Little Colored Pills
“She was a painting by Matisse, but she took sleeping pills.”
– Carole Maso, The Art Lover
I have forgotten so much. Is it the medication, twenty-five years of medication, that’s created holes in my memory and alienated me from my body?
There was the lithium, fifteen-something years of lithium, and blood draws every three months to check lithium levels. They say there’s a miraculous well that has cured the mad for centuries in Gleann-na-nGealt, County Kerry, and recent tests show high levels of lithium in the water. I’ve always imagined there were more manic-depressives in the land of my Irish ancestors than elsewhere, but probably that’s not true.
There were sleeping pills that made me groggy. Anxiety medications to be taken sparingly. Trileptal instead of lithium when my kidneys began to deteriorate, really for epileptics but mysteriously effective for bipolars too. A series of antidepressants a decade ago, Wellbutrin the only one that didn’t put me to sleep. A small dose of Zoloft, used as a booster, that gave me a brain zap so sudden and powerful that I fell to my knees, sure I was having a stroke. The pounds I put on with Zyprexa, which started my tongue vibrating in my mouth. I was certain I’d developed tardive dyskinesia and would spend the remainder of my life smacking my lips and drooling.
And my only truly religious experience, years and years ago, tapering off one of the newer antipsychotic meds after the hospital. I was sitting in the swivel chair at my desk in my study and suddenly I was flooded with light. It was behind and within me, very distinct, an entire room inside of me filled with light.
“You read too much,” my mother said. Often. “You read too much.”
For decades and decades I’ve read too much. Glittering fragments from all I’ve read float in the Sargasso Sea of my unconscious, jostling each other, rising and falling in the aquamarine water. “Those are pearls that were his eyes.” “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, had a bad cold.” “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad.” “True! —nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
“On Margate Sands,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “I can connect nothing with nothing.” In the Rare Book Room at Cornell, I held a postcard he sent from Margate in my hands, turning it over and over.
She was a painting by Matisse, my beautiful, crazy aunt, but she turned the key in the ignition of her new green Saab, settled back in the driver’s seat, and slowly lost consciousness as the dark garage filled with fumes. It was several days before they found her. “It really is better this way,” her note said. There was a closed casket at the funeral, heaped with flowers that smelled cloyingly sweet. The air was thick with incense. For years she’d played golf with the local priests, and twenty of them were chanting in unison on the altar. I couldn’t breathe.
She was a painting by Matisse, but she took painkillers for her back, enough so she went into rehab, but it’s hard to know whether she needed it or whether rehab was just another one of her manic notions. She was a painting by Matisse, but she took lithium. She told us that the doctor said she should just take it as needed, which must have been a lie, because that’s not what the doctor told me ten years later when I was diagnosed. It’s not an off-again-on-again kind of medication.
She was a painting by Matisse, my glamorous fairy godmother, until she wasn’t. We think we know ourselves and what we will do, but personality is far more tenuous than you might think, moods can change in an instant, then you’re someone else, teetering on the edge of the abyss, peering into the darkness and ready to jump. “We’re the two crazy ladies in the family,” she told me once, but then there was only one crazy lady. Me.
What if you’d taken your lithium, Mary? You’d be in your seventies now, sitting at my kitchen table in a silky green sweater with a glass of Pinot Noir, laughing. I see you, a colored cut-out silhouette, magenta, lemon yellow, electric blue, a woman in pieces, a late painting by Matisse.
I take my colored pills twice a day even though the world around me loses some color. I’m alive, I’m alive.