them on the table. I offer milk and water. Afterward they make up art projects for themselves (lately comics for my son and painting for my daughter) and eventually we do some homeschool work. Or maybe it’s a day that we visit the park with friends, or go to co-op classes. It’s nice for me to get in the air and joke and laugh with my friends. I’m open about all of this. They know. They accept me. When I need help, they are there. They are there for me, and there for my kids.
My meds cocktail is hefty but helpful. I am able to have energy and be creative and funny without it tipping into tearing the house apart in a cyclone of activity. We chat, and I joke, and they laugh. I reach into my bag around 12:30 and swallow a yellow pill. Sometimes there is a clementine orange in there too, or an apple. We squint toward the woods surrounding the park, looking for our children in stripes or bright colors. We try and get them into distinctive clothes so we can find them easily. The kids emerge from the woods, sweaty, wielding stick swords. Some adult with invariably yell “Be careful!” But they are.
In the afternoon, I rest. Many times I am thankful my kids are old enough that no one will fall down stairs. I’m not struggling to get a toddler to take a nap. I’m not worried about someone playing with knives or opening the dishwasher when it’s running. They curl up with ipads and I tell myself it’s fine. I close my eyes, sometimes. The curtains are drawn. In the hot Georgia summer, I point the fan at my head. Sometimes the kids come in and rest beside me. The rest quiets me. I can feel my brain relaxing, sometimes. Unwinding itself from the tight little shiny and wild and brittle ball it always thinks it should be. I know how to count my breaths, now. I know why I have to slow down, and I know when I have to get out of bed, and why.
It’s these kids. My beautiful kids that know what bipolar means. My kids with their bright eyes when I sat them down, voice even, and said that I had to go to a special doctor, that she said something was different in my brain. Something that could make me get sick. Told them what it was called. I told them that sometimes my brain told me things that aren’t true. I told them sometimes I had too much energy, and sometimes I had too little energy. I told them it was why sometimes I get anxious, why sometimes I feel sad or angry or want to stay up late. Why sometimes I talk a lot or too loud or fast. I told them it’s why I take all the medicines on the counter. Why I go to the special doctor. Why dad and I want to talk quietly in private.
What I don’t say is that it took far too long for me to say this word. I had learned it long ago, and knew the way it sounded in my mind when I shakily held it for years, uneven on that branch. I kept dropping apples to the ground, over and over. I thought I was okay. I thought it didn’t matter. One day, at 35, I knew I couldn’t pretend anymore. I needed to say it out loud. So I did.
I don’t say things like “I feel guilty because I feel like I could have been a better mother to you.” I don’t say things like “I’m sorry you had to see all this.” I don’t say things like “After you were born I felt anxious and buzzed all the time and told myself awful things.” I can say things like “Sometimes I can get sick, but I used to get really sick, but now that I see the special doctor, I’m getting better.” Because I am. I breathe and think at least I did it. At least I’m not stuck in a tiny town, years ago now, living out my life swinging around and around, never landing. My kids won’t know me like that. They know these words. They say them.
It’s evening, and my husband comes home, and I take the purple pill. He feeds the cat and we all sit down for dinner. The kids tell him about what they learned about egypt, about what they found in the woods. They sometimes talk about phonics. A for apple, maybe. It all gets cleaned up, and I take the last set of pills, the fish oil too. Soon it’s pajamas and lights turned off, someone saying they love me. I can’t count hours, not like I’m supposed to. Time is different with children. It’s both too slow and much too fast. It is enough to live, to live for not just them, not just my family, but for myself. I am enough, like this. I’m not broken or missing. I’m healing, and I am resting here in this bed with those I love. Someone finds my hand in the dark. I take it.
Karen Olson Edwards