“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”
About three weeks ago, I was a minor celebrity about town. I was the “feature” in the Sunday profile column of The Meadville Tribune that typically celebrates our small city’s successful entrepreneurs, cupcake mavens, beekeepers, quilters, and kindergarten teachers. Initially, the reporter contacted me and said he’d heard some amazing things about me in the vein of successful-woman-about-town: 1. That I was (still) a Professor at Allegheny College while raising two children and writing my books; and, more compelling, 2. Did I really climb Mt. Olympus while nine months pregnant?
“I’m sorry to have to say,” I wrote back in my email, “but I think someone has overestimated my accomplishments. I was a Professor at Allegheny, but I’ve left the College due to medical difficulties. And while I have climbed Mt. Olympus and did travel to Greece when I was nine months pregnant, I didn’t do both simultaneously. I think my Ob/Gyn would have had me committed, much less my psychiatrist. However, I would be willing to share my other story, which your readers might find interesting. Maybe more so, though it is a different kind of adventure. The reason I left teaching is because I was unable to find a way to recover from anorexia and find stability with my struggles from Bipolar Disorder. So I did what was necessary for my health and well-being—not easy given that teaching was what I always wanted to do with my life, given that was basically my dream job—but rather than die while working, I needed to prioritize living. I’ve found as I’ve been in recovery that part of what keeps me moving forward is to be a resource for others who are also struggling with mental illness and trying to get well and find balance so I am working against the shame of suffering from mental illness. Part of my mission is the blog that I write. Let me know if you are interested.”
Well, he was interested, and I went public in my city in a BIG way, in a way I’ve never done before. Not only was a detailed summary of my “story” published, but so was my picture—the prettiest mug shot I could come up with. More than vanity, though. There is a belief that someone who is seriously mentally ill can only “look” one way—unkempt, frazzled, tangled hair, stinking of piss and shit, shuffling down the street, muttering to herself. That she, or he, is “other,” so far removed from anyone you could really know. That she, or he, is either the person hanging around a dumpster, rocking back and forth in a corner, or institutionalized. Surely, that’s what serious mental illness looks like. And you wouldn’t have anything to do with someone like that, would you? You wouldn’t let someone like that around your kids, would you? You would never fall in love with someone like that, who had a label, a diagnosis like that, would you?
Here’s the truth. Two months ago, I had to find a new psychiatrist because my current one was moving on to a new position. He referred me to another psychiatrist in the area, someone with the right credentials, with the right depth and breadth of experience. We spoke and he wanted to review my records before seeing me for my evaluative appointment. So I had them sent. And waited and waited and waited. Finally, he called.
“Ms. Bakken,” he said.
“I’ve had a chance to look through your records. They’re quite extensive.”
I laughed nervously. I’ve never looked through my records, could only imagine what the 20 or so hospitalizations, the 30+ Electroconvulsive Treatments, and the potential 3 different psychiatrists’ diagnoses might all add up to in the end.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Bakken, but I won’t be able to take you on as a patient. Your mental illness is too severe for me to treat. The range of severity is too extensive. I hope you can understand.”
If one can nod dumbly into the phone, than that’s what I did. In fact, idiotically, I reassured him. “Of course. I know how difficult I must be. Don’t worry. I’ll find someone else.”
It took ages to find someone else, but now I have and my “severe mental illness” doesn’t scare him off. Which is also to say, if, before now, I haven’t scared you off, don’t let this admission scare you away. Don’t let these words, uttered by someone in your life, or someone who could be in your life, scare you off.
Of course, there are moments—ten minutes, a few hours, a few days—when I do scare my husband and family and friends. Usually, that’s when I’m not following my agreed upon plan that helps me stay stable and keeps anorexia, mania and the suicidal fangs of depression at bay.
Here’s the gift, and it’s not just my gift to you who might be struggling to get well and come across this blog and see that it’s possible not just to hang in there but to climb out—and to climb out each and every time, as pointless and exhausting as it might seem. To climb out and breathe each time a bigger breath and say to everyone who loves you and who also fights for you, but especially to the doctor who believes you are too ill to help, “Fuck ill. I am well.”
But the gift given back to me? The more I am free with my story, the more I am helped in my adventure into love and wellness. Two days after the article was published, I received a letter from a man who told me about his wife who had died six months earlier after a long bout with melanoma. But his wife always talked about the time I came to visit her book club—how much that meant to her, how my book inspired her, how my talking to her and her friends was so generous and warm. That even in the months preceding her death, she talked about me—that I made that much of an impact. I would not have remembered this but for the article and the follow-up letter.
To be honest, because of the massive memory loss, the complete almost 10-year retrograde memory wipe-out from the Electroconvulsive treatments, I don’t remember that visit, and part of me feels desperately guilty about this. But his letter is the gift of memory. Because I parted with shame and fear, because I allowed myself to be seen in a small Sunday article as severely mentally ill, with the pretty, charming photograph of me juxtaposed beside it, I was given back a piece of my past that reminded me that I mattered, that in the years I normally consign to the dumpster because I was on my crazy rampage, years I just assume should truly be forgotten, there are these miraculous, salvageable moments. A woman held on to my memories for me in her dying days.
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