A Mind on Fire


Photo 2016-06-06, 7 12 03 PMI.

My life is one long rerouting. Only I’ve not had the pleasure of Google Maps patiently telling me that I’ve taken a wrong turn and that it’s calculating the next best option to get me to my destination. Instead, I’ve lived one-way streets and stop signs, merging into single lanes and tight spaces. My life has been roadblocks and potholes and miles out of my way with no rest stop in sight.

I type the address into my phone to get to her office. Google Maps turns me this way and that and I obediently follow its directions.

“You have arrived at your destination,” my phone informs me in a professional robotic voice.

I stay buckled in my seat with my hands at ten and two. I look down and see that my knuckles are mottled from my grip and my palms are slick with sweat. I release the steering wheel and wipe my hands on my dress. I flip down the visor and pop open the mirror. I took care today. I showered and blowdried my hair. I put on a nude lipstick. Today isn’t a day when I can manage red. I can’t trust my lips these days, I don’t know what they’ll say.

My mascara promises not to budge, its waterproof formula guaranteed to hold strong and not break down, even when I can’t.


I tell her my story.

She’s the first one to really ask for it. Usually they just ask for my diagnosis and what meds I’m on, which ones I’ve tried, which ones have left me sobbing into my pillow and gasping like each breath is heaving multitudes and cracking my ribs like birds’ wings and I am a caged girl, trapped from the inside out.

They want to know which meds have passed my lips faithfully night after night but still the darkness comes. The color drains from the days and drags me into a palette of gray tones, muddied and crackling on the canvas. Which meds have I stood in line to pick up only to feel the fever build until I am wild hips as the bass of the good songs calls to me? When my mind overflows with colors and everything is so beautiful it hurts. I am undone schemes and my head can’t find my pillow on nights when the thoughts run rampant through my greasy hair, tangling my ideas like sticky fingers.

Usually they have my file open and they read questions on a checklist, never looking up, never really seeing me. Sometimes they don’t even bother to sit but stand at the entrance to the exam room like they might need to bolt out at a moment’s notice if something better comes along.

I am a woman with bipolar, with anxiety, with a file and a diagnosis. I am a name on a prescription pad. Usually they don’t see me when they see me.

She settles back into her chair like we’re going to be here for awhile, her eyes are soft and her hair is down, the salt and pepper waves looking neither fussy nor unkempt. She looks like a woman who is accustomed to hearing people tell her their darkest thoughts and greatest fears. She looks me in the eyes and her smile is kind, like she’s kneeling before an animal of prey, a broken winged girl, and she’s coaxing me to come closer, palms open, no sudden moves.

My eyes flick past her and up to a set of art drawings on the wall. There are a set of marker drawn animals in frames, reminding me of the art I display with a magnet on the fridge when one of my kids brings me their creation.

I need help. I want to see what else my kids create. I want to survive this.

My eyes settle on a rhino and the rest go blurry.

I hope the mascara will not fail me. I tell her my story.


When I was a girl in the bright and beautiful world, we played pirates. We cut up grocery bags and took the rough brown paper to draw out and place our treasure. We could navigate the world to the correct spot if we just knew where the X was.

To age the maps, my mother, who always indulged our imaginations, taught us how to soak the paper in dark black tea, to crinkle them up and dry them on the line like a set of fresh linens under the bluest sky. The final step was to get an adult and a candle and burn the edges.

I already knew where the darkest edges in the world were, they curled up and surrounded me, like a map of the world set on fire. They were crisp and black and left your fingers smudged and blackened like coal. Its char got everywhere when the burned bits broke off and they were always shedding off like old skins.

I found the treasure when I was a girl. I knew where to dig up the old coffee can we filled with mardi gras beads, plastic gold coins, and baubles we collected by begging our mothers to stop their grocery carts before the parking lot to feed the greedy machines our quarters and turn the metal dial, watching our treasure fall into the slot.

Sometimes we got a fancy emerald ring or a press on tattoo or a gummy hand that would collect fuzz in our pockets. But we saved the treasure so we’d be able to hide it and find it again.

We sat in the grass on the edge of our lawn with the Folgers can we had peeled open, the whiff of morning percolating while we divided up the good stuff. I slipped a ruby ring onto my finger and looked down at my hand. It was marked with black from finding my way.

The dark edges were always getting closer even among the beautiful things, even among the treasures.


I watch a clip of Paul Dalio, a filmmaker with bipolar who made a movie called Touched with Fire. I see Huffington Post’s clip of his interview in my friends’ Facebook timelines. He talks about art and beauty and meaning and I remember the good days when words come so fast, like the burst of a blackberry on my tongue, like nectar being scooped out and served at a bare-shouldered picnic on a day full of magnolias.

And I remember when the words dry up and it’s the hardest battle to tell that truth, to untangle my tongue enough to ask for help in all the ways I need it. To make appointments and plug in addresses and find myself on a couch telling a psychiatrist with kind eyes that I want to be around for my kids’ art. That I don’t want to be a 1 in 4 suicide statistic for bipolar patients.

Paul Dalio relates bipolar patients as something akin to being touched by fire, the way the burst of intense emotion is like kindling for creativity and imagination, that’s if it doesn’t consume you when it feels like the flames go out and all you’re left with is the smell of dank smoke and charred remains.

We make wide circles around the mentally ill.

The stigma right now is so severe that “the very best someone can hope for is pity,” he said. “And that’s not good enough.” Creating a society in which people are not ashamed to reveal their disorder, he said, would be a start.”


I tell my story.

What do you get when you mix the scalded edges of a mind on fire? What comes from the charred and brittle bits that shed from your world’s map? When you’re once again adrift on seas and toppling waves and you’re tossed from your mooring, you need the X written down and mapped out to believe in treasure again, to believe lost things can be found if we only know where to look.

You chart your way home on a journey of tears in your psychiatrist’s office. And when char and saltwater tears mix on the page, you get the ink to pen your story, to find your way to the beauty that was always buried and waiting.

Alia Joy
I’m the daughter of both a book lover and a storyteller and in that I was destined to be a writer. I collect words at http://aliajoy.com, dance to the good songs, and believe even the most broken stories have a redeemer. I live in Central Oregon with my husband, my tiny Asian mother, my three kids, a bunny, and a bunch of chickens. Sushi is my love language and I balance my cynical idealism with humor and awkward pauses.
Alia Joy
Alia Joy

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