To know when you need to join in: that is the secret of your solitude: just as the art of true interactions with others is to let yourself fall away from high words into a single common melody.”
I’ve been thinking about my brother and how I wrote that he would disappear from our family at various times.
It’s true, months would go by. And after he left home to go into the Navy, that was when it really started.
His absence in my life.
Months became years. He was just gone. Not in a way that felt like he was angry at me or resentful about something or that he didn’t care.
I knew he cared.
I tried not to judge him. He was so damn lovable and easy to forgive. But every now and then it would bother me.
Wasn’t he curious about our kids? How hard was it to send a birthday card? Didn’t he know that you have to stay in touch to be close?
But now I understand – he was a lot like me.
I too have serious intentions to connect with my family and friends, to nurture the relationships. I wish I was the person who calls faithfully every Sunday night, rain or shine.
But I am not.
The best I can do these days is texting a coffee cup emoji with my sister every morning – a ritual that I hold dear.
It’s just that the tangled knot of my mood disorder can get in my way. Sometimes it’s just easier to lay low.
It’s part of the condition. Bipolar II depression can make people feel vulnerable, often too tired or down or self-conscious to deal with the outside world.
And even when you’re feeling OK, it seems like a lot to try to catch up with others. Life has moved on – people wonder where have you been?
It’s weird I know, there are odd things about this life.
Like being triggered. It’s an overused word, but it is accurate.
I can get whipped up about small things that people say and do. And I have to shy away from people who don’t have healthy boundaries – too much drama.
Through the years I’ve learned that I need to shield myself from insensitive people, highly critical and competitive people.
But luckily I have friends I can trust who take me back into their lives without question. They are my bedrock.
They know that sometimes I need to check out for awhile, but that eventually I will come up for air.
I was at a party last month and mingled in the kitchen with a woman I’d never met. After some small talk she told me that two years ago she had fallen in her bathroom and sustained a traumatic brain injury.
She had been experiencing severe depression, migraines and forgetfulness, a foggy brain – all while raising two small boys.
She said that people looked at her and assumed she was back to “normal” now. And she wondered to herself, how would you know? You can’t see inside my brain.
Inside she felt like her identity was fragmented, and she was barely functioning while people around her were ready for her to resume life as usual.
She had good days and very, very bad days. Her moods were erratic, she had terrible rage attacks for no reason.
She had to quit her job. And she wondered when, or even if, her brain would heal and she’d be completely well, and be something like her old self again. Doctors had no answers.
Two impressions: first, I found it bracing and honest the way she led our conversation with such honesty – the real her.
And second, it struck me how similar our two very dissimilar conditions were.
We are tender and vulnerable and we struggle unfairly. And it’s like a dirty secret we have to hide at the same time we are screaming inside.
We want the world to see us without shaming or stigmatizing.
And if it seems like I dwell on all of this bipolar stuff, sometimes I do.
But I’ve written over 100 posts and only a few have been dedicated to my diagnosis. And yet, what a large chunk of my life it is.
But it’s still the sweetest life I know. I know how lucky I am.
I don’t need to talk about it all the time – I don’t lead with it. But if you have questions I can point you to some resources. Websites and YouTube videos have been extremely helpful for me.
They reinforce the fact that I’m okay the way I am. That I’m not someone who’s just not trying hard enough. I was born with this physiological (genetic) condition.
I think we’re all walking around with this darkness inside of us, shadows that inhabit the spaces in our minds, insecurities, and we have a core need to translate what’s going on up there.
Love the people in your life who have mental illness wholeheartedly, by really trying to understand what our challenges are and how the world is for us.
And if it’s just too hard to wrap your mind around, just don’t get too mad or frustrated with us.
Appreciate the time we spend together all the more for its fragility.
Since my brother’s death, these days I don’t dwell on the past absences, I savor the times we had. He filled our lives with a lot of joy – big laughs, boat rides for the kids, and the rough and tumble antics that were his signature.
He’s taught me that it isn’t about how much but how well we love one another.
Ours was that weird kind of relationship that comes in fits and starts but now I know it doesn’t matter, it was its own brand of intimacy – uneven and imperfect, but based on something we’d forged together.
So that’s a long winded explanation of why I might not get back to you when you text or call or e-mail me. I’m probably preoccupied with staying healthy, or maybe I’m a bit overwhelmed that day.
But eventually I will, because you are my friend and I know that you understand, or that you’re trying anyway.
Intimacy is a challenge no matter who we are, but I believe that by being honest about ourselves, our struggles and secrets, it might pave a way for us to have – as Rilke writes – that rare and true melody of interaction between us.
Burning Man sculpture, “Love” – by Ukranian artist Alexander Milov