I left Bern and came back home to North Carolina last summer.
You probably think I was crazy to leave Europe. Yeah, I kinda was.
Let’s just say that dealing with a mental illness in a foreign country is a specific kind of challenge. Anyway, I’d been struggling with a pretty bad depression, so I came home to see my psychiatrist and hopefully to adjust my medications.
I felt beat up and bruised, tender and exposed. But I was patient.
I spent long, lazy days running in my neighborhood in the unbearable heat. I messed around in the garden.
I watched endless soccer matches on tv. I cranked the air-conditioning up high on the worst of the sticky, humid nights so I could sleep.
I lay around reading Karl Ove Knausgaärd’s complete works (no wonder I wasn’t getting better).
I observed the shy blue birds coming back to nest in their box. I sat on the porch swing and watched the neighborhood dogs being walked.
I soaked up the feeling of being alone as a kind of ex-pat in my own country.
My son was living at the house temporarily, but his schedule was completely different from mine. He slept in late while I woke up at 6.
He had a robust social life, I didn’t go out at all. He worked freelance, I was glued to my reading chair.
He cooked veggie meals with exotic ingredients and baked gorgeous loaves of sourdough bread for his friends. I baked the old Joy of Cooking peanut butter cookies and tried not to eat them all.
One morning I woke to see the big extension ladder poised against the roof. Damn, I’d forgotten to leave the back door unlocked.
He had climbed up the steep pitched roof and wedged himself through the 2-square-foot window over his bed. Three stories up. At 3 am.
When he woke up the next morning he joked that it was a good thing he hadn’t been more drunk. Hah.
After that I vowed to be more careful with locking up.
There were some wonderful mother-son moments, he’s sweet like that.
A bright bouquet of zinnias from the farmer’s market. A pair of tickets to the US Women’s soccer team for just the two of us. A repaired fence gate, something I’d given up on ever getting done. An invitation to a movie.
But more than any of those things, he gave me unwavering, unobtrusive support.
And it brings me to what I really want to say. And that is this: those of us living with a mental condition don’t want sympathy.
We don’t even need understanding, although that would be awesome. We need simple acceptance.The whole-hearted kind that doesn’t judge you but treats you like normal.
It says I love you because of your brain, not in spite of it.
Because sometimes we feel crazy, we feel insecure and inadequate and numb and guilty and frustrated and depressed. And we put on a mask to hide it.
But last summer none of that mattered and what I thought might look like a failure to friends and family turned out to be a kind of medicine.
I’ll call it grace because it healed me when I wasn’t expecting it. Because when I thought I had to be strong or resume being the usual selfless mom, I could simply slip back under the covers in my own bed.
My son didn’t say a word when I donned my robe right after dinner. He didn’t question why I didn’t call my friends.
He didn’t make me feel less of a person because I was depressed. He didn’t act disappointed or impatient. When I left the house every morning to go running, he encouraged me with no additional commentary.
It was what I truly needed. Someone who accepted me unconditionally and without judgement.
It reinforced the fact that I require people in my life who can forgive me when I can’t always be there for them. People who understand when I can’t show up or call or text. Even when I really want to.
Hell, people who get it that sometimes I’m not myself when I want to be.
And at the end of the summer, when I went back to Switzerland, I was thinking about my son when I was running along the river.
And I thought of him staying out late at night and coming home, locking and unlocking that back door without a thought. Not having to worry about me.
And that time of year in Bern the sky can so often be wet and grey. That afternoon the yellow leaves stuck to the trail and to the soles of my shoes.
The sharp manure smell reminded me that I had missed the entire summer in the Swiss Alps, when the cows are set free to frolic and be real cows.
The best season of all.
And now it’s 2020, as I sift through my thoughts from that time, I’m sad that so much of 2019 got away from me. It sucks. It’s depressing. Once again I wasn’t fully present in my own life because of my damn genetic makeup.
There is a sadness in this bipolar thing that is deeper than an ordinary depression. It is a grief that is excruciatingly aware of what you’re missing. Like you’re two people and you can only sit by and watch your clone have all the fun, living the better life.
It’s like you can glimpse tiny, sparkling moments of everyday life, but, like a snow globe that you shake, the little scene won’t stay pretty, the glitter always goes away.
And I remember running that day in Bern, it was as if something of myself got swept away by the river’s dark current, what I had lost.
What this mental illness has cost me.
And the reality settled that I can never count on being completely well. And that’s a fact I cannot change.
But that day was good.
There was a lifting, a clearness, a sense of wholeness. A feeling of being held gently and swept along by the fresh breeze off the Aåre River. A day I felt like I could run forever.
And I thought about another country, one that is sunny and welcoming.
And a pink house where the back door is always left unlocked. Where there are people who love me. For who I am and even for who I am not. And they hold my pain without judgement.
I know I can’t control the unpredictable nature of this illness – but this house that I have made my home, it is my haven.
It is like my own body, alive and scarred, messed up, needing some fixes, but the foundation’s still strong.
A miraculous thing really.
And today I write the mess down.
I blog to make it real so it doesn’t get swept away within dark, perishable memory – like the leaves in the fickle wind, swept aside like just another season passing. Or like the empty calendar pages flipping through another shitty year.
I want to take note of the difficult parts of my disorder, this house of mine, this well-worn life. I want to document or create something beautiful and real – never perfect, yet uniquely me.
It says hey, I live here.
And when I am well my house will be alive with patio lights and windows open wide, and when I am sick, it will have the shades drawn down gently and maybe a small candle lit inside.
And there will always be the extension ladder, propped against the shed in the yard. It serves as the fulcrum for my tale – a funny but slightly treacherous element that reminds me of the hilarious story this thing called life really is.