On the rivers I used to float upon in western Alaska, I liked to just eat the peanut butter out of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. There was just too much chocolate in the whole thing for me. As I sat on the edge of the big rubber raft in my waders and wading jacket, I would fling each piece of extra chocolate into the ripples below. A velvety gift to whoever fancied it.
I would eat ten or twelve before I could stop. The sugar kept me warm, through the constant rain on the Eek River, through the wind on the Kisaralik, under the dreary skies of the Kwethluk.
As we slowly floated down towards the Bering Sea, we wet our fly lines in the water on a continual search for the biggest rainbow trout we could find. We were competitive—me and the “real” fly-fishermen that floated the river alongside me.
They used six hundred dollar Sage and Orvis fly rods, glimmering Rolls Royces of the fishing world. I used a serviceable Elkhorn, costing half as much. They had six or seven rods with them, all of varying weights and lengths. I had one, an eight-weight, perfect for big rainbows, and red and silver salmon. I had a wet fly line with a sinking tip, which often gave me an advantage as we floated through the deep holes where many of the rainbows hid.
Today, ten years later, I still eat only the peanut butter, forsaking the chocolate. I fish on the weekends with my husband and our family and I still love to catch the biggest fish. I don’t give up when I’m fishing, even when I’m shivering in the rain, up to my waist in a river with ice still lining the side. I keep casting my line out, tying and retying different flies, relentless and unafraid. I love that I can cast my fly next to the ice, and the trout come darting out from under their ice cover to bite as my fly lingers just a few feet from the bank.
I am the same woman I was ten years ago, when I floated those rivers with my ex-husband’s family, except that now I have divorced and remarried. I have found a man who truly loves me, who takes care of me when I am ill, who thinks of me as an equal, as a partner. I have a found a man who says he depends on me as much as I depend on him. I have found a man who pooh-poohs the abysmal bipolar marriage and life expectancies, who is utterly convinced that I will survive and live a long, happy life with him and my two stepsons.
I will go home from work to this man in half-an-hour, and although I am in the midst of a mixed bipolar episode right now, he will comfort me as he always does. He will tell me he loves me, as he always does. He will try to make me believe him, as he always does, even though my brain is stuck in racing, rigid, painful loops, resistant and unable to believe that anybody—including myself—loves me.
Sometimes the bipolar confusion is so great that I even wonder who the man sitting next to me is…. Is it Frank? Is he really there? Or is someone tricking me into thinking he is there? Sometimes I wonder, in my confusion, whether he truly does love me. Usually I wonder if the episodes will ever end, if I will ever be okay and sometimes I wonder if I will actually give up, and find my handgun (which he has hidden and secured) and actually do it.
It was nearly 20 years ago, when I was 21 years old, that a psychiatrist, with a stern look in her eyes, turned to me and said: “You have bipolar disorder, type I. Do you know what that means?” I had taken Psychology 101 when I was a freshman at Georgetown University, and I had learned a little bit about mental illness. I knew what bipolar was, and when that doctor turned to me and said it, I already knew I had it. I had recently suffered through months of furious, ultra-rapid cycling, through daily ups-and-downs, through the peculiar and startling pain of mixed episodes, and—what would plague me during my entire bipolar life—the occasional overwhelming desire to take my own life.
When I am bipolar-sick, I feel like I have always been sick, and that I always will be. When I am well, I cannot imagine the ridiculous, obsessive thoughts that make me crumble when I am ill. These thoughts—that my husband does not love me, that I am a terrible person, that I am a bad mother, that I am generally undeserving of all goodness and love—overwhelm and control me when I am unwell, and yet somehow disappear when I am stable. My inability to comprehend these opposing facets of myself reminds me of trying to understand Alaska’s seasons: when it is summer in Alaska, it’s almost impossible to paint the green sides of the mountains white, or to imagine the feeling of thirty below zero when the sun is warm and the air is full of the insects that dance on the rivers where I fish.
I rarely experience true manic episodes anymore. Instead, I usually cycle through the turbulent, impulsive, and overwhelming sadness of my mixed episodes. I live for my healthy between-times when, like summer in Alaska, I am sunny and can barely remember the darkness. During my sunny times, I am strong. I am a wonderful wife and mother. I give, I love, I take care of my family. I write. I work. I fish. I try hard and give my all to everything I do.
When I crumble, I often think of a man named Nicholas Hughes. He was the son of Sylvia Plath, and a fisheries biologist with whom I worked at the University of Alaska. I think of how he finally hanged himself in his garage, after a long bout with depression. I think of his mother, and how she put her head in an oven. I think of myself as a mother and wonder how I can even deserve the sweet, laughing children in my life. I lie in my bed. I cry. I stop folding the clothes, cooking dinner, cleaning the house. The resulting guilt is palpable, and the suicidal thoughts often return. I think of Nicholas and Sylvia, and then I imagine myself, with a cold, hard gun barrel pressed against my chin. Despite the hugs from my stepchildren, despite the unrelenting love of my husband, I have occasionally wondered if, this time, I will finally give up. But I never do.
My husband does not know or understand all the things that go through my head when I am ill, and that is probably a good thing. He certainly tries to understand. He says “I love you,” over and over. He finds the lavender oil and rubs it onto my feet as I sob. He rubs my back, my cheeks, he holds my hand. He loves me, and he never gives up.
When I fish, I do not cycle through my mixed episodes. I do not cry or get depressed. I do not hold my hands in my head and feel like exploding into screams. I do not think the songbirds, with their spring whistles and jeers, are poking fun at me.
My husband paddles the canoe for me while I fish. I cast around and over his head and all around, always looking for the right hole. He plies the water silently, and when I can’t pull a hook from a fish’s mouth, he does it for me. We are quiet. He smiles at my inability to give up: “One more cast,” I say, over and over again.
Later on, before we fall asleep, he holds me. Even though this is the time when my worry channel turns on and I start asking doubtful questions, he tells me the answer to all my questions. There is only one answer, he says, and that is the only one I need to always remember. The answer is, “I love you.” He says it will settle all the doubts and insecurities, the fears and the nervousness about being bipolar. He says it as if it can rattle my brain out of its rigid loops. He tries his best, and I try mine.
To be honest, just hearing the words, “I love you,” is not enough. The love is wonderful and the love is what I need, but my brain still usually rejects it. There is only one thing that gets me through the bipolar cycles and that is time. It is a cliché but, during my cycles, the only way is through. He certainly can make it better, and he certainly could make it worse, but the cycle almost always continues, no matter what we do, until my brain and body are exhausted and the logical thoughts slowly seep in again. Even though I want to, I never give up.
I fish. In my thoughts I am often fly-fishing. My friend at work, an avid Christian, says that I should imagine casting my fly (my anxieties and my worries) out into the river (to God). I should rid myself of them—she says I should give them over to God. I try this, too, when I am in my bed, scared and crying about nothing at all. “Give it over to God,” I say, over and over. But God is often silent at these times.
I take my medicine. I try herbal supplements. I go to bed on time every night. I try essential oils and aromatherapy. I try affirmations and herbal tea. I try rearranging my thought patterns. I try everything in my arsenal. I keep on trying. But again, it always comes down to time. After it starts, it always comes down to time. I just have to go through it.
Winston Churchill once said, “Never, never, never give up.” It is a simple saying, but I try to remember it. Giving up would be finding that gun, taking too many of those pills, hurting myself, and devastating my family. My brain has tried to kill me a thousand times and I have written dozens of suicide notes. But I’ve never given up.
They say bipolar disorder can, on average, take 20 years off of your life. Between the side effects of the drugs, and the alarming suicide rate, so many of us die before our time.
But I am still here. For some reason.
I fish. I eat the peanut butter and let the chocolate go. And I never give up. I cast, and I say, over and over again, one cycle after another: “one more try.”