Sometime in the muggiest autumn Bavaria has seen in years, I throw myself onto an active train track. My friends are shouting my name in worry. The Polizei are shouting in German. I have been drinking, but I am not drunk. I am eighteen. I am laughing. The scene is exactly as I’ve described, but it’s not what you’re thinking — at least, not in my mind.
“There was a shoe,” I explain, still laughing, after I’ve been pulled back up on the platform just as the train comes into sight. I hold the shoe in my hands; a single plain, black high heel. I don’t know where it came from, or what happened to the person who left it there. Maybe they jumped onto the track for a different reason.
This is just one of the many times my disorder has nearly gotten me killed. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in the midst of a manic episode — undiagnosed and untreated, and wholly not understood. It would be years before I realized I was bipolar, and longer still before I came to terms with what that meant. Largely, it meant that I could not allow myself to live the way I so desperately wanted; recklessly and unrestrained.
There is contention within the linguistics community regarding the true origin of the word mania. Its Greek roots are clear; ania means to produce great mental anguish and manos means relaxed or loose — but whether or not mania stemmed from one of those terms, or a combination, or some other etymological womb altogether, remains debatable.
There’s also room to consider the relationship between mania and maenad, as mentioned in pre-Hippocratic Greek mythology. The maenads were the female followers of Dionysus, perhaps best remembered for their role in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, unable to save Eurydice and consumed by grief, allows the maenads to rip him apart in an ecstatic frenzy. Maenads translates literally as raving ones.
The mythos of the artist being swallowed by anguish did not end with Orpheus. When I was fifteen, I tried to kill myself. It was a poor attempt, because I have always been noncommittal, but it resulted in less than a year’s worth of unhelpful counseling anyway. I don’t really blame the therapist for that; the truth is, I didn’t want to get better.
Once, during one of the very few family sessions we had, my father asked the therapist why it seemed like artists were destined for self destruction. At the time, I thought he’d been only worried about me, but looking back on his years before the military — spent knee-deep below the poverty line first as a farmer and then a poet and then a woodworker before signing himself over to the government in a last ditch effort to feed his kid — looking back on the drive from Michigan to Philadelphia we took just last year, his quiet yeah, sometimes when I asked if he ever struggled with depression — I think there was more to the question.
The therapist answered easily enough. There was no rhyme or reason, she said, to why certain people struggle with mental illness. I don’t know if I believe it’s always just luck of the draw. We grow up hearing about how mental illness is often biology, genetic. Why there are whole families who suffer psychotic breaks and suicides for every generation. It has always felt easy to blame my mother for my own afflictions. She has bipolar disorder. Her mother had bipolar order. I’m sure that if we picked through the minds of all the various matriarchs down that particular line, we could find enough to fill a diagram. But maybe that’s too easy.
Also too easy, perhaps, was my father’s assertion that all artists are doomed, too inclined towards self harm. But then again, we grow up on those stories too, don’t we? Virginia Woolf walking into the water, her pockets filled with rocks. Vincent Van Gogh, with his Lefaucheux a’ broche revolver. Kurt Cobain with a shotgun to the chin. Even before we learn about their art, we learn what they did to themselves.
My sister has recently begun seeing a psychiatrist, mostly in an attempt to finally address and heal from the hurts which our mother has dealt her. Whenever we talk, we usually end up discussing our parents as they are now — which is not so different from how they were when we were growing up. The difference is in how we understand them. It makes it both more and less difficult, when pointing out the way someone has failed you, to know that they failed you because they were mentally ill. It’s worse when the person who’s failed you is yourself.
There were whole years which I spent reveling in my disorder, refusing to manage my symptoms. I liked it. I liked how much I felt, and how bright and all-encompassing those feelings were. I liked it less when I spiraled into a deep cavern of depression, but even then, I was content to wallow. As a teenager, before I knew there was a name for the way brains like mine worked, I imagined my life in stark shades of blue and white. The contrast was electrifying; some weeks, everything was white-hot as a branding iron. Others, everything was blue as a computer monitor dipped in an aquarium tank. I became obsessed with these colors and the metaphor I had made of myself.
One night, shortly after the train incident, I followed some friends to a party. It was in an officer’s house on the military base, which meant the furniture was all glass and leather, just begging for us to wreck it. In the middle of the glass table sat a wooden bowl filled with a swarm of Crayola-colored pills. We each took one — or more than one — and soon I found myself drifting outside of my own body, the room blooming into that manic white, like being electrocuted.
I hallucinated a conversation with a many-eyed angel that erupted from the ceiling. We discussed a relationship of mine which had recently gained the turbulence of a meteor shower.
The angel said “Love isn’t meant to feel crazy.”
I said “Everything I feel is crazy. If it isn’t crazy, I don’t feel it at all.” Even high out of my mind, I was convinced that my disorder was the only part of me worth something. I believed that my creativity had sprouted from the forehead of my insanity, grown and fully formed.
The truth is, it wasn’t the hallucinations or the adrenaline rush that I loved. It was the way the mania made me seem to other people. I was interesting, and adventurous, and fun — and crazy, yes, always crazy, but I was the kind of crazy that other people liked. After all, that sought-after archetype, the manic pixie dream girl, begins with manic. And if I wasn’t that girl, which one was I? If I wasn’t being fun-and-crazy, what did I have to offer? No one likes a sad drunk. No one likes a wallflower.
In the 2005 film Elizabethtown, Orlando Bloom plays a shoe designer on the brink of suicide when he gets a call from his sister announcing their father’s death. On his flight to the funeral, he meets a bubbly, fun-and-quirky flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst. Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term manic pixie dream girl in reference to Dunst’s character. He explained that the MPDG “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
I was the manic pixie dream girl that existed solely in my own fevered, sensitive imagination. The manic pixie dream girl is a stock character, which means she has no identifiable inner life, no nuances and ambitions of her own. She exists to further the protagonist’s story by providing important life lessons. In a way, I was a stock character in my own story, floundering in my self-appointed role and refusing to allow myself the growth and development I needed.
I’m far from the first to romanticize my own mental illness. In 16th and 17th century England, an artistic and literary cult of melancholia rose to the forefront of popular culture. But it was Marsilio Ficino, a philosopher from the early Italian Renaissance, who first suggested that a melancholic attitude might signify a mark of genius. Years later, melancholia would become downright fashionable; intellectuals and artists alike would wear their despair as accessories. John Dowland, a beloved English Renaissance composer, adopted the motto Semper Dowland, semper dolens (Always Dowland, always mourning). William Shakespeare modeled Hamlet after the popular stock character of the time: the melancholy man. Before the manic pixie dream girl, it seems, there was the depressive princely dream boy.
In the end, after years spent fluctuating between euphoric mania and crippling depression at my disorder’s leisure, I elected to finally work at getting better — and it is work. There is no cure for bipolar disorder. I will never be “normal.” I will never know what it’s like to have a stable mind. But I can manage my symptoms. I can give my miswired brain the help it needs to do its job. There are always a variety of factors involved when someone elects to seek treatment for mental illness, but the reality of my own decision was relatively simple: I fell in love.
You see, I had never really seen the point in living towards a brighter future. I hadn’t expected myself to live this long at all. But then I fell in love, and suddenly I saw the point in trying.
My sister didn’t decide to see a psychiatrist because she woke up one day and realized she was ready to move on from her past. She decided to see a psychiatrist because she has a daughter herself now, and she doesn’t want my niece to inherit the wounds our mother gave us. She wants a future free of pain for her daughter, because she loves her.
Even more than his literature on life and melancholy, Ficino is known for coining the term Platonic love. His published Platonic love letters to his life-long friend popularized the term in Western Europe. Thus, they romanticized the concept of an all-embracing love between friends alongside the mythos of the tortured artist.
I’m no longer with the woman I was when I first started down the path of self-management and healing. But the thing about love is, once you start to produce it, you don’t really stop. It’s like serotonin that way. Some of us just need a little help to get it going. And now, the one who receives that love is me.
There are still bad days, of course. There always will be. Days where I can’t get out of bed for anything. Days where I can’t trust that my happiness isn’t a manic illusion. But some days, I wake up filled with so much love it overflows.
John Cade, a surgeon in the Australian Army Medical Corps during World War II, was captured by the Japanese military in Singapore and held as a prisoner at Changi Prison for over three years. Cade had been trained as a psychiatrist before his time in the war, having grown up in several mental institutions where his father, debilitated by the PTSD — then called “war-weariness” — from his own world war, served as the medical superintendent.
During Cade’s time as a prisoner of war, he saw many of his fellow inmates behaving strangely. At the time, he thought a toxin was affecting their brains. One of these inmates was Cade’s childhood friend, whom he continued to look after when the war was finished. Cade was determined to find a cure for his friend’s illness, by then determined to be psychological. He conducted medical experiments on guinea pigs in his spare time. His experiments are how it was discovered that lithium can treat bipolar disorder.
Love, the true great motivator. Without love, there can be no healing.