The Solo Retreat

I needed to get away and I knew that if I didn’t go now, it would be a long time before the opportunity would arise again. Two nights were all I could afford which meant my solo retreat would have to stay within the boundaries of my state. Luckily, Arizona isn’t all a sizzling, hot desert full of saguaros, prickly pears, rattle snakes, and buzzards. Just a couple hours drive north of Phoenix and I’m at a blissful nine thousand foot elevation, surrounded by pine trees and a cool, mountain breeze. I’m in Flagstaff.

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I’ve been to Flagstaff many times. I used to be intimately familiar with it because I’d gone to school, lived, and worked there when I was younger.

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Solo retreats are a wonderful way to recharge. I’ve had enough practice that each one I take is better than the last. This particular one couldn’t have come at a better time. A week or so prior, I’d had an emotional wakeup call from a rather unexpected source. Ten years ago, I would have let my emotions consume me. But this time I still wept, but I also interpreted this reality check as a sign. My life needed to change, in a big way. And for that, I needed to separate myself from the usual distractions. I needed to be alone.

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There was no plan really. I brought lots of books, magazines, paper and writing utensils. I left the laptop at home and went analog as much as possible. I posted a picture a time or two to Instagram and Facebook, but only when I was in my hotel room where there was Wi-Fi.

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I arrived in Flagstaff on a Sunday. Since it was still a too early to check into my hotel room, I browsed through the untranslated French at Bookmans, choosing a book by Françoise Sagan that had what appeared to be a squashed bug stuck to the title page. I bought the book anyway as well as a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then I sat down with a frozen coffee drink in the café. By the time I was done it was time to check in.

As soon as my hotel room was ready, I checked in, unpacked a little, and just rested until the sun was low enough in the sky for optimum photography. Besides, I needed a little time to adjust to the altitude.

IMG_4703Around four-thirty, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown. When I arrived, I followed the sound of drumming and shouting to its source: an anti-police protest.

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The protesters were a small but passionate group of young people. I watched them carry their signs chanting, “Black lives matter; Red lives matter; Blue lives murder.” There were no African American protesters but there were Native Americans and sympathetic white people shouting and marching through streets and alley ways. Ironically, they were followed by a few policemen. I’m not sure who they were supposed to be protecting – us or them. I don’t know the stories of the people the protestors seemed to be honoring either. Were they killed by the police too, like so many we’ve been hearing about on the news?

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I’ve never participated in a protest. I remember talking to someone about it when I was studying in France fourteen years ago, though. In France, it seemed like the young people were always protesting something. Protesting was second only to going on strike, it seemed. My French friend and I wondered if protests ever actually made a difference. He didn’t think so. From what he understood, most protests were more like social gatherings or parties anyway. It’s like, let’s all unite under a common hate, make signs, and yell at people because it’s fun. Afterward we’ll have a beer together.

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I went to the bar in the basement of Charlie’s for dinner. It was nice being the only customer and making small talk with the young bartender. But I should’ve known it was too good to last. Two young ladies came in and sat at the bar a little ways from me. They were blond, tipsy, and very pretty. I attempted to talk to them as well and, when that didn’t work, I pulled a book out of my purse and endeavored to read.

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As more people shuffled in, I abandoned the bar and finished my dinner at a nearby table. I must’ve looked like a sight for sore eyes anyway: fat, no makeup, and a scarf on my head to keep sweat from dripping in my eyes. The other people at the bar were, at the very least, a decade younger than me. I imagine when they reach my age, they’ll be married with children and bars such as this will no longer seem appealing.

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As I wandered around town, I’d sometimes overhear the newest generation of university students talking about their assignments or extra-curricular activities. In the poetry section at the bookstore, I witnessed two twenty-something ladies fan-girl over dead poets. They exuded a such a raw, youthful passion the likes of which I’d not seen since I was their age. One of the girls talked about lining her bookshelves with beautiful, vintage editions of the timeless works of great poets.

IMG_4922The next day I decided to I needed to see dinosaur tracks and headed north on 89A toward Tuba City and Page. I’d read about the tracks in Phoenix Magazine but I didn’t expect the road to feel quite so long. Most of the drive was through the Navajo Reservation and, aside from the occasional Navajo jewelry vendors, there weren’t many places to stop along the way. So I listened to my Voyage Imaginaire playlist with its 283 songs about journeys, destinations, home or being foreign. I also squeezed in a few songs to help me imagine I’m already far from here. Sometimes I tell myself it’s too long for a single playlist, and yet it sustained all the way there and back.

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The dinosaur tracks were pretty amazing. It remind me of my brief obsession with paleontology when I was a kid, before Jurassic Park was even a thing. I asked my guide if there was anything in traditional Navajo beliefs to explain dinosaurs and she said they don’t even have a word for dinosaur in her language (I think she said the elders used to call it “giant bird” or something like that). But she’d lived on that part of the Res her whole life. The fossilized footprints were kind of like her backyard where she played as a little girl.

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I had no clue where to go next but the day was still young so I just followed the signs to Page. Lake Powell, Glen Canyon and the dam were major tourist attractions, especially for international tourists.

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On my way out, I stopped to see Horseshoe Bend, a 1.4 mile round trip hike overflowing with international tourists. I heard, among other languages, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, but the most pleasant sound for me was French. I spent a lot of time simply eaves-dropping on French conversations. But I couldn’t find the courage to interrupt the French. I’d been listening to French music in the car and still knew how to speak it well. I just didn’t feel like I fit in around so many attractive people. I thought of a time when I wasn’t fat and dining with Europeans. I remember how they’d make fun of fat people, especially fat Americans. It didn’t bother me then because I wasn’t the object of ridicule. But now I’m acutely aware of what I’ve become. I am the negative American stereotype, the person I never dreamed I’d become. Couple that with the scarf I wore on my head to keep the sweat out of my eyes, my lack of makeup (also due to sweating issues), and the adult acne that had broken out all over my lower face. If you knew nothing about me but what you saw, you might not feel inclined to talk with me either.

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I did speak to one French guy. I asked him in English how the view was from where he was standing and he silently signaled that he didn’t understand so I switched languages and suddenly he was no longer mute. He had lots to say, so long as it was in his own language.

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But our small talk was brief. He’d come with family. All the international tourists had come with family, or, at the very least, friends. The point is, no one came alone. As far as I could see, I was the only solitary tourist which also robbed me of my desire to strike up conversations with strangers. Each person already had with them the only person or people they cared to talk with. No need to have a superficial friendship with an American, especially a weird-looking, fat, thirty-six-year-old, unmarried, woman like me.

IMG_5014Maybe I’m projecting but I don’t think so. I’m very observant. It is what it is and, though I can’t change everything about me, I can lose weight and find a good dermatologist to help me with my face. It’s just going to take time and it’s not going to be easy. (More on this later.)

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Back in Flagstaff, I headed to the grocery store to score a picnic dinner. I remember when it used to be called New Frontiers. Now it’s part of the Whole Foods corporation. That didn’t bother me so much as the entire “village” that’s been built up around it. The fancy new apartments built above high-end retail chains are still looking for tenants. But what kind of people would want to live there? I know people who’ve lived in Flagstaff for most (if not all) their lives and they’d probably find this sort of thing appalling. Even the “village” street names attempt to give the new place a kind of “Old World” feel like “Piccadilly,” “Regent,” or “Cambridge.” It’s like they’re trying to make a miniature Europe except European villages derive their charm from their distinct personalities built over time. The people who own and work in the shops are the ones living above them. McDonald’s may be in cities the world over, but the village should not be defined by multi-national corporations.

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Tuesday I drove to Lake Mary hoping to snap some photos but it turned out I needed a permit to park my car there. So I turned around and headed to Sedona by way of Oak Creek Canyon where I also hoped to find photo ops, but I couldn’t seem to find a place to park my car for free there either. It was all national forest land and almost everything the government didn’t owned was privately owned.

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I wondered what happened to the commons. Is there anything that isn’t “owned” by anyone anymore? Then again, maybe it’s better this way. Nature’s worst enemy is man.

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Finally I found free parking near the most popular, touristy street in Sedona. I switched to a longer lens for this one. By the way, you wouldn’t believe how many people I saw with SLR cameras while I was away! There may be a camera on every smart phone but the more sophisticated amateur photography is far from dead.

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From Sedona I went to Jerome where there were more tourists, only in this case they were mostly Americans. Storm clouds followed me there, but I didn’t mind. Give me a cloudy day over a sunny day any day. Besides, in a place like Jerome, clouds only enhance beauty and mystery.

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The clouds followed me all the way home. There was a little rain as drove through Prescott Valley but mostly the sky was amazing. I had to pull over to the side of the road a couple of times just to capture the clouds. I wish I’d have caught some lightening as well, but lightening never seems to cooperate with me. I’ve seen some brilliant photographs of lightening by professionals, but I have yet to figure out how they do it. It can’t be sheer luck each time.

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Then I came home.

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The Background Character

 

My first day at Phoenix Comicon this year I photographed a young girl cosplaying as a “background character.” Her friends had much more elaborate costumes but she basically dressed as a normal kid, the only difference was the cardboard sign she wore around her neck with the words “I’m cosplaying as a background character,” or something like that. I took the picture quick and as soon as I finished, she ran toward her friends all excited that someone actually wanted to take her picture. Background characters aren’t used to getting the attention.

When I came home that evening, I was saddened to find many of my pictures from that day were out-of-focus, including hers. I brought my camera with me again the next day, only this time I attached it to my monopod and set it to auto-focus. But that background character was nowhere to be found, as though she’d faded back into the background where she belonged.

If I ever had a role on stage or screen, I’d probably be assigned to the background as well. After all, I watch more TV and movies than I care to admit. I know what a leading lady looks like and I’m just not leading lady material. A leading lady is slender and occasionally well-toned. Her skin is clear, she has high cheekbones, a delicate smile, and, when paired with the leading man, is physically smaller.

I don’t look like that and wouldn’t even if I figured out how to lose this cumbersome weight I carry with me. So the only role I’d be eligible for would be the background character, nothing more than living scenery, the backdrop for a more important scene written for a more important character.

At Comicon, cosplayers compete for the spotlight with their elaborate and clever costumes. If your cosplay happens to be the winning combination, you’ll hardly be able to walk two feet without someone running up to you with a camera and asking for a picture with you. That in itself is an unofficial competition: Who’s going to have the most demands for a photograph?

A step above the beautiful unknowns dressed in cosplay are the invited guests, the celebrities who’ve already gained fame and fortune on TV or film and now sit at a booth while hundreds, maybe thousands, of fans queue up for an autograph or photo that they already paid a small fortune for. Of course, the fans insist it’s worth the price. And who am I to argue? You should see them gleefully admiring their celebrity photos and autographs after all is said and done! Some of them will tell you how a certain actor, when in character, has changed their lives. I realize this is hero worship. They even call the room they’re in “The Hall of Heroes.” But why are we worshipping actors? I don’t understand.

I went to Comicon alone. I always go alone. Occasionally I’ll meet up with someone I know once I’m there, but that wasn’t the case this year and that’s fine. It’s a difficult place to hang out with people since it’s so easy to get lost in the crowd. Besides, when I’m taking pictures it’s really best if I’m alone. Photography tends to hold things up. Several times people paused when they saw my camera and waited until I was done so as not to interfere with the scene. Those were usually crowd scenes though and for me, it would’ve been best if people kept walking as though I weren’t there. But how do I convey that? They’re just trying to be polite. I’m trying to take a candid photo. People are much more honest when they don’t realize they’re being photographed.

The light rail was an excellent mode of transportation. I rode from the end of the line in Mesa to the convention center on Washington in Phoenix. It was a popular way to travel to the con since parking was free there and a regular all-day pass was just $4. Sometimes there’d be standing-room-only, but most of the time I could sit and chat with other comiconers. It made the commute go quicker as we exchanged Comicon stories and advice.

I must admit, my mood disorder did manifest itself a time or two, but I don’t think anyone noticed. I’m pretty good at catching those inconvenient tears nowadays, even if they do seem to be triggered by very minor things. I saw a few others with tears too, but they tended to come from folks much younger than me who weren’t wandering alone, so I didn’t need to reach out to them. I can’t justify tears at my age, though. I mean, unless someone just died, I pretty much have to run away and hope I make it to a place where I can be alone before anyone notices. A few deep breaths later and the tears will be gone, although the sadness tends to linger.

That’s when I analyze the situation. When was the last time I had something to eat? If it’s been a while, I grab lunch or something. Afterwards, if the feeling remains, I’ll have a notebook and pen with me so I’ll just find a place to sit where there’s air conditioning which, during Comicon, is most likely going to be on the floor against a wall somewhere. But that’s okay.

Most of the people I meet at Comicon are super friendly and sometimes introduce me to new fandoms. The artists impress me the most because I couldn’t draw to save my life. I have yet to comprehend anime or manga but I will say that those who are into it tend to love anything Japanese so if that’s the gateway drug to another culture, then I’m one-hundred percent for it. It’s also pretty amazing when cosplayers have a new take on an old character or are able to meld two characters into one cosplay. I still feel sorry for anyone wearing a fuzzy costume, though. The heat in Phoenix this weekend was killer, although, as far as I know, nobody actually died.

I especially loved the guest authors, at least the ones I either heard at a panel or met at the “drinks with writers” event. I’m pretty sure they answered all my questions and they were very gracious and humble in doing so.

I can’t wait to return next year.

Did I Predict My Own Future?

RM99_3I wrote this in my diary on March 22, 1999, two months shy of my high school graduation. I was 19-years-old. Now, more than 17 years later, it’s eery how much this entry mirrors my current situation. It’s a little frightening too because it begs the question: is this all I was ever meant for? And yet the very last line takes it a step further exploring whether or not my lot in life is unique or is there someone, somewhere who might truly understand me.

This book has come to be a great consolation to me. When something is heavily burdening me, I’ve come here to talk to God, myself, and to think. Here is a place where my words are truly mine and no one else’s. I’m not judged in any way nor interrupted. I’m at peace and I very much wish I’d taken the time to fill in the empty days. There are so many memories worth sharing! I only wish I’d taken the time to write them. My life is not that hectic.

A rather disturbing feeling of laziness has fallen upon me. I want to leap up and run, but I seem to lack the energy. I suffer from no illness so I’ve concluded it’s entirely in my head.

I’ve also found myself annoyed at almost everyone who’s attempted to talk to me. This is anything but a Christian attitude and I’m frustrated with the fact that I cannot find its source.

This is all very hard for me. I constantly struggle to find my self-worth while I listen to praises from [my boyfriend] and my parents. I’m so scared to suddenly be thrust out into the “real world” and not have a single ability to survive on; to find every man I think I’m in love with turns out to be “Mr. Wrong;” to be alone with no best friends, no husband, no future.

I’m not a born-leader. I make too many mistakes. I fall short somehow in almost everything I attempt.

This is enough! Dwelling on my faults is making me depressed. I must pray and listen to what God has to say. These fears will subside [after while], I know. But they won’t go away permanently. I wonder, am I the only one who feels this way?

Dear World

 

The-WorldDear world,

Well, I gave it my best shot. I tried doing things the way you wanted me to. I put God on the back-burner because you said only people without a backbone still believe in him and I sought comfort elsewhere.

Honestly, I really just wanted to be accepted so it’s not like you had to work hard to persuade me. You basically left me with two options: be like my parents and have the people I want to be friends with most hate me, or be like my friends, laughing with them when they poked fun of my conservative, right-wing, religious upbringing.

What a waste of time! Every bit of it turned out to be nothing more than a horrible game and I had no choice. All the odds were stacked against me from the start. I had no chance. No chance at all.

How do they do it, those people I so admire, the underdogs who bootstrap their way out of poverty and shame and rise to wealth and admiration? I’ve been trying to figure it out by reading business and self-help books, biographies and autobiographies. I’ve watched TED talks and gone to classes and workshops meant to help you navigate the road to success. But for some reason I keep screwing up. I keep saying the wrong things and buckling under pressure. I forfeit my chances before anyone can even give me a chance. When I walk into a room full of strangers, I’m convinced the word “loser” can be seen visibly spelled out across my forehead.

– What have you done in life, idiot? Why are you mingling with us “normal” folk? Go back to the funny farm. No one’s going to take you seriously here. You’re un-dateable, un-employable, and un-loveable. Stop pretending you’re anything more.

I hear those words over and over again. They torment me every time I try and say something of substance and no one shows me they’re listening. I’m the only one who hears what I have to say. It’s my own voice echoing off the walls.

World, you are my biggest adversary. God knows you’ve been trying to strike me down almost my entire life. Yet here I am. My heart’s still beating and even though I’m tired and don’t always feel like getting out of bed to face you, I keep going.

I’m alive and I’ll stay alive because I don’t believe the things you tell me anymore. That room full of strangers is still painful for me but then I step outside for a breath of fresh air and meet someone else who’s been just as hurt as me. We talk. Our stories aren’t exactly the same but we somehow understand one another. We become friends and suddenly comprehend how tragic it would be to see the other person’s life end too soon. My new friend is a kind of reflection of me, not a clone, but a unique work of art. Someone the world cannot do without.

That friend who is as broken as me knows how to change the world. She began with one person. When I see the light in her eyes, I know that God still exists and there’s no point in trying to be like the world any longer. Now I have the courage to be the change I want to see in the world.

The Meanings of Songs

 

IMG_0913Fourteen years ago I was traveling solo on an old train in France. I can’t remember if I was going somewhere new or returning to a familiar place but I do remember sitting near another solo traveler, a young man. He was listening to headphones and I could hear a little of the hip-hop beat just sitting across from him.

So I got his attention and asked him in my broken French what he was listening to. He removed his headphones and held them out to me so I could hear for myself.

I knew this genre of music and I wasn’t a huge fan. Not that I had any complaints about the style. It was just the lyrics that made me cringe. They were in English and full of racial slurs, f-bombs, objectification of women, and violence. I was disgusted.

After a minute or two, I handed back his headphones and tried to be diplomatic.

“Do you understand the lyrics?” I asked him.

“No.”

“But you still like it? Why? Some of the things said in here are really mean.”

“I don’t know. I just do. It’s cool, you know? I don’t need to know what the song’s about to like it.”

I didn’t quite understand this point of view even though I’d come across it a couple of times before. In fact, it was 2002 and a year earlier, I’d begun collecting those Putumayo CD’s they used to sell at coffee shops. One of my favorites was a collection of songs called Arabic Groove. All those songs, of course, were in Arabic and I guess I was a hypocrite because it didn’t bother me much to listen to and not understand those songs. The CD insert may not have had a word for word translation of the lyrics, but at least it had a description of each song. After all, this brand was marketed to people like me who didn’t speak Arabic.

French music and even Spanish music have been highly effective language-learning tools for me. The year before I studied abroad, one of the international students from France lent me his French CDs and even went to the trouble of printing out the lyrics to every single song for me. Moreover, listening to Notre dame de Paris by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon and watching it on DVD with and without subtitles (over and over again) helped my language-learning immensely.

Of course, now that I speak and understand French, I listen to French music about as often as I listen to music in my own language. Occasionally I’ll include some Spanish music in the mix because I took four semesters of it at the community college and it’s a common enough language in the Southwest that it almost seems wrong not to. But other languages still kind of elude me.

Then again, music is far more than words. Music conveys emotion in a way that nothing else can. Jaime Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love On Her Arms said in an interview back in 2013:

“Music has the unique ability to be honest, and I think it invites us to do the same. There are words we sing in songs that we would have trouble saying in conversation. Music says it’s okay to be human, okay to ask questions, okay to feel things deeply.”

Singer/songwriter Jon Foreman wrote in 2012 piece called Music Lessons:

“In many ways, my life lessons have been music lessons: the song has taught me how to live and life has taught me how to sing.”

After I wrote the first draft of my memoir last year, I began compiling a memoir playlist of songs that meant different things to me at different times in my life. Each song became a part of the emotion of a particular moment, but much more so than a simple soundtrack. The words were inextricably as important as the melody. So each song is a key to the time-capsule of my memory. Play it and the past will flow through me along with all the happiness and despair it contains.

Below are seven songs from my playlist. I capped out at 156 songs in the end beginning with my adolescence all the way to age 35. I like to say my taste in music improved with age but at the same time, I don’t want to betray the younger version of me by denying the fact that she connected with Disney songs and contemporary Christian music.

So here they are. I won’t tell the story that goes with each song here, but I will tell you how old I was when it had the biggest impact on me and where I was living at the time.

18 years old – Listening to my discman while walking home from high school after a bad day.

 

20 years old – Transitioning from a private Christian university to Northern Arizona University and trying very hard to remind myself why I needed to keep my faith.

 

22 years old – This song is forever linked with my time studying in France. It was on the radio a lot so it was impossible not to hear it but I also liked the mixture of my language with the language I was learning.

 

24 years old – back at my parents’ house. All I wanted to do was fly, somewhere, anywhere….

26 years old – living on my own in Phoenix; lost, broken, and wanting to die.

31 years old – I moved back home again and had only just rediscovered my faith.

 

34 years old – A very emotional year and the last time I had to be hospitalized.

Disappearing from the Crowd

 

AwayI can’t really remember it. I only know it happened because a younger version of me reminded me of it. Besides, I know what I was like back then. I know how unsure of myself I felt when I was in a crowd. Occasionally I’d pretend I was bold and perform for the crowd by singing a song or speaking my thoughts aloud, even if they sounded better in my head. But the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm always forced me back into my shell.

That’s not entirely true. Occasionally my singing would win over one or two people, enough to make me not give up on it entirely. I mean, I even wrote a high school essay about how I walked home feeling particularly sad one day and, in passing my old elementary school, one of the old 6th grade teachers saw me and said hi. He couldn’t remember my name, of course, but he remembered that I was from Texas and that I could sing. And then in a flash my mood switched from depressed to hopeful. If my voice left such a lasting impression on him…never mind.

But like any gift, there were people who loved it and people who just didn’t care. And the apathetic ones had the greatest power over me.

In group situations where I felt overwhelmed or embarrassed or simply unwanted, I would often succumb to the urge to disappear. And why not? If I truly believed that my presence was a hindrance to the happiness of the group, wasn’t I doing us all a favor by simply fading away?

It’s hard to remember that many specific instances, probably because they happened so often that they all kind of bleed together as one. At church camp in Texas, when I was about 10, I followed the girls in my cabin on a raid of the boys’ side of the cabin. Armed with pillows, we pounded at the door but the only guys in the cabin were counselors and they decided to roll down the windows and call for help. I got scared and slipped into our side of the cabin and under the bed before anyone noticed. The rest of the girls received a stern lecture and only once after several minutes did a counselor ask where I was. The other girls weren’t sure but at least one replied that I was probably in the bathroom and it was left at that. When the coast was clear I finally crawled out from my hiding place, eyes red from tears. I wasn’t a rule-breaker by nature and that emotion, the thing that made me hide in terror, was the reason why. That situation was supposed to be fun and we had the indirect support of our own counselors, but it didn’t matter. Pillow-fighting was, apparently, nothing less than criminal behavior.

Fast-forward four or five years and I’m at a local water park in Arizona with a friend’s church group. It’s night time and the only one or two people I know have gone off on their own adventure, leaving me behind. I wander around the park and take on a couple of water slides alone until all my joy fades. Then I just walk around in the dark, sad and alone. The church has rented out the venue. There are groups of kids laughing and splashing water at each all around. But they don’t see me. No one sees me. I wonder if I’ve finally learned how to become invisible.

When it’s finally time to leave, I see the two people I knew, the ones I call “friends” and we greet one another. But they don’t seem to understand this loneliness I’ve been carrying with me. I choose not to tell them either. Why should I ruin their evening by guilt-tripping them into acting like friends? The pain is probably all I deserve anyway.

The only other instance I remember with clarity happened during my 10-week tour with the Continentals in 1998. I felt so deeply misunderstood that summer and yet in the last days of the tour, I’d learn from more than one person that this was largely my fault. It was obvious to my tour companions that something was bothering me but since I was unwilling to talk about it, there was nothing they could do to help.

Most of the people on that tour fell into one click or another and only a couple of us were more or less outcasts. And maybe it was wrong to think like this, but I felt like if my only companion was the other outcast or no one at all, then I would much rather be alone. It was more painful for me to fake a friendship than to have no friends at all.

That tour is a story in and of itself, but when I heard the recording I transcribed the other day (from April 2003), I had to completely take a step back. What do I still remember from that day I that I remembered 13 years ago but not now?

The 2001-’02 school year was kind of a year of celebration, at least for the international students and everyone I lived with. Among our many causes for celebration were birthdays which included door-decorating, homemade cards, a favorite alcoholic beverage, and, occasionally, gifts and a small gathering of friends.

For my birthday, the French guys and the English guy came together and bought me a copy of Bilbo le Hobbit so as to encourage me in both my French and Tolkien studies. They gave me a card too. I also received a pair of “chirping cicadas” as a gift from the guy from South France. The French girl made me a card written (mostly) in French. The Swiss girl bought me some “Hooch.” My roommates made me a Lord of the Rings – themed card and I think we had a small party. Yet, in the midst of it all, I decided to step outside and wander off for a bit.

It was dark but the darkness didn’t frighten me back then and I’m sure I thought my absence would go largely unnoticed, despite the fact the party was for me. And even without a perfect memory, I can play out the scene quite well.

I know I stepped out of that room feeling useless and unwanted. I know I somehow believed that regardless of where I was or what I did, it didn’t matter to anyone there. When at last one of the girls finally came looking for me, I’m sure I told her no more than a half-truth. I’m sure I thought that my excuse for leaving would make no sense to her or anyone else.

Often time I attended the French chatters’ group in Flagstaff, despite the fact that my French was so feeble back then I’d usually be forced to remain silent the whole time. But I still thought the exposure was good for me and I was even able to persuade some of the French students to come along now and then, so we could have a few native speakers in the mix.

Blaise came once on a night when none of the others could make it. I hadn’t expected him to actually come. Serge and Amélie were much more likely to join but neither of them were there last night. Just him, a couple of French professors, and some community members.

He bought me a drink, another rarity for him. I knew he had a girlfriend so I never expected him to act very chivalrous with me. We chatted for a bit in English before the French group officially began then, when gathered at a table and everyone was in French-speaking mode, I began to zone out and the urge to depart took over.

I started to rise from my spot as discretely as possible but I hadn’t quite achieved invisibility because Blaise notice me and asked me where I was going. I felt a little teary-eyed but hoped he wouldn’t notice.

I’m going home. I said.

Why? Is everything ok?

I’m fine. I lied. I just feel like going home, that’s all.

Wait! I will walk with you.

No, I don’t need you to walk me. I like to walk alone. I’ll be fine. I lied again.

There was nothing to fear from walking home alone at night in 2002. Even before I owned a cell phone, the city was well-lit and there were enough people on the streets to keep me feeling safe all the way from downtown to my dorm. The only person who posed a danger to me was me.

Why I Want to Share My Story

 

Why do you want to tell your story?

I want to tell my story because it’s an interesting story but also one that’s haunted me ever since it happened – even before, come to think of it, because I actually began writing my life story in my Mozart journal while I was on the train from Salzburg to Innsbruck. I didn’t really have any other motive for doing so other than this desire to simply kill time. Besides, my real journal was only in French, unless you count my generic emails I sent regularly to a massive amount of people whether they asked for them or not. Really I just missed writing in my own language. I’m just not completely sure as to why I chose an autobiographical narrative. Maybe it was because my traveling companion and I were starting to get on each other’s nerves. Just before we left Munich for Salzburg she and I had gotten into a stupid little spat over whether or not I had the right to call myself “American” since Mexicans and Canadians were technically “Americans” too (that is, if you grew up with the “6 continent” concept as opposed to the “7 continents” I was raised with) She did not believe in separating North American from South America and nothing I said would change her mind. I started to cry but she remained steadfast in her belief and so I began to question myself. I couldn’t call myself an Arizonan because I wasn’t born there. I couldn’t call myself a New Yorker because, although I was born there, I didn’t grow up there. As far as referring to myself as “United Statesien,” that simply did not sound right. So I began to have a kind of identity crises.

My travelling companion (let’s call her Amélie because that’s the first French film I saw in the cinema) had begun to be visibly irritated with me when we were staying at her friend’s house in Paris. I failed to remove my shoes when we entered the guest room and Amélie was furious because I left footprints all over the cream-colored carpet. We searched frantically for something to clean up the mess with. I apologized over and over again. Later I made it worse by insisting on speaking French when I still had a very limited vocabulary and thus couldn’t hold an intelligent conversation. Whereas Amélie’s English was perfect and if I’d just allow her to use it, she wouldn’t have to suffer through all the awkward silence.

I wanted to be like Amélie. Blaise had told me not to be like her but how could anyone not want to be like her? She was smart, bold, and confident. She always managed to find new people to talk with. Like that time we were at an Irish pub in San Francisco. We sat down to listen to the music and then she disappeared. When I finally went to look for her, there she was sitting with three Irish lads, I mean straight-off-the-boat-from-Ireland Irish lads. Apparently she was wandering around after she’d gone to the restroom, saw an empty space at their table, and invited herself to join in. Such encounters were normal for her. One of the first nights of our European travels she disappeared until morning without a word. When she returned, she couldn’t understand why I was angry with her. She’d had a wonderful night because she’d lived in the moment and followed her heart. She came back at daybreak alive. What’s wrong with that?

Later I saw some of the drawbacks to Amélie’s lifestyle, most notably how, when you give your heart to someone too freely, you set yourself up for heartbreak. Amélie frequently fell in love during our travels but just as often she’d be a poor judge of character and return heart-broken. Blaise was friends with Amélie and it was clear to him how very different she and I were. But he cared about me. He just wanted to look after me as an older brother looks after his sister.

But I digress. My story changed later that year. I went from being someone with a relatively clean past to someone with a story so stigmatized I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to recover from it. The story was no longer just a series of things I’d seen or done. I’d been the recipient of something which, to me, was very spiritual and full of mysticism. God, who’d always been a part of my life, became more real to me than I ever thought possible. But then, when I returned Stateside, the psychiatrists slapped me with the label “bipolar” and told me God might not have been there after all, at least not in the way I thought he was. They used the term “hyper-religiosity” and chalked it all up to manic delusions, euphoria, and hallucinations. I was hurt and traumatized. It would take me years to overcome this.

My friends are already tired of my story. Six months after I returned home from France, even Amélie, who’d gone above and beyond the call of duty to help me when I was in the mental hospital there, was mystified as to how I still wasn’t over it.

Anyway, the whole thing definitely stunted my development into adulthood. I had so many dreams, mostly of living abroad, maybe even joining the Peace Corps, but those dreams were quickly crushed when a Christian counselor told me point blank that most missions organizations won’t take anyone who has a serious mental illness – at least not in the long term. I might be able to do short-term work but, especially in parts of the world where there’s little to no access to the medicine I need, I’m basically a liability.

Well, if you want to foster suicidal ideation in someone who’s just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that’s how you do it. Just tell them in no uncertain terms that everything they always dreamed of doing is now completely out of reach.

So I started writing a new story. I was twenty-three when I began jotting down this memoir. I figured, why not? It’s an interesting story. Besides, writing was my principle coping mechanism in France, both in Montpellier and at the mental hospital in Thuir. I had my journals, I sent bulk email updates (that my dad so thoughtfully saved for me). To my closest friends and family I sent handwritten letters and postcards. Then, to my best friend and my parents, I’d send “talking letters” (a.k.a. cassette tapes of me talking). Writing was such a natural thing for me I figured I could easily take it a step further and write something for the masses.

I think there was also this part of me that thought writing a book that people would actually want to read would help me feel more understood and secure a place in the world for me. I still feel so very insignificant and alone in this world. But at least I no longer want to die and my newest attempt at sharing my story will reflect that.

In short, I want to connect with people. I’ve never connected with anyone more than I have the people I’ve been hospitalized with. Even in the foreign mental hospital where we all spoke French, we connected somehow. In fact, my entire diary from that hospital experience is basically a reflection of what I saw and what I felt in response to the other people I met. I learned more in the almost three weeks I spent in the Thuir hospital than any other hospital experience I’ve had since.

That’s all I got for now.

Interpreting Tears

 

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Last night I was greatly encouraged and inspired by Rob Bell when he came to talk and sign books at our local bookstore. It would’ve been even better had I not been preoccupied with the incident that occurred just before he came. See, my friend and I were looking for a place to sit and I sat right next to this person who I knew was a local author and tried to strike up a conversation based on the totally cool t-shirt she was wearing. Then she and my friend pointed out to me that the seat I was in was reserved and I had to move.

I was humiliated and so I tried to outwardly make light of it but inside I began to feel that familiar heaviness and the urge to run away would have overtaken me had my friend not been there to ground me a little bit.

They’ve probably already forgotten it, she said and I knew she was right. But that didn’t stop the tears from escaping and, since I knew this was not an appropriate thing to cry over, I discretely wiped them away, one by one. It’s okay for a child to be upset over such an embarrassment but a grownup? I should’ve moved passed those kind of emotions long ago.

Tears-1998Tears don’t seem to function for me the way they do for most people, though. I remember church camp when I was a teenager and that one night towards the end when the speaker would invite everyone to surrender their lives to Christ and then we’d break into our individual church groups where everybody would be crying. It came to be so expected at church camp that when I returned as a counselor in 2004, it’d been dubbed “cry night.”

But I didn’t normally cry on “cry night.” I’d maybe cry every single night but cry night, though, whether my peers and counselors were aware of it or not. It’s just when everyone else broke down, my tears seemed to dry up. But hey, at least I was free to comfort them without the need to be comforted as well.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 23 provided some explanation for my extreme emotions but still left a few unanswered questions. For instance, my suicide attempts were usually not linked with strong emotions. Sometimes I’d cut my wrists when I was feeling nothing at all. I was kind of lethargic in those moments and self-injury sometimes calmed me. That’s when the doctors decided to make borderline personality disorder my Axis II diagnosis. Annoying as the label was, it made me eligible for dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) where I was taught to be less judgmental of self and others and to practice mindfulness.

DBT had homework assignments built into it. We had to practice each new skill we learned and then talk about it the following week in group therapy. I wasn’t necessarily the best student. Just like back in my university days I was scatterbrained. I wanted to learn everything so I could be a productive member of society and so I could make and keep friends but I couldn’t quite find the mental strength to fight for those things.

At least I stopped self-harming and the suicidal thoughts almost completely disappeared. Meanwhile my medication was working and aside from a few undesirable side-effects, I felt pretty good.

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But the crying spells still manage to creep up on me now and then and I’m quite sure they have nothing to do with the bipolar disorder because they’re brief and triggered by very specific circumstances.

When I was a child, authoritative figures had a lot of power over me. Maybe that’s why I behaved so well at work and school. When Mrs. W, my fourth grade teacher, visited with her new baby, we had a small party with her and I joked with my classmates about how she was my teacher to which her replacement, Mrs. R, said, oh no, Clara, don’t say that. She’s everybody’s teacher. And I immediately started to cry.

I didn’t mean it like that, I said through my tears. I was just kidding, I didn’t mean to say anything wrong.

The teachers reassured me that everything was fine but the tears had already surfaced and there was no disguising the depth of my remorse.

Fast-forward to university and not a single professor could confront me about missing assignments or low grades without provoking tears. In one class an assistant professor called on me to answer a question when no one would raise their hands and I answered best I could. However, my answer was unpopular and being forced to say anything at all brought tears to my eyes. Fellow students who passed me on the way out actually stopped to console me saying we know that’s not what you really thought. You were just under pressure.

Let’s not forget my work-related problems. I don’t think there’s a single boss I’ve had who’s never seen me cry. Even when I knew the news would not be good, I couldn’t prepare myself enough to hear it.

So why has this happened as recently as last night? What am I still hanging on to?

I went to see the Rend Collective on my birthday this year. They were playing in Portland so I used it as an excuse to see my best friend as well. Now I haven’t been to a concert in a long time so I’m not fully schooled on proper concert etiquette. The venue did not have seats so everyone was forced to stand for the whole concert and ticket prices were the same for everyone. That meant that if you wanted a good spot, you had to arrive early. But I didn’t realize that also meant I’d have to stay in the back the whole night. I thought the absence of chairs meant I could move around so I did only to be scolded by another attendee who said, you can’t move forward because some of these people came four hours early just to have their spots.

I apologized and moved to the back again. I moved quickly too because I felt the onset of tears the second she told me I’d messed up. I can’t cry over this. This is stupid.

My friend and I took a walk outside so I could cool off in the fresh air. It was raining but the rain felt wonderful and masked my tears quite well.

Last Fall I went to the National Geographic Multimedia Storytelling Workshop in Santa Fe and there were many tears that week! They didn’t come all at once but by the third day they were unstoppable. My assignment partner seemed to be scolding me for not pulling my weight and instead of discussing it like an adult, I ran out of the room to a solitary spot and wept freely.

Later, when the tears had subsided and I was more composed, she addressed my reaction to her words. She said she felt she was walking on eggshells with me and I didn’t know what to say in return. I wanted to tell the truth but the stigma accompanying mental illness is still quite strong, especially with the older generations. So I decided to tell her I have a mood disorder and that my emotions are kind of difficult to control sometimes. I assured her that it was nothing she said.

That was a lie, of course. I may not have realized it but I was lying to both of us. What she said did trigger an emotional reaction but since I wasn’t even fully aware of what was going on, I couldn’t exactly describe it, even to myself. Mood disorder was all I could muster and at least it didn’t feel like a lie.

I think it all boils down to my lack of self-worth. I won’t go into why it exists but I’ve never quite had the confidence it takes to achieve any of my dreams. I started college as a vocal performance major. I loved singing on stage but when I moved up to the college level I began to feel like I wasn’t good enough and lost the courage to audition for choir solos. In retrospect I probably wouldn’t have made much money as a singer anyway but the reason I dropped the major had more to do with how little I believed in myself.

And that essentially is how therapy works. We start by identifying the problem and then take it from there. I think I know where to focus my energy now.

To be continued….

 

 

Do I Really Love Phoenix?

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Recently I was in Oregon, chatting with a young stranger from Indiana (I think). When he asked me where I was from, I said Phoenix and he immediately expressed sympathy. I didn’t exactly jump on the defense. Technically my driver’s license says “Mesa, Arizona” anyway, but you know, Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale, Chandler, they’re all more or less suburbs of Phoenix, right? Outsiders wouldn’t know the difference.

While that may not be entirely true, stereotypes do have their roots somewhere and strange circumstances have led some people to move from much more interesting places to Phoenix for good. But then there are those who’ve fled Arizona altogether never to look back.

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It’s rare to find someone of my generation or older who was born and raised here. I was born in a latitude and climate much more suitable to my light complexion. In 1980 I was born in Potsdam, New York. My mom loves to tell me how it was twenty below zero the day I was born. Shoveling snow for six months out of the year was a way of life up there and some people chose to stay from cradle to grave.

Potsdam-Family

Then, in 1982, my dad’s work led us to Norman, Oklahoma. Five years later, we went a little further south to Fort Worth, Texas. Finally, right before the dawn of 1992, we made one final move to Mesa, Arizona.

Not every kid adapts well to moving to a new state but I for one loved it. I loved the adventure and the chance to reinvent myself.

 

Clara-Picacho-Peak-1996But in the angst of my teenage years, I became very unsettled and yearned to move on. At college fairs I only collected brochures from out-of-state universities; the further away the better.

I wanted to return to a place where the grass was literally green. In fact, it would be nice if the place had any grass at all! But there were other motivations for leaving as well. I mean, I never fit in – anywhere. Not even with my family. I fought with them far too often. They gave me everything a kid could want but I just couldn’t bear to live with them any longer. I didn’t doubt they loved me but I always felt they were too overprotective and controlling. I wouldn’t figure out why such friction existed between my family and me until many years and therapy sessions later. But that’s another story for another time….

I had the luxury of traveling a lot during my youth. In 1993 I flew by myself for the first time to Florida to attend Space Camp. I was 13 and loved feeling independent.

In 1998 I traveled throughout the Northwest and Midwest United States for 10 weeks with the an evangelical Christian singing group called the Continentals. It was the longest I’d ever been away from home and, though I dealt with difficult emotions that summer, none of them could be defined as “homesickness.”Continentals-Bus

I graduated high school in 1999 and went straight to a private Christian university in southern California the fall of that same year. It’s a long story but I ultimately transferred to Northern Arizona University my sophomore year after going on a mission trip to Romania for 5 weeks. Then, in 2002, I went to France for what was supposed to be a year but, thanks to my first full-blown manic episode (followed by my so oft told involuntary hospitalization), I was repatriated about 3 months early.

My mental illness brought me right back to where I started from: my parents’ house. It seemed as though while all my peers were moving forward in their education and careers, I’d fallen a thousand steps back and I hated every bit of it!

I wound up graduating from Arizona State University, the one place I’d sworn I’d never attend because of its proximity to home. With ASU I took one last journey abroad to Quebec, Canada to learn a slightly different kind of French. Then, after graduating, I fought to find a job that would pay enough for me to live on my own. But my BA in French and study abroad experiences were not very marketable, so I began to feel frustrated and sought a more permanent escape. If my friends can live happily and independently, why can’t I?

Three years of erratic moods and self-harming behaviors eventually forced me to move in with my parents – again. It was humiliating.

Time passed. Between psychotherapy and medication I learned to see the world differently and I learned to accept and even love my weird family. A time or two I even tried to break the disability cycle and search for gainful employment, but it wasn’t happening. Meanwhile my parents began to suffer from age related physical ailments and from time to time, I’d take on the role of caregiver.

Memories of the travels of my youth (especially those 9 months in France) began to detach from my emotions and the sense of urgency I used to feel to go as far away as possible, diminished. Sure, I kept up the language, but now I know that even if I never set a foot in Europe again, I’ll be content.

Journal-Collage

Based on all I’ve read and seen about what makes a city great, I should feel a sense of shame and disgust for Phoenix and all its surrounding cities. To begin with, this is the desert. Water was scarce when the population was almost non-existent and now that we’ve got more than 1.4 million people around here, you can only imagine the environmental impact.

Then, of course, there’s our car-dependency problem. Public transportation has improved a little of the years but it’s still slow and, especially during the summer months, we don’t have much incentive to abandon our air-conditioned chariots. Besides, Phoenix mostly developed after the invention of the automobile resulting in urban sprawl, long commutes, freeway congestion (especially during rush hour), and massive parking lots.

 

IMG_6699Indoor shopping malls are still a thing here. In the summer time we’d die without places to walk around where air conditioning is blasting through the vents. Sometimes you walk in 112 degree heat only to go inside a building where it’s so cold you need a sweater. If you want to exercise in the summer, you either need to wake up at 3 in the morning or join a nice, air-conditioned gym. Let’s face it, Phoenix would never be as big as it is if it weren’t for the invention of modern air conditioning.

 

Mall-with-ASULastly there’s the architecture. Old cities tend to have a distinct style. Their buildings, walls, monuments, and streets all tell a story and give their city a separate identity. But here in the urban sprawl of Phoenix, there are rows of tract houses near national fast-food chains, retail shops, and grocery stores not to mention the Super Wal-Mart’s and Targets, Circle K’s and Shell Stations, Chili’s, Village Inn, Denny’s and Starbucks at every convenient location. They’re usually in or near strip malls strategically located at major free exits and crossroads. They all look the same – like giant cubes of cement. They’re the evil corporations who kill local businesses.

 

IMG_0665 (1)There are exceptions and I’ll likely write about those later. Off-hand I’d say downtown Phoenix, Old Town Scottsdale, and downtown Mesa have made major strides in recent years toward creating a sense of place and a sense of community in the Valley.

But with all these reasons to despise Phoenix, why do I find myself wanting to stay? Am I a victim of Stockholm Syndrome or is it possible I’ve found a way to love Phoenix?

To be continued….

Touched With Bipolar Disorder

(Spoilers)

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I’ll never forget my first manic episode, at least not my first full-blown one. That was the one that slapped me with the label “mentally ill” for the rest of the life. It was the one I’d spend years recovering from because it involved an involuntary hospitalization . I was in France, you see, and the police were part of the story as well as an ambulance and nurses holding me down in bed while they injected me with the medicine I’d refused earlier (because I didn’t believe I was sick). I was ultimately repatriated.

Once I returned home I received the “bipolar” label. The psychiatrist who first gave it to me understood my doubts and trust issues so she urged me to go to the library and look up the diagnostic information; see for myself whether or not it fit.

So I did and my “magical” manic experience began to unfold. There was a reason I hadn’t seen the warning signs. All those symptoms had slipped under the radar because I was “happy” and never saw any danger. But in hindsight, it was all there: racing thoughts, reduced need for sleep, loss of appetite, an abundance of energy, delusions of grandeur, paranoia, psychosis – and, if the memories weren’t evidence enough, I’d inadvertently kept a diary of everything as well. I could actually see changes in my handwriting, not to mention the deterioration of my written thoughts. Even in the hospital I managed to keep a relatively consistent diary of sorts and I could trace my return to a more realistic way of thinking after the forced introduction of anti-psychotics to my system.

Just saying I accepted my diagnosis was not enough to make me really accept it. Mania, after all, made me feel special, like I had a purpose in life. When it went away, I was desperate to find meaning again. I read Kay Jamison’s book Touched With Fire as well as her memoir An Unquiet Mind and I was both encouraged and troubled by them. I felt as though my level of creativity should be on par with Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Victor Hugo and Virginia Woolf. What use was having these emotional gifts if I couldn’t publish a book or write a hit song?

I went through seasons of not taking my meds, just as the characters in the film Touched With Fire did. I wanted the mania to return but it was impossible to recreate the conditions that brought it on in the first place, a least not for me. Abandoning my medications more often than not led to depression. That’s when the suicide attempts became more frequent and from then on, depression and self-harm rather than mania, became my ticket to the psychiatric hospital.

I watched Touched With Fire through the lens of my own psychiatric hospital experiences as well as my memories of mania and depression. I was never one to pursue romantic relationships with fellow patients. Such relations were strongly discouraged if not forbidden, but they still happened. We’re human after all.

The hospital in the movie didn’t seem very realistic to me. It was very clean with far too many items available to the patients that should have been contraband. Metal forks, for instance, or even access to a kitchen area with an oven and stove, all seemed very unsafe. Also, the art supplies included sharpened pencils and the books themselves, being hardcover, would have been banned in number of facilities. I thought having those concrete stairs in the facility was a safety hazard too.

I realize that this was probably set in a private hospital since the two main characters seem to come from affluent families and receive a lot of financial support from their parents. At the same time the only two patients who seemed to have high IQs were the protagonists themselves. The others appear to suffer from intellectual disabilities as well as whatever mood disorder they might have been diagnosed with. It really annoyed me when things became a little too serious between Carla and Marco and the doctors and nurses went all One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on them. I mean, this is the 21st century. Aren’t we supposed to be fighting mental illness stigma? Why are we taking this step back?

As for relationships between two people with bipolar disorder, I don’t know how many have actually worked out in real life, but I’m optimistic. I mean, if both parties understand their illness, take their meds as prescribed, and keep all their psychiatric appointments, then I don’t see why a relationship couldn’t work. It’s the whole “having a baby” bit that bothers me. You see, a woman with bipolar disorder has to stop her meds if she’s going to become pregnant because psych meds can harm a developing fetus. That means, ideally, her pregnancy should be well-planned because she needs to be closely monitored by her psychiatrist. It’s a risky decision, but not impossible. Men with bipolar disorder have it easier when it comes to fathering a child since they don’t have to actually carry the baby for nine months.

I felt like the other family members in the film were very supportive. Their main challenge seemed to be showing their children they were on their side and only wanted the best for them. Those of us with bipolar disorder often feel misunderstood especially by loved ones who want the best for us. I loved how Carla and Marco believed they were from another planet. In fact, I was overjoyed when Marco gave Carla a copy of The Little Prince because I had a copy of that in France and I’d seen the musical by Richard Cocciante and Elisabeth Anaïs in Paris. When I lived alone in France, I played the CD recording from the show frequently because it was soothing and I completely understood the other-worldliness of Le Petit Prince himself. So I suppose if I felt like I was from another world and so did the main characters in Touched With Fire, then this must be kind of a common feeling for all of us who have bipolar disorder. What do you think?