We don’t have bonfires. We have scorching, searing conflagrations that silently raise our internal boiling points until we are nearly cooked and charred. We scoot back only an inch as we don’t really want to leave the warmth despite the fear of the ash falling all around us and the sparks burning holes in our mesh chairs and flannel shirts. I know every bonfire will be this way because that is how my husband makes them, and that is what I like and know. I am drawn to the flickering flames and am willing to sit close to them unshielded in order to take in the entirety of the bonfire- the crackle, the sparkle, the quiet that lies often unnoticed outside my mind; the natural meditation that transcends the unwanted ember burning my shoe. The neighbors look on fearfully as if they are in danger themselves peeking from their windows, cell phones in hand ready to call the fire department. The bushes around the firepit are mottled with both life and death, a look I like because it tells a story, our story. From the deck, the plants look fittingly vibrant nestled around the fire pit. But as you get closer, you see the aftermath of the last big bonfire, blackened and wilted leaves holding on and fighting to live. I know our bonfires have an element of danger, but I feel at peace and awakened surrounded by the magnificence and sense of awe the fire creates. That is what it felt like to be with my daughter, who suffered from bipolar disorder: dangerous and delightful, absolutely spectacular.
To know Laura was to be at her bonfire feeling the warmth and the burn. She shot off sparks effortlessly, intentionally and totally haphazardly. You often didn’t realize you’d even been hit until you felt the sting or uttered the unexpected giggle. Her spark could ignite both contagious laughter and a feeling of grasping on to one exact moment in time with fervor. Like when she started climbing over a fence at her brother’s wedding hoping to ride a cow while wearing her bridesmaid dress thinking it would’ve been fun. Or the time we walked on to a movie set starring Channing Tatum acting as if we belonged, holding conversations with the film crew and even giving orders to strangers as we ate donuts from the snack tent. And her spark could burn like the time she chose to get high rather than be with me on Christmas Eve which was our longstanding tradition, or the time she screamed at her dad with such visceral anger that I didn’t even recognize her – words spewing out like poison dart arrows. Those sparks emblazoned our hearts with scars and memories, neither of which we can or want to erase.
And just like the bonfire, I want to go back; I want to be part of it feeling her warmth and the pain of her spewing embers because that is where the magnificence and beauty lie. That is the essence of her, all of her. And the embers don’t just fall on me; they burn her too even when she tries to back far enough away. Together, when the fire is over, we sweep up the ashes, treat our wounds and try to get some sleep. Those with bipolar disorder often unintentionally and even intentionally burn themselves and those around them because their flames dance wildly, and their sparks shoot unpredictably. The flames can be alluring and even mesmerizing, but they can also spin out of control, unable to stop growing until the oxygen has been depleted.
What makes me sad is that people become so afraid of the fire, of the bipolar, that they stay away. They see only the hot coals and the flying embers of this tormenting illness and miss the dancing flames and the unconditional warmth. I wish more people walked toward those with mental health issues and sat beside them unafraid. They might feel the toasty flames swaddling them like a weighted blanket helping them take notice of that one moment in time. They might realize that together we can figure out just where to put our chairs, so we avoid a multitude of embers landing on us but still watch the twinkle and scurry across the dark sky.
Loving always comes with consequences and in loving someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, the consequences are both extremely painful and unbelievably rewarding. I would withstand 1000 more burns to spend one more minute with Laura. Sitting with her at her bonfire helped me see the magic in life. Her fire flared, flickered, smoldered, glowed and ignited. For me, her fire rages on in my heart. Bipolar disorder can and did burn her and me, but I have a lot of flannel shirts so I’m going to sit close to the bonfire.