I was nineteen years old when I woke that July morning in my childhood bed. I heard shuffles and muffles from the hallway through my closed door.
“You take this. No this.”
“Carry that to the den.”
Then a yell, “Gwen, are the cocktail meatballs warmed yet?”
The sun poked its sarcastic head through a crack in one of my billowy white curtains as if to say, “Good Morning Lisa. You can’t hide from me today. This party will be fun to watch.”
I pulled the covers over my head where it was dark, warm, and calm. My eyelids fell with a heaviness I’d come to expect. I heard Mama’s hard walking heels approach my door. “Lisa. Where’s Lisa?” Then, she whisked the door open. “Lisa get out of bed and get dressed. They’ll be here soon.”
Followed by my silence, she’d probably come to expect, I lay still.
She shut the door.
It was our awaited Family Reunion for my mother’s gargantuan side of the family. People I hadn’t seen in years—some, in decades—were coming from all parts of Louisiana with children I didn’t even know they had. Names? Who could remember the names of what seemed like forty-three cousins, aunts, and uncles—I’d heard that number once, forty-three—really! I had always been confused as to who they were and how they were related to me. Now, their faces blurred in memories of a deepening haze.
I’d taken to bed most days at that point, in my undiagnosed depression, or bipolar disorder as it was later confirmed. In the evening, I’d get out of bed, bathe—or not, —and dress for a regular evening visit from my boyfriend, which infuriated Mama.
She’d follow me down the hallway to the den as his car rolled down the driveway, “Why can you get out of bed for him and not us? You are being ridiculous, rude, and downright mean.”
The truth was that I had to show up for his visits to keep him in my life. I didn't have to do that with her. No matter how hard it got, and no matter how mad she got, I knew she’d never leave me.
That July morning, hopelessness crept through my arms and shoulders and reached down my legs bringing physical exhaustion. I rose to meet the expectations of loved ones out of loyalty. And I looked forward to seeing one cousin, Karen. She spent summers with me when we were children and we’d been close before my depression hit. I dressed in baggy blue jeans and a black T-shirt while everyone else romped in shorts covering bathing suits. Black goes well with depression.
After relatives had begun to arrive, I caught a glimpse of her in the backyard standing over the picnic table that was covered with a white, cotton tablecloth. I poked her side with my forefinger as she grabbed a piece of fried chicken.
She looked at me. “Haay! How are you?” she asked.
“Well, I’m okaaay. Actually, I’ve been better.”
Just then, another cousin walked up and interrupted us. I didn’t know her well. Karen turned to her and said, “Hey!”
Social etiquette dictated that I enter into a group conversation of small talk. I couldn’t. Small talk took far too much energy and my ability to fake how I was doing was gone. I walked away.
I stayed in the den the rest of the day, occasionally peeking out at the kids in the pool. I grabbed a book of poetry off of Daddy’s bookshelf, a book I’d never read nor had any intention of reading, and posed as a deep, existential person. I’d be “The Serious Thinker”—expectedly glum and superior. An uncle came in and asked what I was reading.
“Rainer Maria Rilke.”
“Never heard of him.”
I put my nose back in the book and ignored him.
I managed to pull off my usual. I scared people away. That wasn’t difficult when in my depressive episodes. If I spoke to anyone, my interests weren’t your typical topics. I’d ask something like, “So why does your job make you feel important?” or “Have you ever had an existential crisis?” Shuts people up most every time. Plus, don’t you think that happy people just look less dangerous?
I tell you this story because like the family reunion that summer, the holiday season is approaching and it’s even worse. It’s “Hurricane Season.” For people with mood disorders, such as myself, the holidays are comparable to high school reunions, yet with more at stake. I am nervous about how my family members will see me. Will they think I’m too serious, too sarcastic, too depressing, too emotional, too (fill in the blank)?
I am not what any of us expected. I dropped out of college while studying pre-med. Then, I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I was the fun one. I became the emotional one who might cry at any moment. At times, I am still haunted by a desire to be so much more than I am—for you—and for me.
Just as I posed as “The Serious Thinker,” at my family reunion, for years to come, I took on many roles. I posed as “The Rebellious One,” “The Crazy One,” “The Bad One,” or “The Sick One.”. None us had adapted to the world without the old Lisa. We needed labels. And as long as I adopted one, that was all I was going to be.
I had to accept the cards my life had dealt me. I was still the imaginative and curious little girl, the high school cheerleader and student council president, and the early adult with a mood disorder. In order to deal with the last, I had to stop thinking of myself as then versus now. I had to get as comfortable with my new (multidimensional) self, as I possibly could, in the midst of a disorder that sometimes causes me to doubt everything. It took me years of therapy, real friends, and a psychiatrist who specializes in bipolar disorder.
Recovery is one day at a time. Holidays are the most difficult of days. I must take responsibility for my mood stability just as a diabetic takes responsibility for their blood sugar level. Once I do my part, the rest is a mystery, my biochemistry decides the rest.
At fifty-four years old, thirty years after being diagnosed and twenty years of relatively solid stability, I still feel queasy during the drive to family gatherings. I prepare for them by acknowledging the red flags that indicate emotional trouble is brewing . I’ve asked my spouse to let me know if he sees any of the warning signs that indicate depression or mania:
Rest or appetite irregularities
Obsession with anything at all
Negative talk – especially negative self-talk
Talking too much or not talking much at all
Irritability—more than is called for in a situation
Outbursts or jumpiness
Our year round routine is to check-in with each other several times a week as to how each of us is feeling. If either of us is feeling especially tender, we ask the other to be gentle for a while. (He finds this beneficial as well—and he is the picture of mental health!)
I own my recovery these days. I take medication as prescribed. I get a regular seven to eight hours of sleep every night. I try to eat healthy meals at regular intervals, and to exercise daily. If I choose to do all of those things, my chances for emotional balance greatly improve.
During the holiday season, if a small semblance of emotional imbalance shows up, I check-in with my doctor (and/or therapist) between regular appointments. Just as a newly diagnosed diabetic leans over a plethora of holiday desserts and finds himself in an obsessive dilemma, holiday gatherings, with their attendant happy memories, tempt me to doubt my identity as a whole person. Once there, the best I can do is to be present in the moment—greet others and meet them as they are now–and as I am now. We all change.
If I can do that, I can enjoy conversations about the past, but keep them in the past. I can love who I am today—unattached to expectations or static definitions of who I think I was supposed to become. And I can stop being defensive or apologizing for who I am with those that love me the most.
(For more information on bipoloar disorder, please see the links below.)
Lisa Triche writes creative nonfiction and is an avid participant in her local Ladies of the Library Writers group and Laura Munson’s Haven international writing community. In 2005, she received an M.A at Duke University in Liberal Studies. She resides in Destrehan, LA, with her husband, Paul, and their rescued pampered poodle, Sarah Jane. Lisa is currently writing a memoir about the loss of identity amidst grief. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.