The Impossible Dance
creative nonfiction by Angela Jackson-Brown

I am not sure why I felt safe sharing my struggles with mental illness with my students on the first day of class in the fall of 2012. Maybe there was something kind in their faces, even though their faces escape me now. Maybe I had taught some of them before and felt like they were safe people to “come out to,” but their names are absent from my memories now. I can’t say it was the space we were all in because the room itself was the typical nondescript college classroom, but what I do remember is the incredible aggressiveness of my heartbeat once I committed to the idea of telling. I remember even looking down at my chest – convinced that each beat of my heart had to be visible to the naked eye. It wasn’t. So, I took a deep breath, I introduced myself, shared a few details from the syllabus, and then I told my truth. 

“Class, I have lived a lie. Today, the lie stops. So, here is my truth: I live with bipolar disorder. Sometimes I am a mess. Sometimes I don’t make sense to myself. Sometimes, I wonder why I keep pushing day to day to day, but nevertheless, I do. So, that is my truth. I will not live a lie anymore.”

I expected backlash. I expected sideways glances in the hallway. I expected the administration to send me a nice little letter stating my services were no longer needed. Instead, life continued on as usual, but suddenly, students started coming out of the woodwork sharing their “coming out” stories too. Some of them had never said out loud that they lived with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or anxiety or depression. I knew why. It was the same reason I would previously call in and tell my boss that I had a migraine instead of saying my brain hurt and all I felt like doing was dissolving into the bed, watching hours of game shows and soap operas. 

Just like my students, I never felt safe telling the truth. Folks had the utmost empathy for a migraine or a broken limb, but sadness so debilitating that it could leave one breathless? No, the world had nothing to offer folks like us, so we kept the truth from them. Partly to protect ourselves but also to protect them from hearing how dark our dark could be. I understood why my admitting my truth meant so much to these students. Somehow, by opening up my own Pandora’s Box, they felt safe to open theirs. And one thing we know to be true: living with mental illness is much easier to do when you don’t have to live with it alone. 

It wasn’t easy. I have always lived my life in a carefully constructed web of lies and half-truths when it comes to my mental health issues. When I was a graduate student at Auburn University in the 1990s, the voices and the darkness were so bad somedays that I could barely get out of the bed. And then, once I was out of the bed, I didn’t always know what my next steps were going to be. Was it to return to bed? No, that wasn’t an option. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I had a son depending on me. I had students who wanted my expertise. No, getting back in bed was not an option. Was it to go and try and teach English classes that seemed as foreign to me as someone giving me a Hebrew text and telling me to go teach Religion 101? No, that didn’t seem like a good choice either. 

I was drowning. Other than trying to silence the voices telling me to do awful things to myself, I was at a loss when it came to figuring out my next steps back then. My drug of choice was dark liquor and gin. I belonged to a church that preached against counseling and pharmaceutical drugs, but somehow, I didn’t hear a whole lot about liquor, so every night, and sometimes during the day, I self-medicated – trying my best to silence the lambs inside of my head. This continued until finally I literally crashed and burned. 

One day, I picked my son up from daycare and instead of driving us home, I sat in the driver’s seat, drawing a blank on how to get us there. Auburn, Alabama is a relatively mid-size, college town, but that day, you would have thought I was sitting in the middle of downtown L.A. with no map and no GPS. I had no clue how to get us back home, but forever the strategist, I turned to my four-year-old son, and I created a game.

“Hey babe, Mama bets you can’t get us home,” I said, pushing back the tears and forcing a smile on my face. I would cry later, but right then, I needed everything I had inside of me to pull this off.

“What you mean, Mama?” He looked up at me with trusting eyes. Mercifully, he couldn’t hear the voices inside of my head. They were getting louder, but I felt certain that I could keep them at bay long enough to pull off this game of what felt like some twisted version of “Do or Die.”

“I mean, do you know how to get us home?” I said, trying to sound excited. “If you can tell Mama all of the turns to get us home, I will get you a surprise.” 

I had only a few dollars in my pocket. I prayed that whatever “surprise” he wanted it wouldn’t cost much.

“A Happy Meal?” he asked, looking at me with a grin. Thanks to my Daddy, McDonalds was fine dining to my son. I quickly agreed. This was not the time to argue about the nutritional merits, or lack thereof, of Happy Meals. I just needed to get us home before my brain dissolved into ashes, ashes, they all fall down.

Thankfully, my son had a memory like the elephants he loved so much at the Montgomery Zoo. Sadly, I felt just as trapped as those elephants always looked to me when I would take him to the zoo. But I pulled it together as Justin navigated us home. 

“That’s Toomer’s Drugstore. They make the good milkshakes. Turn there,” he cried out. Just like his mama, he knew directions according to landmarks, not street signs. He would see something else that jogged his memory, and he would tell me to turn again. “Right there, Mama. That’s the park we go to. Turn there. We’re almost home.” 

By this time, he was jumping up and down in his seat. I still didn’t recognize anything, not even the park, but I trusted my son more than I did the voices that were telling me to listen to them, them, them.

Finally, he pointed to the turn that would take us to our two-bedroom mobile home where he and I lived. Across the street was the McDonalds, and as promised, I walked him over there so he could order his Happy Meal himself. He asked me what I wanted. I had just enough money for a Happy Meal and that was all, but it didn’t matter. I was past the point of wanting food, so I told him I had already eaten.

Once I got him back home and settled, I called my daddy, making sure my voice sounded “normal.” I explained to Daddy that I had a big exam coming up and I needed him to come get my son. I was drowning, and before I took my son underwater with me, I needed to get him onto a lifeboat where he would be safe. Daddy was my lifeboat, whether he knew it or not. Daddy didn’t question me at all and within a couple of hours he arrived to pick up his little best friend. I don’t remember what I said to him, but whatever it was, it must not have set off any bells. Once he and Justin left, I let Crazy envelop me like a winter’s coat in the middle of blizzard. 

Thank God I had teachers and mentors who were not willing to stand by the shore and watch me drown. As the waters crashed all around me, they threw me life jacket after life jacket and when needed, they dove into the raging waters and dragged me back to shore. I will forever be grateful to them for that. I never shared with them how bad things were, but they had eyes. They saw my decline. They saw me go down into the abyss, come up again, only to go down into it once more. That time of my life brings me so much sadness when I think about that broken girl who was trying so hard to succeed, but it also brings me joy to know that everything I learned about being a teacher who loves her students unconditionally, I learned from those teachers at Auburn and the many teachers I have had throughout my life. 

I have built walls around myself, and I have been extremely careful who I allow into those walled up spaces, but in the fall of 2012, I was tired of the lies. I was tired of trying to remember who knew what and who didn’t. I had just come off of a terrible summer. My meds got out of whack, and I was suicidal and hearing voices. Again. From the age of 26 to my mid-forties, going to the mental ward for an extended stay had become my norm. So, when I returned to the classroom, I was tired. Bone weary tired. Just tired. So, I decided to get off the merry-go-round and speak my truth. 

Telling my truth was perhaps the best thing I ever did for my mental health. I didn’t have to pretend anymore, but more importantly, I was able to become a beacon of hope for my students who similarly struggled with their mental health. They could look at me and think to themselves, she did it. I can too. I was able to show them that there is no shame in living with mental illness. It is not something to hide. It just is. 

I regularly say to myself and/or my students, “Your brain is just wired a little differently than others, and there is nothing wrong with that. You just have to figure out how to navigate this world with the brain you have been given. It sucks sometimes, but if you learn to embrace it, it won’t frustrate you quite as much.”

I never say silly platitudes like this too shall pass or you are stronger than you know. I call B.S. on all of those slogans and sayings. This might not pass and somedays you are weak. Alarmingly weak. Period. There are days when this “different brain of mine” pisses me off. I often find myself wishing I could trade it in for a “better” model, but then I pause and remember. 

This brain allowed me to march across the stage four times and receive the degrees I earned. This brain allowed me to write five novels (with another one on the way) and a book of poetry. This brain allowed me to teach students with brains similar to mine and help them to see that they too can dance this impossible dance. This brain definitely took a licking, but time and time again, it kept right on ticking and truly, I cannot ask for more than that.

Angela Jackson-Brown is an award-winning writer, poet and playwright who is an Associate Professor in the creative writing program at Indiana University in Bloomington. She also teaches in the graduate program at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of Drinking from a Bitter Cup, House Repairs, When Stars Rain Down and The Light Always Breaks. Angela’s newest novel is Homeward (Harper Muse, 2023), a follow-up to When Stars Rain Down.