The (im) possibilities of love with bipolar
by Casey Cannizzaro
I should have asked for her hand in marriage, but she would have just given me the finger. I live with bipolar disorder. Once, I loved with it too.
Lynnette was a sweet, gentle, beauty with soft skin and a loving nature. She was the type of person who, when you asked her how she was doing, and she told you she was amazing, you didn’t question it. She only knew the good in the world. Some believe in love at first sight. She showed me a deeper kind of love. Our souls were so intertwined that we loved passionately and unconditionally before her brilliant blues ever met my bloodshot eyes.
And, when they did, our universes collided. We were the Big Bang.
I quit my life and drove three thousand miles to be with her. She quit hers and bought a condo so we could start over. She renovated the kitchen. I renovated my life.
New to the Golden State, I found that people, like parking spaces in southern California, were small and tricky to get into. Like on highways in Los Angeles, it was difficult to merge. Lynnette taught me how to love myself and overcome my insecurities rooted in my mental illness.
Some refer to bipolar as “touched by fire.” I prefer to call it “I pour gasoline on everything I touch, light it on fire and stand back to admire the flames.” I survived suicide and I’m recovering from everything there is to recover from. Except for love—I don’t think I’m gonna make it.
I thought my diagnosis meant no one could love me. That changed when my love for Lynnette bought me a one-way ticket to the rest of my life. Most people will never see the inside of an institution. I’ve collected enough institutional baggage that she felt like she was living in one. Regardless of where or who I’d been, who I was when we met, or who I may have become, she anchored herself to me. A psychiatrist once asked her, “What’s it been like living with Casey?”
“Hell,” she answered. “But mostly heaven.”
Fire can take on many forms. We didn’t own a juicer. Early in our life together, she walked downstairs to find me hurling oranges at the patio door, demanding fresh squeezed orange juice. She called me a natural disaster. I don’t know who chooses the names, or what inspires them, but hurricanes are named after people. Had the mystery hurricane naming committee met me in my twenties I’d surely have been “Hurricane Casey” and that would have been my permission to continue destroying everything in my path.
That day, without orange juice, she left me for the first time. She just didn’t go anywhere. If she had, she would have tucked me in tight and laid out my medications for the week. No matter how many times she said she was leaving, she was always willing to “hunker down and wait out the storm” like my friends in the Sunshine State used to say.
I don’t know what it is like to love someone with bipolar disorder. I tried not to look in mirrors. I didn’t want to even glance at someone with bipolar disorder. Lynnette will be the first to tell you that it takes twice as much love to love both of me. On the days that being alive was awkward, Lynnette sat bedside and held my hand while we waited for my soul to wake up and join my body.
She accepted that I had to swallow a pill every time we visited a shopping mall or Walmart. Within a year she was speaking psychiatry as a second language and yelling therapeutic things like, “Are you off your lithium because you’re acting like a real dick!” When we traveled, she’d make sure I packed the pills that put me to sleep. I smiled anytime she asked when my new meds were going to kick in. I reminded her I’ve been on these “new meds” for two years.
Long before medication, and before Lynnette, in my twenties, I tried to take my life. Twice. Research shows a strong relationship between creativity and mental illness—so I write about my experiences. One in five of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at some point in their life. One in ten succeed. With the scars left behind, a handful of broken bones, a crooked face, and lots of stitches later, I guess I fall somewhere in between.
In my thirties Lynnette gave me twice the life I ever tried to take away. She saved me from behaviors only she’d learned to recognize. She made me go to work on days I refused to shower, and she made me write even when the only place I wanted to move my pen was into my chest.
I don’t know why she loved me, or how. But she had a way of letting me know she did before she even pulled the words out of her body and handed them to me. She stayed strong and held me tight the times I trembled with suicidal hate and muttered things about Nazis invading our condo and admitting I was really the one who pushed the rock that killed Piggy in the climax of Lord of the Flies—two of the very first traumas of my childhood.
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Sometimes, just hours after one of those dark episodes, we laughed together on the phone with my mom. It never got old; hearing the first woman who loved me tell the next, “Lynnette, no take-backs!!”
Once a month, for her reassurance, she’d Google something like, “Why does my bipolar boyfriend break up with me three times a week?” The assurance came somewhere around the hundredth result of loved ones asking the same questions.
In the end, those small reassurances weren’t enough. My behavior was erratic. I acted compulsively and impulsively and fell back into substance abuse. She was the reason I was alive but I blamed her for everything. During moments of clarity, I knew that she would be happier with someone else. So, I drank. I backed out of a trip to Palm Springs to spend the weekend with cheap Russian vodka. She came home early and found me naked, in front of a mirror, with a half-empty bottle in my hand.
I always drank alone. When I drink, I became someone who doesn’t belong anywhere. I should be exiled from the Universe.Too many nights over too many years, broken bottles broke her heart too many times. I broke too many promises over unopened Alcoholic Anonymous Big Books—the bible of addiction for those infatuated with recovery. I muttered, “My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking,” or one hundred other clichés I’d heard in 12 Step meetings that I lied and said I was going to.
That was her breaking point. My drinking. My lying. If I’d have dropped a bottle, I’d have knelt and licked the floor, because the pain of chewing on glass was the better alternative to having to look into her despairing blue eyes.
She has wings in a story I like to hear more than I like to recite. I imagine her as the sparrow laying in the middle of a dirt road with its sparrow legs reaching up to the sky, beads of sweat dribbling off its sparrow brow. A warhorse gallops down the road and stops when he sees the sparrow. Curious and amused he asks drunkenly,
“What are you doing little sparrow—laying there with your sparrow legs in the air?”
“I heard the sky is falling. I’m trying to hold it up”
“Sparrow, how do you intend to hold up the sky with those little sparrow legs?”
The sparrow replies softly, “One does what one can with what one’s got.”
Lynnette did what she could with what she had to hold me up. Eventually her sky came crumbling down and she spread her wings and flew away.
I told her that she’d never be less than the thing I loved the most. Once the orange is squeezed, it never gets its juice back. Everything has an edge. Everything has a beginning and an end. Even a heart. I should’ve been listening for her heartbeat. She was always listening for mine.
“I’ll do another five if you asked me too. Another five miserable years. “
Those were the last words she said to me. Pulling out of that driveway was impossible. I thought about backing into her SUV, so we could have another hour together. But instead, I backed out of her life. I couldn’t say farewell to our Golden Retriever, Bentley—there was no goodbye left in me.
Sawing off my foot with a butter knife would have been less painful than watching her cry in my rearview through my own teary eyes. On the car ride, heading towards a new life, I died eleven times and was born twelve.
Occasionally, Lynnette will send me an old photo of us. Always the same one, together, smiling endlessly on our first night in California—her way of wrapping her sparrow wings around me and tucking me in for the night.