The glass doors caught my suitcase as I stepped into a hollow lobby and got onto the elevator, surrounded by doctors in scrubs and baggy-eyed visitors with paper coffee cups in their hands. One by one they stepped off at their appointed floor—cardiology, pediatrics, oncology. On seven, signs to “Psychiatric” led me to a steel door with a tiny window webbed with fine metal strands.
“You have to leave your suitcase and purse and anything you’ve brought for Max here. We’ve got to check everything. No sharps,” which I learned included belts, nail clippers, pens, even the half-filled bottle of juice I had tucked under my arm.
I found Max lying in his bed, legs drawn up to his chest. “Matty,” I whispered. He sat up and smiled—looking at me with a haunted kind of relief. I wrapped my arms around him, thankful to have my hands on my kid, his frame angular and sharp. His eyes retreated into hollow orbs above edged cheekbones; his body slouched with exhaustion. Ugly torn blisters, red and bleeding, covered his heels and toes. He turned onto his belly and I kneaded his shoulders, ran the heel of my hand along each side of his spine. He was so quiet and I wondered where his mind drifted. I had no inkling of what he was experiencing—whether he was glad or scared, reliving his days on the streets of Chicago, or lost somewhere else entirely.
I spent hours in the psychiatric unit that week, interrupted only by walks along Lake Michigan or wanderings through the Water Tower, a vertical mall just blocks from my hotel. I often ended up in the bookstore, sitting on a stepstool with yet another book about bipolar disorder open in my lap. I studied the pages, eighty on medication alone: SSRI’s, MAOI’s, Benzodiazepines, anti-psychotics, calcium channel blockers, and drug complications. Somewhere in these pages, I hoped I’d find answers from the experts. But their advice was thin. I needed something more immediate.
So I began my own list:
#1—Try to smile when you walk onto the psych unit.
#2—Remember that normal is overrated.
#3—Don’t give up the battle with the insurance company and their message machines.
#4—Control yourself when the doctor who says he’s always in by seven doesn’t show up until you decide to go get lunch and is gone by the time you get back.
#5—Never cry in front of Max.
#6—Call your sister and cry to her instead.
#7—Remember to eat and sleep.
#8—Pretend you’re not afraid.
#9—Know that Max and I will get through this.
#10—When things seem hopeless, reread the sentence in the book that says, “Winston Churchill had manic depression.
Excerpted from “Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness”