I am ashamed to say that during my senior year in High School, I could be counted among the ranks of a judgmental bystander to someone who was mentally ill. I not only looked down upon him (I shall refer to him as N.), but I did it with disgust and fear–the fear we are all naturally taught to respond with when it comes to the mentally ill–when I learned N. was bipolar. I attended a Magnet School for the Arts, and N. was in my eighth period visual arts class. He was the “messed up” kid, which was saying something considering that most of us were your typical eclectic, strange, and somewhat emotionally disturbed, creatives.
N.’s artwork was beautiful. In the way a mausoleum is beautiful. Or a dark forest. Or an abandoned silo. Or even a ghost town. Otherworldly. Tragic. Magnetic. Haunting. Fascinating. Profound when pondered.
…Disturbing, as only death and neglect and long-accepted despair can be.
N. seemed plagued by some phantom, a tormentor only he could see. But we all witnessed it in his haunted eyes, his bleak expression (though he tried to hide it at times), as if he carried the tormentor upon his back and could not escape it. An unwanted, constant companion. And while we all suffered in our own ways, as only tortured artists can, his was different, and we feared him for it. He had a sort of unseen leprosy, white and rotting–or so we perceived it.
And here lies the cruelty of mental illness when compared to other physical ailments: sometimes we ourselves are the danger instead of the illness.
At the time, I knew there was something wrong with me as well. But I had learned to cope. To hide it. (Which I can no longer do.) I escaped to the wonder of stories, lost myself in fantasies and epics and science fiction worlds and adventures and legal thrillers and horrors and paranormals and mysteries every day, usually reading five or so books at a time, so that the moment I became even slightly bored (which meant my mind had the possibility to wander into dangerous, painful territory), I would switch books. Also, creating, whether through music or words or art, had been a balm since the age of five when I began to play the piano by ear. In addition, I often ran to food (in those days I weighed about forty more pounds than I do now), and even dabbled briefly in cutting. On the positive, relational side, I had an incredible twin, Maggie, who constantly used her powers of exhuberant extroverted optimism and peculiar sense of humor to fight that darkness for me, a set of loving parents, a wonderful family, a happy childhood, and most importantly…Jesus.
And yet there I was, judging N. Fearing him. Looking down on him with condescending pity. Seeing him as if I were a rubbernecking passerby, gazing in sick, almost gleeful horror upon a gruesome car accident, content to only gawk, looking forward to discussing the horror later in some kind of twisted form of gossip, as I passed him by.
How poetic my current state.
N., if you ever read this (surely you must know I am speaking about you if you do), I pray you are still alive. I am sorry for how I judged you and kept you at arm’s length. I want you to know I have thought of you often over the years with heartache and prayed for you. You are not alone.
I wonder how different things may have been if I’d reached out. Love sees pain and desires to meet its need. Love sees instability and recognizes it, creating a safe place for careful, delicate repair.
Instead, I left N. to his pain, like the priests to the beaten man left for dead, the one the Good Samaritan rescued instead. I walked past him on that road because, honestly, I was afraid of him. It’s that strange, inexplicable fear. As if I might catch his pain like a cold if I were to get too close.
And now, unfortunately, I know his pain all too well.
I know God allowed N. to be a part of my life, and for me to judge him, to remind me in the midst of the hurt, in the midst of the rejection, the misunderstanding, the revulsion and fear, the false accusations, condescending judgment, arrogant pity, hollow concern, assumptions, rumors upon rumors upon rumors and gossip upon gossip upon gossip, flat out cruelty, and even hatred (yes, it’s true), so that I would have compassion and understanding.
If you have ever seen me as I once saw N., know that I was there too. I forgive you and I have no right to judge, nor even be angry, no matter how much it hurts.