Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I didn’t comprehend the magnitude of my depressive episodes until I moved into the dorm for my freshman year of college. My roommates and I always wanted to be closer. We would push our beds together and fashion a fort out of sheets and curtain poles. The mattresses were covered with empty Ben & Jerry’s containers and a maddening web of charging cables.
Then I had my first episode. I couldn’t speak. I hardly got out of bed, and when I did, I felt incapable of looking anyone in the eye.
One day I felt like myself again. My roommates were hurt that I had pushed them away so easily. I didn’t understand it myself, so I made up an excuse. They forgave me and moved on.
Whenever I came out of my lows, I had a tendency to keep going, reaching highs that made me feel filled with kinetic energy just waiting to be released. I’d stay up all night planning my life and making lengthy to-do lists, then sprint the sixteen blocks to class and sleep through Algebra. I found it increasingly difficult to explain my behavior.
Eventually a therapist offered a word for my experience: bipolar. It helped. I wasn’t a bad person; I had bipolar disorder, and as long as I took my medication and continued to see my therapist, my episodes were manageable.
Relationships were land mines, though, and I was convinced I would never find someone — until I met Robert. He didn’t make me feel like I was difficult to love, and he never left my side, even when I urged him to do so.
Then I became pregnant, and the weeks that followed were fraught with anxiety. I couldn’t go through with it. It wouldn’t be fair to the child.
And yet I knew I would try.
My daughter will have highs and lows, too. Everyone does. I just hope she’ll have a shorter road to peace, and that she’ll know she’s not alone on it.
San Diego, California
Our Wall Street jobs kept us so busy that Marla and I waited ten years to get married. Finally, in the summer of 2001, we rented an idyllic Vermont farmhouse a few hours from our home in New York City. We hosted a Friday-night barbecue, the Saturday wedding and reception, and a Sunday brunch. Guests rode horses, hiked, and sipped drinks on the wraparound porch.
On Sunday everyone said goodbye, and Marla and I returned to New York, only to turn around and head for the airport that Monday, bound for our honeymoon in the South Pacific.
When we landed in Papeete, French Polynesia, a printout from CNN was tacked to a corkboard in the resort lobby. It showed one of the World Trade Center buildings with smoke pouring from it. The article said a plane had hit and toppled the tower.
“There’s no way,” I told Marla. My first career had been in engineering, and I had worked on an air-conditioning project in Tower 2. “A coworker told me the towers were built to withstand a strike from a 747,” I said. I couldn’t accept that either of those monoliths could have fallen.
We walked in silence to our beachfront room and sat for the next hour with our mouths open, staring at the television as the happiest weekend of our lives smacked into the worst nightmare we could imagine.
Saratoga Springs, New York
Four years ago my mother lost her balance while playing badminton and broke her tailbone. She was seventy-six years old, and the injury relegated her to the couch for a couple of months and marked a rapid decline in her outlook on life.
She lived alone, with the closest of her three children hundreds of miles away. We noticed the change in her, but none of us knew how to help. We went from monthly phone calls in which she would detail her busy life to weekly check-ins to ensure she was showering and taking her medications.
While she was stuck at home, her circle of friends disappeared, and our conversations increasingly centered on her embittered relationships with family members. She cried easily. Things seemed to be headed in a bad direction.
Then my mom met Caroline. Twenty years her junior, Caroline invited my mom to join her for wine tastings, line dancing, and other adventures. Over the next three years my mother emerged from her isolation. Last fall, after she refinanced her house, she told Caroline she had always wanted to visit Paris. “You’ve got some money now. Let’s go!” Caroline said.
My mother had started needing a wheelchair for museum visits by this point, and my sisters and I wondered if Caroline knew what she was in for. But they went, and two weeks later Mom returned from Paris, beaming.
My sisters and I hoped the trip would give her a positive outlook on her upcoming eightieth birthday. We’d rented a lakefront house and began inviting her friends. “I’m going to be so old, though!” she said, laughing, discussing the plan on the phone.
Then the pandemic hit, and our birthday plans were scuttled. One of Caroline’s family members contracted the coronavirus and died. In her grief Caroline all but disappeared. To stay safe, my mother closed her door to the outside world.
It’s now June. Since she’s at high risk of dying from COVID-19, my mom rarely leaves the house. The optimistic tone of our early Zoom calls is gone. When I try to say goodbye, she always wants to ask “just one more quick question.” Then her tears well up, and she pleads with me to keep talking.
In high school I struggled with eating disorders, severe anxiety, and toxic relationships. I worried about how I would pay for college and who would care for my sister after I left. But those dark years were also punctuated by moments of joy: Meeting someone who became one of my best friends. Getting my first job. Performing well on the SAT. And, most of all, singing soprano in the school choir.
When I took my position and opened my sheet-music folder, my troubles dissolved. At a time when I had no one to talk to, singing was my therapy. The choir room was a holy place. Like prayer and meditation, singing requires you to be fully present. For an hour every day I surrendered myself to it.
After school the choir members gathered at my house to rehearse our parts, and I practiced alone in my bathroom for hours after they left, belting out tunes along with my boom box until my dad and sister begged me to stop.
Seventeen years later singing is still therapeutic to me — and I’ve been in actual therapy for more than a decade. I no longer sing with a choir, but when I’ve had a hard day, show tunes and Italian arias still emanate from my bathroom.
Toward the end of high school, from a mixture of boredom and mischief, a couple of my friends started toting rifles in their golf bags whenever we played a round. Their dads hunted and owned guns: a .30-30 for deer, shotguns for geese and ducks, maybe a .22.
One of those friends had a backyard that bordered a private golf course, and on summer evenings, after the club members had finished for the day, we’d walk the dirt path from his yard to the fourteenth hole. One evening, instead of choosing a nine iron or four wood, my buddies yanked out their rifles. They pinned the weapons to their shoulders, aimed at some crows circling above the tree line, and pulled the triggers. The shots missed.
I asked for a turn, even though I’d never held a gun. I was handed a .22. The heaviness surprised me. I wondered about the recoil but didn’t ask. I wanted to prove my worth as a marksman.
A bird circled up high. Barely aiming, I fired once. Bang!
The bird fluttered briefly, then fell straight down. Beginner’s luck. My friends looked at each other but didn’t say a word.
I looked at the red-winged blackbird lying dead on the grass at my feet. Some celebrations can be short-lived. Mine ended the moment it began.
My father is ninety-one years old with advanced Parkinson’s disease. As his only daughter, I have overseen his care, making sure he is stocked with daily supplies and books to thumb through. I find old movies on TV to entertain him and schedule social visits so he knows he isn’t forgotten.
In March, however, his senior facility closed its doors to all outside visitors due to the pandemic. I can no longer oversee his daily care or visit him throughout the week. I can’t even see him through the window because his room faces an interior courtyard that can’t be accessed without entering the building.
The separation has been painful for me, but an unexpected bright side is emerging. For seven years my life has revolved around my dear father, and now I am relieved of the burden of his care. The devoted staff at his facility are in charge. The truth is I haven’t felt this peaceful for a long time. I am savoring it until I can see my father again.
Spencerport, New York
My daughter is almost six years old. She was diagnosed with autism two years ago, and I recently came across a specific profile that explains her behavior: a subtype called Pathological Demand Avoidance, where any demand can register as a threat and trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response.
Her impulse to fight is the most frequent. Requests that she brush her teeth or come to dinner can provoke an aggressive, prolonged tantrum. I don’t turn my back on her when chopping onions for fear that I will cut myself if she headbutts me from behind. Even hunger or the need to use the bathroom are often perceived by her as debilitating demands.
Quarantine for COVID-19 has been immensely hard. School, the library, and the park are all closed, and her friends are no longer able to play. Her entire routine changed overnight. Each day brings unavoidable triggers, resulting in one tantrum after another.
Recently she attacked me several times before breakfast. Desperate for a moment to recover, I curled into a fetal position on my bedroom floor. My daughter happened by and, seeing me in an unexpected place, gave a hard kick to my kidney.
Later she drew a portrait of the two of us smiling under a rainbow, surrounded by hearts and X’s and O’s. My daughter rescues seedlings growing in sidewalk cracks and puts out tiny pancakes for fairies. She dresses in tutus and dances to The Nutcracker around the house. She is a striking child, lean and muscular, clever and funny.
From the outside looking in, you might never know the turmoil my daughter experiences. I am emotionally hungover by the end of most days. I’ve never liked roller coasters, but I’m learning to ride one.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
We are undergraduates at an ecological field station on a remote island in the Pacific, where we’re learning about the effect of sea lice on wild salmon. Two hours ago we received word from our university that classes are going online and campus housing is closing due to the coronavirus. We have a week to move out. We will not get to finish our sea-lice-mitigation proposal or act on crushes we’ve developed on each other. As we stand on the shore, the time we thought we had washes out with the tide.
On a nearby rock, my friend Lilly gasps and points toward my feet. Constellations of bioluminescent plankton illuminate the tidal pool at my toes. Where the ocean knocks into the rocky shoreline, countless organisms transform the darkness into a spectacle. Lilly moves close to me as the creatures provide light. We are speechless.
I’ve meditated about impermanence for nearly forty years. Buddhism teaches us not to become attached to the highs or resist the lows. Things come and go: relationships, jobs, houses. I found it easy to talk about death the way Buddhists do — “All things must pass” — and pick out bits of joy, like looking at the sky at the end of a long workday or hearing a songbird in the morning. But since my daughter’s suicide I’ve found it hard to accept the Buddha’s teachings.
I recently got a tattoo of the word now on my wrist, hoping it would remind me to watch the flow of my mind, to remember that everything is transient and only in the present moment can we find peace. It has helped, but still I remain in a near-constant state of shock and grief.
People in my support groups have told me to remember the highs of when she was alive. That I can do: feeling her baby breath on my neck, hearing her laughter on the playground, making cookies, reading Harry Potter together, listening to her views on life as a teenager, touching her soft cheek when she was a young adult.
Last weekend I was able to do some planting in my yard. Looking at my Buddha statue surrounded by greenery, I realized I barely care about Buddhism anymore. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and I’m especially aware that I’ll never again hear her call me “Mama.”
I remember coming downstairs and telling my parents I didn’t feel good. Then my world went black. It was my first episode of high blood sugar from a lack of insulin.
I spent the next few days at a hospital, getting injections, watching Peter Pan, and counting ceiling tiles. Finally I went home.
My mother, who was terrified of needles, would regularly have to prick my finger and squeeze blood onto a test strip to check my blood sugar. The small machine took an agonizing minute to tell me whether I could eat pizza with my family, or a cookie, or anything a normal kid could eat. A minute is a long time for a small child.
In grade school I learned to test myself. I could often guess the number before I saw it. Thirst and nausea told me it was high. Shaking and spotty vision told me it was low. By the time I was ten, I was injecting myself with insulin.
In my early twenties I found an insulin pump that required no tubing. My life changed. I no longer needed injections. It seemed like things were looking up — until my insurance changed, which meant a three-month supply of the pump equipment would cost me more than two thousand dollars out of pocket. I tried the only pump covered by my insurance, but it was still too expensive.
With my rent and other bills, I couldn’t cover the cost of any pump and returned to self-injections. For four years I struggled to manage my blood sugar using multiple daily injections and frequent finger sticks. Since I had poorly controlled my diabetes, I now suffer from retinopathy, which requires eye injections every eight weeks.
When my insurance changed again, I was able to afford a glucose monitor, which allows me to see my levels in real time, and I do yoga and kickboxing to help regulate my levels. This is my life with type 1 diabetes. The good times are always accompanied by the fear that tomorrow my insurance company will say, “Sorry, you don’t need these”; that I will not be able to get insulin because of the cost.
Walla Walla, Washington
I wanted to become a midwife. There was just one barrier between me and my dream job: I needed to get into the Yale School of Nursing.
My bachelor’s degree was in English, and I had an associate’s degree in nursing from a community college. But every graduate nursing program required a bachelor of science in nursing in order to apply — except Yale. They accepted RNs with a bachelor’s degree in another area.
I was also over thirty and married with two young sons. I didn’t have the time or money to get another bachelor’s degree. So I applied to Yale and waited.
I was surprised when they asked to interview me. I elected to interview on the West Coast, where I lived, and I met with a serious woman in a plain black suit. It was nerve-wracking, but I thought I represented myself well.
I was put on the waiting list. I met all the requirements, the letter said, but other students were more desirable. I did not hear any more from Yale.
I applied again the following year and ended up on the waiting list again.
For my third attempt I decided to go to Yale for my interview. I found my interviewer in her small cubicle, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and eating lunch with her feet up on her desk. She finished her meal as I introduced myself, then told me this was her last week at Yale. She crumpled her lunch bag, lit a cigarette, and started my interview.
Her lighthearted questions made me feel as if I was being dismissed. I grew angry, but remained professional until the last question: “Is there anything else you want the committee to know?”
“Yes, there is,” I said, my voice shaking. “I want to be a midwife more than anything. If the committee isn’t going to admit me, please just say so. Don’t put me on the waiting list.” I left her office in tears, convinced I had doomed any chance I had to achieve my dream.
Three weeks later I received my acceptance letter, and my family and I moved to Connecticut. I earned my degree and over the next thirty years delivered more than 2,500 babies.
I was six years old when I heard the words bipolar disorder spoken in hushed tones in my grandmother’s living room. I knew the words were meant to explain why my grandmother would sometimes lie in bed, her blue eyes heavy with despair, and other times be unstoppable, spending hundreds of dollars on unnecessary items and once smashing the hood of my grandfather’s old Ford truck with a baseball bat.
My grandmother was in her eighties, a heavy woman with puffy white hair, a hunched spine, and a fire in her eyes. She was my world. I remember pressing my body against hers and smelling sweat, cloves, and body powder. When she was coming down from a high, I would spend summer nights at her house. This space between her highs and lows was like the momentary pause of a pendulum. I believed she reserved those moments just for me.
She told me about how, as a little girl, she would make corncob dolls with her seven siblings and help her mother grow food in their garden and can it for the winter. She described walking for miles in the snow to reach her little schoolhouse in the woods. After we recited our bedtime prayers lying in bed in the dark, she would roll over, and I would hold her warm body, feeling for the temporary steadiness of her beating heart.
Nevada City, California
The lowest and highest points in my life happened three days apart. On a Thursday I was at my mother’s house when my wife, Yoko, called to tell me our four-year-old son had been hit by a car. “Come home,” she said, and she hung up. I had no idea whether Charlie was dead or alive as I raced to my house.
Neighbors and my seven-year-old, Van, were on the sidewalk when I arrived. Charlie had run into the street and been struck by a car that had immediately made a U-turn and roared away. No one could tell me Charlie’s condition. The ambulance had already taken him to the emergency room.
I put Van in the backseat and rushed to the hospital. Van said only one thing during the drive: “I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore.”
At the hospital I was told they were taking Charlie into surgery. “Whatever happens is meant to happen,” my wife said. I couldn’t believe she was so resigned to the possible death of our son.
When they wheeled Charlie into surgery, my spirit seemed to merge with his. Even though he was unconscious, I could feel the love between us. That connection stayed with me.
Yoko told me that Charlie’s heart and lungs had stopped by the time the paramedics arrived. They had used a defibrillator and CPR to revive him. She and her mother prayed to their spiritual leader and called the headquarters in Japan to request a special prayer from the religion’s president.
The surgeons made a tiny hole in Charlie’s head to relieve the pressure on his swollen brain. He was still unconscious when they returned him to the ICU, and the doctor couldn’t assure me Charlie would recover. My wife, her mother, and I took turns giving Charlie a hand-over-body healing technique that was part of their religion. At one point Charlie went into a seizure, and I was ushered out of the room while the doctors treated him.
The doctor eventually said the hematoma was healing to the point where Charlie should recover, but throughout Friday and into Saturday he remained unconscious. When he finally opened his eyes, the first thing he said was “Blue,” referring to his stuffed animal from Blue’s Clues. We told him he had been in an accident but was perfectly fine. The following day, when we brought him home from the hospital, was the happiest of my life.
Charlie had no permanent injuries of any kind other than a scar on the top of his head. It was hard to believe the accident had ever happened.
Los Angeles, California
© Staci Kleinmaier
I admit that the high was wonderful. After I was accepted into five top PhD programs, my master’s-program adviser said, “Enjoy this moment. It might be a while before you feel this way again.”
I made my choice and headed eight hundred miles north to Minnesota to attend orientation. My fellow graduate students and I sat together around a conference table in a bland, midcentury brick high-rise. I thought of it as “the tower.” I got lost in that building many times in my first year. Two clammy, windowless stairwells coiled around one another in its center, and I didn’t know when exiting them whether I would emerge on the east or the west side of the building.
I was so eager to race to the top of the hierarchy that my identity got wrapped up in my academic standing. I gossiped and grumbled with other grad students and shook my head at those students who were forced to leave the department. They weren’t cut out for such a dedicated life, I thought. They just weren’t as intellectual as I was.
In my third year my partner urged me to take a semester off and rethink my approach. I had become consumed by the program and didn’t know where to focus my research or whom to work with. When I wasn’t working, I was depressed.
I didn’t listen to my partner. I just kept climbing. By my fourth year I still hadn’t secured research funding. I failed my qualifying exams — twice.
No more PhD. No prestige or middle-class income. Suddenly the academy’s outcasts didn’t look like failures anymore. They now seemed every bit as intelligent and dedicated as they had always been.
It wasn’t east and west I had confused in that academic tower. It was up and down.
I bought my first bottle of perfume when I was in college and wore the scent whenever I saw John, the man I’d been in love with since I was sixteen. It smelled like the beach and clean clothes — like being in love and feeling pretty.
I wore it for twenty-two years, until John died. Then I couldn’t bear to smell it. The memories were too much. I avoided it the same way I avoided the place I’d been standing in my kitchen when I’d learned John was dead.
For a year after that, the bottle sat untouched in my cabinet, only a handful of spritzes from empty. No perfume could mask how hollowed out I felt inside.
I don’t remember when I first wore that perfume again. Maybe it was the time I bought a new pair of shoes for work, having finally seen the scuffs I should have noticed months earlier on the old ones.
On that day I picked up the perfume bottle again, I didn’t realize how momentous it was. Now I see it was the beginning of something, like a scrappy weed poking through a cracked sidewalk.
When I ran out of the perfume, I went to the store for more. The bottle was on the display table. I lifted the top and sniffed it as I had when I was nineteen. And then I put it down, as if it were a book I had finished.
My eye wandered to other scents. One was new but still familiar, like early summer or the beach. I bought a small bottle.
The next day I frequently lifted my arm to my nose, closing my eyes and breathing in the scent. It smelled like hope.
I wanted to be sergeant-at-arms of my sophomore class, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what a sergeant-at-arms did. When I sat down in my Jordache jeans and Fleetwood Mac tour shirt — feathered roach clip in my feathered hair — to create my first campaign poster, I even misspelled sergeant.
I took a whiff of the permanent marker and filled the poster board with a bold slogan sure to inspire my classmates. I hummed the Fifth Dimension song “Up, Up and Away” while decorating my posters with drawings of balloons.
Though I don’t recall making a remarkable speech, my signs got my classmates’ attention. I won the election and represented the class of 1984 all thanks to my clever campaign: GET HIGH, VOTE LOWE.
Suzanne Lowe Weerts
My wife, Lori, and I are vacationing in Acadia National Park. It’s May, when spring is just ending and the swarms of insects and tourists are still ahead. We rent bikes and ride the park’s miles of crushed-stone carriage roads, built in the early twentieth century.
The roads are generally in great condition, with a few orange traffic cones warning of erosion at some locations. Our pace is slow. We are taking it easy. I’m in the lead when we reach a gentle downhill grade that extends for half a mile. I decide to let my hair down and coast. Near the bottom is a slight turn to the right. I’m doing nearly twenty miles an hour by now. Great fun.
I see some orange cones at the sides of the road. More edge erosion, I figure. Turns out this time they warn of soft gravel.
My front tire gets buried in the gravel, and the bike stops. Thanks to Newton’s First Law, though, I keep going. In a blink I remember a bike accident ten years earlier that fractured my scapula, and I think: This is going to be very bad. Then my right side crashes into Mother Earth, and gravel sprays into my face.
I am hurt, but amazingly everything still works, even the bike. I manage to finish the ride at a snail’s pace. Back at the hotel ibuprofen and ice packs await.
It took nine months before my back and shoulder blade were pain-free, but less than one second for that bike ride to go from high to low.
I was barely two months sober when I got the positive pregnancy test my husband and I had been hoping for. A few weeks later bright-red blood ran down my inner thigh as I got out of the shower. At the ER, I checked in as “threatening miscarriage” and wondered how I would get through this without drinking. I had the miscarriage, but I didn’t drink.
Four months later I was pregnant again, and this time I brought a seven-pound, thirteen-ounce boy into the world. I cried as I held him against my chest. Perhaps there are bigger highs in this life, but if so, I have yet to know them.
Our son was a year old when my husband and I made love without protection just once on vacation. A few weeks later I took another test, and the line appeared.
I miscarried at almost nine weeks. No blood this time, and no heartbeat. I breastfed my son on the exam table and cried. I was forty-one. Maybe we weren’t going to be able to have a second child.
Several months later I was pregnant again. I held my breath through the testing and the early ultrasounds, each one bearing good news. The COVID pandemic hit at the end of my first trimester. As the country strove to flatten the curve, mine grew.
I spent fifteen years self-medicating with alcohol. You don’t get to choose which emotions the wine dulls. It is very effective at muting the pain, but also at muffling the joy. Now, three years sober, I listen to my son laugh and feel the baby kick in my belly. Though I grieve the two who didn’t come to be, I also make peace, rather than wage war, with the lows of life. I know they can pass quicker, and with more ease, than I ever thought possible.
Marrowstone Island, Washington
Staci Kleinmaier’s photograph of a young girl walking away from a frustrated-looking adult [November 2020] is a classic. If ever a photo did not need a caption, this is it.