The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, BrainStorm: From Broken to Blessed on the Bipolar Spectrum.
Joe and I had heard that the film The Soloist had stellar performances by Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., and since we had the rare treat of a Saturday night with a babysitter, we made a spontaneous choice to go see the movie. It was an early spring night with a full moon on the rise and all possibility in the air. We did not know anything about the plot of the film.
Downey Jr. plays the journalist Steven Lopez, who stumbles onto Jamie Foxx’s character, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. Ayers is sitting on a downtown Los Angeles bench beneath a statue of Beethoven, mumbling unintelligibly at high speed about his love of music while playing an intoxicating melody on his two-string violin.
Ayers is homeless and drives a shopping cart full of junk. From the moment we meet Ayers on screen I feel my heartbeat quicken. I’m awash in tears as his story unfolds. And convulsions of sobs come when we witness the moment his disease attacks his brain. At about age twenty, he is playing cello in the Julliard Orchestra with great joy and abandon, and deep connection with his colleagues. The joy in his inner being is palpable, and I hold my breath, intuiting the inevitability of what happens next. Indeed, in the next scene, playing the same cello in the same orchestra, he’s suddenly attacked by a slew of voices, and is struck by overwhelming confusion. Inexplicably, he can’t remember how to move the bow across the strings. Then we see him at home in his apartment, disoriented, in the fetal position, flailing, screaming.
I am there, suddenly transported to the age of twenty-one, experiencing the first time my brain betrayed me. Tears stream down my face as I watch Ayers’s demise. This is me, I am at college unable to make sense of the professor’s words, incapable of focusing on any text. Immobilized. Afraid of crowds and stores and friends. Yet craving contact. The bottomless free-fall with no one “on belay.” I cannot give words to how terrifying this is. Like some night-of-the-living-dead horror flick. Only I’m living its cruelty, measured in endless, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, minute by minute, day by day, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, minute by minute time. Eternal damnation. For what cause?
Watching the film, I squeeze Joe’s hand as hard as I can. I am here, Joe is here, and it is now, and I am safe. I am happy. Life is good. Tears are still flowing though. Perhaps for the first time since my recovery, I am feeling the grief of years lost to this disease. Who would I be if it had not struck me down at the tender age of twenty-one? Would I have achieved more fame, more power, more wealth, more glory? Perhaps. All I know is that my life now is sweet, and I have earned a heart of compassion that a life of victory upon victory would not likely have given me.
Outside the theatre now, I’m still shaking and crying. Yet the moon is full and I see its glory. Lilacs, my favorite flower, are at their peak and I stop to inhale their scent, sensing this will help ground me in the present. I am intoxicated by the smell. I feel Joe’s hand in mine and let the love open my heart. It’s true. I am OK. My brain is working; I can see, feel and sense these gifts. I could easily have been the homeless, “mentally ill” person in the film. But I’m lucky. I have survived. I’m a survivor.
When we arrive home, the kids are asleep. It’s the eve before Mother’s Day, and I’m aware of how blessed I am to be the mother of these two magnificent souls. I kiss their heads, absorbing the perfection of this moment. I can feel this love, I’m alive and I’m OK.
In the film, a wise therapist explains to Steve Lopez that Lopez might never be able to cure Ayers but that friendship alone has been known to shift a victim’s brain biochemistry. “Just show up,” the therapist says. I am still shaking, and look into Joe’s chocolate brown eyes. My friend who showed up, day after day.
I have only one word for Joe tonight.