When I was young, it was customary at big holidays for us to go around the table and say something for which we were thankful while breaking off a piece of the traditional Polish Oplatek wafer. We usually did things in order by age so that the least patient among us (who, me?) could go first. My father recalls Thanksgiving dinners growing cold as I attempted to hold the proverbial floor by desperately adding to my list of thanks before the focus of everyone's attention could turn elsewhere: "I'm - I'm - I'm thankful for...puppies! And kitties! And bunnies! And horsies! And - and -and..." And you get the idea. While my thanks was not insincere, it certainly didn't encompass the larger, truer things I was lucky to have as a child - things like family and safety and food on the table.
Twenty years later, I'm better able to verbalize my thanks for things like family, friends, and all those other things people are thankful for on Thanksgiving. But this year, I'm hundreds of miles away from both my family and my fiancee, I'm struggling financially like I never have before, I don't have a home of my own, and it is work - work - to get through each day. Is it work worth doing? Well, yes, I'd like to think so. But so here it is. This year? This year, I'm thankful for the hard. For the messy. For the getting up each day, even on - especially on - the days when I feel like I can't.
There's often an unspoken (or sometimes spoken) question that arises around mental illness. It goes like this:
If you could, would you give it up?
If I could, would I wish away the bipolar disorder?
The bipolar disorder that makes it so that I can't get out of bed sometimes, that makes it necessary for me to swallow handfuls of drugs every night, the bipolar that landed me in a psychiatric hospital for a week when I was only 20 years old? No. I would not. I think that my manic depression is what allows me to feel for people as intensely as I do, which is often difficult but ultimately I feel it's valuable. I think I am empathetic because I've experienced such a range of emotion, at such intense highs and lows, that there's relatively little that I don't feel like I can relate to on some level. I think that my empathy will help me to be a strong mother and a gentle midwife, even if the degree to which I feel is exhausting sometimes. However, I don't see my illness as being some sort of window into the meaning of life, or as being essential to my being or something like that. I see it as the hand I was dealt and it's up to me to navigate the world with and through it. I would never romanticize this illness - I wouldn't wish on anyone the hope of death, unbearable helplessness, mania that makes one a danger to oneself and others, depression that renders one completely nonfunctional or the pure exhaustion that comes from swinging from one extreme to another like a pendulum you can't control. But it's part of who I am, and wishing that I could give it up is like wishing that part of me doesn't exist. And when I came through the period of time where I did want to die, I did so with the knowledge and appreciation that I was blessed to be alive and loved, I was worthy of existing, there was good in the world that I was meant to do, and choosing to give all that up was stealing value, hope, and joy not only from myself but from anyone that loved me and wanted to see what I could do with this life. So accepting who I was, and that I was valuable, meant accepting every part of who I was - bipolar and all.
There are the moments when I feel like I'm cemented into bed. Moments when I lie awake at 3 AM and wish for my heartbeat to slow down. Moments when I wonder how this will all, ever, work out. But there are also moments like this.