The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, BrainStorm: From Broken to Blessed on the Bipolar Spectrum.
Jim Head was the anti-professor—young, cool, charismatic and infamous on campus. In 1981, when I took his course “Earth, Moon and Mars” (we called it, “Earth, Wind and Fire” after the famous band at the time) he was known as the geologist who had trained the NASA astronauts who walked on the moon. He had real moon rocks, which he’d been given as souvenirs by his buddies, on display in his office.
In Jim’s class, we learned equations for gravity and mass that explained why the Earth was able to retain its atmosphere and water, one of the essential conditions that allowed life to emerge on this planet. The moon, by contrast, did not have enough mass for its gravitational pull to retain atmosphere and thus was not hospitable to life. Jim showed us dramatic movies taken on the moon, in black, white and gray – no life there. By contrast we then viewed films of Earth from a distance and also up close – waterfalls, mountains, rivers, deserts, people in all their diversity, cities, farms, African plains, a desert sky. The color and majesty of life on our small blue planet overwhelmed me with awe. I remember thinking, despite the logic of the mathematics and science we’d learned, that this was all simply, exquisitely Divine. Call it what you like, G-d, Nature, Spirit, Creation, there is a force of beauty and infinite imagination that gifts us with life, with our lives.
This sense of gratitude and awe is what stays powerfully alive and present in me, having emerged, like the proverbial phoenix rising, from the ashes of depression. As I’ve shared, the word “depression” does not begin to capture the experience. It’s more like that barren moon. The conditions for vitality are absent. Life cannot reside there.
By contrast, from the (winged) perspective of the phoenix, look at the miracle of life. This is not a cliché for me. This is real. The fact that I breathe, that I walk, that I make love, that I see color, that I laugh, that I articulate political views, that I love my children passionately, that I can recall the words to write this paragraph, that I revel in the woods with friends, that I can stretch my body and feel the muscles, that I plant seeds with my kids and then harvest the spinach and figure out how to make a spinach salad with tomatoes and goat cheese and mandarin oranges, that I actually like to wash and dry the dishes because now I can. These ordinary things are anything but ordinary. I know that every moment I have breath and brain is a gift. All of creation is a miracle.
This is the gift of this disease. To be so fully cognizant of the miracle of our lives, moment to moment. To be blessed with gratitude and praise for creation. To offer that blessing to those we love. It is a generous perspective that comes from a place of having known utter defeat. When you return from that hell, somehow intact, life is sweet.
I would never wish this disease on anyone, as the pain is too intense and the risk of ruin too great. I pray every day that my children got their father’s gene on this one and will never suffer the betrayal of their brains. I pray every day that my family legacy of bipolar ends with me.
Yet, there are other gifts from having lived through the experience. I was a star kid who had everything going and sailed through life until age twenty-one. I didn’t comprehend people who struggled and didn’t have much patience for them. Now compassion reigns. I have been there, sister. I know, I know. I will not judge an addict again; I couldn’t stop picking my bloody fingers even when it broke my kids’ hearts to see me doing it. Patience with other people’s breakdowns is pretty long, too. Behavior I would have judged harshly as irresponsible or unreliable before, I understand. I couldn’t return phone calls or e-mails for months. Couldn’t do my chores around the house. Couldn’t show up with food or drink to a gathering. Couldn’t be there for friends in need. So if you blow it one day, I’m going to figure you’ve got some challenge going on in your life that I don’t know about. And I’ll cut you some slack. Because I get it, I’ve been there.