Recognizing my illness, I lost friends but I gained myself
“(My good fortune is not that I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever.) My good fortune lies in having found my life.”—Elyn R. Saks, from The Center Cannot Hold.
As part of my recovery from a nasty manic episode, I have been spending time with an elderly couple from church. They are lovely people and the woman, Sally, has Alzheimer’s Disease. I spend two evenings a week with Sally and her husband, Aubry, eating supper, going for walks, and listening to Aubry’s reminiscences about his life with Sally. He tells stories about her that he had learned from her family and friends along the way.
In her earlier days, Sally was a bookworm turned research librarian. She was also a forthright woman who became a community activist. She had a keen wit and a sharp tongue. She was known more for her intellect than her domestic skills. She “wore” her braininess proudly. Now, however, Sally’s brain is her worst enemy. It is in the process of slowly destroying her and there is nothing that can be done about it.
Recently, as I was thinking about Sally’s relationship with her brain, I remembered something I used to ponder concerning myself. Seventeen years ago I was suffering through a serious depressive episode, one that made me realize that I probably needed to get help. I hadn’t been able to identify such spells as depressive in the past. I took my moods for granted as did those around me. But this time I looked back and made sense of the fact that I had been experiencing such states of sadness and despondency since I was about eight years old (I was then 28). The dark moods went away but always came back more intensely and for longer periods of time than before. In my mind, suicide had become an option.
I, too, had always been known more for my intellect than anything else. I was a child genius who enjoyed the benefits of a classical education and earned a Ph.D. in English. I am a former university professor and award-winning public radio journalist. I, like Sally used to, “wear my brain” proudly. During the aforementioned depressive episode, however, I pondered the irony that while my brain was my dearest friend, it could annihilate me if given the chance. Over the years I had stopped thinking about this as much because the day-to-day reality of living with bipolar disorder tends to take away the luxury of existential ruminations. Sally’s struggle, however, has again brought this awareness about myself to the forefront of my mind.
A while back, Sally’s son-in-law asked me how I knew Sally and for how long. I told him that I had met her at church a couple of months previously. He responded “Oh, so you never knew Sally.” I replied, “She is still Sally.” I think I made him a bit uncomfortable with this statement. His discomfort reinforced an awareness that the people who knew Sally before the onset of what Aubry calls her “condition,” seem to be rather unsettled by her as she is now. I have come to the conclusion that this is because they have memories of Sally to compare her with as she is now. Sally, now is incapable of being that woman anymore—the woman who among other things, was devoted to fighting for the rights of others.
Again, this unsettled me, because there was a time when I was well loved, admired and considered successful. People wanted to be around me, to get to know me, to spend time with me. My family in particular, (my mood changes excepted), saw me as the woman who could do anything I had set my mind to do, and I could do it all extremely well with a minimum of effort. I was, a golden girl, lovely, bright, sunny, smart and witty. When I finally did start seeing professionals during that depressive episode 17 years ago, the people who knew me had to face the fact that I was in certain ways, a broken person compared to the vision of loveliness that they had pegged me as being for so long. I have, sadly, lost many friends because of my condition. And my family struggles along with me in light of it.
I am, however, much more at peace with myself these days. I have come to understand that everyone changes and grows, mental illness or not, Alzheimer’s or not. Sally cannot win the battle she is engaged in with her brain. It will kill her. I only hope for those who know her that it won’t be too soon. I, however, stand a fighting chance in my own struggle with bipolar disorder. It is one battle I intend on winning.