There are very few people in this world who can understand, or at least help me through this disease. Therapists can listen, and sometimes even give useful advice, but they haven’t lived inside a ravaged mind. There is my husband who supports me and watches over me, but he can’t feel the heartbreaking guilt and fear this disease brings. There are parents who read what they can on the internet, but the actual fact never fits the fiction. There are resources written by those who have the disease, and those who have lived close to the disease, but like all brain disorders what is described in minute detail about one person is never guaranteed to fit me.
But there is one woman who does understand me, one woman who has changed my whole life for the better simply by being in it. My Grandmother. My Grandmother is an 82-year-old woman and she has been bipolar for the majority of it. She has survived four children, a husband, wars, drought, unemployment, and all the other amazing adventures that this life throws of us.
And she taught me. For years she has simply and easily told me the stories of her life. The stories of her fears, her anger, her guilt, her passion. She has shown me what normalcy will never look like, and she showed me that the love of a good man can change everything. She has always been a little bit of a mess, to be honest; but that is absolutely okay as I am a mess as well. And she has given me the truth, the complete version of the stories no one else knows. Her husband doesn’t know what she felt, her children have only seen one image of their mother, and the world has seen the other. But for me she not only opened her arms, but she opened her soul so that I would never be alone.
When I had my children, it was her I turned to when I feared that the demons would touch my child. When I had my breaks, it was her I turned to when I feared that I would never be sane. When the medicine caused me to weigh less than a hundred pounds, it was only the comfort in her eyes that made me feel beautiful. She has been my touchstone, my life’s understanding, and the compassion that allows me to exist in this world. She is my soul mate in ways that others, including my mother, could never be.
My Grandmother is an incredible painter. With simple brush strokes she can create worlds that penetrate your insanity and make sense of the beautiful. She paints in watercolors, and there is often a rainy, silent quality about the gifts that bring the silence into a chaotic world. You can see clearly what she loves, and oftentimes her sense of humor deep in the colors. And each year, she paints a Christmas card. Last night I received mine.
The Christmas cards that she paints are her own version of celebration. She has a toy store, deer on a winter’s night, and this year a wagon full of poinsettia. That card, that gift is more valuable to me than a check for any amount. It represents what she loves, and the beauty that she sees in this world.
My Grandmother is 82 years old. She won’t live forever, and she may not even live through this Christmas. But if she does, than it will be one more day that I am blessed in my life. It will be one more story to get me through the darkest nights, and give me the sanity to continue. My Grandmother, Eileen, is everything good in this world; although it is tough for others who don’t understand her disease to see.
She has if not destroyed, than crippled many relationships in her life. There are fears and horrors her children now live with because of her disease. She has the knowledge that there was a time her husband look elsewhere for understanding and compassion, faced with a world that he had to control each and every day. There is the guilt that she feels concerning some of the decisions she made in her madness, and the understanding that the madness was often fed, never suppressed.
My Grandmother lived in a world where bipolar wasn’t a diagnosis. Where cures ranged from alcohol (her preference) to shock therapy. Where a mental disorder meant that you were locked away for months at a time, and children had to hide your very existence in fear of who you really were. A world where daughters had to grow up too fast to overtake the responsibilities that you could not. A world built with guilt and fear; a world where loneliness was more than a state of mind.
But through her experiences, through her stories I have learned how to find compassion. I have learned to recognize guilt and base my decisions on the idea that it is important to keep guilt to its very base, and I have learned that having a best friend is more important than having a lover.
One day, when she reaches those pearly gates, I hope God whispers to her all that she has given me, her granddaughter, and all that she is despite the disease that has tried to destroy her.