I am in Paris, sitting on a bench, inside the Musée de l’ Orangerie, surrounded by Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. They wrap all the way around the enormous room. It feels like I am in a large garden, on the banks of a vibrant pool of light and shadows and, of course, flowers.
In this masterpiece Monet plays upon the temporal beauty of nature and the idea of what is real and what is illusion.
Are the colors in the water actually the reflection of the clouds in the sky? At what point does the willow tree dip into the pond? What is sky and what is water? Mac, Lewis and I each share our interpretations, none of us really agreeing.
I feel okay about the uncertainty. Clouds, sky, water – we all see them differently, I think. I feel at peace sitting here beside my son, meditating on the colors, and absorbing the tranquil quality of the mural around me.
My mind drifts away from the placid lilies, down into the dark waters of a traumatic event that happened six years ago. When I abruptly discovered I had bipolar disorder.
I was almost fifty years old and I had no idea. With no forewarning, no apparent trigger, I had a manic episode. It felt like my mind had broken open and I started hallucinating. It lasted for about six hours, but my life has not been the same since.
You can probably tell by now that I lean more toward the depressive side of the spectrum. Since I was about thirteen years old I have fought the monster that is depression. But I had no clue that I had this other disease, this bipolar thing.
The hardest thing about the whole episode was the massive hit to my self-esteem. I questioned everything I believed was true about myself. I felt like I had become a different person overnight – defective, fragile, sick.
As if I couldn’t trust my damaged brain. Like a book torn in half, I saw no way to glue the narrative back together. Everything was blank. Where once my timeline was a rich story with elaborate pictures, now there was a flat, white, empty page.
And the other part was the actual pain. It physically hurts to have a mental illness. Like any part of your body, your brain/psyche feels pain too. I remember those first few days at home after being in the hospital, how dark everything was.
Except the problem wasn’t anything I could see, like a fractured arm, it was like being trapped inside a tunnel not knowing where the light would come from.
Mental illness is like that, you are chained to the hurt inside a twisted fun-house of mirrors. Your mind isn’t strong enough to interpret its own pain, but it’s the only thing you have.
You try to understand the disease process but it eludes you, yet you can’t escape your own awareness. A brain trying to fix a brain when both are in shadows.You try so hard to make sense of your mind when that part of you just isn’t capable.
At night I would sob into my husband’s arms as we lay in bed. And I would ask him, Am I getting better? and he would say, I think you’re getting better. Because I couldn’t see it. I was locked into a solitary prism. And the next night I would ask him the same question, all over again. And the next night and the next.
I was ashamed. I didn’t want the kids to think I was weak. I wanted to be strong and instead I felt guilty for being sick. And I exhausted myself trying to figure things out, attempting to make sense of this puzzle that was my brain.
Of course I was angry and felt betrayed. Anyone who has been in a hospital knows how vulnerable and powerless the experience can be. I was reduced to being only a defective brain for two days. I had to trust the people around me who struggled with my diagnosis and who were basically throwing meds at me, somewhat trial and error.
Because unlike many other physical illnesses, mental issues are still not really understood.
It has taken a long time. Healing just does. And I had to rely on my partner to protect me and look out for me. I found out who my friends were when they sat with me for hours and listened to my story. And they loved me even though I had a mental illness that was difficult to understand. And they kept calling me up months later, making sure I was doing okay. And they treated me the same.
I’ve had to avoid people who are unknowingly manic and not taking care of themselves. Even family members have had difficulty getting it, they expect me to be the same person now that the traumatic event is over and done with. I know they just want me to be the old me. I know they are afraid.
It has taken a long time to feel like myself again. But I know I am a different person now. I am more compassionate. I walk through the world knowing that the people who walk beside me are probably suffering too. They might be hiding in the shame of a mental illness like me. We just haven’t gotten to the point where we can come together and talk about our pain.
Yet I also feel stronger, like there is an opening, a lighter space inside of me. And the heavy weight of a “serious” diagnosis has forced me to let things go and trust in the universe.
The dark, traumatic event illustrated to me just how deep things go. And I have to rely on faith that I will float back up to the surface.
During this time, my husband was pre-surgery for his decrepit ankle, in the throes of severe chronic pain. And we talked a lot about our mutual pain, how it was different and how it was similar.
For me, my visit to the hospital wasn’t an occasion for flowers or cards. No one knew and it wasn’t an illness I could talk openly about. But everyone could see my husband walking with his cane, and people asked him all the time about how he was doing. Yet my infirmity was invisible, no one asked about me.
But we both shared the experience of having those around us want us to get better, even desperately need us to get better. Because sick people are supposed to fight and overcome their problems and the sooner the better. And they have to stay positive, for God’s sake. Being around a chronically ill person is not an easy situation.
But the mind heals. Slowly and invisibly, I started to get stronger. I learned that no matter how bad things get, if you rest and take care of yourself, things start to feel better.
Being compassionate towards yourself is the most effective medicine there is. And now when I start to get down on myself, I go back to that simple practice. I know I have to slow down and take care of the vulnerable parts of me.
And I have felt an unexpected tenderness for the me inside of the illness. I began to realize how hard everyday things in my life had become, how I had struggled to keep everything together.
How deeply I had wanted to be loved and understood, but knowing I was different.
How hard I had tried to put a smile on things, to cover, simply wanting to be brave. There was a lot of pain in trying to fit myself into a manageable box, attempting to be like everybody else. It cost me a lot.
People mean well. But one problem with telling them you have a mental illness is that they forever see you in that light. Whatever you say or do is suspiciously cast in the shadow of bipolar. They sometimes want to paint the mental illness all over everything. It’s another label or box to put you in. But honestly, that probably would have happened anyway.
My psychiatrist and some of my friends have tried to talk me out of being too public with all of this.They have wanted to protect me and they don’t think I owe this piece of myself to anyone. And up until this past year, I agreed.
The reason I’m talking about this now is because I feel that I am in a safe place here. And because of the Water Lilies.
Crazy, I know. But you know how I am about art. You see, when I meditated on them I saw myself in the lipid pools. I could see the shimmering madness of light and the thick dark corners of the canvas where Monet painted the cool shade of the trees. And the spaces where it looked so black it was hard to imagine anything alive there at all.
Monet’s dark shadows were my own dark places. And I was good with all of it. It made sense to me in a very real way.
Each of us is living in a world of shadow and illusion and intense color and swallowing blackness. And what is real to me might be something you can’t even see at all. Your view of the universe is something I can only try to see along with you. It’s astounding that any of us can share a common vista at all.
But each of us is part of the mural. We are aspects of the pond that can’t be captured on the page. The brushstrokes that paint up higher and skirt down lower than the artist can even control.
And I think maybe we owe each other the opening for telling our stories, being honest, revealing the dark places that we think are unloveable.
Because if we do, we might actually heal. And the paralyzing fear of being exposed will change into something lighter that takes up less space in our hearts. So there can be more room for other things, like empathy and acceptance and laughter.
And an all-encompassing, unconditional love for our whole being.
I believe that I fit in here on the chiaroscuro canvas like everyone else, and that my mind is fundamentally whole and beautiful. And it is only one reflected part of my own image, even if a little bent and somewhat fractured.
So I’m embracing my body, my brain, my heart – all the scary, messy bits of me. They sort of glimmer and reflect off of one another like some kind of impressionistic work of art.
This is my bipolar reflection, a story of me. It’s just one story I choose to tell today. I could have cast it differently, with more details and medical information. But what story is more important or more real?
Who am I really? What is reality, what is illusion? Do you see me differently now that you know this piece?
Yes, these are just piece of me.
These are my brushstrokes for today. Tomorrow, or even in a few hours, the light will have changed and it will all be different. I will be different and so will you.
The artists and the poets understand this transience.
And I look to them for inspiration on how to express myself in the days I have left. I don’t want to be paralyzed by what other people think of me. Skimming the surface, avoiding the tough spots, doesn’t feel very good anymore.
I can’t hate the parts of me that scare me. They are embedded in my DNA.
In the same way, the artist reveals moments that are ugly and dark, as well as mystical and transformative, all mixed together in the mess.
I just want a taste of that kind of courage.
And today, Monet’s painting is like a balm, an intimate gesture.
I know I am meant to be here, to feel the restorative nature of the lilies, and experience their calming embrace.
So I sit and simply accept the gift. And feel the love and support from Mac and my son and daughter. And maybe even from you.
And everything is coming clear around me. And I’m just so grateful that, even though it’s late in the day, I’m beginning to appreciate who I am. And even though I might not have sketched it out exactly this way, things are coming together all right for me.
My writing is helping me discover the connections all around me, if I choose to look. And so today, I choose Monet’s masterwork, the Water Lilies, saturated with heavenly color and emotion, practically dripping off the wall.
And sitting here on the bench, in my minds-eye, I can see a reflection of myself in the pond. Deep, mysterious, vibrant. And stubbornly staying afloat in the swirling waters.
And I actually kind of love this interpretation of me.
And it strikes me that each of us has the opportunity to savor the otherworldly beauty of a world transcendent beyond our knowing.
And that we can come face to face with our own image, without fear. And we can see the strong, uniquely complex beings looking back at us in the shimmering mirror.
And see that we are whole, we are perfect, and we are loved, for exactly who we are.