by Lisa

I love some bipolar folks.  They’re mostly all under the care of medical professionals now, to some degree.

They’ve all, for the most part, ridden out their personal hellish roller-coaster trips by self-doctoring with alcohol and off-the-books drugs; however, a solid diagnosis–and a little handful of helpful pills and therapy slow the ride to a pleasant go-round on the kiddie coaster. To see a beloved tortured soul become the glorious person I only glimpsed in the past, the core of what made them worth the price of admission to their personal Crazyland, to sit and have a conversation and realize that the brain running the business end of things really is still sparkly and beautiful but now running at a smoother  idle, is gratifying and priceless.  Some of them, I’ve lost to the world, and I hope they’re okay wherever they are.

Those people have stomped and railed at me and at the world in our histories.  They’ve dragged me though some nauseating loops and drops.   I still remember that one time, in between rages and triumphs, when things were perfect, and smiles weren’t painful work, and all was right in the world: easy coasting, to be relished. My father must have been bipolar.  He sparkled, then glowered, and the glimpses of the Real Dad in between were so rare.  I didn’t mourn his inevitable early death; to me, he was just an abstraction, a series of stories about “the old Jerry” and my own experiences with the Daddy of the present, a force of nature to be controlled with dire consequences to happen if I failed.

Still, I am part of that dangerous electric energy and it is part of me.  My daughter says that I am three quarters Quiet and one quarter Loud because I am a Hartlieb.  It’s in me, and she’s done the ratios, figured me out at age eight.  I tell her the best stories I know about her biological grandfather, and she feels bold and brave and beautiful to have had such a person for her mother’s father, a man who cheated death three times in his youth and who could see things that no one else could see and who drove backward all the way from one town to another just because.  She feels like a swashbuckling princess.

I love some depressed folks, too.

I’m sometimes one of them.  If not for my small people, I might have finished my degree years ago and have a career to call mine, but then again, maybe I wouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed for a long time.  A really, really long time.  When my Papa died, I only kept moving to be a good companion to Gram.  We had so much fun together.  She was my best friend, sometimes my only friend, my whole life. Without Gram, I didn’t move much for a few months.  Bed, kitchen (every few days), bathroom, library and store (every few weeks), garage (when the lawn needed to be mowed), and back to bed.  Books.  No internet then. Just one book after another, carefully chosen to induce as many tears as possible so I’d have an excuse to do that silent wail thing that happens in grief.  Everything hurt.  The grass grew too fucking fast.  The TV didn’t make any sense.  Clothes all itched or drooped on my frame. Driving was just another possible way to die when everyone and everything seemed close to the brink of death, so I stayed put or rode the bus.

But that’s at least one more quarter, the sadness, holding grief dear forever, wanting to wail it out when the smell of Thanksgiving hits and there’s no grandma sitting across the table to tell me how to cut the onions for the turkey dressing.  It was the hard way, by the way, with a tiny paring knife and no cutting board but a paper plate, all teary eyed while she decided whether the sage from 1975 was still good enough to use one last time, even though Emeril said to throw everything out once a year.  Gram taught me many things, but one lesson I wish I’d skipped was how to hold on to loss and keep it fresh.

With my small person, I share stories about Gram’s amazing cookies and how we ate big family dinners in shifts at one tiny kitchen, and how everyone wanted to stay at her house when they came to visit from Kentucky even though there was nowhere to put all of them, ever, so her grandma slept in the bathtub.  She glows with pride at her ancestor’s generosity and kindness and good cookies, and feels wealthy because she knows how to share even when she has little, like her great grandmother Betty Mae.

Now, here’s the point: we all carry an amazing cocktail of predispositions.  My sky-high manic father gave me the freedom to laugh, all valves thrown open, when life gets weird.  Nothing’s scary when you’re immortal, and getting lost just means finding new places to go next time.  My careful, doting grandmother gave me a sense of dearness for the people I love now, because some day, I’ll leave or they will.  No way to know the order of things.  She outlived one child, lost her father to suicide and her mother to fast and aggressive cancer.  She never stopped loving any of them.  She never forgot.

I try to be my best self for my own child.  She watches and learns just like I did.  I learned to become invisible when mania turned to rage and when contentment turned to sorrow.  I learned to respond to the people around me by ceasing to exist, slipping out the back door or just out of the line of sight and into my own imagination until the storm passed.  For my own child, I embrace the skill of deflecting lightning by telling her to dance to the thunder.  There’s nothing for her to fear.  I can take the strike, and we will dance like wild things in the rain.  She will never need to duck for cover near me; I know when things get too real, and I stand a little taller so she can splash away in the puddles below.

My genetic and environmental cocktail sometimes whirrs me into despair, sometimes into happy dancing over a certain smell in the air.  Most of the time, I ride very comfortably in between, grateful to have witnessed extremes but never to have lost myself to them forever.