Sometimes in my dreams I still walk, though in my waking life I use a wheelchair and have for over two decades. My gait becomes surer as the years pass, and I feel the need to explain to others who people my dreams that I usually use a wheelchair. The phenomenon of walking dreams isn’t uncommon among those of us who acquire a disability after years of unimpaired mobility. For forty-three years I walked or ran everywhere I went. I was an avid backpacker, hiker, and rock-climber, so it makes sense that my subconscious mind, ruler of the realm of my dreams, would return to its more familiar means of movement.
But I never have dreams in which the misfiring neurotransmitters in my brain discharge in synch. Dreams need an experience in waking life with which the subconscious can work. I have no such experience; no memory of a time when my brain disorder didn’t color my awareness.
Its distortions of reality filter every thought, all memories. Even remission—periods of time free of symptoms of mood episodes—causes its own distortion of reality. I know, from years of experience and research, that I am not destined to remain in remission forever. Bipolar Disorder (Type I) or Manic-Depressive Illness is a chronic condition for which there is no cure. Eventually something I may not recognize as a trigger will send me back to the arid, featureless plain of depression on which I may wander, lost, for months, or to the too-bright kaleidoscopic world of mania. I forget this condition is inexorable, that the next mood episode is inevitable. Instead I convince myself that if I do all the right things—take my medication, see my doctors, structure my time as best I can—I will wear the mantle of remission forever.
I was born in 1948, half a century before Dmitri and Janice Popolos published their seminal work on early-onset bipolar disorder, The Bipolar Child, so I was viewed as an unusually bright but extremely difficult child rather than one with a treatable mental illness.
Nevertheless my childhood, while solitary, was full of pleasures: the vanilla aroma of a sun-warmed Ponderosa pine as I sat on summer afternoons, my back against its rough bark, while Quannah, my foal, slept, his delicate head resting on my lap; the wonder and diversity of wildlife—deer, Steller’s jays, Albert’s squirrels, magpies, coyotes, lynx, and once, an enormous golden eagle that flew onto our property and perched on a dead limb only yards from the house. I stared at him in the dawn’s diffuse light until he seemed a mythical creature. I loved swimming naked beside my horse in the pond on the Falcon Wing Ranch and letting my body dry in the sun afterward. I remember lying shirtless (free as a boy) on the warm rocks of the Holland Ranch, fashioning nooses from grass blades in hopes of catching a blue-tail skink. Best of all, though, were whole days spent in solitude, writing stories in my Big Chief Tablet.
Then one day in the fall of 1962, the year I turned fourteen, all those pleasures vanished inexplicably. The magpies, jays, and squirrels still abounded, Quannah still followed me everywhere, the pond on the Falcon Wing hadn’t dried up; I just derived no pleasure from them anymore. I could think of not one thing that felt good, though I scoured my memory for some thought to stir the feeling of pleasure once so central to my life. I couldn’t remember why I’d been happy the day before—or if I had; because even as this absence of joy baffled me, something about it felt timeless, as if I’d always felt this way and always would.
Days turned into weeks, though I wasn’t aware of time’s passage, at least not as I once was. Each day was like the one before, as if I was doomed to repeat the same day endlessly. I had no landmarks, despite school and my piano and ballet lessons. Even the holidays passed without notice in this featureless vacuum. Sleep provided no escape as I woke in the pre-dawn darkness, my heart pounding with some nameless fear.
On a gray, misty day in spring, I stole one of my father’s razor blades. I don’t remember now if I intended to end my life; I only remember needing to do something, to take some action, even if I couldn’t decide what to do. I rode to a secret place of mine on the Falcon Wing Ranch, a circle of tall cedars that shielded me from the road. I knelt down in the center of the circle of trees. I found a milky-blue vein on the back of my left hand. I think now if I intended suicide, I would have sought out the pulse on the inside of my wrist, but I was only fourteen and unschooled in matters of anatomy.
I pushed the corner of the razor blade deep into my hand and pulled swiftly. The resulting sting surprised me; I felt more awake than I had in months and pleasure outweighed the pain. I sliced again…and again. Blood welled up in the narrow furrows made by the blade; bright-red, vibrant blood, the first color I’d seen in weeks.
My cheeks flushed with warmth. I took great gulps of air, frightened by my own daring. Slowly color returned to the trees around me as blood flowed down my hand and dripped from my fingers.
I’d found my first coping mechanism.