My wife recently took me and my daughter to an event called This Is My Brave, which is a story telling event like The Moth except on the theme of mental illness. I didn’t plan to go, my wife sort of sprung it on me. I love stories and I love telling stories so I was pleased to join her. I wondered if it might be the kind of thing I could participate in in the future. Primarily, we went to support a young woman with schizophrenia whom we’ve know since she was a child.
At first I was analytical. Couldn’t I do a better job than that dude or this lady? I should be up there, but then a marvelous thing happened which took me out of my ego-filled head and into my gut. An older woman headed for a guitar on a lower stage. It took her a good three minutes to get ready. She was like a human sloth. She looked to be around 70, but mental illness can prematurely age a person so who knows. She began talking about bipolar and all of the important artists, writers, and musicians who had it. Then she told the famous story of Winston Churchill, who she said was bipolar, in which he was invited to speak at a graduation. His speech was two words: “Don’t Quit!” She said it several times, each time more enthusiastically than the last. Then she launched directly into some badass guitar strumming. She was transformed from an elderly woman with barely enough dexterity to pick up a guitar, to someone who might be playing late night gigs in local bars.
Her voice was a blend of Joni Mitchel and an operatic soprano. She sang an elaborate, inspiring song of optimism with a refrain of “Don’t Quit!” On the high notes she would lean back and raise her head. It was glorious. I was moved to tears. When she was done, the audience gave her a very enthusiastic applause and she took a stance of triumph, her head pointed dramatically to the balcony and her eyes closed. She held it a good 8 seconds after the applause had died. She was one of my kind. She was living in a different reality than the neuro-normatives in the crowd.
After the show, I looked for her near the stage. Someone was helping her down the steps. When she made it to the floor, I touched her on the shoulder to get her attention. I said, “You made my whole week with your song! Thank you so much!”
“That’s wonderful! I’m so glad.” she said.
“I’m bipolar!” I exclaimed. And there was something so freeing about saying that in an environment which was embracing people with my illness.
“Ah,” she said. “There are so many wonderful contributions to the world from people with bipolar!”
She looked around the old theater in wonder, gesturing. “Artists, philosophers, writers, musicians. We’re important. We MATTER.”
I asked for a hug and she embraced me warmly. As she held me, she patted my back and said, “Yes, yes. So important. Never quit. Never quit.”
My wife had a different experience. She suffers from PTSD because of all of the trauma our kids (who have mental health issues) and I have subjected her to. The last performer had been a woman who had lost her 22-year-old son to a mental health related suicide. We almost lost our son as well. It was a trigger for her. She fled the building as soon as the show was over and I didn’t notice.
I was too stoked. I wanted to meet and thank other performers. When I found her, she was outside on the street corner upset. Upset over the show, but perhaps also that I had not noticed her struggling. I felt bad and tried to demonstrate a little compassion, but I did not want to give up the feeling I was having. My daughter, also bipolar, and I were both very excited. We chattered on about it in the car.
I told my wife that I met the woman who sang “Don’t Quit!”. She said, “She seemed a bit off to me.”
I said, “She’s not off! She bipolar. She’s like me. She’s my kind!” Then I realized something. I’d never really been around my own kind other than my daughter, whom I adore. Why is that? Why are there support groups for people who live with people with mental illness (NAMI) but not one for people living with mental illness? To my knowledge my town does not have that, unless you are admitted to the hospital.
But my wife dismissed me, “You’re not as much like that woman as you think.”
I wondered if she was right. I pass for normal most days. At least I think I do. But I said, “Hun, I’m holding back all the time because I don’t want to scare you. My whole day is pretending to be a normal person.”
In reality, I want to sing down the halls at work. Pick fights. Get personal. Kiss a strange woman in passing. Rant. Stay up all night. Get in a car and drive to San Francisco to see the opera and dance all night.
But I’ve taken on responsibilities which I take seriously. I chose to have a family. I cook and shop for my family. I manage our budget obsessively. I care for my wife. I give her whatever I can give. I direct choir at a church. I’m a software engineer by day. I parent my kids. There’s no room for my natural state. I’m the most compliant bipolar you’ll meet. I do everything the docs tell me to do because I don’t want to lose it all. I almost did. I walked away once. Moved out. Stayed up screwing, drinking, and smoking every night until I was too sick with pneumonia to be any fun. That’s how my wife found me. Spent and dangerously sick.
I don’t think my wife anticipated what this event would mean to me. We had come to support an important person in our lives. It was a good event for showing support for people with mental illness, and that’s what I expected to do. It never occurred to me that I would be the recipient of support. Those of us in the theater with mental illness were the part of the crowd who may have been in the greatest need. For once, it was our party. These were our people.
EDIT: I found a support group! Trying it out tomorrow.