Saturday, December 12, 2009

Talking the Walk (8)

A Pair of Us

Question from a sceptical professional: Do you really think you and your wife can take good care of each other when you’re both so sick?

Short answer: I don’t know. Do you?

Longer version:

“There's a pair of us,” Heather says to me, a bit breathlessly, after we have left the psychiatrist’s office and are sitting in our car. It is early June. She has turned in her seat to face me, and her eyes are wide and lambent, glittering with that desperate euphoria, or euphoric desperation, that has lit them–except when they have gone overcast, shrouded in cancelling gloom–for these last few burning, tumultuous weeks.

She seems relieved for the moment. To have a diagnosis, an illness with a name? (She had feared having a name, but then feared more being something unnamable.) To be sharing, as we have shared so much, a diagnosis with me? “It always amazes me how often you people find each other,” the psychiatrist remarked, when I had joined them in the office for the last ten minutes of Heather's interview. He spoke of the number of “bipolar couples” he had met, who had been drawn irresistibly together (often despite existing marriages or other serious obstacles) and who had established unusual but sustaining ways of coping with their cycles of illness, often long before either of them had been diagnosed. Heather and I exchange a look. His bemused, somewhat clinical reflections make it sound as if he is describing a species of exotic animals, creatures that emit a special mating call, inaudible or registered as noise outside their kind, and then embark on bizarre and esoteric mating rites. Yet the gist of his remarks rings true. From the start, Heather and I have been able to speak in shorthand, with intuitive understanding, of steeply swinging moods and strange mental states, and we quickly developed ways of gearing together discordant swings and of warily surviving the most dangerous times, when the swings coincide and amplify each other. We have even joked of a day like today, when Heather’s distrust of doctors would relent (gently, in our fantasy, not under the duress of crisis) and we would “make it official.”

But the day foreseen is not the day that arrives. I look through the windshield up the street, which is lined with parked cars and empty of people. The leaves of the overhanging shade trees are a bright, incongruous green; we have been keeping such wildly irregular hours lately that it has been a long time since I have paid attention to such basics as the weather or the changing season.

It is Sunday morning, early, before church even. It seems a strange time to be meeting with a psychiatrist outside of an emergency ward, but this psychiatrist has a quirky schedule and neither of Heather's other two doctors felt that it was safe to wait another day. The appointment was scheduled by telephone late last night. This recognition of the need for haste, of the peril Heather is in despite her equable demeanor, inclines me to trust these doctors, despite my own long history of damage by medical misadventure. Already they understand Heather well enough to know that she, like me, will understate rather than exaggerate a crisis, and understate with a more savage discretion as the crisis nears its climax.

Is it time yet? The question, sceptical but insistent–shadowing the mind at dawn, at noon, at 2:00 a.m.–has altered to a more drastic shape: Is there still time? Out of the myriad confusions of the last few harrowing weeks, Heather and I have arrived at one certainty: medical intervention is required. To wait, to hope for change, is no longer permissible; it is not safe. In this, at least, the doctors and we are in accord.

As we drive off toward the pharmacy where we will fill Heather's first prescription of lithium, she murmurs again, softly, as if to herself, “a pair of us.” Thinking of the Emily Dickinson poem she is quoting from, in which one frog discourses to another, I wonder if I am hearing, besides a mixed and quizzical expression of relief, a first sign of the controlling image of Heather’s sickness–or, could it be, the hopeful image of her health? For if you find yourself floundering between elemental extremes, might not the image of an amphibian be a comfort, a guide? As precarious as a frog’s survival may be, as it undoubtedly is, it has to afford more hope than the dominant image shaped by, and then shaping, my own first psychosis. Through the summer and fall of 1977, I kept seeing, faintly and intermittently at first, and then constantly and with bullying vividness, a seam of red glowing from within a brownish crust–like molten lava glowing under soil or rock, presaging volcanic eruption. The image was pregnant with violence, a fiery birth that I saw approaching and desired as a consummation, and it ended with blood spilling down my abdomen from the “self-Caesarean” I had performed on myself.

Twenty-nine years later, my thoughts are focused, as they have been for weeks, on how Heather might be spared such a moment, along with its lifelong ramifications, its endlessly rippling aftermath. Surely, I think, my own huge kit bag of mental illness must contain a few instruments to help another. Diet, daily habits, even lighting and room layouts–what might be changed? What might be tinkered with? The smallest adjustment could make a difference, tip the balance. And to that end, everything–even the grotesque, 4:00 a.m. arguments our sleepless, cross-wired selves inveigle us into–must be examined (in retrospect in those cases) for a possible clue.

As I drive down the surreally bright, surreally empty streets, I try to remember the exact wording of the Dickinson poem. Beside me, Heather is slumped in her seat; she is staring blankly ahead. I imagine the glum routines of drug therapy–on my way to fill my scrip–pressing in on her.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you­–Nobody–Too?

Then there’s a pair of us?

Don’t tell! They’d advertise–you know!

The poet’s frog is all questions, exclamations, and commands. There’s not a single croak of reasoned calm amid the flurry of agitated queries and exhortations. It sounds familiar, which means it is not what I am looking for.

Dickinson’s question mark–Then there’s a pair of us?–isn’t helpful either. I am glad Heather forgot or ignored it. Sometimes I imagine a flint-eyed observer watching the two of us and thinking, The blind leading the blind. Someone with my record, trying to help someone in Heather’s situation–Who worse? I imagine them thinking.

On the other hand: Who better?

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