When I was but a wee lad, I played with action figures and toy cars and trucks that would spirit me way beyond the confines of the real world into a fantasy world of my own design. I always felt a kindred spirit with my Aunt Tempest because she never questioned where I was or what I was doing when I was off staring in the distance, channeling a make-believe tapestry of monsters and heroes. I saw her own eyes flutter and navigate her own make-believe landscapes when we’d ride together in her trusty Toyota. Her hands gripped the wheel, she’d whistle some obscure tune, then she’d chuckle to herself at something that occurred only to her. I always thought she was just as imaginative an adult as I was a child.
But then one day all her make-believe fantasies came bubbling to the surface during a family reunion breakfast. She exploded in front of a waitress who dribbled coffee on her dress. It wasn’t that she lost her temper that alerted the family something was amiss. It was that she lost her temper, ranted, flung napkins and hissed at the serving staff and anyone who would listen. I didn’t know at the time that IT had a name. But if I had named it then, I would have been happy to slay its dragon name much like I did when I played knights and magicians as a boy.
The dragon is bipolar disorder. It breathes fire and smoke through a veil of delusions of grandeur, sudden fits of paranoia and anger and depression. Emotions have no limit on the barometer. And every perception is skewed in a magic realism sort of fantasy world where nothing is what it should be. It hurts. It burns. It keeps you revved up on all cylinders with no stopping because you feel like you can conquer the world. You can build a gazebo in an afternoon….with no experience. You can write a great American novel in one sitting. You can trade stocks on Wall Street though you’ve never been there. You can do anything because you believe you are for lack of a better word a magician.
People, loved ones, friends, all fear the dragon. They fear it because it doesn’t fight fair. You break your leg, you get a cast and wait for it to heal. You catch a flu or a cold, you take your meds until the symptoms eventually pass. You’ve become grossly overweight, you take to a regime and diet. But when a malady of the mind takes hold, shifting all the chemicals swimming in your body into dangerous imbalance; no one around you knows what to do or make of it.
At first glance, it’s an act. Perhaps my Aunt has had too much to drink. At second glance maybe this is her true nature. Maybe she’s always been secretly deviant or full of herself or rambling a million words a minute. And then finally when none of these things hold true, people back away, fearful of the unknown and the unseen. There are no scrapes and bruises for which to administer a bandage or Neosporin, not when what is fluttering in the eyes is no longer make-believe but altered reality.
Then the dragon finally reveals itself. Once it has eaten away at everything inside the body, it comes up to the surface for air, to scavenge for food. It comes up for air. Someone, a relative, a friend--someone puts two and two together and realizes that Aunt Tempest isn’t playing drama queen. Someone realizes that the cogs and whistles behind those deep brown eyes aren’t turning like they used to. They’re turning at warp speed. Someone realizes all the hurtful things hissed from her lips, all the grandiose fantasies about becoming an astronaut or writing letters to Adam and Eve in chalk on the sidewalks in the neighborhood, all the late night rambling phone calls about vague business propositions are manifestations of the dragon coming up for air.
Days before, she had engaged in a wrestling match with her pastor on the front lawn of the church. He cursed her, she said. He probably did. And she punched him, he said. She probably did. Her excuse was the dragon riding the rails of her emotions and perceptions of reality. His excuse? He didn’t have one. So when the scrapes and bruises showed themselves, she washed them clean, fingers jittering and teeth chattering; shaking nervously, moving frenetically. Her eyes darted from one place in the bathroom to the next. Her hands raced over her scratched arms and elbows with antibacterial soap. And she cursed Eves and Adams who were the reason that society was the way it was. She cursed that foolish pastor for physically touching her. She cursed anyone who didn’t seem to give a damn about her great vision of things.
But then she turned her ire towards the family. Where were they to defend her? Why hadn’t her brothers shown up at the front steps of the church to beat up the pastor? Why weren’t any of the sisters pressing charges? Why did it seem like no one was seeing things from her vantage point? And in every bit of manic poetry that tragically becomes bipolar disorder there always lies some truth underneath it all. Where were we? Why didn’t we at least do something in that instant?
Medicine doesn’t cure the shreds of truth that circulate in the heart. Medicine doesn’t remove any stain of a grudge from your childhood. Those kinds of things are forever imprinted on the soul. And they burn. Yep. She cursed my parents and my elder cousins and uncles and aunts. She rang up a few times threatening to sue the cotton socks off my mother.
But when I answered the phone, she was sweet and caring. She warned me not to grow up like the rest of my family. She told me I was always her favorite. And then her voice would disintegrate on the phone. She’d be lost somewhere, rambling through thoughts out loud. And I couldn’t follow. Heck I was a kid. All I could think was there must be a way to slay the dragon. And then without being prompted, she’d hang up in the middle of a thought.
Slaying the dragon could never be more painful. So we did what anyone eventually would do when Aunt Tempest wouldn’t listen to reason. When she refused to sit at a table and talk about what was happening to her, my family threw its hands up in the air and summoned patience. But when she no longer answered the door without threat of brandishing a switchblade, we knew instantly it was time to slay the fire breather. Her daughters, my mother her sister, and a handful of my uncles sat down and planned an intervention.
One bright morning a pair of police officers and a nurse arrived at her doorstep. Surprisingly she opened the door. She probably thought they were there to get her side of the story about the pastor. She probably thought they came to tell her the pastor had been handcuffed and jailed. She probably thought wrong. They took her immediately into the care and custody of the state. She was held in a cell in South Carolina where she was administered a healthy dose of lithium and other dragon slayers.
The first few days in the hospital were violent. She managed to get a few phone calls off a day. She called my parents a few times. I’ll sue you for a million dollars, she said. I’m locked in this room with no clean underwear, she said. How could you treat me like this, she asked.
And when I answered the phone, her tone was soft and clear, gentle. There were no signs of a fire breathing dragon. There were no bursts of flame shooting through the receiver. She begged me to come drive down and break her out of the hospital. The only thing I knew how to drive at that age was my 12 speed bicycle with the fire red handle bars and the lightning bolt kickstand.
Sometimes I could hear her voice break. I could hear the pain and anguish of her longing to be free and normal betray every violent urge and delusion that the dragon had earlier hissed. I could hear her hold back tears and ask God why. It was in those instants I knew it was my Aunt Tempest talking and not the dragon.
I remember asking my mother what was happening to Aunt Tempest. I remember her saying that she would be okay. She would pull through and things would go back to normal. But I didn’t know what normal was at that point. Normal to me was fairytale lands where knights in armor fought off vicious fire-breathing dragons. Normal to me was whipping my imagination into a frenzy for hours at end while I played with my He-Man or Star Wars action figures. Normal to me was seeing what was never truly there flutter before my eyes in a flash of lightning bolt and a cloud of pixie dust.
And it’s the same kind of normal that got my Aunt committed. Or so I assumed at that age. So I instantly locked all my little toy figures in a box and vowed never to touch them again. But I couldn’t shut off the make-believe in my mind. I was haunted with worry, haunted that I’d be locked away like my Aunt for dreaming, for make-believing, for seeing the unseeable.
Eventually the phone calls stopped. A week later, a doctor had spoken at length with my mother. He told her the worst was over. He told her that my Aunt was clear and coherent now. I remember overhearing my mother ask about visitation. The pained look on her face said it all. It said that no matter of drugs was going to wipe away what had happened. That we committed my Aunt.
Then a few days later, Aunt Tempest called. I answered the phone and she gently asked to speak to my mother. It was a long soft, quiet conversation. I couldn’t hear what was being said. I remember pressing my ear to the door of my mother’s bedroom, hoping to overhear some glimmer of something. But nothing.
Then maybe an hour later, my mother emerged from her bedroom. Her eyes were red. She had been crying. That much was clear. She said Aunt Tempest was going to be alright. She said we’d be able to see her in a few days.
When we spirited down to South Carolina to see my Aunt, she was sitting on the terrace of the hospital cafeteria. She was laughing with a young nurse. She looked happy. She looked alive and free almost. And when she saw us, she brightened. She hesitated to come forward, almost as if she wanted our permission. I ran and hugged her. She whispered how much she missed me in my ear.
And then I looked up in her eyes and saw the deepest, most profound sadness I ever saw. It was like something was taken away from her. Granted all the bad parts were scraped away and dropkicked to oblivion. But some of the magnificent, glorious daydreamer parts were equally erased. She seemed tentative. She seemed unsure of herself sometimes. She seemed to scan the terrace for approval or permission in the middle of phrases, just to make sure she wasn’t going too far. It wasn’t the Aunt Tempest I looked up to. It wasn’t the Aunt Tempest who would whistle from behind the wheel of a tan Toyota Corolla some strange little tune that came to her in the middle of a daydream. It wasn’t the Aunt Tempest who knew when I was making effortless sound effects with my mouth and chasing invisible starships in the front yard, that I was defending the earth from an alien invasion. It wasn’t the old Aunt Tempest at all.
My mother told me that Aunt Tempest was scared that I’d never look at her the same, that I’d be forever afraid of her and the dragon from that point on. But nothing could have been further from the truth. I felt sad with her. I wanted to give her a little bit of my pixie dust to sprinkle in her eyes and make her see the unseeable again like old times. But that wasn’t going to happen. The doctors said we would need to be vigilant. They said she would have to follow a disciplined regime for the rest of her days. Any hint of anything out of the normal could be a sign of things going badly. So I couldn’t even slip her an ounce of my make-believe. Not now. Not ever. We didn’t want to wake the sleeping dragon.
And then something curious happened. She whispered to me before we left to go back home, “Don’t stop believing.” She pecked me on the cheek and then did a pinky swear, taking my little pinky finger in hers. Pact sealed.
I smiled at our secret pact together. I smiled inside and out. But I knew everyone around us was watching us, both of us; watching to see if some bit of dragon’s bane exchanged from her to me. I can’t honestly say. I felt like a rebel in one moment. And I felt scared in the next. I wanted to make-believe again out in the open. I wanted to have those funny conversations with people who aren’t there again. I wanted to see the unseeable without threat of being locked away. But the ride home was quiet. I couldn’t shut off all the questions in my head about what would happen to me if I did go back to things as “normal.” What would happen if I played with my toys again? I knew the answer. I would have to grow up. And fast.
My days as a man sometimes are haunted with memory. Sometimes I’m filled with moments of dreaming, of disappearing behind the veil of my eyelids and escaping to some strange place. Sometimes a melody comes to me out of nowhere and I laugh out loud. No one understands why. But I don’t stop myself. I don’t edit my strange parts and outbursts. And occasionally a colleague or a friend warns me that I should tone down the eccentricities that make me glow. And I tell them I can’t. Either willfully or by the mere genetic makeup of my being, I just can’t. I tell them that it’s in my nature.
I laugh at the thought of it all. Dragons and pixie dust. Make-believe lands and melodies that come humming out of nowhere. Yeah I laugh at it all. And it’s a bitter, proud and fearful laugh. It’s a laugh that betrays my own sense of worry, my own sense of fear of being eaten alive from the inside out by a fire breathing dragon one day. It’s a deep belly laugh I could have till the end of my days.