Seconds before I walked down the aisle at my wedding, I gulped and looked my Uncle Abe in the eye. “You’re gonna have to hold me up, okay?”

I wasn’t sure my own legs would carry me down the aisle. I was simultaneously melting into the floor and evaporating into the clouds. He looked at me with crystal clear blue eyes and didn’t answer. He lifted his chin a little and set his gaze at the end of the aisle. He didn’t waiver when I threaded my arm through his. I puffed out a little air to try and force myself to breathe as we walked out into the sunlight.

In the years that that followed my definition of “holding” grew to include the way my husband held me up, how I held our babies, and how a few special friends warranted an extra tight hug. Those are the times when you say so much without speaking a word.

This week my definition of “holding” people evolved yet again.

I was at lunch with friends when I sensed an emotional blowout was going to happen. It had nothing to do with our conversation. I simply knew that all the images I had been securely stuffing into a tiny mental box for months were about to coming tumbling out. I left as quickly as I could and raced home.

I saw my mother shuffle toward me in hospital socks saying, “You look a lot like my daughter!” and I saw the terrible recognition in her eyes when she realized that she couldn’t rely on her brain to recognize her own child.

I saw my hand placing my stupid Coach purse in a filthy locker before I went into the highly secure ward of a hospital addiction ward. I stole glances at the guy with the baggy jeans walking in tiny circles around the table where I sat with my mom. I stole glances at the super skinny guy with sunken eyes and his equally skinny girlfriend huddled up together at the next table. I glared a little at the nurses’ aids who seemed impossibly young and much too careless.

I strained to read my mother’s lips when she began whispering nonsense. I saw that someone had given her a dirty t-shirt to wear. I bored a hole through the table with my eyes when I felt I was going to scream at someone.

I saw kids in the admissions area of the behavioral health center, eyes cast down, followed by their parents. The parents were soldiers with faces set in stone moving like there were concrete blocks on their legs.  

I saw myself holding up my mom in and out of three different hospitals where we tried to figure out how to get her the right kind of help.

I saw stars. My eyes were shut so tight holding up my Uncle Abe at my grandma's funeral knowing that he didn't have long to live either.

I saw an angel helping my mother and me to hold my sister up as she dug her heels into the ground and collapsed in front of the funeral home where my brother's body lay.

After my emotional blowout, I felt like I had survived the best anxiety attack yet. I had seen it coming – had retreated to a quiet safe place – had buckled in and then let the images roll. It was a “good” anxiety attack because I hadn’t been afraid of the panicking itself.

I was left with a different sense of self:

When did I become the person who holds people up?

Since I have bipolar disorder, I am used to being “the broken one”. There used to be a joke in my house that no one else was allowed to have any issues because my problems eclipsed the entire family. Now I figure that struggling with mental illness has humbled me, stripped me of the illusion that I have control over life, and better equipped me to hold others.

The next time I need holding or need to hold someone else I hope I'll remember that it's not just the physical contact that supports a person. It's also our willingness to witness their story, and to have that moment become part of our story, too.

Later in the week I was challenged to take a series of self-portraits as part of a therapeutic exercise. I staged a few lovely pictures in flattering light but I knew that they weren't honest enough for me. So I took one more awkward self-portrait.

I gasped when I saw the age spots and wrinkles looking back at me, but only for a moment. Beyond that I noticed my calm, triumphant smile. I earned a lot of those wrinkles in the last few months. There was an incredibly difficult story written on my face and I was there as a witness to myself. I was holding myself.


  1. I've typed and erased, typed and erased. Know your words help others.

    1. That means everything to me. Thanks for your comment. :)


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