This is a chapter (actually, the prologue, from my unpublished book, The Smartest Girl in the World). There is my history, and then there is the mythology of my history. Mon histoire. My story. You can’t extract the myth from the facts. They grow together, like the weed entangled with the peony. My history is incomplete without the mythology I wound around every single day, as each day ended, and my eyes closed, and my mind created its own story of the day. My mythology is what I felt, what I saw, what I thought I saw, what I felt like doing, but perhaps never did.
You can call it memory, or you can call it mythology. It could be the simple fact that a mentally ill memory is both true and false. That is the nature of it. After I became ill, illness grew like tree roots around the base of my brain. I can’t separate them. Illness added hyperbole; I remember flying when of course I never flew; I remember crouching when I never crouched; I remember being at war when I never fought.
My sister and my parents all say that I remember things from our childhood that nobody else does, that I confused books with reality, that I made situations up in my imagination. I think more likely it was that certain moments loomed large in my imagination, and as they grew in meaning, they rolled like the proverbial snowball, until they were so big they became my formative memories. I can’t help what I remember, and I can’t help what has since gathered so much meaning that I must write it.
It—my story—begins with my father. To my hungry little brain, he was my mentor, and he trained me to be a writer, and if not a writer, then he suffered me to think. My sister might laugh at this, at my grand-standing, at my self-absorption, at my seeing intellectual romance in the most meaningless of details, in a normal childhood, in a normal home. We are given one life, and in each life, I could craft ten thousand stories, and each story would only be as true as memory can make it. They are all lies, and they are all the truth. To my sister I would say there is a story for each of our given days, for each of our scars, for each of her tattoos, and as human beings, I could tell a fairy tale for each one, and in each one there would be truth to one and lies to another. Of the ten thousand threads that weave themselves through a life, this is just one, and I chose it because it is the one that holds me tightest. It is as true as any other thread, and because this is the thread of a crazy life, it is as crazy as I remember it.
Today, I am mentally ill. I am supposedly bipolar, type 1 but my current doctor thinks I am bipolar, type II. I’m given accommodations in my job and I take these amazing little pills that keep me alive. 100 years ago, on the other side of the world, I might have died of suicide in my twenties, alone, in a prison-like institution. 1000 years ago, when the Catholic Church was catholic in the West, I could have burned through a short life, filled with visions of God walking next to me, or appearing to me while I walked alone through the forest. People might have followed me, listening to me while God spoke through me, burning my mouth as I spoke. I could have been a saint. I could have been a heretic. 5000 years ago, here on the same dirt I stand in today, I may have been a shaman, a medicine woman, a caller of visions. Or I may have been a demon, exiled from the tribe, sent to die alone on the edge of the forest.
During my freshman year of college, at Georgetown University, I learned about memory, and a smattering about mental illness. There were about sixty students in psychology 101, in an old building that reminded me of a small castle. My professor taught us that our memory of every event is touched by the emotion we felt when the memory was made. When we are sad, we remember sad events. When we are happy, we remember happy things. Of course.
When I am sick, I’ve always been sick. I was born sick, I was sick in the womb. When I am well, I can’t imagine the feeling of being triggered by the same event that once made me crumble. When it is summer in Alaska, it’s almost impossible to paint the green sides of the mountains white, or to imagine the feeling of 30 below zero when the sun is warm and the air is full of the noise of insects.