Seven and a half years ago, on the night of my 35th birthday, I told my husband that I wanted a divorce.
It was 2 AM. Maybe we’d been arguing, I can’t remember. I can’t remember a lot from that period, except the embarrassment. I remember the embarrassment with incredible accuracy.
Earlier that evening we’d gone to dinner with my grandparents to a local Italian place. I can’t remember the name of the place; it’s not there anymore. It was replaced first by a Japanese place that served sushi that was only barely decent. Then by a Chinese place. Then a place that served Pho. Now I think it’s a Mexican food place.
I had Carbonara, which I also remember. It was surprisingly good for a place that would be out of business in 6 months. We had a bottle of red wine, probably Cabernet. I didn’t love wine yet, but I drank it because it seemed like the grown up adult thing to do when you’re 35.
We went home and put the kids to bed; they were 14, 11 and nine then.
And at 2 AM, when he asked what was wrong with me, I told him I wanted a divorce.
He asked me to reconsider, pleaded the way only someone who has known you 20 years, who has seen you through every awful thing that has happened to you since you were 14, can.
I didn’t reconsider.
I feel the deepest level of shame, shame to my very core, that I walked away from my children. That 2 AM seemed like a good time to leave my kids and the only family they’d even known, to create a new family that they never asked for. I have bipolar disorder. And this is what unmedicated mental illness looks like for me.
The next day we sent the kids to school and decided how to tell them. Maybe it was me who thought it would be a good idea to take them to pizza after telling them their lives were about to be ripped apart. Another poor choice in a long list of poor choices.
He told me if I wanted to split up our family, I’d have to leave. So I left.
I left my children there, the people I made in my body. The people who meant more to me than anything, I left at home. Before I left, my 14-year-old gave me something she’d made with Perler beads, a little boy playing soccer. I kept him in the bag I took when I left, right up until last week.
When I took the figure out of the overnight bag, the black one with cherries on it, that I still use and still hate, I broke his foot off, and I cried. The foot can probably be ironed back on, but that’s not the point.
The point is, I broke him, and them.
In the year before I left my family, I left myself.
My body wasted, worn down and broken from an eating disorder I denied. I stocked and stashed laxatives around the house. I ran until I fractured my leg and then ran on it still, even though it was excruciating until I broke it all the way.
And even then, I went to the gym and spent an hour a day on the elliptical on the broken leg. The elliptical is a low impact machine, or that’s what I told myself. In my broken brain, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable alternative to running on the road.
I lost ⅔ of my body weight in six months.
I bought handbags costly enough to feed a small nation, a drawer full of yoga pants from Lululemon, running shorts, dozens of new bras, thousands of dollars of new clothes. Every pound I lost deserved a reward, and I gave them to myself.
Despite barely hanging on to our ballooned mortgage, I shopped. At J. Crew, Gap, Macy’s. Nowhere too expensive. I must have figured no one would notice. Until the debt piled up and refused to be hidden.
The day after I told my husband I wanted a divorce, I packed my bag with my Perler-bead boy, two pairs of overpriced Lulu shorts, two sports bras, underwear, two sundresses, two bras with matching panties that I’d bought the week before, and my toothbrush. I went to my grandparent's house.
I went there — I guess because it was the closest place, three blocks from my house, in a tiny town where everyone lives no more than a few miles away from each other. My grandmother gave me a room with a giant bed covered in an equally giant comforter which was in turn covered with roses. That night I drove around, with regret, but also a bizarre mix of conviction and pride, sure I’d made the right choice.
One day after that, I left my grandparents' house to visit my sister three hours away. Fourteen years younger than me, she was in college at the time, pursuing the degree I never got, but she was away for the weekend. Instead of waiting for her, I bypassed the campus and drove to the Bay Area where I met my (now) husband.
We spent two nights and days together.
I’ve never written this. I’ve scarcely repeated this story to anyone outside a very tight-knit circle.
I am ashamed.
I’m not ashamed about the love I feel for my husband and the two babies we went on to make. I’m not embarrassed by the strength and struggle of what most would call a rebound marriage and the blended family, both beautiful and disastrous, that goes with it.
I feel the deepest level of shame, shame to my very core, that I walked away from my children. That 2 AM seemed like a good time to leave my kids and the only family they’d even known, to create a new family that they never asked for.
I have bipolar disorder. And this is what unmedicated mental illness looks like for me.
When the fog of a long season of depression lifts, and the manic energy arrives, bringing with it a bunch of irrational decisions, it’s easy to flush your meds — which is exactly what I did — right down the 50-year-old pink toilet, in the first house I ever owned.
I quite literally flushed all my meds because exercise and diet had restored my sanity. Or at least fooled me into thinking my sanity had been restored.
And with that “cure” came insurmountable debt, an eating disorder that leached the calcium from my bones, a delinquent mortgage, and a black overnight bag with cherries on it, filled with two days of clothes, a toothbrush, and a tiny beaded figure that my 14-year-old thought would give me comfort while I was gone.
My grandmother came into the spare bathroom situated across from the spare bedroom I was sleeping, but not really ever sleeping in, without knocking. The sight of my wasted body, the protruding collar bones, the sagging skin, must have alarmed her. I was too busy thinking about the ten more pounds I needed to lose to notice or acknowledge her reaction or when she said she was going to the kitchen to make me the mashed potatoes and gravy I’d take two bites of and then rinse into the sink.
When I came back from the Bay Area and the two days that I had sought to make me forget the mess I had left, I borrowed $1200 from my grandparents and rented a tiny two bedroom apartment. In that apartment, I’d make spaghetti for my kids, and we’d eat it off of a wicker patio table that had, the week before, been next to my grandmother's pool. They would go to sleep on small twin-size air mattresses I bought at Target. I would lay awake on the queen size version. Because I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and also because mania robs you of sleep, making you believe two hours is sufficient.
I had only a few things my ex let me have, a few things that I had charged on a credit card that wasn’t entirely maxed out, a fluffy floral sofa and a patio table that my grandmother gave me. And my mania and my shame.
I listened to the song "Lucky" on repeat, singing along, crying and learning the chords so I could play it on the acoustic guitar my dad had given me on the birthday I celebrated before I left everything behind for a new life.
I was so lucky to have a new life and a new person to love, who loved me.
And I was on a manic cloud that made it all seem so perfectly idyllic.
That’s what mania did to me.
But I can’t blame it. Not because it wasn’t there, but because that’s a bullshit excuse. I wish I could say that every mistake I’ve made, every lousy decision, is all a manifestation of my faulty brain chemistry. But the truth is, even if it was the mania, I still have to sleep with the image of my kids crying over pizza the night I told them that I’d never share that house, the first one we’d bought, scrimped and saved for, again.
Four years after the wicker patio table and that hideous sofa, I saw the psychiatrist who would finally officially diagnose me over a bag of Sunchips and a Starbucks latte. The man that would medicate me, adjusting formulations over and over, until a year after that, I was at last, after 20 years, stable.
I haven’t had a single suicidal thought in nine months. I haven’t had a manic episode in much longer than that. I can’t remember a lot of words or phone numbers and addresses I had memorized for 20 years — because that’s what Lamictal does while it keeps me from buying useless shit instead of paying my mortgage.
My mouth is dry, and I gained 15 pounds — because that’s what Zoloft does while it keeps my OCD and eating disorder at an arm’s distance and my depression suffocated. For a while, I was on one medication that made me fall asleep sitting up. I can’t remember what it’s called because I was asleep, and also because of Lamictal stealing my words.
But I take them every day, eight of them, along with a colorful handful of supplemental horse pills that I hope do something to counteract what the pharmaceuticals are doing to my liver. Every morning with breakfast, over coffee with the man I adore. Every night at the bathroom sink, right before I shea butter my hands and spoon to sleep with that same guy.
And I sleep. Mostly restful. At least five hours usually, always striving for seven. Our two littles sneak into our king-size bed and kick me in the face. Sometimes I end up on the bottom 5% of that giant mattress. And it makes me angry because no one likes to get kicked in the face by a six-year-old, but then I wake up, and I love them even more than the day before.
I am still ashamed. But despite that, or in spite of that, my life is beautiful.
I have all I need and most of what I want. When I can’t sleep, I can write at 1 AM, and in the morning I will have coffee that is made just how I like it, by a man who is my match, paired with my pharmacy of meds, and probably two fried eggs that we collected from our backyard hens the day before. My big kids, two of whom are adults now, are fantastic. The two kids Matt and I made, that united our family around a common love, are people I can’t imagine living without. My life is as perfect as I could ever ask for or deserve.
And the Perler bead soccer guy is on my dresser. A reminder of why I swallow a dozen pills every day.