I am ashamed to say that during my senior year in High School, I could be counted among the ranks of a judgmental bystander to someone who was mentally ill. I not only looked down upon him (I shall refer to him as N.), but I did it with disgust and fear–the fear we are all naturally taught to respond with when it comes to the mentally ill–when I learned N. was bipolar. I attended a Magnet School for the Arts, and N. was in my eighth period visual arts class. He was the “messed up” kid, which was saying something considering that most of us were your typical eclectic, strange, and somewhat emotionally disturbed, creatives.
N.’s artwork was beautiful. In the way a mausoleum is beautiful. Or a dark forest. Or an abandoned siloh. Or even a ghost town. Otherworldly. Tragic. Magnetic. Haunting. Fascinating. Profound when pondered.
…Disturbing, as only death and neglect and long-accepted despair can be.
N. seemed plagued by some phantom, a tormentor only he could see. But we all witnessed it in his haunted eyes, his bleak expression (though he tried to hide it at times), as if he carried the tormentor upon his back and could not escape it. An unwanted, constant companion. And while we all suffered in our own ways, as only tortured artists can, his was different, and we feared him for it. He had a sort of unseen leprosy, white and rotting–or so we perceived it.
N. was “other.” Apart. And none of us dared go near him.
At the time, I knew there was something wrong with me as well. But I had learned to cope. To hide it. (Which I can no longer do.) I escaped to the wonder of stories, lost myself in fantasies and epics and science fiction worlds and adventures and legal thrillers and horrors and paranormals and mysteries every day, usually reading five or so books at a time, so that the moment I became even slightly bored (which meant my mind had the possibility to wander into dangerous, painful territory), I would switch books. Also, creating, whether through music or words or art, had been a balm since the age of five when I began to play the piano by ear. In addition, I often ran to food (in those days I weighed about forty more pounds than I do now), and even dabbled briefly in cutting. On the positive, relational side, I had an incredible twin, Maggie, who constantly used her powers of exhuberant extroverted optimism and peculiar sense of humor to fight that darkness for me, a set of loving parents, a wonderful family, a happy childhood, and most importantly…Jesus.
And yet there I was, judging N. Fearing him. Looking down on him with condescending pity. Seeing him as if I were a rubbernecking passerby, gazing in sick, almost gleeful horror upon a gruesome car accident, content to only gawk, looking forward to discussing the horror later in some kind of twisted form of gossip, as I passed him by.
How poetic my current state.
N., if you ever read this (surely you must know I am speaking about you if you do), I pray you are still alive. I am sorry for how I judged you and kept you at arm’s length. I want you to know I have thought of you often over the years with heartache and prayed for you. You are not alone.
I am currently writing a murder mystery fantasy novel, Skyveil (while also working on a YA paranormal fantasy horror novel, The Radiant, which I only just now realized reminds me of my five-books-at-a-time habit) in which a character named Lee suffers a psychotic break. Another character, Remmy, is the only one to witness his horrific episode, and in fact, gets him his emergency medication–a sedative–and waits for him to wake up hours later. When Lee finally does, he finds Remmy shocking him by reacting with complete peace and no worry over him now that he seems better, not judging or fearing him in any way, but seeing him as simply him, and not the disease he bears.
Unlike how we all saw N. He was bipolar before he was N., his very name and identity replaced by his mental illness.
I realized while reading back through this scene during editing, that Remmy’s reaction was only a pipe dream–and a dangerous one at that–and so I changed it. It was dangerous because Remmy, if she truly cared about Lee, should’ve been afraid. She should’ve been concerned. Love sees pain and desires to meet its need, even if that means pointing out difficult things. Love sees instability and recognizes it, creating a safe place for careful, delicate repair.
But perhaps part of my pipe dream was right. Remmy was fearful for him, not fearful of Lee himself.
I am tired of people being afraid of me. Fear for me, friend, yes, but please don’t fear me. And yet…should you? I am at a loss. Am I asking too much of you? Am I asking for a perspective change rather than an action? I don’t know. Because fear is not bad in and of itself. Fear can protect. It keeps a child from crossing the street into traffic. A person from flying through their windshield after a wreck because they’d feared a wreck enough in the first place to wear a seatbelt.
But here lies the cruelty of mental illness when compared to other physical ailments: often we ourselves are the danger instead of the illness.
Like having leprosy. A danger not only to others, but to ourselves. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but honest. You don’t know what I’ve done. At my darkest, perhaps you should be afraid of me–to a point. After all, we fear the bite of a beloved pet dog, but don’t act in surprise in lieu of such an action should the dog bite us, nor love it less. It is a dog after all. We continue to love it and learn to live with the possibility of receiving a bite now and then becuase we believe it is worth it.
I am sad to say I am often not afforded the same grace.
On the other hand, I realize I am not everyone’s cup of tea, and I bring a lot of drama and chaos and pain and crossfire with me. I am reminded that of course some people don’t own dogs to avoid such things as a bite or a bark. Perhaps my relationships are the same?
And thus the beautiful tragedy of the earthly, imperfect love of a human. When pursuing companionship, it is not so much deciding your lover’s or friends’ commonalities and good qualities that you personally like that makes you compatible in the long run, but rather what negatives and flaws you can live with, that you can put up with, that you can bear.
Honestly, few can remain colleagues or friends with me, and even fewer could fulfill the deeper rolls (as you do, Campbell…) of those like my family who carry on in the darkest night and bear my bark and my bite. If you are one of these…thank you. But I’d be remiss not to point out God made you to be such a one–and how grateful I am! So many of the mentally ill have no one to bear their ailments, and end up homeless or addicts or dead.
I am a product of love; real, unconditional, perfect, divine love–the love of Jesus!–from Him and through others!–and I believe that is why I am still here on this earth, friend.
I know God allowed N. to be a part of my life, and for me to judge him, to remind me in the midst of the hurt, in the midst of the rejection, the misunderstanding, the revulsion and fear, the false accusations, condescending judgment, arrogant pity, hollow concern, assumptions, rumors upon rumors upon rumors and gossip upon gossip upon gossip, flat out cruelty, and even hatred (yes, it’s true), so that I would have compassion and understanding.
If you have ever seen me as I once saw N., know that I was there too. I forgive you and I have no right to judge, nor even be angry, no matter how much it hurts.