The Gift is the Curse: On Writing AWYITE
I remember very clearly the day I sat in my therapist’s office and told her that once again, something had offset the production of my writing pipeline. “There’s a guy in my head fake-smoking a joint,” I said. “In a park. In Chicago. And he’s been there for about a week, doing nothing. Just fake-smoking and staring into nothing.”
She asked the normal questions that authors usually ask themselves; what is he doing there, why that setting, why fake-smoking and not real smoking, why have I presented this as some sort of crisis when generally speaking I am alive and healthy (?) and fine.
“I think,” I began, before hesitating, my functional adult thoughts struggling to coexist with my, let’s say, artistic ones. “I think he’s waiting for something, and he can't move until I figure it out.” By which I meant, of course, that my previous goal of writing something with even one iota of marketability was frozen, too.
As I recall, the session ended with a bland sense of satisfaction, as therapy sessions often do. Okay, so I hadn’t gotten an A in therapy that day, but my mental condition was a chronic one. A compendium of little bug fixes here and there, treating the symptoms and easing the condition of living but never eradicating the sickness. That was mine, a non-transferable quality of my specific existence—my gift or my curse, depending on how you looked at it.
Because a few days later, a woman woke up inside my head, and then the man in the park moved, and I understood everything. And then I started to write.
“The gift is the curse” is what musician Halsey had to say about their bipolar. In context, the quote is: “If a typical person can think about 5 things at once, a bipolar person can think about 50. The gift is the curse.”
When I first got diagnosed, my now-husband, then-boyfriend read a lot of books. Loving Someone with Bipolar was one. I cried when I read about how a bipolar person can be triggered by anything, good or bad. The reaction won’t be normal, it won’t be predictable, they might fall into a depression after their wedding, even marrying the love of their life could be terrible for everyone involved, ha ha. Another was A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. “I feel like it makes sense,” my husband told me encouragingly. “The line between genius and illness has to be so thin.”
Obviously, I didn’t—I don’t—consider myself a genius. I understand what he means, though. Once, for a course in law school, we had to put on a trial—so much of academia is a Very Important rehearsal—for an audience of attorneys and judges. My feedback, as I remember very clearly, was a bemused, slightly awed: “Nearly everything you said was wrong, but whatever ‘it’ is, you have it.”
In my moments of imposter syndrome, I hear that judge in my head like I’m still standing there, winded from my rousing performance as a normal human being who hadn’t cried earlier in the bathroom, who wasn’t comically reliant on a set of pills typically given to construction workers who operate cranes (which of course I needed for the crucial task of getting through the day), who wasn’t dying inside, a little more every day, from the irreversible realization that lawyers—by which I mean not just agents of the law but, more specifically, people in the career that I had up to that point nearly killed myself working toward at inadvisable, idiotic, breakneck pace—that lawyers have their hands tied behind their backs by precedent, by bad precedent, by a system of policy built on the politics of exclusion and hate and probably, almost certainly, Ronald fucking Reagan, and then I remember thinking I hope I hope I hope that whatever “it” is, it can stay just dazzling enough for just long enough that I am allowed to feel one insignificant shred of meaning. One moment of knowing that I and all this pain and horror and love and rage and maniacal joy inside of me have a reason for existing this way, in this shape. With this much brokenness. This many cracks.
And then I read the Halsey interview and thought oh yeah, for sure. Absolutely. The gift is definitely the curse.
I was in law school when I was diagnosed. My husband and I talk all the time about the variety of ways the trajectory of our lives could have gone differently, which kind of begin and end with me doing something hugely uncharacteristic and asking for help at all.
I’d known I had a problem for a long time, since I was a teenager. When I was in college I showed a lot of alarming symptoms, and a very caring doctor made me promise to see someone in university mental health services. A very good idea, actually, to do so while everything was on campus and not a wild attempt to navigate the intricacies of privatized American healthcare. But I’m the daughter of an immigrant and in my family, mental health is an untenable binary: either a lie that Americans tell their patients to make money, or just, like, insanity. You’re an idiot or you’re crazy, end of. So I sat there and witnessed the mental tabulation of my problematic answers and then I deleted the voicemail before the initial diagnosis could land, if it even did. Come to think of it they probably do not deliver that kind of news over the phone, but the point is I didn’t go back. I self-medicated with the usual things, channeled my compulsive brain into success or something, which is how I ended up walking into law school at twenty-two with a masters and the general sense that what I’d wanted before—my urban planning degree—wasn’t right, but this would be. It would have to be; I would make it fit. I would change my shape until I broke and reset cleanly. It would be easy, or if it would not be easy, then it would be fine.
I do not consider myself a lovable person. Even then I didn’t imagine a world where someone loved me, where I was married with babies by thirty as so many of my Midwestern classmates would do. I used to joke that I would find someone when I was forty, maybe, after I’d gotten the corner office and acquired a casual drug problem or whatever. Probably someone tired who just wanted a warm body to hang out with at night.
Then I met my husband by chance, completely outside of law school and therefore outside the hypercompetitive world I’d been so prepared to thrive (“thrive”) in, a world where the actual state of my mind body and heart were essentially insignificant so long as I just won and won and won—and then I met him and I thought, oh god. Oh god, I wouldn’t wish me on him for anything. Not for anything.
But I wanted so badly to try.
The gift is the curse and for a while I smothered it and had nothing. I started psychotherapy and said I want drugs, allllllll the drugs, whatever I have to do so that I’m fixed, so that the ups and downs stop happening (and in a whisper: so that a good person who deserves better than me will not come to the only sensible conclusion and leave). From a pharmacological perspective, mood disorders are a process of trial and error—there’s no telling what drugs will work or for how long. When brain chemistry changes, so does the treatment plan. Doctors think mania is worse than depression despite the lived experience being highly, highly the other way around. So while I tried to get my raging sadness under control, I dashed out of dinner with his family (nausea) lost weight (unspeakable atrocities to my digestive system) stopped sleeping (oops dosage too high) slept for three days straight (fuckfuckfuck dosage WAY too high) sat paralyzed in front of my closet weeping real tears over false feelings while he whispered quietly into the phone “So sorry, she’s not feeling well, we can’t make it” (because the pills didn’t work sometimes). I did not perform all that admirably in law school.
“We’re concerned you’re not working hard enough,” said the person in charge of, I don’t know, babysitting underperforming students. I was treasurer of the student body at the time.
I was also, importantly, a law clerk for the public defender’s office, which was, as most critical social services are, woefully underfunded. My supervising attorney had hundreds of open cases at a time, an impossible workload that compounded every week depending on who was newly in lock-up, so it became my job to meet them, gather their stories, speak with their families, explain their cases back to them. Multiple clients of mine were diagnosed with mental illnesses similar to mine, in some cases prescribed the same pills. “I hate how they make me feel,” one of these clients said to me in private. “I hate it, I can’t do it, I don’t recognize myself.”
Yes, I thought, I know the feeling. I know exactly the feeling, who even am I anymore? “I know, I know, but just keep taking them,” I said with a modicum of dignity. I wish I’d begged.
He was arrested for a separate crime, I later learned. The pills hadn’t stuck and he was just one example, just one hyper-personal loss over a three year period of crushing, cataclysmic failure. During that time I earned only one not-guilty verdict, for an innocent man who sat in jail awaiting trial for the entirety of those three years. His baby son was walking now, talking. His wife had left him. How do you explain three years of irresponsible prosecutors on a resume? My heart was breaking. My heart was breaking, so I did what most people do when their hearts break. I left.
But this is not a story about leaving. It’s a story about gifts and curses, and so is the one I was eventually able to tell.
Her name is Charlotte Regan. The woman who woke up in my head. By the time I met her, I had already been trying to be a writer (or failing to be a writer, as it felt at the time) for several years. After leaving law school I immediately wrote something I now refer to as my primal scream manuscript. I don’t remember it well and I put it aside. Years later, the impulse to write would find me again on an insomniatic evening that became an insomniatic week. My pills had run out and my psychiatrist stopped returning my calls, for reasons I still don’t know (I was, sigh, poor). But I was awake, my brain was buzzing, so I started writing fan fiction to pass the time. Then stories. Then books. Anything I could write, I wrote. Later I realized the more I wrote, the more I felt myself come back to me. The version of myself I’d been trying to smother had been dormant, but she obviously wasn’t the problem. And she also wasn’t dead.
I knew I felt better without pills, but I also knew my brain was a liar. I was married by then, and even if I wasn’t lovable, I was at least responsible in love. I wasn’t leaving my happiness to chance (what if I pushed him away? what if I ruined it, my fragile peace?). So, if I couldn’t have pills, I knew I needed therapy. I did not ignore the sickness. I just looked for a better cure, which sometimes meant new methods of coping. Sometimes it just meant choosing to believe someone when they said I love you and you never have to leave if you don’t want to. I love you and I want you to stay.
Which brings me back to that therapist’s office and the story at hand—back to the man, Aldo Damiani, who was fake-smoking a joint in my brain, trying to solve what I didn’t yet know was time travel with a theory I didn’t yet grasp was mine, because it had taken every moment of my life up to that point for me to understand.
In the book I hadn’t yet realized I was writing, Regan—biracial, bisexual, bipolar—wakes up a ghost of her former self. Not because she’s on mood stabilizers. Not because she hasn’t yet known love. But because she has been put on ice, unable to face her fear of inadequacy; the fundamental unworthiness she thinks is some secret truth. She is full of self-sabotage, a familiar lifetime of intrusive thoughts. She isn’t me, of course, but she is made of my deficits, my heartbreak. She is made of all the lies I allowed myself to believe, but she is also made of a time in my life when I could look back on who I’d been and be kinder. The moment I knew it was a gift, this curse, because I understood something now that I hadn’t before. The moment she woke up was the moment I knew I had something to say.
So, Charlotte Regan wakes up one day in Chicago and does not believe she is lovable. But because I am in therapy, because I have spent years proving to myself that being worthy of love is not predicated on a condition of perfection—because I have my pain and regrets and have not allowed them to diminish me—I know that she’s wrong, and that everyone who reads her and believes what she believes is wrong. I know from the moment she opens her eyes that she is afraid and the man smoking in the park cannot heal her. He will not fix her. But he will wake her up, and because he does, she will understand something about the world that she didn’t before, which is that whatever “it” is, she has it.We—meaning she and I, and you, if this is your story too, because I am many things but not selfish—we have it, and it is not illness. It is also not love. It is pain and it is resilience. It is fear and it is joy. It is loud and unignorable and it is not for everyone, because it is far too precious for that. It is the gift, it is the curse. It is ugly, but it is not unworthy.
And it, whatever it is, is irrevocably ours.
Alone with You in the Ether is available now.