If I had to pick one thing that I love more than anything else about New York City, it wouldn’t be Central Park, or the Plaza, or even bagels with cream cheese and lox. It would be the ability to cry while you’re walking down Fifth Avenue, or on the subway, or even in line at Starbucks, and be left alone. Which is not to say that New Yorkers are cruel, or jaded, or don’t care about their fellow woman. We care so much that we let it be, understand that in a city as tightly packed as ours, there is very little private space to be had so we have to make do. Besides which, who really wants strangers up in your face when you’re in the middle of your nervous breakdown du’jour, asking if you’re ok, shoving tissues at you? No, I’m not ok, and I’ll wipe my snot on my sleeve, thank you very much.
For someone like me, who cries on a more or less daily basis, the comfortable shared anonymity of the city is a blessing I am constantly grateful for. When I say I cry on a daily basis, I’m not exaggerating. Since I got on the right medications for my bipolar disorder a few years ago, it’s not so often that I have full-fledged breakdowns on the train anymore, but before I was diagnosed it was a more or less weekly occurrence.
I’d sit, trying to keep the noise to a minimum, tears streaming down my face as the kindly commuters packed around me did their best not to stare. I was so thoroughly devoted to hating myself that even a compliment could set me back for days, does she really like my shoes or is she trying to tell me they look cheap, that I’m cheap, I’m broke and cheap and my life is never ever getting better. The lack of reaction to my public displays of insanity was a gift. I judged myself, but the city did not judge me.
Even though these days I’m more girl and less interrupted, I still cry a lot. I am a true empath, and bearing witness to friends, family, even stranger’s joys and sorrows is a technicolor affair for me. Last week a colleague proudly told me that her son was accepted to a gifted and talented program, and I had to turn away, embarrassed as my eyes starting to tear up. I was just so happy for them, so taken over by the pride bursting out of the corner of her eyes. My wife Cristina and I are on the fence about whether we’ll have kids of our own, but for just a moment, I got what all the fuss is about.
For a long time after I stopped living in my more or less continuous nervous breakdown, this emotional tourism was my primary way of interacting with the world of feelings. Post diagnosis, suddenly every feeling I had became a possible symptom, a potential sign of impending mania or depression. There’s a misconception that mania is one big party, happiness ramped up to an impossible degree. For some people with bipolar disorder, that may be true, but for me, mania is like being force fed cocaine for days on end. When I was doing coke on a daily basis, it was fun, made me feel like I was on top of the world, limitless. At least, for a while.
On the third or fourth day of a bender, it would take a sinister turn. Limits exist for a reason. Our brains need rest, need downtime to process and connect. My near constant use of stimulants made me shaky, blurred the edges of my life until I wasn’t even sure of the fact of my existence. Being manic feels the same way to me: I lose sight of the “I” in me, become a walking bundle of exposed nerves, wandering through the city streets avoiding eye contact, certain everyone can see that I am not quite right, that I am a prop of a girl, all brain waves and no body. I make bad decisions, go around blabbing the most personal details of my life to anyone who will listen, and then end up so horrified by my disclosures that I simply go dark on whoever I’ve been so open with, stop answering their calls and emails until they write me off as horribly rude and abandon me altogether.
This is my danger zone, the place where I have teetered dangerously close to the edge of suicide, where I have fallen into patterns of self-harm. I feel hopeless and lost, vacant and desperate, but with unimaginable energy, energy that courses through my body shouting “It’s all over! You’re never ever ever getting better, you’re a mess, you don’t deserve to live another day!” If I was just depressed, I could curl into bed and sleep for days, sleep through the worst of it, but when I’m in-between, I can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t do anything but wear down the floorboards of my bedroom, pacing back and forth, willing myself not to pick up the razor blade, not to walk out the door and into traffic.
My feelings were terrifying, so once I got somewhat better, stopped being a danger to myself and others, I avoided them entirely. What it took me years to realize, was that I was robbing myself of the ability to grow, to bloom. I chose run of the mill office jobs, where not too much would be required of me. I lost most of my friends, and didn’t make any new ones, sure I would just scare them off eventually. I cried at commercials, for the friends I did keep, for Cristina’s successes and struggles, but rarely for myself. I wandered through my days, not wanting to become Icarus, avoiding the sun that might knock me out of the sky, and in the process, living a life without much light in it.
This past year, I’ve made a lot of progress with feelings. When I walked into my therapist’s office for the first time last year, I sat on the couch, briefly explained my psychiatric history, and immediately broke into sobs. Ugly, gulping, can’t breathe sobs, sobs for myself, for the better me I was worried was lost and gone forever. I had avoided therapy for years, had demurred every time my psychiatrist suggested it. I was scared of exactly what happened, of the floodgates of emotion opening, but once they did I was grateful.
These days, I’m trying to embrace my feelings, whatever they may be. I learned a new trick that has helped immensely. It works like this: I name my emotions as they come up, sit with them for a while, figure out what they are. Nice to meet you, I say to excitement, Calm down, I instruct nervousness. I invite my emotions to tea parties, make room for them at the table. We sit down and feast on the soup of my brain, and with everything out in plain sight, I find myself spooning it up with appetite.
I want to cry, cry with joy for my own successes, cry with sadness for my own failures, cry until it’s all out there, soaking through my sleeves, until I am submerged in the wonderful wet slipperiness of life. If you see me on the subway, in the park, on the street, tears streaming down my face, don’t worry for me: I’m just fine. No, I’m better than fine. I’m alive.