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  • Dan Johnson

Vulnerability Is My Superpower



Roughly 15 years ago, I had a major breakdown that derailed me from graduate school.  It took several months and several diagnoses until we found something that worked. I was ultimately diagnosed as bi-polar, and my manic ramps-ups included insomnia, thoughts of reference, and paranoia. I ultimately returned to school, got an MSLS, and have spent almost a decade as a librarian, mostly working with children’s lit and comics.


The beautifully painful part of living with a bi-polar diagnosis is that the things that bring me the most joy on a good day (music, comics, and books) can become overwhelming during periods of high stress. When my manic periods flare up, my mind goes on overdrive. Everything has meaning, and all things are interconnected. Part of my challenge is recognizing that my imagination is just that, imagination. During really tough episodes, I feel it’s a curse, but in reality, it’s my superpower. The way I see the world as full of magic and meaning is a gift.

The beautifully painful part of living with a bi-polar diagnosis is that the things that bring me the most joy on a good day (music, comics, and books) can become overwhelming during periods of high stress.

A few people at work know I’m bi-polar, and those I trust to talk about it know why I needed to take some time off. I seriously reduced my screen time on the tv, computer, and phone, hoping the quieter media landscape would give my brain time to heal and adjust to the new med dosages. After a few days off, I returned to the library, knowing I was still not quite firing on all cylinders. Shelving and handling books at the library, with their various titles and names, were a bit of an info overload with the way I’m wired. It’s the price I pay for my spectacular noggin. Wordplay, mental associations, and funky connections are what make me me.

 

I don’t have a large circle of friends here in Oregon, though I’ve been lucky to make some friends at the library. At one point, I let my boss know why I was out and gave her the basics of my disease. She was very supportive, and it felt good to have more people here at work aware. I was doing much better in terms of mood and stress and worry, but I was still struggling with thoughts of reference in a noticeable way. That is to say, my mind makes it so that everything I see and hear, whether that’s mass media or an overheard conversation, is about me. However, I was relieved that more of my coworkers knew.

 

In my weird mind, I sometimes feel like the universe is talking to me through the things I see and hear. The paranoia that comes with it is when the thoughts and subtexts my mind adds to things have a sinister component. When it feels like I’m tapping into heightened senses, it can be pretty cool. But when the interconnectedness is dark or dangerous feeling, it can get very scary, very fast. It can be both exhilarating and terrifying. For example, when I was shelving a cart of graphic novels and looking at their book spines, my mind was immediately drawn to the title Vulnerability is my Superpower by Jackie Davis, almost as if the universe was rewarding me and suggesting that I was on the right path by opening myself up to some of my coworkers.

When it feels like I’m tapping into heightened senses, it can be pretty cool. But when the interconnectedness is dark or dangerous feeling, it can get very scary, very fast.


I thought I was doing better, but then I had a rough morning prepping for the library’s curbside service. Handling all the book names, authors, and patron info ramped up my hyper-connected brain. Despite my earlier reactions to the books at the library, I still decided to swing by my local new and used bookstore, The Book Bin, after work. I was slowly replacing my graphic novels of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman so they were all from the same edition run. That day, I picked up Fables and Reflections, which has one of my favorite Sandman stories. In it, a playwright is having a crisis of faith, until Dream gives him the little push he needs to face his fear of failure. “Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”



I thought I was doing better, but then I had a rough morning prepping for the library’s curbside service. Handling all the book names, authors, and patron info ramped up my hyper-connected brain.

Despite upping my meds for several days, I was still having pretty noticeable thoughts of reference. It was like a psychotic narcissism I couldn’t seem to shake. I'd read a title and suddenly feel like it was a message from the universe. Because I was raised in a Catholic household, I’d interpret the messages as either divine and angelic or malevolent and demonic. To be honest, I felt like a secular agnostic experiencing a religious experience, and not having the language or tools to make sense of what was happening. Alternatively, I was someone raised in a home of faith, having a mental breakdown and the language and frame of mind I had for it were biblical. And perhaps it was a bit of column A, a bit of column B.

 

In response to a book I picked up in our library’s children’s section, Areli is a Dreamer, by Areli Morales, I had reason to reflect on my status as a naturalized US citizen. I definitely had cousins who did not have the same opportunity I had had. It was simply a byproduct of the fact that my dad was born in California before his mother, mi abuelita, took him back to El Salvador.


Because I’m a children’s librarian, the one thing I can offer is books that highlight the struggles that so many kids and young adults face: the fear of losing a parent, spouse, or child to deportation; the stigma of living your life in the shadows; the uncertainty of what could happen if you are forced to relocate to a place you haven’t called home in decades, if ever; the pain of xenophobia painting you as a problem to be fixed. All I could do at the time was nakedly respond to a beautiful children’s book. Morales compassionately paints the experience of a young girl who grows up to be a DACA young adult. This is her story, gorgeously illustrated by Luisa Uribe. The book brought me to tears and reminded me to be thankful of all the ways I’ve caught a break, when many others have been less fortunate.

Because I’m a children’s librarian, the one thing I can offer is books that highlight the struggles that so many kids and young adults face: the fear of losing a parent, spouse, or child to deportation.

I recently learned a new psychology term that kinda describes some of the thoughts often drive me bonkers. Apophenia (/æpoʊˈfiːniə/) is the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things. This is all part and parcel of my bi-polar neurology. I think in many regards, this most recent episode, while explainable through neurophysiology terms, also had a spiritual component that was meaningful to me. I had been praying as part of my way of coping, and it seemed to be healing a wound I had been ignoring for a while.

 

I had been working my way through Alison Bechdel's The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Bechdel’s simultaneously raw and cerebral mode of self-analysis makes her one of my literary heroes, doing things in comics I have seldom seen others do as well as she does. Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are some of my favorite bits of sequential art for the way they interweave her internal thoughts and insights, both personal and familial, with the literary cannon that influenced her thinking. That particular night, I couldn't find Bechdel’s newest book, but I still wanted to read for a bit before calling it a night.


Since I couldn't find the title I was looking for, I instead grabbed Alex Sanchez's You Brought Me the Ocean. And while I didn't quite consider it a miracle, I found this book to be just what I needed.  In this story Jake is balancing several secrets: he's applied to a university miles from home without telling his best friend, he's likely gay, and he may have a weird unexplainable connection to water. At one point in the book, after everything seems to be unraveling, he asks his best friend's dad for advice:

 

"You know what I do when I feel problems dragging me under? I go to a quiet place...wherever I am… here at work, at home, or in the mountains… It's not important where.  I hold my problems out to the universe and say... I need help. Show me what to do and give me the strength to do it. Then I wait, and listen, and let the answers come."

 

I had been struggling with this episode for almost a month or so, but this wonderful book about coming out and finding yourself really hit home. I had been asking the universe for answers, and slowly, painfully, weirdly, they had been coming to me. 

 

One last little literary footnote to my manic episode.  I had been looking for books to include in my next children’s story time, and I somehow stumbled upon another gem.  Dan Santat is an American-born child of Thai immigrants, a fantastic illustrator, a graphic novel creator, and an all-around master of illustrated storytelling.


That particular day, I picked up his book After The Fall. This is the story of Humpty Dumpty, reconstructed after his fateful episode when he fell from the wall and was put together again. In it, our main protagonist is afraid of heights; having once fallen so hard, he dare not try to climb again. But he is still drawn to beauty of the birds who soar so free, and so he fashions a paper airplane as a substitute to climbing up the wall or watching the birds from a high perch. Until finally, one day, a gust of wind propels his paper airplane onto the high, high wall. Humpty then decides: he has no choice but to climb the tall, tall ladder to rescue his plane. Each rung, more terrifying than the last. But he faces his fears, climbs to the top of the wall, and right as he feels he’s conquered his demons, his shell shatters in pieces, and Humpty, now a bird himself, takes flight.


As Gaiman so sagely put it, “Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.” I can’t say for sure I’ve conquered my fear of falling. There is trepidation in sharing my story, nakedly opening myself up in words, words, words. Mental illness, for now, still comes with a huge social stigma. Yet I am more than my diagnosis. It is a part of me, but it does not define me. It has derailed me before, but it has taken me to places I would never have imagined. I sing and dance for little children. I get to share the tales that move me, make me laugh, make me cry. Books have saved me before and words are my friends. I live in a world of stories, and this one is mine. Vulnerability is my superpower; watch how I soar.

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