Saturday, October 12, 2019
My young womanhood began the day I read Joan Didion’s short essay, “On Self-Respect.” The symbolism of the green light flashed brighter in those early years.
I was at Cornell on a scholarship from my father’s union. It remains the achievement he is most proud of, even now, more than three decades later. That’s how I attained his respect.
It was a decision that took mere seconds to make. His union had sponsored a college fair and he told me to go over to the Cornell table. When asked by the recruiter my intended major, I said history. He was there to promote Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, a school partly subsidized by New York State. When he told me I could take over thirty credits of history in the private College of Arts and Sciences at no additional cost, I decided to apply. I was accepted on that scholarship. It was the pinnacle of my academic achievement in father’s eyes, although I later attained a Master’s in Social Work and a Juris Doctor degree.
The question presented by Joan Didion, however, was whether I attained my own self-respect with that achievement. She lost the notion that the light would always turn green for her when she failed to make Phi Beta Kappa. She acknowledges the triviality of that: she didn’t have the grades. My green light stayed lit until I was twenty-six, the time I expected to have a baby by and didn’t. After that, nothing came according to a pre-determined timeline. Although I wouldn’t be diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was twenty-nine, my unraveling began in earnest at twenty-six. But, to answer Joan Didion’s question, I did earn my self-respect at Cornell. The rest of my life has been an attempt to keep it.
I did, eventually, become a mother. And, I was able, during the important times, to keep from unraveling.
I remember the first time I couldn’t panic in front of my children, then young boys. We were on an airplane, having planned a Florida vacation. The pilot announced that smoke in the cockpit would necessitate an emergency landing elsewhere. All was normal, I assured my children, as the plane bounced and its lights flickered.
It is because of my bipolar diagnosis that I can successfully manage the difficult times. Coping strategies I learned earlier immediately come back. Having previously unraveled, I have a cure for the unpredictable. I can maintain my self-respect.
Helaine Sanders, LMSW, JD still finds the coping skill of journaling useful during difficult times. She administers this website, JanesPlace.org, where other articles about mental health may be found.