“Career Day” 08.05.22

When a person experiences severe mental trauma, it never departs. It fades a little, but it leaves a scar. I was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder almost twenty years ago, and ten years ago I was hospitalized. The doctors told me that my brain would recover from that trauma after two years, but apparently not. I cannot forget. The pain subsides, but it pilfers my memories.

There are some memories never forgotten, pieces of the past we remember fondly. The beginning of my dream is a memory that sticks with me. As a child, I was fascinated with words, and how to construct sentences. I loved to read. My creative life was built on that foundation. Crayons were my best friends, connected to my fingers like branches on a tree. When I mixed color with ink, there was no going back.

When I was in elementary school, I spent much of my time in the library. All of the students were working with all their might to read more books than any other. We were competing for the top score. Derrick Dendy was always in first place, and I was always right on his heels. I never caught up. He must have read more than he breathed, and never taken a bathroom break! When I wasn’t in the library, I was running outside during recess. Those activities kept me busy and filled my soul with a natural high. Aside from those past times, I was enjoying art class above all else. I was strenuously attempting to make the images in my mind transfer to the canvas, to no avail. I was so frustrated, but also tenacious; I was hungry for success. My parents witnessed my frustration, and provided art lessons in a quaint studio above a frame shop. I attended class every Thursday afternoon and loved every minute. While I was illustrating, I was writing. I wrote and illustrated books that only I would read, knowing they may never make it to print. I just enjoyed being with the characters and developing the stories. In the first grade, I won first place in the “Young Georgia Authors” competition for a story I had written, titled “A Cat Named Fred.” It was my first trophy and it is resting on a shelf in my house today.

My elementary school had a “Spirit Week,” and every day was themed. One day, we were to dress up for our dream jobs. Career Day. I wore my favorite green dress and toted my messenger bag full of paint, crayons, pencils, and paper. The typewriter was too heavy. How else is an author expected to dress? I prefer pajamas.

In the eighth grade, there was a similar activity. We were questioned about our future goals. My goal was to write something people wanted to read. I hope I have accomplished that feat.

I went to a performing arts high school, where I honed my skills. I attended college and majored in Fine Art. After my studies, I did my own thing; happy to be rid of authority figures and free to create whatever I please. I wrote, illustrated, and published two books about my relationship with my mental illness. I am coping, creating, and making my inner child smile.

–SJB

“Who Am I?” 7.29.22

Who am I? Who are you? When asked to describe ourselves, we lean toward hobbies and jobs and often resort to adjectives. Who am I really? There are many adjectives to throw around in search of identity. I have adjectives. I will not define myself with adjectives. They are most used when describing someone you don’t know at all. I have hobbies. My personal hobbies consist of writing and illustrating, walking my dog, and reading. I have a cool job. I wear my pjs to work. I wake up when my body decides it is time. I have a deadline, but control over my schedule. This is my dream job. Not everyone gets the job they wanted when they “grow up,” but I reached my goal. When I was old enough to read, writing followed close behind. I wrote children’s stories and illustrated them, knowing they would probably not make it to print. I wrote and illustrated because I loved it. I spent most of my time with a pencil, pen, crayons, colored pencils, a typewriter. Now I remember them fondly as my beginning. Play became work, as I always dreamed it would. Work drives me toward my truth. This is part of who I am.

Does our past define us? Can we meet our eyes when we are faced with a mirror? Do we recognize the person on the other side? Decisions and actions change our future. We share stories of our youth with people who are willing to listen. Does our identity matter if no one is listening? Are we talking to ourselves? Are we listening to ourselves? Do our souls respond?

Do we know who we are? I wrote a book about remembering who we are, but our identity evolves over time. We have to keep up! We can remember, but we must also move forward.

In the end, I believe we are to know our souls as well as we can, because they are our best friends. Who am I? Who are you?

–SJB

“I Hear Voices.” 7.22.22

Many people talk to themselves in one form or another. We curse at ourselves when we fail. We pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Sometimes we mumble under our breath. But does anyone else get a response?

When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, I strived to uncover the mystery of my mind. I learned how to recognize the symptoms of oncoming mania. It was obvious when I was depressed. My mental illness became a self project. I employed workbooks, read memoirs, researched, watched and became more aware of my situation. I learned to harness my emotions, as if I were riding a horse for the first time, or biking with training wheels. I couldn’t always catch the signs, but as my illness progressed, so did I. Truthfully, I was dealt a cruel hand, but I squeezed that rotten lemon and moved on with my life.

As I ran, and slipped, and fell, I realized that in order to rise to the top you must first hit the bottom.

I worked my way through education with heavy eyelids and acne that threatened to claim my face forever, side effects of several medications hindering my progress. I loved to run and I was captain of the cross country team in high school. Toward the end of my running career, I began to experience a side effect called “ocular gyro crisis.” I lost control of my eyes. I didn’t know how to explain it, so this continued for a few years before it was diagnosed. It is one of the rarest side effects of one of the heavy medications in the cocktail.

Shortly after my twenty fifth birthday, I was hospitalized. After many months, different combinations of drugs, several shots in violating areas, and miserable weeks in solitary confinement, it was clear that Bipolar I Disorder was not the entire truth. When I returned to my home after the nightmare of captivity, I was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder. It is a mix of Schizophrenia and a mood disorder. My illness had taken control for a while. I can hear things and see things others cannot. When I talk to myself, she answers. She is not the only voice I hear. Sometimes, there is a conversation between two strangers in the back of my mind, to which I am not privy. Random keys and phrases from their discussion pop up and make no sense.

Voices in my head often sing songs and tell jokes. Often, they are good company.

Sometimes voices influence people to do bad things. These are not voices to follow, no matter the constant beckoning. You will find yourself lost in a sea of confusion, drawn to the sirens. It is impossible to find peace when voices surround you. Typically, they cannot be silenced. I just want you to know that you are not the only one who deals with this, and I hope you can find some comfort knowing that. I am one of those people and I haven’t figured it out myself.

While I was in solitary confinement, I grew used to conversations with myself because she was all I had. My best friend. I am aware that others have predicaments like these. The mental health system does not have the capacity, resources or knowledge needed to care for everyone; especially people who need it most and cannot afford it. This is wrong. Some people, despite having money, also have difficulty finding relief of their burdens. The system is flawed. Everyone has a mental illness of some sort, whether or not they care to be diagnosed. Some cases are worse than others, but no one is “normal,” no matter how much they want to believe it.

Not everyone is cool enough to hear voices. It’s a special talent. Remember this. Listening to voices is different than hearing them. If you can hear and not listen, you may find a bit of a reprieve. We all have issues and no one is identical to anyone else.

Those voices are inside you, but YOU are the boss.

–SJB

“Another Article About Trees” 7.15.22

I grew up in the forests of north Georgia. I ran fast. I climbed trees. I swam in frigid water. I got muddy on purpose. Shoes were prisons for my feet, so I was barefoot at every opportunity. I wanted to be like Pocahontas. I wanted to run freely in woods dense with moss. I talked to trees, as I consider them wise, beautiful living creatures. My memory is faulty, but this happens to everyone as they get older, I assume. I hope I never forget the wild child I was at the age of two and beyond. There are memories we hold on to, whether they are happy or sad. I remember sitting in my car seat, pacifier in my mouth, watching a logging truck pass. I reacted with anger and sadness, saying, “Put those trees back RIGHT now.” I felt a hurt inside myself I had never known. Every morning, I weep for the destruction of trees everywhere. Trees are demolished for toilet paper, paper towels, houses, books. No one can say they haven’t benefited from the consumption of natural resources. I know that. Yet, every morning I shed tears for my faithful friends.

When I was in one of the several psychiatric hospitals I occupied, the patients could not go outside unless they had “behaved themselves.” I don’t understand how anyone could possibly expect a patient with severe mental illness to “behave” and earn the chance to go outside. While residing in this particular hospital for many months, I saw the sun for ten minutes. Ten minutes. Not ten minutes a day. A total of ten minutes in the entirety of a five month “visit.” I ached for the sun. I longed for the trees. I couldn’t even see out of the foggy glass windows, which was a tragedy. Once I transferred to the last hospital, my sister, Jessica, visited me often. She brought me peace when I had none. She braided my hair and painted my fingernails. Her presence alone gave me hope. We walked among the large trees, lying on the grass, stretching our legs. She would read to me beneath the branches.

I am passionate about trees. They are sources of oxygen we may desperately need in our future. “They” cut down trees and say that they will grow new ones. Even then, it will take years to repair the damage. Trees are in the way of building new housing developments, and storage facilities for people who have too much “stuff.” Trees are special and all are unique. They need to be cherished, treated like living organisms, rather than commercial gain. I pray there won’t come a day when a child asks, “What is a tree?”

–SJB

“Sea Horses” 07.08.22

I have always been fascinated by sea horses. I observed the creatures in captivity when I visited the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. They are beautiful, peaceful tiny beings. The male sea horses are faced with challenges the females cannot pretend to understand, yet the females hold all the cards. The male sea horses carry children and undergo childbirth. Females are part of the equation, but cannot fully comprehend the changes that take place inside the male’s mind and body during pregnancy. She has no idea what it means to bear children. She can love that little munchkin with all her heart, and raise him with help from the father, but the male completes the task. She may “wear the pants” in their relationship, but she is completely in the dark. He endures the process, and she has another mouth to feed. Times are tough! Relationships are complicated, but the male sea horse has no power over the female. She is the “stronger sex.”

The male sea horse has no choice. If he did, he may go through with it and his family would grow. What if he has a rockin’ body and no intention of filling his belly? A career on hold, complications, limited resources, no support system, a “No. means No!” situation?

I wonder how the female would handle these predicaments if the roles were reversed.

–SJB

Women with mental illness and/or physical handicaps sometimes have more difficult pregnancies than undiagnosed females. There are issues such as upsets with medications, painful body aches due to the rearranging of internal organs, and extreme changes in mood. Sometimes women fall into dark places, and often do not resurface. Many women have complications due to intangible issues. It must be an enormous life change to bring another human into the world. Women with severe mental illnesses are often at risk of losing their own lives in order to add another child to a crumbling earth. Should these women lose their bodies and minds in order to follow protocol?

–SJB

“Good Samaritan” 07.01.22

I recently traveled to Chicago with my grandma. Once again, I felt grateful for my situation. I have a support system, a family, safety and comfort. Many people with issues similar to mine do not have those luxuries. I was reminded of the “Good Samaritan” parable in the Bible. The story I was told cannot be word-for-word because I was not taught to take everything literally. The “cliff notes” version is that a man lay by the side of the road and no one stopped to help him. No one paid him any attention. Some purposely did not acknowledge his presence. If they could not look upon him, they would not be obligated to come to his aide. Authority figures passed by. Religious leaders turned their heads. The man’s own people did not stop. A complete stranger halted. A man later titled the “Good Samaritan” rescued the struggling man.

I have not traveled much in my life, but I have met people who live under bridges in tents. I have seen citizens of large cities lying on their backs, possibly dead, unbeknownst to the public. No one stops.

This week, I encountered a particular woman on the street who was obviously suffering from the inside out. It was clear that her head was at full capacity and without her complete control. She talked to voices invisible to everyone else. I wanted to tell her that I know how she feels, but that isn’t true.

There are homeless people on almost every block: begging, sleeping, drinking. Does anyone have a bottle of water to spare? A cup of coffee? A blanket? French fries? A twenty in cash? When we have cash, we say we don’t. Who needs it more?

When in doubt, be a good Samaritan.

–SJB

“Colorful Feelings” 6.24.22

One does not become an artist overnight. It takes work, patience, dedication, and passion. For example, painting. Many people believe that a painting can always be finished in one sitting. I learned over the years that sometimes that won’t yield a masterpiece. Hence, patience. Sometimes it takes months, years even, to finish. We are not finished with a painting until it is finished with us. Dedication. You must often step back and see clearly where your work is taking you. If you are not passionate about your work, it often goes unfinished.

When I was in the fourth grade, I spent my Thursday afternoons in a studio above a frame shop learning to create art, striving to be the artist I so desperately wished to become. The beginning was so frustrating. On paper, nothing looked at all like it did inside my head. I kept pushing, trying to be a Realist. Apparently, that is the kind of artist I clearly was not. I was frequently angry with myself, yet Thursday remained my favorite day of the week.

One day, there was an art exhibit. All of my fellow artists and I participated. I won second place for a sculpture of a mermaid, and someone bought my drawing of a dog for $12. I browsed the exhibit and saw many other works of art. This was a very special day. I was drawn to a particular painting. It was Abstract. My eyes were finally opened as I realized that art did not necessarily have to look real. It can flow through you, picking up your emotions and carrying you to a place far away. You can lose control in this space devoid of any other soul, with no sound other than the beating of your heart and the blank canvas awaiting instructions.

I offered the artist my $12 in exchange for the painting, and she told me I could have it for free. It was the first piece of artwork I had ever owned created by another artist. That painting introduced me to a whole new world of art, and I have never looked back. I could finally paint the feelings inside myself instead of recreating a bowl of fruit.

The painting hangs on the wall in my living room. It serves as a reminder of the discovery I stumbled upon. This was the beginning.

Filling rough drafts with bright colors comes naturally to me. I prefer to be alone while I paint, with no distractions. When I step back to read my paintings, I discover how I am feeling. I realize the state of being I was experiencing while the paintbrush led the way. I find pieces of myself, and am truly in touch with my soul. Over the years, I interpret and discover different emotions, characters, and colors I had not noticed in paintings I created long ago. My paintings are alive, and continue to live throughout my life.

I did not realize until it was noticed by my psychiatrist, that I associate feelings, objects, numbers, and everything else with colors. The number thirteen is blue. Tuesday is yellow. Wednesday is green. When my slumber is interrupted abruptly, my brain feels covered by a yellow film surrounding a red headache. It never occurred to me until pointed out; I have been coloring my feelings. That has been the case all throughout my life. Perhaps those colorful feelings are the reason I am swimming in an artistic pool of creativity. I have strayed from the studio above the frame shop, though I know that is where it all began. Sometimes frustration leads to practice. Practice does not always make perfect, but you have to start somewhere. Follow the paintbrush.

–SJB

“Life, Long, Loud Journey” 6.17.22

I suppose I have been dealing with mental illness in some form for the entirety of my life. I have been climbing the cliff for a long time. The path set before me has been challenging, to say the least. As a child, I was shy and quiet. I rarely smiled in public. Memories change and twist as years press on, but looking back I wonder if I had the energy to smile. Possibly I hid my battle deep inside, away from the eyes of those looking on. I had a happy childhood, no complaints and no regrets. I had no reason to frown, yet my face was frozen. Leading up to my first bout with depression, I cried myself to sleep every night. I didn’t recognize what I was up against.

I was usually a happy kid, though I was often sad and angry. My little sister, Jessica, had a bedroom next to mine. We fought a lot. After an evening fight, we would wake up the next day and forget the reason for our discord. The point was moot. We share a deep connection, and love each other unconditionally. She would come to my door at night, hearing me weep. She was concerned for me, as always. I turned her away, even though she only meant to help. I wanted to be alone in my grief over intangible issues. Years flew by like butterflies drifting in the wind, fighting for their lives. What happened? Who was I? Who am I now?

I am curious about how different my life may have been if only I were not born this way. When I ponder this topic, I realize that I was born this way for a reason. Without my experience, I could not help others. If there were a cure, I would not entertain the idea. My mental illness is not who I am, but it is certainly part of my identity.

I think about that shy and quiet little girl. She was sad. She was anxious. She was young. She was brave. I am no longer shy or quiet. I over-share. I ramble. I repeat myself more than often. That little girl travels within my heart and I will always protect her. I hope she would be proud of me now. I opened my mouth and let out her story. Now, I smile.

–SJB

“Harold’s Handicap” 06.10.22

I have returned! Sorry to keep you waiting. Here is a short story about a tiny friend of mine. I hope you enjoy it!

This is a true story. Mostly.

Once Upon a Time…there was a very full queen bee. She had the potential to produce more worker bees to work in her hive, and also to deliver very few daughters. She would die soon after giving birth. Her female children fought to be the next queen. One lucky worker bee would be chosen to mate with the reining princess, and the competition was fierce. During this life cycle, the female champion and heir to the throne was named “Honey.”

You may not know this, but male bees are aggressive. They can be bullies, and can really damage each other when fighting for a cause. They are territorial and protective of family and friends, and brutal in a fight for the queen. Others try to fly under the radar and not make waves. They want to live peaceful lives away from confrontation. However; this cannot always come to pass. Bees who stray from the hive are found and punished. The male bees swarm around the “traitor,” and harm him in ways he doesn’t deserve.

There was a bee named “Harold,” and he was my friend. He was always getting into trouble, but not intentionally. He wasn’t interested in competition of any sort. He kept his head down, and tried to live unnoticed among honey suckle trees. He sometimes got so drunk guzzling the trumpet-like petals, holding them to his face and pouring them into his mouth. He hitched a ride home on my fingers. He was in no condition to fly home under the influence.

One day, I walked outside to witness a struggle for survival, as Harold found himself caught in a spider’s web. He was so afraid and spinning faster than I have seen a hummingbird’s wings. Around and around, trapping himself more completely in the web. I know, I should have let nature take its course, but I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer, so I disrupted a very angry spider’s dinner plans. Very gently, I separated Harold from the web, but the silk was still attached to the little fellow. With powers beyond my understanding, I was able to miraculously pull the web from Harold’s body without smushing him, and then he gratefully flew away from his imminent doom.

Bees don’t live very long, and Harold knew that he had few chances to complete his bucket list within his short life span. He wanted to see things, do things, and meet kindred spirits. Harold had always wondered what tubing down a river was like. I was tubing on the river one day, and he landed on my lips. I had my mouth closed, so he sat there for a minute, then flew off. Bees are my friends. They often protect me from wasps. Harold took risks that nearly landed him in an early grave. Along the way, he met a very nice butterfly named “Hilda.” Harold had fallen so in love with “Honey,” as all the male bees were chemically attracted to her. He knew he had little chance to win her heart, so Hilda gave him some dating tips. She whispered them, so I don’t know what advice she gave him, but unfortunately it did not go over so well. He joined the group of competitors fighting for the opportunity to expand the hive. Harold was not well received. The other bees beat him down so forcefully that his wings fell off and he tumbled to the ground. I ran outside to stop the fight, scooped Harold into my hand and took him into our laundry room, which has huge windows and lots of light. We had a view of the swarming bee bullies waiting for him outside. Eventually, after Harold had calmed his breathing, urinated on my hand, and accepted his fate, I understood that I couldn’t keep him inside forever. I brought him outside, away from the bees who meant him harm, and placed him with his honey suckles. He guzzled a whole trumpet of nectar, and died peacefully moments later, drunk on honey suckle juice.

I know this isn’t a happy ending, but it’s the circle of life. Harold taught me that we should all compare our life spans to the moments of a bee. Having much shorter lives give bees more reason to live in the now and to cherish every moment. We can learn from Harold. Enjoy life; love your family and your neighbors as yourself; do not take anything for granted. We don’t know how our lives will end or when. It is best to spend that time wisely.

Rest in peace, little buddy.

–SJB