This summer, I did one of those things you get used to when you’re being treated for a mental health thingie. I tweaked the dosage of the pills that keep my head on a bit straighter. Like I have every time my shrink suggested I shove some extra milligrams of medication into myself, I told them they were full of crap and I was just fine thank you very much and I’d take the bonus pills when I needed them and not a moment sooner.
Then my brain cycled and chucked me into another depression and my friends asked why exactly I’d refused the med-bump and I got sick of everyone yelling at me and crawled back to my doctor to beg them for the thing they’d begged me to do a few months prior.
That bump — the summer dosage bump — was the best thing I’ve done for my brain since I went and got help in the first place. It helped so much that it made me feel stupid for having put it off for so long.
Why would I do that to myself? Why fight against something that would probably do good when I already knew there are parts of my brain that could use the help?
I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a boat before, but if not, hang with me. When you first get onboard, you really feel the waves. Every time the boat shifts, you have to think which way do I lean where do I put my feet should I stop walking or keep going and hope the dozen little corrections your body has to make will keep you upright. And then, after a day or two, it’s over. The waves are still there, but all those adjustments you have to make are so second nature that you don’t need to think about them anymore. Walking straight while the ground moves beneath you is still harder — it still takes more strength, more energy, more focus — it’s just happening so automatically that you’ve stopped noticing.
See where I’m going with this?
Slightly Medicated Eric wasn’t on entirely stable ground, but the waves of my bipolar cycling were…well, normal. Part of daily life. Why screw with my medication if things were normal, y’know?
The problem, of course, is that there was another time when what I thought what I was going through was Normal Daily Life: Before I got help in the first place. The reason it took me forever to get treatment was because I’d gotten so used to living with whatever was happening in my brain that I figured that was just me. Even when things got worse, they slid down in inches, so I’d only realize I was pitching back and forth for a little while before my subconscious got back to compensating.
And I went on compensating until something screamed loudly enough for me to notice. This summer, what broke through was the (quite literal) shouting of friends. That wasn’t what worked the first time, though. The first time, I ignored everyone’s concern, even Erin’s. No, see, when this all got started, what woke me up was About a Boy.
I’ve been a fan of About a Boy since it hit cable (which was like 10 years ago but let’s not talk about that, okay?). It’s one of my favorite films. E. and I watch it constantly. Watching it was how I celebrated finishing Broken Magic. I quote it incessantly. I’m sure I’ve annoyed everyone I know, is what I’m saying. I wasn’t looking at it for life lessons, though. It was just a breezy, funny little gem that boosted my mood.
When things started going to crap for me back in the summer of 2011, it started with High Anxiety, moved into Insomnia, dipped into The Rage (Carrie 2), then bottomed out into seemingly random bouts of Secret Tears. Running to the work bathroom to vent some sad became a very familiar thing. It went on for a while, but my denial remained intact. Strong. Impenetrable.
Until one day I was driving home, and the tears started in the car, which had never happened before. Not when I was driving. Out of nowhere, a quote from the beginning of About a Boy hit.
The crying had started again, and it scared me. Because now it was in the mornings. She’d never done that before.
Marcus (the Boy it’s About) is in the kitchen watching his mom try to make him a bowl of cereal, and she’s forcing herself through the breakdown, and there’s this point when she tries to pour milk and misses the bowl and the crying just gets harder and more desperate, and this all slammed into me at once and I realized…oh crap, I’m in trouble, aren’t I?
Worse, I suddenly understood what the people around me (especially Erin) were seeing, and why they were worried, and what I was probably doing to them.
Because the thing that followed the crying in the morning for Fiona, Marcus’ mom, was a suicide attempt.
And so, faced with a scene I’d watched a couple dozen times that I finally really got, I decided to ask for help.
When I watch About a Boy these days, it’s a completely different experience. Sure, it’s still hilarious and delightful and a seriously good time. It’s just got another layer to it now. I’m not seeing Fiona distantly, through Marcus’ worry and Will’s annoyance, but through her own eyes. When Marcus comes home to find his mom crying and she can’t even explain why, I feel what it was I was holding in and denying for so long.
I probably would have gotten help one way or another. I probably didn’t need About a Boy to kick my denial in half. But who knows how much louder, and more painful, that wake-up call would have had to be before I finally heard it. Who knows how much crappier I’d have let my life become.
Thank you, Nick Hornby. Thank you, Chris and Paul Weitz. Thank you, Toni Collette. You all reminded me that even the fluffiest and silliest of art can be exactly what we need, can be the thing that we let through the armor because our defenses don’t see it as a threat, can be the very force that bonds with our own heart and shows us where to go.
Also, now I get to make people feel really guilty when they complain that I quote About a Boy too much. Suckers.