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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Weep for Anne

In March of 1978 I left the house at 30 Green Street and taking nothing but a guitar and a suitcase, flew across the country for a week of VISTA training in Seattle, Washington. A week after that, I took a train through snow-covered mountains and crashing waterfalls to Boise, Idaho.

Two days after arriving in Boise, I reported for my assignment at the Adult and Child Development Center. The director led me to the office that housed three other VISTAs. It was there that I met Paul. One look at his smoky eyes, and I knew I was a gonner. We were engaged by June, and set a wedding date of August 31.

When the week of the wedding arrived, Paul and I traveled back to Massachusetts by train. I had briefly met his parents during a side trip to Tucson in June, and they arrived a couple of days before the wedding, along with Paul’s brother John, his sister Anne and her husband Jim.

At the rehearsal dinner, my future in-laws were much subdued- and no wonder. My family was big, loud, and outspoken. Our family dinners were rambunctious events where teasing one-liners were hurled across the table like dinner rolls, and bursts of laughter erupted every few sentences. Paul’s small family had set its roots as mid-western farmers. Dinners were eaten quickly and quietly, punctuated by minimal small talk, so they could return to their work. I looked across the table at my fiancé and wondered if trying to meld our two families would be as successful as a spaghetti and ice cream casserole.

Paul looked more bewildered than I.  I couldn’t tell if he was nervous about his family’s visit, or the wedding ceremony, or if he was having second thoughts about the whole marriage, but he silently shoveled food into his mouth, avoiding eye contact, saying nothing. I stole a glance at my mother, who returned my gaze with questioning eyes.  My stomach churned and I couldn’t help but wonder if our families would end up like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

anne stoutimore spencer0001Suddenly, an unfamiliar voice rose over the din- a happy, celebratory voice, filled with laughter and warmth. It was Anne.

Anne was beautiful. She was vibrant and well-educated and articulate. Her smile lit the room and her eyes danced. She engaged my younger siblings in conversation and joined in the teasing, and by doing so, bridged the gap between the two very different families. And in the early years that followed the wedding, she and I shared clothes, opinions and conversation during family reunions and phone calls. She gave birth to two chocolate-eyed children during the years that I delivered three with eyes the color of the sea. We exchanged gifts at Christmas and cards containing snap shots of our growing broods.

And then one day, Anne called and calmly informed me that Hitler was residing in her refrigerator. She knew this because he spoke to her. She was dead serious and my heart sank.

The next years were a steady downward spiral of my husband’s beautiful sister. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, her laughter turned to bitter accusations and her conversations were peppered with claims of abuse and outlandish threats. She went in and out of hospitals, and endured countless trials of medication but her glow was never to return.

A few days ago, I learned that  Anne passed away in her sleep, and although I am relieved that forever her torturing voices are silenced, I weep that she and her family were relentlessly tormented for so long. I weep because when we don’t know how to respond to those who live in a different world, we say nothing.  I weep that we speak candidly about cancer and chicken pox, but we whisper about mental illnesses. I weep because for yet unknown reasons, a bright star was extinguished far before its time.

But God does not let us linger in anger and sadness. I was reminded of this when I read an email that Anne’s son Joseph so eloquently wrote:

“Well, my Mom died yesterday around 4AM.

In life she suffered from Paranoid Schizophrenia and bi-Polar disorder. I never really had what most would call a normal relationship with her. The first half of my life was spent suffering from the stress involved with her illness, the last half was spent coming to terms with it and finally getting rid of any bitterness in my heart that built up over the years. Nothing short of God helped me through that.

She was the most giving person I’ve ever met. Never had I met anyone that would give like that. Even when she had nothing, she would still find something to give. I’d get hot chocolate packets in the mail from hospitals that she would be confined in. I’d get letters from her as well. I’m happy that I made the best efforts I could to reach out to her. In the end though, death was the most liberating thing that could ever have happened to her. I’m glad we were able to see her before she passed.

Life is so short, and before you know it it’s over. She passed away so suddenly, in the middle of the night without anyone knowing anything beforehand.

Love those you’re close to, rather or not you’re on good terms with them. Before you know it it’s over and the only thing you have to look back on are memories.”

Well said, Joseph. Well said.

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