I’m a good speller. Not everyone can spell, but I’ve always been good at it. It wasn’t a thing I studied — I didn’t carry around a wordlist or memorize facts, ‘i’ before ‘e’ and so on — I just have an inborn ability to visualize a word and commit it to memory. I’m lucky that way.
In 1986 I was a good enough speller to be in the County Spelling Bee. The County Spelling Bee is where I met my husband. We were 11. It was his crystal blue eyes, set against his olive skin and dark hair, that caught my attention. I’d never seen eyes like his before. Our son has those eyes. He inherited them from his father. He also inherited the ability to spell. I’m not sure which one of us he got that from.
The word I lost on was exxon. Well, it was exon, but I confidently (and incorrectly) spelled it exxon, like the gas station. I cried. On stage, in front of an auditorium full of people, including the boy who would eventually become a man, who would eventually become my husband and the father of two of my five kids. I cried.
My husband won.
His winner’s plaque is at the top of our staircase on the landing. It’s sitting in a cupboard that the builder of our house I think just stuck there, either because there was a weird empty space, or because he had an extra cupboard. Now, eight years and two kids later, that cupboard holds a dozen or so family photos, and a shadowbox of my great-grandmother's thimble and crochet hooks, and the plaque my husband got when he won the spelling bee that I lost on the stupid word exon.
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On a blazingly hot July day in 2010, we got married in our backyard. My belly was 36 weeks full of our first baby — a daughter who would inherit my brown eyes. My two sons, 10 and 12 at the time, gave me away. My oldest daughter, 14-years-old, was a bridesmaid. I made aqua-frosted cupcakes and arranged peachy-pink English roses and wore a knee-length red dress like the 35-year-old pregnant jezebel I was.
We’d been together less than a year when we walked down the grassy aisle of our new backyard.
We almost had to postpone the ceremony because we weren’t sure his divorce would be final; mine had been final for a whole three months. Because of the divorce paperwork debacle, four days after the intimate wedding we shared with our friends and family, we had our actual wedding at a McDonald’s off of Highway 99 in the Central Valley of California with the woman who married us, her husband, and two homeless guys drinking coffee in the back corner. We met our officiant there, the mid-way point between our house and hers, and actually signed the paperwork we had pretend-signed in front of God and everyone else. Just to be sure. The kids were waiting in the car. The Summer Of 69 was playing on the overhead. We decided to call it our song. I never really liked that song before I heard it during my McDonald’s wedding. Weddings change things, I guess.
Our officiant’s husband was our witness. I think we were probably supposed to have two, but we couldn’t find a second one (I don't think the homeless guys had IDs). I hope our marriage is legal. If our marriage isn’t legal, I’m going to have to redo our taxes for the last seven years. We don’t have a CPA, so that would be really inconvenient.
Here’s something else that’s inconvenient — love.
Sometimes love just sneaks up on you and grabs you and shakes you so hard that your brain rattles and you forget who you are and where you are and what you were doing before love grabbed you and shook the shit right out of you.
That’s what happened with us.
Well, kind of. I fell in love with him when I was 11 and spent most of my time being worried about my Guess jeans and erupting acne and my fragile reputation. Then again, when I was 35 and married to someone else and manic and totally confident in who I was and also wholly uncertain of who I was at the same time. Then again, when I was 38 and already married to him and diagnosed with bipolar disorder and medicated and not manic and after I found out who I actually really was under the chemical imbalance of my brain. And again every day.
I pursued my husband relentlessly.
When I say relentlessly, I do mean relentlessly. As in without abandon. As in the way only a manic middle-aged already married mother of three who is 16 years into her first marriage and 18 years into a disease she has yet to be diagnosed with can.
I pursued him without relent.
I baked and overnighted him dozens of chocolate chip cookies. I bought and thoughtfully inscribed books for him. I wrote him impossibly long emails daily. I professed my love for him repeatedly. I designed a life for us in my mind. Then I sold him that image with the desperation and determination of a used car salesman trying to convince someone that tan is the best color for a 13-year-old Chevy Impala.
He bought the Impala.
California has a lemon law for used cars. There is no lemon law for people. You might say I was a lemon.
The person my husband married was manic. Manic in the stay-up-all-night-bake-dozens-of-cookies-write-incessant-emails way that only a middle-aged mother of three who is 16 years into her first marriage and 18 years into a disease she has yet to be diagnosed with can be. Mania is a particular kind of superpower. It’s the power to fly and be invisible and shape-shift and be someone entirely other than who you actually are, lacking awareness of consequence and with a keen inability to hear any sense of logic or reason.
The manic version of a person is still that person, but if that person were their original self with a whole other self on top. Like if you took a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting but then added a layer of ganache — it’s entirely delicious but not very practical. Eventually, it’s all going to fall apart because cake just isn’t built to withstand all that pressure.
Relationships aren’t always built to withstand all that pressure either.
Have you heard the parable of the scorpion and the frog?
I use this parable a lot to illustrate to my kids that when people show you what they are, you should believe them.
In case you haven't heard it:
A scorpion is walking along a river and wants to cross. He sees a frog swimming along minding his own damn business and asks him for a ride across. The frog, not a fool, says, “Why would I give you a ride when you will sting me and kill me?” The scorpion, a liar, says, “I promise I will not.”
The frog allows the scorpion upon his back and immediately the scorpion stings him (OBVIOUSLY). As he’s dying, the frog asks the scorpion why. The scorpion says, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.”
What if the frog had not known what the scorpion was?
My husband did not know about me. He knew the me I was at the time, the me I allowed him to see. If our life was the parable of the scorpion and the frog, you might say I hid my tail from him. He was not privy to the real me, the scorpion side.
The thing about being mentally ill, especially the kind of mentally ill that can dramatically alter your personality, is that I wasn’t even privy to the real me. I'd seen her before, sure, but mania has a way of making you forget things.
The real me started to show up after our second child was born. By that time, the mania was gone. The hormones of my pregnancy with our first child shifted me into a rare and blissful state of peace; the hormones of my pregnancy with our second child shifted me into a state of depression. Real me was not baking dozens of cookies. Real me was crying too much, yelling too much, scoring far too high on the postpartum screening tool. Real me was someone else. I was trying to be the person he married, but she was gone.
So I did what we bipolar folks often do. I medicated the depression. And then my mood balanced and for a few months, things were just...things. Then, as it does, the mania started to seep back in. I began to feel the familiar twinges of poor decision-making — spending too much money, the resurgence of my eating disorder, nights spent awake, pacing the floor with manic energy and no place to put it.
After 20 years of living with a disease I knew I had but could not admit, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. After an entire adulthood of chasing highs and medicating lows and making questionable decisions or terrible decisions or no decisions at all, I was finally diagnosed. And then I was medicated.
We tweaked and tested and tried a laundry list of pharmaceuticals before we landed on a regimen with side effects mild enough that I could live with them and therapeutic effects that made, and continue to make, the person sitting here writing this.
This is not the person my husband married.
Our marriage was built on a foundation that was a lie. This is not like your partner not knowing you secretly hate scallops or that you burp a lot when you eat; this is me being a fundamentally different person than the one he married. That foundation began to crumble under the truth of my mental illness. And things changed. Dramatically.
So I had an existential crisis. Not only was I suddenly wearing the diagnosis of mental illness, taking handfuls of meds, trying to prioritize sleep and self-care, but I had also gained 50 pounds. My husband, the object of my most arduous pursuit, became an afterthought to my wellness. I did not know who I was. He did not know who I was. We were both trying to figure out how to live with an entirely new person.
Can you imagine what that might do to a marriage?
Yeah, I couldn't imagine it either.
It did not end our marriage. But it did mean that the marriage we thought we had needed to be redefined. I suddenly had needs that he couldn’t meet. The needs he had that I went out of my way to meet, I could no longer fulfill. The dynamic of me as a pursuer, a partner with boundless energy, a person beyond capable at all times, shifted. Quickly.
Mania had been my most trusted, most malicious friend. She turned her back on me whenever she had the chance, but I kept going back. I was in an abusive relationship with myself. Worse than that? I barely knew. Even worse than that? I didn't care. Much of the time, the person I am now feels like a stranger to me.
I imagine he must have felt that way too, at least to some degree.
We didn't make traditional vows, but we did vow to stay married through whatever bullshit might come our way. Still, despite those vows, I wouldn't blame him if this was all too much to take. He didn't sign up for the person who I am now. He didn't know that he wasn't entering into a covenant with a partner that was quite literally, for lack of a better word, crazy.
As I came to the end of this essay, I thought I might ask him what he thinks now, almost nine years under our belt — about four of which I've been properly treated and medicated. I'm solo-parenting again while he's away for work, so I texted him and told him I was writing about how profoundly I'd changed since we met. I asked if he'd like to go on record and say anything about being married to a crazy person.
He said, "Everybody's crazy."
And that's the truth, isn't it? We don't all have a mental illness, but we are all unique in our own way. We all change. I changed, but my husband changed, too. That's the nature of things. We are (or should be) always evolving. We are not the people today that we were yesterday. Tomorrow we will not be the people we are today. What we are is human — flawed, fantastic, flailing, human. We're all a little crazy. We're all trying.