There are other kinds of scars. The kinds that don't show up on your skin. The kinds that are reminders of wounds to your heart, your soul, your mind. The kinds that take years to heal, and meanwhile continue to bleed and throb. The kinds that can infect your whole self if you don't take care of them in time.
Those are not the kind you can inflict on yourself accidentally. Those are the ones from other people, from spending time with people who are close to you. Strangers can hurt you, but it takes love to really damage someone in the way that lasts. Nothing scars like love.
I was born with fragile emotional skin, the kind that easily splits open, the kind that bleeds freely, the kind that does not heal smoothly. There is a lot of mental illness in my family -- depression, bipolar disorder, addictions -- a lot of tendencies and predispositions to inherit.
Here's the thing about mental illness: you can inherit all kinds of tendencies without actually showing symptoms. My dad's whole family are addicts, though nothing has (yet) flipped that switch in him. My siblings and i are also free from addiction (except maybe to The West Wing and bacon). But we all know that that predisposition could become a reality. On both sides of the family, there are long histories of depression, of delusion, of suicidal thoughts and crippling self-doubt and anger and fear and anxiety and panic and mania. Some of these things have already begun to surface in the four of us, and there are times when it feels like we are just waiting for the next crisis to hit.
So life becomes a balancing act, dancing across a tightrope with the black abyss opening up on every side. One wrong step means an endless plummet from which there may not be a return. And a safe return does not guarantee security from future falls.
In this grand balancing act, my mother is my partner on the high wire. But instead of being a serious, trained professional who understands the seriousness of what is happening, she persists in believing that the slender, swaying wire is only a few feet above a level floor surrounded by walls and ground and firm foundations. While this may be her reality, it is not mine. But she persists in believing that i dance on the wire because i don't want to walk on the floor, because i am too stubborn or silly to get over my fear and walk free. This belief is a large factor in her divorce from my dad, another high wire act who has taken his share of falls.
Instead of proceeding with gentle understanding of my tenuous position, she tries to get me to run across the wire to the platform on the other end, to climb down to the floor, to get over this morbid fascination with instability. She threatens, she pleads, she cajoles, she cries. I wobble and beg her to let go of my hand, to stop dragging me down.
She often tells me how like my father i am. When i was little, i believed that this was a good thing, a source of pride. Now i know that she was trying to warn me, trying to save me. But she doesn't know what i know about my dad. She doesn't know how much strength it takes him to have lived so long in freefall, with her beside him all the time, screaming at him to stop falling and stand up. She doesn't know how miraculous it is that he is still alive, still functional, still capable of things like hope and joy and love. She doesn't know what an inspiration he is to me. She doesn't know how badly i want to be like him.