When I walk into my room I see it as a secret base: a screwdriver for when she locks herself in the bathroom, a phone with a doctor on speed dial, several packs of Kleenex, a box of medication underneath my photo albums. It is odd to be keeping the medication of one’s mother underneath one’s baby photographs.
It’s been three months since the first manic phase. I’ve become so used to the swings they hardly surprise me now: the sudden switch from a normal tone of voice to screaming, the sobs breaking and cracking the air, like ambulance sirens. Actually, I have been doing this my entire life. In a way, I wasn’t at all shocked when I realized what was happening. I’ve always known she wasn’t exactly okay. She likes to say she knows me because I was in her stomach, it’s one of her most beloved phrases when we’re fighting. Emma, you can’t lie to me, you were in my belly once! But then the knowledge of each other is mutual, isn’t it? I know it’s true. I know it’s true.
I used to be furious when my classmates rolled their eyes and said I’m angry at the world in conversation for no reason at all; I wanted to pick them up and tell them they had no idea what it was to be angry to the world. I know enough now to realize that it was wrong of me to think that way. I am not the only one with her own monsters. Shit happens, it just does. It’s a good thing I’ve been coaching her through emotional breakdowns for years now, dragging her back and forth through what I’d thought to be brief depressive phases. It’s a good thing I understand. It’s a good thing I have already forgiven her.
When I was going through the worst of it also happened to be the moment I got the best piece of advice I’ve gotten thus far. Emma? she had called in, beckoning me from the doorway. Her office had been cluttered. She had been signing checks. Your father told me what happened. You know, my mother was like that too. And it was really hard. Because she’s your mom. But you have to know, Emma, what the most important thing is. It’s okay to be selfish. Be selfish. Care about yourself. Care about her, too, but you do what you have to do. Okay? Okay.
I had thanked her, and then I had gone to my room. I had laid down on the bed, arms stretching to the corners, and I had looked up at the ceiling fan and taught myself to survive.