There is an open field that I pass every day, to and from home. It’s part of an historic plantation and is frequently the site of fairs and war reenactments. Near the road, there are two trees. One stands straight-backed and tall. The other leans drunkenly away, nearly laying flat on the ground. Their trunks are joined together in such a way that they seem to be one tree, if you ignore the difference in foliage.
I have had a few romantic notions about these trees for a couple of years, the most prominent of which is that they are dancing together. Their lives pass so slowly, however, that they look frozen mid-dip to us scurrying humans.
This tableau always makes me a little sad in the winter. The tall tree is an evergreen and the dipped tree is a deciduous. At the height of winter, the dipped tree looks to be a dead tree clinging to a live one.
What does the evergreen think about those times? Does she understand that her partner is sleeping? Does the ebbing life of the deciduous slow to such a measure that she can no longer feel it? Does she stand all winter wondering why he seems to be blinking for so long?
Does she stand all winter mourning over him?
And how immeasurably happy is she when spring comes and he blooms again?
Then this last winter, they cut him down. I drove by and there were chunks of him piled around her base. It knocked the breath out of me. It dawned on me that to everyone else, the deciduous was sick. He was a leech clinging precipitously to the life of the evergreen, weakening her or damaging her in ways I couldn’t see.
I pondered this for some time. Why did this bother me so much? It’s just a tree, right? And clearly not a healthy one. It was much better to put him out of his misery than allow him to continue being a burden.
But no, he was struggling to be alive and their relationship was something beautiful.
This is what it’s like living with and/or loving someone with a mental illness. Sometimes they are blooming and you are so very, very happy. This is the person you love, the one you grew up with or fell in love with or grew close to. Maybe this time it will be spring forever and you can stop being afraid of winter.
And sometimes they aren’t. And you don’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it. Realistically, there is no fixing it. There is nothing you can do but wait and pray for spring. And pray that no one decides to cut them down.
It is a burden sometimes. You want them to be normal and happy. You don’t want to worry about them. You don’t want to see or hear about their suffering. And you’re tempted to ignore them, push them away so that you can’t be hurt by this person who can’t just be happy like everyone else. And you feel guilty for that, of course. There’s a tiny voice that just wants them to go away so it isn’t your problem. Selfish you just wishes they would get better or disappear because feeling helpless and frightened is not fun.
And you deeply hate selfish you. This is a person you love who is sick and hurting and needs you. Shut up, selfish you.
The important thing, the most important thing, is that regardless of the season you have to be there. You hold them up during the winter and when they wake up in spring, they wake up to you. Your trunk may tire, your branches may break, but you cannot let them go.
And if people start telling you he’s sick, you can’t help him, he’s taking advantage, he’s faking it, he just wants attention, he’s using you, you’re better off without him, you tell them where to stick their axes.