Out of the Shadows and Into the Starry Night

“But I could have told you Vincent,

This world was never made for one as beautiful as you.”

               ~Don McLean, “Starry Starry Night”

 

March 30 is the anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s birthday.  It is also (and not coincidentally) Bipolar Awareness Day.

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“The Scream”-Edvard Munch

I grew up in an era where the mentally ill were tucked away in institutions whose empty halls reeked of urine and echoed with the cries of wretched souls hidden within their shadowed cells.  We were told that the man who suffered from  PTSD after the war suffered from “shell shock” and instructed to politely smile when he waved from his hangout by the drug store.  Definitions like “schizophrenia” and “manic depressive” were labels for those who were unseen and unheard.  We avoided those who made us uncomfortable.  We joked about their conditions, as if making a game of their suffering would cause them to fade away.

But as true as the night is dark, dawn slowly spreads its light upon the shadows, illuminating those who have been hidden by ignorance and lies.  We now know that many mental illnesses are merely a misfiring of electrical impulses in the complex jumble of nerves in our brains.  Be it from chemical imbalances, injury or some other cause yet unknown to man, people who suffer from mental illness are not obscurities to be ignored. They are parents. They are sisters and brothers. They are sons. They are daughters.

My daughter Elizabeth is bright and breathtakingly beautiful.  Her eyes are pools of gray elizand turquoise where men lose their souls.  Her laughter is contagious; her gentle hands soothing.   She pens poetic verses that twist my heart until tears trickle down my cheeks.   She owns and operates a barbershop where men wait for hours for her to sculpt their hair and listen to their stories.   Elizabeth- my youngest child- suffers from Bipolar disorder.

During her C section birth, I heard the concern in my obstetrician’s voice as he noted how slender Elizabeth was.  But the pediatrician pronounced her fit, explaining that she was just long and skinny, and indeed, she quickly transformed into a sweet little butterball who was determined to keep up with her older brother and sister.  She was smart and athletic, and highly competitive.  But by the time she was four, it was evident that she was not well.  She had bouts of plummeting blood sugar where she was too weak to sit up in bed. She grew pale and painfully thin. The next several years were filled with doctor’s visits and tests. A host of diagnoses followed; adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, asthma, SVT, migraines.  And with this came anxiety and depression. Crippling anxiety that made her pace until I came home from work.  Depression that made her hide in her room during family gatherings, afraid that someone might discover that behind her wide grin was a hidden monster that doused her joy with waves of unexplained grief.

And I- the mother who knew every hair on her head, the mother whose wet skin smelled just like hers, the mother who nursed her and rocked her to sleep and walked the halls of hospitals with her- did not know.

During college, Elizabeth became increasingly detached from her loved ones. She disappeared for days. She spent money she did not have.  She was ultra-sensitive and quick to anger.  Finally, broken finances and broken relationships forced her to come home to live.  She struggled to hold a job and spent long isolated hours in her room and finally, the monster inside grew so great she could not get out of bed.  She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t laugh. She laid in bed and stared at the white wall for weeks, paralyzed by her fear and depression.  So fragile that she could barely speak, she finally cried out for help.  And then the long journey toward the sun began.

Elizabeth carefully fills a medi-planner with pills every week. Mood stabilizers to limit the highs and lows. Antidepressants to keep dark days at bay.  Tablets that rescue her from the crippling anxiety that leaves her afraid to walk into the music store or call to refill a prescription.   She thinks that the pills erase her creative side.  She fears taking so much medication will hurt her brain.  Her memory is not as sharp.  Her ability to retain facts less than when she was younger.

For Elizabeth, every day is a challenge. She pushes through the dark days and charges toward the light with grace and courage and a determination to not become a faceless victim of her disease. She carefully balances in the seesaw’s fulcrum; too much sedation brings depression, not enough triggers endless nights of sleepless mania.  Every morning, she looks at a handful of pills and she chooses.  She chooses for her business because without medication she loses focus and commitment.   She chooses for her health, because she knows that every day the electrical misfiring in her brain is a death-march cadence luring her closer and closer to disaster. She chooses for her family because without medication she cannot sustain her relationships; cuddling her nephew and giggling with her siblings will fade into a distant memory.

It is interesting to me that we never blame people for their physical illness, although many of them could be prevented. We never shun people with cancer, even if they filled their lungs with a lifetime of cigarette smoke.  We don’t make fun of diabetics, although many can prevent their disease with proper diet and exercise.  There is no stigma attached to strep throat, or ear infections, or gall bladder disease, or arthritis.  Why then are we ashamed of the diseases with no known prevention-diseases that affect our cognition or cloud our judgment? And if we did not hide these secrets, perhaps those who suffered from them would have been able to live longer, create more freely and affect the world in a more powerful and beautiful way.  Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Wolf, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Tennessee Williams all suffered from mental illness.  Some of the most beautiful works of art were created by those with mental illness; Georgia O’Keefe, Ludwig van Beethoven, and of course, Vincent van Gogh.

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“Starry Night” Vincent van Gogh

So on Wednesday March 30, I am going to proudly wear a green ribbon for bipolar awareness.  I urge you to do the same.  Together, little by little, we may be able to stifle the stigma and free those who are trapped by the fear of rejection and disdain.  We must bring them out from the shadows and help them to brightly glitter as beautifully as van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”  They are not children of a lesser god. They are our own.

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6 Comments

  1. Sue Blossom

     /  March 25, 2016

    Harriet, thank you so much for sharing your and Elizabeth’s journey. Like you when you read Elizabeth’s writings, your writing leaves me with “tears trickling down my cheeks”. You explain bipolar beautifully and maybe through understanding hopefully most of us will be more understanding and compassionate.

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  2. Garrie Madison Stoutimore

     /  March 25, 2016

    So glad you enjoyed the post, Sue. Please feel free to pass it on.
    -Garrie

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  3. Sue Payne

     /  March 26, 2016

    I try every chance I can to read A Cup of Tea with Momma G.
    This is special to me. I went to school with Momma G. She was as loving and caring back then as she is today. She has written something I am very familiar with. I too, tragically had to suffer in silence and pretend everything was perfect. I could not admit out loud the anxiety and depression I went through on a daily basis. Thank you Garrie for this eloquently written truths. God Bless you. You truly are a blessing to many.

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  4. Jodi Stewart

     /  March 30, 2016

    Thank you for sharing. You are both heroes in my book. We often go about sharing with one another only the highs and uplifting moments, but it is often the lows that bring us all closer together. We are all unique and have purpose no matter what our story, and you deliver yours with such compassion and love.

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