I’m crazy. I can say that. I’ve been tested and found insane. I mean, it wasn’t an inkblot test where I see a cloudy black splotch and say it’s obviously Charles Manson teaching a fish how to fold fitted sheets. The test was more like a doctor asking me “How long have you felt this way (this way being medical talk for “depressed)?” I answered “All my life. And whatever lives I’ve lived before if reincarnation is actually a thing.” I know people will frown on me for equating depression with the term ‘crazy’ because when people hear the word ‘crazy’ they think of toothless people who smell like urine yelling at a wall while addressing it as Mr. Stalin.
I call myself crazy because it’s oddly more acceptable than admitting I’m in a decades long battle with mental illness and all I’m armed with is a spork and a smart mouth. And for a VERY long time I hid my anxiety/depression from a lot of people, even some members of my family not only because I was (am?) ashamed of it, but because I didn’t want to get the ‘look.’ You know the one I’m talking about. A couple people, friends or co-workers, find out you struggle with a mental illness and they raise an eyebrow in a way that says “That explains A LOT.”
Along with the look is the way some people will treat you, like you’re fragile: stumbling on the edge of something horrible and the next thing they say will send you right over the edge so they speak to you like you’re a freaked out cat hiding under the bed with a rubber band wrapped around its tail. I’m not fragile. Not outwardly. I’m funny and an extrovert while I’m at work. Well, at least I think I’m funny. I can sometimes hear my boss sigh like ‘Oh my God, dial it down a notch, Jennifer.’ I’m not totally out of the depression closet but I don’t go up to strangers and say “I get sad for reasons I will probably never understand.” I don’t let my crazy show too soon. You gotta dole that stuff out bit by bit.
When I started reading Eric Lindstrom’s A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, I recognized and fell in love with Mel Hannigan, a 16-year-old girl with bipolar depression. I’m not bipolar but I empathized with everything Mel was going through. She had an older brother named Nolan who was also bipolar. She never comes out and says he died, but I don’t think me writing that fact is a spoiler alert. She and her mother have moved to a house left to them by Mel’s grandma shortly after Nolan’s death.
Mel’s Aunt Joan has moved in with them. Mel calls her HJ (Hurricane Joan) because she suffers from bipolar depression as well. I’m no expert but here’s the low-down on bipolar depression: not all people experience it in the same way. Some people get bitchin’ highs, the manic side of bipolar, and they’re so full of energy they don’t sleep for days. They have all of these ideas and plans and they’re going going going. And then they crash into a deep depression. Mel keeps track of her moods in a clever way (that I think I might steal): She refers to her moods by referring to them as animals:
Hamster is Active
Hummingbird is Hovering
Hammerhead is Cruising
Hanniganimal is UP!
The Hamster is her head, her pattern and speed of thinking. The Hummingbird is her heart, how fast it’s beating or ‘speeding.’ The Hammerhead is her physical health: “Cruising when I’m fine, slogging or thrashing if I’m sick.”
Mel works in a retirement home and has a special knack with older people. There’s Dr. Jordan, a retired psychiatrist who is the only person outside her family who knows about her mental illness. He checks in on her without pressuring her and she’s comfortable talking with him. There’s a new resident who just moved in, Ms. Li, who has a grandson named David who seems like a jerk at first. But there’s a definite attraction between him and Mel.
That’s another thing that worries her: relationships and her mental illness. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some people will head for the hills as soon as they find out you have depression/or are bipolar. Or even if a relationship is working out, the fear is very real that your significant other will get bored or fed up with your brain and will leave. Mel’s not even sure a relationship would work with anyone.
And friendships are also a problem. Someone you thought of as your best friend can call you a bummer and say adios. It’s a risk. A year ago Mel had a group of friends she was joined at the hip with. Annie, Connor, and Zumi. Annie was the alpha of the group and I’ll go ahead and say it: she was a real manipulative bitch. If something didn’t interest her or had nothing to do with her, she’d ignore it, even if it’s something that mattered to a friend. Mel’s not really fond of her but Zumi is in love with Annie even though her love is egged on by Annie but unrequited. Zumi is Mel’s best friend along with Connor who seems to play the role of the only dude in a trio of girls.
Mel never tells them that she had a brother named Nolan. She also doesn’t tell them about her bipolar depression because she is a little ashamed of it and she doesn’t know how they would react. Then something happens that ends the friendships, leaving Mel out in the cold. A year later Mel makes two new friends, Declan and Holly. She doesn’t tell them either. I get it. When you keep something that big from friends or family members, you feel like you’re protecting them. And at the same time, you feel like you’re protecting yourself.
But Mel’s past makes an unwanted appearance when she thinks she’s coping pretty well and doing everything she can to deal with her mental illness. She begins to amp up, the illness taking over her mind, to the point of no return for her.
Eric Lindstrom’s beautifully written book about mental illness is a must read for anyone struggling with depression and for loved ones who want to help and understand the illness better. Not only is it a good story in itself, but it’s also a way to help others open up and ask for help.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my medication.
My Raccoon is half asleep
Otter is swimming
Squirrel is snacking.
No seriously, there’s a damn squirrel in the bird feeder again.