I’m tapping out this article from the waiting room in my psychiatrist’s office. Okay, to be totally honest, It’s the waiting room in the psychiatric wing at the local hospital, but I’m fine. Really, I’m fine. I’m just grabbing another script for Lamictal, which is what I take to treat bipolar disorder.
We have this scary idea of what constitutes mental illness, and usually It’s ugly or strange. Say the words ?mentally ill,? and most of the time we expect to see someone like the bedraggled homeless woman who punched me when I gave her a few dollars at 18th and M in Washington, DC. Or we envision Russell Crowe playing the brilliant but mumbling professor from A Beautiful Mind.
I’m sort of relieved that the popular show Homeland has drawn a more accurate picture of what someone with bipolar disorder looks like. Carrie Mathison is a high-powered CIA analyst who fights terrorists and brings a brilliant, imaginative mind to bear, solving problems that bedevil everyone else at the Agency. She even solves cases when She’s in the middle of a full-blown manic episode. She’s powerful. She rocks. And She’s mentally ill.
Bipolar disorder doesn’t look scary all the time in ordinary life, either. Not for me, at least. Usually It’s a little bit of a hassle, and sometimes It’s downright funny. Like the time I took all three kids toy shopping, and instead of saying a robotic ?No, no, no? to everything, I said ?Yes.? I said yes to Lego. I said yes to Barbies. I even said yes to Lego plus Barbies, which is pretty much what the pink Lego are: a girly-girl interpretation of a building toy. And then I started saying yes to things the kids hadn’t even asked for, like a remote Hummer, and a toy helicopter, and even one of those racing red rideabouts that the neighbours? kids kept driving through my flower garden. Oh, and the neighbour’s kids? I said yes to toys for them, too.
I said yes so many times, and with such enthusiasm, that my middle child, the responsible one, and thank God I have one, actually put his hand on my arm.
?Hey, Mom? Are you sure you really . . . we’re supposed to get all of that??
I smiled at my son, who was eight at the time. He looked just like my husband when he was worried. Vertical lines ran up and down his forehead, and even as he cast a forlorn gaze at the five large, brightly-coloured Lego packages stacked in one of the carts I was pushing, he added, ?Do you really think Dad will be okay with this??
And as I stood there in the bicycle aisle, I realized that we didn’t need to buy helmets for all the children at the local elementary school. And then I started to shake a little, because just a few minutes ago I’d been overcome by this really generous, seemingly sensible wish to do just that. And even with a law degree from one of the best universities in the country, I’d almost spent thousands of dollars that we didn’t have?on toys. Toys for more than just my family.
I got very quiet. I was trying so hard not to cry, not to burst into tears of shame. I realized, as I slowly returned the humongous stack of items to the shelves, that I’d needed an eight-year-old to bring me back from the ledge of a manic shopping episode.
This was one of my first episodes with the manic side of bipolar disorder. No one got hurt. I didn’t shred the family’s credit. I didn’t drink or get high, or wander off to Vegas for a few days. I suppose that I could and would do those things, but It’s why I take my meds, get plenty of sleep, and see my therapist regularly.
This is the other side of what mental illness can look like. we’re your neighbours, your mothers, your sisters, and your wives. And often the worst thing we’ll ever do is try to play Manic Santa in the suburbs.