Textbook

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I stared hungrily through the glass, looking for an out somewhere between the chocolate croissants and cookies. I ordered a sprinkled donut, figuring it was as good a time as any to start cashing in on my pregnancy cravings.

He was sitting in the corner, hunched over his double double. I slid into the seat across from him and tried to strategically manoeuvre my donut from its wrapper without releasing a wave of sprinkles. It was a complete and utter failure.

“I can’t have a kid right now.”

It was a real clean slice of cake – dealt as swiftly as a Jesus pamphlet on the street, pressed warmly into my hands before I could reply, “No thanks, I’m not really religious.” Every pro-choice and pro-life poster stapled to my high school’s walls peeled, boiled and pressed into an inconvenience. Maybe I should have been more devout.

“I mean, I’m not saying it’s ideal,” I said between mouthfuls of pastry. “I’m just saying that my period hasn’t actually been a thing in a month and a half and I thought I should tell you.”

“And you’re sure it couldn’t be anyone else?”

The bottom of my stomach recoiled. “You know it’s not anyone else.”

“Well, I don’t know. With your – you know, it’s not like we’re exclusive or anything,” he said, eyes flickering towards the grimy window. I wanted to streak my finger through the dirt, make sure I was still breathing.

“With my what?” I said. Steady job, university education, fantastic tits?

He stared into his coffee.

Don’t stick your dick in crazy. I first told him that I had bipolar just after Halloween – emphasizing the had and not was, as if it felt any different. I wasn’t wearing my cat ears anymore, but when I reached for him, he looked scared – almost cornered. “What do you want me to say?” he said, kicking the covers off with his legs. “It’s like I don’t know who I’m gonna wake up next to.”

I lay beside him, my knees half-pulled into my chest, hoping that if I didn’t move, he’d think I was the same.

He rattled off my symptoms like ingredients in a recipe, and asked if I was manic. He once called me beautiful.

I don’t know why I thought he’d get it. Fourth year psych major headed straight for grad school – he rattled off my symptoms like ingredients in a recipe, and asked me if I was manic. He once called me beautiful. Second year English major losing track of her words, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if I didn’t feel the way I looked, or didn’t look the way I felt. It’s the kind of run around that makes your head spin.

“You can say it, you know. I’m not afraid of people hearing,” I said. I left out the part where I was afraid that he was.

“I know,” he said, looking up. “I’m just not used to it.”

I couldn’t tell you when I got used to it – feeling predisposed to failure, like something in my blood had gone sour but I couldn’t stop it from circulating. It might have been the moment at Christmas dinner where I found out my great-grandfather had blown his brains out, and I didn’t really have all that much to live up to after all. I ate my pie quietly, unsure which was worse – further confirmation that my brain was fucked, or the knowledge that I finally had something in common with my family.

“You do, you know,” I said, rearranging my sprinkles like an Etch-a-Sketch. “Get used to it. There’s patterns. You start to recognize when things are getting bad, and you make adjustments.”

“Leanne, I told you it’s not about that.” His exasperation clung tight to my veins.

“Then I don’t understand what it’s about,” I said, my voice taut. I needed this to be about it and not me, as if my illness was something removed from myself. I wondered if he could sense it – the elevated lithium levels in my bloodstream compounded by a healthy sense of self-loathing for such a weak dependency. I asked him once why he liked to powerlift, and he replied, “So that I can be the strongest.” I asked myself how I could love someone whose definition of strength could fracture mine. I was sick, and not weak, but that didn’t mean that I was winning.

“It’s nothing against you,” he said, nervously twisting a napkin around his finger. “But you don’t know my family. They’re not like me. They don’t understand this kind of stuff – these kind of problems. I could never bring you home. They just won’t accept it.”

If I had to draw a road map of where it came from, it would jump from my great-granddad to my grandfather, from him to my aunt. My aunt to my dad, but not in the same way. He doesn’t have bipolar; I do. My cousin disappeared a few years ago and we found him in the river. My uncle has been missing for two months. But in my family, you don’t hear about anything until it’s absolutely necessary, until the subpoena arrives and they find themselves obliged to inform you what’s wrong with your head. Until you’re sitting in a coffee shop at 1 am, arguing over your hypothetical unborn child. Parenting at its finest.

“That’s such a cop out,” I spat. “You’re scared of my illness. You don’t think I’m stable.”

I wanted him to tell me to shut up, to grab my hands and kiss me in front of all the people who didn’t think I was crazy, who didn’t see my darkness. I’m used to being disappointed.

“I want to believe you, but I know better,” he said. “This is what I do; I know the patterns, I’ve seen the extremes. It’s hard not to code your behaviour-“

“Code it?”

He thought for a moment. “You know, the reckless spending, the hedonistic attitudes towards school, the risky sexual behaviour-“

“That is literally just you!” I hissed. “Just you. For fuck’s sakes.”

This time, I couldn’t believe him when he said it wasn’t me – that I wasn’t a burden.

I looked at the person I’d spent most of my evenings with for the better part of six months, and I couldn’t see him. All I could see was myself as a specimen; my tiny shriveled heart being studied for its weaknesses. This time, I couldn’t believe him when he said it wasn’t me – that I wasn’t a burden or a drain, or whatever girls worry about then they’re being little spoon while trying not to breathe too heavily. I felt like a problem, like my label was stitched into my skin so tightly I couldn’t move.

“I can’t have a kid right now,” I said. “I can’t have a kid, maybe ever.”

He didn’t say anything, didn’t touch me.

“My medication, it gives kids birth defects. If I want kids, I have to go off my meds for the whole pregnancy and pray that my mood stays stable enough to continue functioning as a human. Because I am functional, okay?”

People tell me all the time that I am high-functioning, which is actually a term more suited for the autism spectrum than mental illness. I don’t correct them anymore – I take my small win, and I work my safe, customer service job, and I dream of the day where I’m ready to do something bigger. Because I can feel it growing, even on my bad days. Today is a bad day.

“And God knows I have a lot of bad days – but they are still days, and I am still here, and when you say you can’t have kids, it’s not the same as me. It’s just not.  I’m sorry, but your “can’t” doesn’t break my heart, because it is a choice. I don’t have a choice.”

His hand crept closer, initiated peace. Failed, too.

“I wanted kids,” I said slowly. “But what if I’m not always the same person they wake up to?”

I don’t remember what he said after that, and it honestly didn’t matter. My dad came to pick me up in the dead of the night from the cafe across the street from the hospital, and didn’t ask how I got there, who I was with, or why my face was streaked with both tears and sprinkles.  

My dad once told me that he watched me grow up with fingers crossed.

My dad once told me that he watched me grow up with fingers crossed, because it always seemed like I would burn right out. He was right, but I didn’t mind it at the time. My father had only ever showed me how to live in the light, and I couldn’t fathom changing my ways for a label that wasn’t ever truly mine. Years later, I know that bipolar is a dogged friend, one that ignores changed addresses and unopened letters in favour of knocking on your door in the middle of Christmas dinner. I’ve started inviting it to the table in hopes that we can talk as old friends.

As we drove away, I wondered if my choice of an empty womb was based on my own insecurities, or other people’s criteria for happiness, security, and love. I sure didn’t have emotional security, and my happiness was a part-time tenant, but what I did have was love. Every now and then, I stop loving myself. I strip the colour from my own story, and wonder why it’s bleak. But I have never, ever, stopped loving the people around me, and I never will. It’s easier to look up at the stars than find your own light, and while the ride home that night was full of darkness, I believe that someday I will glow.

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