Chicago, Ill., 1983
You are five-years-old. You play with Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Ponies and have three Cabbage Patch Kids. You cry every night when you think no one is listening. Your mother walks in on you and asks what’s wrong and you look up at her with 40-year old eyes and say, “I don’t know.” Mother takes you to see, as she calls it, a “talking doctor.” A doctor for you to talk to, Lisa.
You climb into the gigantic leather chair and notice all the spider plants hanging from the ceiling. You aren’t too interested in this man; you want to swing from the vines of the plants.
“What does this look like, Lisa?” The talking doctor asks, holding up a white piece of paper with a black blob on it.
You squint and turn your head, bite your lip. This is like the cloud game you play at recess. “Sparkly Pony riding in the hills.”
You grow quiet. You don’t like all these questions. “A butterfly.”
He shuffles the cards like your grandmother does playing gin rummy. “This?”
You want Mommy. You don’t like his mustache, his glasses that make his eyes look ten times bigger than they ought to be. He’s staring down at you. You feel dizzy; you want a cup of juice; you want to be at school at naptime where Mrs. Markovitch walks around humming, checking on everyone lying on their mat.
“A big man with big hands,” you spit out.
The doctor puts the cards down.
“I don’t want to talk to that doctor, Mommy,” you say outside, the air tasting like wood shavings. She had been waiting in the room just outside the office and you came out crying, hiding behind her legs.
She sighs and ushers you into the car. “Okay, honey, we don’t have to go back there.”
Harwood Heights, Ill., 1993
It’s your first funeral for someone who meant something to you. This is your Gramma, your second mother, the woman with the long nails who would tickle you, the woman who made ‘hot dish’ (tomatoes, beef, macaroni noodles, onions) and who let you sit in her favorite chair with her while watching “The Love Boat.”
Someone sings “Amazing Grace” and you run into the bathroom, throwing yourself on the cold floor and sob.
You’re taken to your third therapist.
At home, you are in the shower and angry. Death. Sadness. Loss. You hit the inside of your wrist and this is when it all begins. If your body was a map, it would start with Indiana, on the inside of your wrist: the hitting, the banging. It feels good. You keep doing it until it starts to pulse and ache. It all starts here.
High School, Park Ridge, Ill., 1995
You’ve graduated to fingernails and knives. You keep a knife in the back of your nightstand wrapped in a paper towel. It has blood stains on it from previous slices. You never slice the right way – to start the process of dying – you always do it to punish yourself. You don’t have a vocabulary for anger yet.
In high school, you are one of the stars of the theatre department. The attention is addictive. In the mornings, you sit on the black marble benches by the performing arts wing and cry. Friends come over and huddle around you.
“What’s wrong?” they ask.
You hiccup. “I don’t know. I just want to die.”
They back up as if you have a disease. “You shouldn’t say that,” one says.
You spend math class sitting in the back, holding the pointy edge of your compass, drawing on your arm – etching words like “HELP” into your skin.
Meanwhile, you go to play rehearsal, cry in the dressing room, go on stage and perform wonderfully.
You idolize your theatre director; you want him to be your father. You want him to be your mother. During drama class, you burn your gaze into him, wishing he would see that you are different, you are special. You just want to be noticed.
But nothing’s ever enough. You get leads in plays, applause, red and pink carnations, and you still cry yourself to sleep with the knife pressed against your arm. You swallow “measly” amounts of aspirin: whatever it says not to do. Do not take more than eight tablets in a 24-hour period. You take nine. Just to see.
College, Beloit, Wis., 1996-1997
Just to see, you take nineteen pills. An assortment of Prozac, Ibuprofen and Tylenol PM. It’s the nighttime medicine that ruins it. You have to perform in “Cabaret” that night. You stumble across the campus, fall foliage breathtaking if you only can see it. Everything is blurry. The single bird following you to the theatre multiplies to ten and you think they are chasing you, just as you chase your own thoughts. Nothing is coherent. You wander into the makeup room and begin to cry. You can’t believe what you’ve done. Can’t see straight. Can’t talk. You manage to tell a castmate what you’ve done and she tells the director who calls the assistant dean of students. You miss the performance (anyone can replace a chorus member) and spend the evening in the dressing room convincing the dean you aren’t going to kill yourself, that you will just go home and sleep. You are an actress and you are convincing. Right now you just want to sleep, for everyone to leave you alone. The dean nods and leaves you in the dressing room, tells one of your castmates to walk you home after the play.
Later that night, the pills are swirling in your stomach and you fear you will be sick. You seek out your resident assistant and she calls the hospital, not sure what to do. Bring her in, they say. And she does.
You lie in the bed behind the cream curtain. Mother and your step-father drive up from Chicago.
“Don’t ever do this to your mother again,” he hisses.
Back at the dorm, Mom sleeps on the floor while you sleep in your bunk. Just like old times, you think. Falling asleep with Mommy. You feel safe, happy, yet you feel this unmistakable anger, this empty need, an arm reaching out for air. It stems from when you were little: her inattentiveness, her preoccupation with work, Mama, mama, listen to me, high heels walking out the door in the morning before you rose out of bed. It gets so mixed-up – this love and hate.
Your psychologist (number nine) and your psychiatrist (number four) decide you have major depressive disorder. You feel more like your bipolar roommate, except without the highs. The doctors at Mercy General, where you are voluntarily admitted for a week, say, “yes, major depressive disorder.” You feel more than major, you feel severe. Bottomless. Your arms show red, screaming lines. You’ve moved to your breasts, your thighs. Bottomless.
Freedom, Maine, May through August, 2000
You now work at a summer camp teaching creative writing and theatre. Being away from home does not agree with you, as you spend every night on the payphone talking to Mom.
“I want to come home,” you cry.
“I know you do. But you’ve got to do this, Lisa. You’ve got to prove to yourself you can do this.”
Her voice sounds like far away honey and sugar. You miss its sweetness. “I’m scared I’m going to fall apart. I cry almost every night and I know the other counselors hear me. It’s still orientation week and I’m a mess. What’s it going to be like when the kids get here?”
“Stop. Have faith in yourself,” she says firmly.
You sniffle and say, “Okay. Bye.” You walk back to your cabin with the bats singing in the sky.
You knew this would happen. It’s like it was written in the book of your life: fantastic opportunity messed up by over-emotional girl who can’t yet become a woman. You fall in what you think is love with the foreign counselor, the one from Liverpool. He says, “I’m sorry, but no.” You get angry and because you never get angry, you release it onto yourself. The little girls you mentor in writing become dolls you play with. They no longer seem real. All your successes this summer fall like dead birds from the sky.
Toward the end of the summer, though, you and your doomed love are friends. You still start to fall apart. You skip lunch and cry up in the cabin, alone; no matter that any one of your ten-year-old campers might come up there and see you. You sob and you whack your wrists against the wooden beams of the bunk beds. Whack, whack. You develop bruises you never intend anyone to see. You use your craft scissors and slice up your arm, then desperately try to go through your laundry to find long-sleeved shirts. Then it happens. Your junior counselor, sixteen-years-old, walks in on you during one of your emotional thunderstorms and sees your arms. Her eyes go wide as quarters and she runs out. You run to the door but feel trapped in the cabin. She’s going to tell the owners. And yes, you are called to the house and the wife says, “We just want you to be safe” and you say, “Okay, I’ll leave early. I’m so sorry,” crying, sobbing into her hippie skirt. You wanted her to be your mother. You wanted her husband to be your father. “I’m so sorry. The kids can’t see me like this.” And so they hide you in the staff cabin until your bags can be packed and the van takes you down the driveway toward the Portland airport.
When you arrive at the house in Harwood Heights, you collapse on the grass and cry.
Berwyn, Ill.,September, 2000
You’ve been placed in a month-long inpatient hospital. The program is specifically geared toward people who self-injure. It’s like mental health boot camp. The counselors and nurses are tough on you, you who are used to being coddled and placated. You have assignments; you can’t stay in your room alone because that would be antisocial and they want you to learn healthy social habits. They even tell you not to write in your journal so much. You set your book aside and wander into the day room. After week two, it quickly feels like a second home. You open up in group therapy; you try your best to dive into your psychological make-up to see what caused this. A lot has to do with Mom, a lot has to do with Dad, a lot has to do with wanting attention that was never given to you, care that wasn’t given to you at a young age when you most needed it. You walk out on day thirty and are afraid to enter the real world, having been cloistered within these walls, but you buy a ring with a carved rose to commemorate the occasion and Mom picks you up in the visitor’s lot. You get a new kitten and you play mother for a while until you return to school.
Madison, Wis., April, 2004
Dr. Mabey is a godsend. He understands you better than any other psychiatrist on your long list of psychiatrists. He slants toward eastern religion techniques such as meditation and body relaxation and you like this because you do, too. Over ten years, you’ve been on and off at least 20 different anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety medications. None has helped.
One day during a regular session, Dr. Mabey gets out a thick text and begins paging through it like a kid with a new Hardy Boys book.
“What?” you ask.
“I think — Yes, here it is. Lisa, you may be mixed bipolar.”
Your ears perk up.
“Mixed bipolar is when you don’t have the highs but you experience the lows and the lower than lows. I think we’ve missed this all along. I’m going to prescribe to you what I would a bipolar patient and see if that helps any.”
You are ecstatic. You are put on Lithium. It helps for a couple of months, then stops. Then it is Depakote. Doesn’t work. Then Lamictal. Doesn’t work. You return to him with tears in your eyes, pleading, help me, help me.
Madison, Wis., July, 2006
Mother Bear is sick. She has lung and brain cancer. Your world is falling apart. I’m going to kill myself if Mom dies. You can’t imagine life without her. In your adult life, she has been your rock, your best friend, the one you call first for advice. There is no place for you in a motherless world. Now she’s foggy and can’t stand on her own. You write furious poems about her condition; it’s the only thing that keeps you sane, but one day you run out of words and lay in bed, unable to move.
You call Dr. Mabey, desperate: “I have to go into the hospital.”
“You know there aren’t really any therapists there, per se; they’ll only look at your medication.”
“That’s what I want,” you say, sobs just under the blanket of your speech. “I’ve been on these meds for so long, I don’t think they’re working anymore. I can’t get up, I can’t eat, I can’t drive, I can’t do anything. I’m breaking down at work, I want to kill myself. If I don’t get in this hospital, it’s the last straw.”
“Okay. I’ll get you in.”
And you are in. The resident psychiatrist puts you on Cymbalta, a new drug, and in two days you already feel a difference. The world has more color; you can get out of bed and walk around with somewhat of a smile on your face. It’s amazing. Mom’s illness is still on the forefront of your brain as is how to go back to work and not break down every day, but you feel lighter. It’s a start.
After the hospital, you return to work and, yes, it is still hard. But, in other areas of life, things seem better. Could this be the magic pill? No other medication has made you feel this way. You begin to feel more confident about your ability to live after your mother passes – maybe – and you try to make the most of your visits with her.
You seek help through spirituality. You learn about positive thinking, something you once thought you could never acquire. You learn you have the power to make changes in your life. There seems to be a secret to life out there and you want to know what it is. For the first time in your life, you think you’ll live long enough to actually find it.
Madison, Wis., 1:35 a.m. November 6, 2006
The telephone rings. You fall out of bed and race to it. “Hello?” The taste in your mouth is oily and stale.
“Be strong.” It’s your step-father. His voice cracks. “Be strong,” he repeats.
“No!” you yell into the phone. You know what he means, but it’s not true. “No!”
It can’t be true.
“Your mother’s gone.” This loud, ex-Chicago homicide cop says this quietly.
“No!” You collapse onto the floor beside your bed and your lungs feel tight, like they can’t hold this information. Your body can’t hold this knowledge.
You say some words, he says some words, words you won’t remember later, and you hang up the phone. And the first thing you do isn’t to flee into the kitchen and stab yourself with a steak knife. Or run into the bathroom and swallow all the pills in the cabinet. Or hurry outside in front of the first car that passes your lonely apartment. The first thing you do is set a picture of your mother on your make-shift altar and light candles all around it. You are frantic about these candles. Your hands shake as the wicks light up like tiny torches. You cry, but not hysterically. You cry as the bereaved do. You do not have the impulse to scratch or bang your wrists. You sit in front of her picture and cry. You cry like any normal daughter who loves her mother with every ounce of her being. These are not bipolar tears. You shed all labels except one which you will carry with you for a long time: grief. It’s a molasses-type grief; it weighs you down, but it does not kill you.
There is no end to this. You move forward every day and you take two steps back every other day. You know this affliction will stay with you forever; it just matters now what you do with your life.
You crawl into bed. You hug yourself around the middle. You want to be your own father. You want to be your own mother. You want to be your own savior. You want yourself to live.
Madison, Wis., April, 2006
And you are. And you will be. And you do.