The Downside, The Upside, The Dark Side
– Non-Fiction by Barbara Caceres –
According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) One in five adults live with a mental health condition and 5.7 million face the ravages of Bipolar Disorder.
The author shares an essay as she speaks directly to the illness that accompanies her every day.
The Downside, The Upside, The Dark Side
I’ve been waiting for you. Patiently waiting among the sepia pages and crisp black and white edges. I don’t mind when you leave, not really. I needed a break and have enjoyed the naps, solitude and quiet and falling asleep at 8:30 and waking up at 7:30 and the ice cream and rum and cokes—but not the weight. I’ve packed on 10 pounds and quit yoga. I damned near caved in during your last visit. When the valerian root tea stopped working and I couldn’t sleep—at all. I went to see a doctor and told him. Yes I did! I told him all about you and how much I loved you and how you were there when I needed the extra energy or the words. Yes—the words. I cried a little when I told him how you helped with my poetry—our poetry. He smiled and I saw how handsome he was. He was impressed that I’d never been fired from a job because of you. I didn’t tell him that although I’ve never been fired—I have had nine different jobs at the same company in the past 15 years and it was you that gave me the confidence to make a move when I needed to. You taught me how to shine and charm my way through interviews.
When you left I spent long hours alone. I read six books and became invisible at work, grinding through each day and checking the clock every ten minutes or so. Like I said, I needed a break and I’m not sad when you leave, not really.
But a few days ago I began to sense you. I knew you were nearby! I got all riled up about some small injustice done to one of my coworkers and then last night I laughed with my husband—really laughed—hard and loud, and it felt so good. And this morning I woke up at 2. Bam! You’re back and I’m so excited. Fuck the long dark days of November.
I cut my own hair a few days ago. I did! I just couldn’t spend the money and it needed to be done. I bent over and brushed all my hair down, gathered it and cut off two inches with a pair of pinking shears. I read somewhere a long time ago that Jennifer Aniston used to cut her own hair that way. Well I’m sure it was before she was very famous and it was my idea to use pinking shears. It’s not bad but shorter in the front than I intended and the look is feathered. Oh God—circa 1975. Whatever—hair grows—end of story, no big deal.
You and I are going to have a blast this winter. I’ve missed my creative cohort and I need you to stay with me at least until the first of the year. There’s some shit going on at work and it really hit the fan last week. I know, I know—your timing couldn’t be better! I need you to help guide me through the river of corporate bullshit. Without you it just rises, and rises, pulsing warm and smelly against my throat so that I can hardly breathe. It’ll be ok. I always think to myself….they’ll either fire me or promote me—ha!
I have a good analogy for how different I am with you. It came to me a few days ago just after Halloween. You see we had these glow sticks hanging on our front door and I brought them in the next day and laid them on the kitchen table. A few were still glowing very brightly and I thought—that’s me. I’m a fucking glow stick. When you’re not here I’m still me. I look the same and have all the same physical and emotional components. But something wonderfully amazing happens when you are near and something inside breaks and floods my brain with an amazing light. Neurotransmitters go wild and I’m super charged. My intellectual capacity expands, my wit and charm emanate and attract. I am a powerhouse! Even my heart grows bigger—just like the Grinch’s heart in Dr. Seuss’s story—I can actually feel it enlarging. Pounding harder and growing bigger. A cardiac erection! And when this happens I think I have it all figured out—the solution to homelessness and unemployment and the answer to why some mothers don’t love their children. I want to open a shelter that provides food and warmth and art therapy! I want to teach the illiterate how to read! I want to help the broken souls love again.
It’s so quiet now. The clock reads 2:45 but it’s actually 1:45 AM because of Daylights Saving and I am up and alone by the fireplace just writing away and drinking a cup of tea. I put away the coffee just like I always do when you show up. I don’t mind really. The last couple times I drank it I felt sick to my stomach and I think my blood pressure rose a little too high. This’ll be a good break from all that caffeine that usually courses through my veins. Don’t need it now anyway! Did I ever tell you I actually drink a full pot of coffee every morning when you leave? I know, I know but caffeine is a drug and I guess I’ve built up a bit of a—tolerance.
I wish I understood you better. I’ve read everything you asked me to read but it all still seems so magical and mysterious. The upside to you is you—I mean me. We are here for each other and always will be.
I can see it now, the hanging fruit dying on the branch. I know what you mean and I feel how you must have felt. Those ideas, dreams and visions of projects that will never see fruition. Is that how the image of the tree was crafted in your brain? For lack of fruition? My tree has several branches now, as it always does during these days of rapid growth. I see new tender green budding and it excites and terrifies at the same time. Branches quickly fill with the heavy weight of a thousand ideas, all of them perfect and desirable, all of them out of my reach.
Language has come back too as it always does and I no longer need the television to feed me words. I have all of it—every word I ever learned and forgot. And not just English. How boring that would be! The other day at the clinic a Spanish-speaking patient arrived. Her interpreter was running late but I did my best and my best when the tree is blooming is supreme. “Como se llama?” I ask her name and then, “?Que es su numero medico?” Even if it’s broken it works and I smile and continue, “Tenemos papeles para tu. Mira, ella es aqui!” And the interpreter arrives and I thank them both as my co-workers look on is astonishment. Tagalog too has returned and I am awake at two AM waking my spouse and amusing him with a litany of words and phrases; “Akoy nagugutum. Akoy nalilibugan!” I’m hungry. I’m horny! “Saan ka pupunta?” Where are you going? And then it spills out and I’m like a child reciting the alphabet, “Ulo, mata, ilong, taina, bibig, kamay, puso.” Head, eye, nose, ear, lips, hand and heart. And I laugh with my partner in the dark, as we are both wide awake now and staring at the ceiling. “Sikmura, paa!” Stomach , foot. “Gusto mabang uminum ng tubig.” I want a glass of water.
It’s October. The moon is luscious, sitting low and buttery on the horizon. I want to touch it, bite it, fold myself into its creaminess. I’m drawn to it and nearly drove my car up on the curb trying to catch a better glimpse the other day! Damn the conifers—they seem to always be blocking my line of vision. But there is an unobstructed view from the parking garage where I wait for the train. I intentionally park facing West so we can be together for a few minutes before the Sounder arrives. Yesterday morning a faraway jet passed overhead and it was magical. Its shadow crossing your glow and reminding me of childhood pictures at Halloween—the witch on the broom and the moon. Wiccans call you Diana. You are luna, lunar. Am I a lunatic?
It’s Saturday and I’m up at 4 AM writing this essay. I should be working on the project I started on Thursday. I should have written the idea for that poem. The one about hands reaching out for help. I should be harvesting now. Gathering the ripe fruit. Carefully placing each heavy piece in a basket. They won’t last long and I now see what you saw. I can even smell the sugar fermenting and I’m lost in the sticky, sweet flesh that falls apart in my hands and I wonder if you are watching? If you were here maybe we could figure this out together. Or would we just be two sleepless lunatics staring at the moon under a tree full of rotten fruit?
You never take me so far down that I forget what it’s like to glow. I’m blessed that way. You also never push me too hard or fast toward the edge. I am never in danger of taking a nosedive off the side and, again, I am very aware of how lucky I am in that respect. So many are thrown into the abyss. So many are elevated to a perceived omnipotence that they lose touch. I eat more, drink more and wrap myself in a blanket of black coffee and yet I am as calm as a sleeping puppy. My dark side is a quiet time. A time for reading and ponder. A time for refection and rest. I know I am blessed to have only mild depression and hypomania. It’s part of my DNA, my personality. I am bipolar and my children know no other mother. My spouse knows no other wife. It is who I am. I am fortunate to have found balance within an unbalanced mind. It is by God’s grace that my condition is not severe.
I do think I understand somewhat how bad it could be though.
My first visit from you was at age 15. We became fast friends and I loved the excitement, the exhilaration and especially the weight loss. You failed to warn me that you’d be leaving soon and your departure was followed by a one time single, devastating depression. I was 17 then. A Navy Brat who attended 16 different schools. It got so bad at one point that I could not hear what people were saying. My brain had slowed and was not able to process language. I gained 25 pounds as my rate of metabolism plummeted. I would go days without speaking. I read. Books saved me. Words saved me. Music and books and words (lyrics) helped tremendously and it was during this time that I discovered poetry. First in song and then in my own heart. I wrote page after page of rhyming poetry. Sad, melancholy verses of love and longing.
You stayed for months—nearly a year, and when you finally left I was relieved. You had overstayed your visit and while I didn’t want to be rude—I had a life to live! I needed more than you could give.
You returned in the spring, entering the room and taking over my brain as quickly as if flipping a light switch. I was a little nervous at first but I followed your lead, trying not to worry about your unpredictability. I’m never quite sure about your intentions but that’s ok. It just feels so damn good to be in your arms again! It just feels so damn good. I don’t care how long you stay. Just promise me you’ll never leave permanently. Promise me. Show me how to kiss the sky.
About the Author – Barbara Caceres
Barbara Caceres is a poet from the Pacific Northwest who is published in Off the Coast Poetry Journal of Maine, Literary Yard, Sheila Na Gig, Eye on Life and Deep South Magazine. In 2011 she completed a non-fiction writing program at the University of Washington and has spent more than 20 years working in the healthcare field. She is currently taking time off work to garden and perhaps write a few short stories.
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