The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

Embracing Duality

Seeing the Light in Shadows

I've been feeling better lately, which is hard for me to admit.  I've noticed this is true of a lot of people with bipolar disorder:  we're afraid we'll jinx the normalcy.  Or maybe we're afraid we won't be believed when the bad days strike again.  Whatever the reason, I'm scared to say it, but it's true:  I feel surprisingly good.

When I'm doing well, I always take advantage of my newfound energy to seek out "a dose of beauty," as my therapist Dr. Geoffry White calls it.  It's the best non-prescription medicine I know.  And the greatest beauty I can imagine comes from Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master and my all-time favorite artist.  He's a rare jewel:  exquisite, many-faceted, and extremely hard to find.  I once maxed out my last remaining credit card to travel to a Vermeer exhibit in Washington, D.C., only to be surrounded by legions of other fans so that I could barely see a thing.  I left in disgust.  You have to be alone with beauty sometimes, so it can work its way inside. 

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But a few weeks ago I took a quick jaunt to New York, and went on pilgrimage again.  I found him:  three Vermeers at the Frick Collection, and another four at the Met.  At the Frick, I waited until everyone else had cleared the gallery before I allowed myself to look.  I stepped up to "An Officer and a Laughing Girl," head bowed as if I were in church.  Then slowly, inch by inch, I raised my chin and let the painting in. 

Light.  

Everyone who loves Vermeer remarks, of course, on his use of light:  how it falls oh-so-naturally through the ubiquitous window on the left, to flood the scene with warmth.  I saw the wondrous light, I sighed in recognition, but this time I also saw something else.  For the first time in over thirty years, I saw the shadows.

Now of course they had to be there all along, right?  Truly depicted light must cast a shadow, and no one is truer to nature than Vermeer.  But why had I never seen them before?  And why was I seeing them now?

I thought about it long and hard, all the way back home to L.A. and even after that.  The answer finally came to me:  I didn't want there to be shadows before – I wanted to believe that there was one place on earth I could go where there was never any gloom.  But I think perhaps I'm finally strong enough to accept that life demands a balance:  light and dark must co-exist, great pleasure with great pain.

Light and dark.  

I know this duality in my bones—I live it because I'm bipolar.  Which doesn't mean I like it, or that I haven't railed against it for many years.  But I feel a fragile acceptance growing inside me lately, and I don't want to disturb it.  I'm not wearing blinders:  today I write about my strength; tomorrow depression may come for me, fangs bared and claws unsheathed.  I may be incapable of remembering anything then but searing pain.  But when I can't believe in anything else, I must believe in art.  It's tangible, irrefutable proof that I once saw life through different eyes, that my soul was calm enough and still enough to be touched by beauty. 

Shadows have crept into my Vermeers, and to my surprise, I welcome them.  I think I'm ready for them now.

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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