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  • Writer's pictureVincent Pruis

My Candle Burns: Tattoos, Texts & A Bipolar Diagnosis

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

An inner arm tattoo of a candle with a wick on each end--one lit and the other smoking as if recently blown out. The smoke winds downward and the flame pulses up the arm.
Design and Tattoo by Marlena Misztalewska @marlena_sweet_hell

Figs from Thistles: First Fig

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light!

As you, dear reader, may have noticed, my candle burns on only one end; the other has recently been blown out. Marlena (my tattoo artist), after I presented her with the concept, did a bit of research, & she was perplexed by how rare this image is as a tattoo. Granted, she was able to find the occasional two-wicked candle, but why one end extinguished? Why was I twisting a poem that I so obviously loved? & why would I love it when that poem was...sort of sad? Maybe it was just a cultural thing: Icelandic poetry sounds different from the rhymed & metered early-twentieth-century poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. “No,” I reassured her. “First Fig” is sad---tragic, really. “First Fig” is an account of an all-consuming intensity, one I’m quite familiar with.

“Let’s take a look at the symptoms.”

Since I first read “First Fig” in my first year at university, my journals have been splattered with dozens of these peculiar sketches framed in flame. Thumbnail size candles. Some sprawling through full pages. Flame & more flame. Millay’s brief ballad ignited an understanding in me. The image of a candle has long been associated with human character---namely life & mortality (see Shakespeare & the New Testament)---since a candle’s light makes trackable progress toward its own end, finally relinquishing its last breath to the darkness associated with death. So this metaphor, though it could be interpreted in many ways, reminded me of the terrifying potential I’d sometimes sensed in my own life. A potential to burn twice as bright as everyone around me at the risk of flaring out in less than a full lifetime. My depression was a sickness visible to anyone who knew me from the time I was sixteen, but my brilliance, my two-wicked light, was, I thought, my benign default setting. Who I’d be without the downs. I’d be radiant, inhumanly sure of myself. Capable of writing prolifically & working three jobs & befriending every stranger & flirting outrageously, forever. I did not learn until this year to call that fire mania.

“Let’s take a look at the symptoms.”

There were signs, sure---there was the fellow counselor at summer camp who jokingly offered me his ADHD meds because I “obviously needed them more” than he did; there were the hallucinations I hid from, & hid, all my second year at SPU; & then there were those graphite candles shimmering through my moleskine journals at predictable intervals...but such signs are difficult to read when you’re driving so fast down a country road that you catch air going over hills while hay-heat smoke surges through your open windows & lifts you up to the ceiling & swallows the space between you & the seat, & you can feel spaces---every gap has a pull to it, pulls you toward all things---& you are like the smoke between them all, & you can feel far-off wildfires spiraling up cedars, licking dry bark, & you can feel the urgency of the hay balers, feel the car pulled back down to sweat-beaded pavement, & it’s only been a second, but when each second sings with the whole of the universe, how the hell are you supposed to read signs? I didn’t. & when I wasn’t flying, I was too weary to read at all. On either end, I avoided the signs. I wouldn’t have read them anyway; I didn’t want my experience of life to be a “symptom.”

“Let’s take a look at the symptoms.”

Last year, I read a second resonant work: Marbles, a graphic novel by Seattle artist Ellen Forney. It’s a little bit longer than “First Fig” (by about 240 pages), but like the short poem, Marbles had me from its very first line. The page before the story begins scrolls dizzyingly through the words “Let’s take a look at the symptoms,” repeated until no space remains. The words form a single-image stereogram: with enough crossing & uncrossing of the eyes, one can see the diagnosis, “YOU ARE CRAZY,” rising several inches above the page. In this autobiographical work, Forney describes her own diagnosis with bipolar disorder & her journey through treatment. It begins with Forney seeing “the sensation--a bright white light, an electrical charge, up & to the right” of the needle shaping her full-back tattoo. (Can you, dear reader, see the strings pulling taut to cradle this essay & my own tattoo concept?) Looking back, I recognize that seeing Forney’s many-year struggle through existential crises on the page may have saved me a few of my own---or at least gotten me through them more quickly because I, regrettably, still had to go through most of them myself.


April: Cackling maniacally in a way one should probably not maniacally cackle in a psychiatrist’s office, I pushed the checked-boxed form back across the table. Every answer on the screening sheet was a “yes” except one. I had all the indicators that would steer a psychiatrist away from treating me for unipolar depression except “sexual promiscuity.” I exhibited altogether too much non-sexy-risk-taking for any medical professional's taste. Antidepressants, it turns out, would be dangerous to me because I may have (& later was confirmed to have) bipolar, so antidepressants could trigger a manic episode. I laughed again (this time a controlled chuckle) when I was finally prescribed medication. Lamotrigine, I was told, has a few potential side effects---foggy thoughts, a dry mouth, & a life-threatening rash are among them, but the one most people report dissatisfaction with is a decreased sex drive. I was laughing, dear reader, because (but maybe you aren’t so dear to me if you don’t know this yet) I’m asexual. & I had so much more that I was worried about: foggy thinking? taking a drug that increases neural inhibitors for the rest of my life? reevaluating my entire identity?? Sex, as always, was the least of my worries. Losing my light was the most of them.

“It gives a lovely light.”

June: By the time my traveling group poured out of the Land Rover & into our AirBnB in Seydisfjordur, Iceland, just a week into our post-graduation trip, my reality was already drifting away from the one everyone else seems to agree upon. As the other members unpacked & started making dinner, all superbly grateful to be out of the tents & the sheep-poop-filled ditch where we’d spent the previous night, I settled into the couch, then sunk to the floor, then curled up on the hardwood. It helps to be as close to the ground as possible (those overwhelming gaps, remember?). & it helps to focus on textures to avoid being swept away. I stayed engaged in the conversation, laughing & teasing from under the table as my knees pulled slowly up to my chest & the tears started flowing. One friend made a joke about how comfy it must be to lie fetal position on a ridiculously cushionless slab of wood. Then they tucked their head under the table & saw the gleaming on my face & on the floor. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” I insisted. But the meds were working, I keened, silently. Then again, she told me this might happen; she said sleep deprivation, stress, break in routine, excitement, they could all trigger an episode. “I think it’s just cause I haven’t been taking my meds at a consistent time. I’m fine.” God. This is the rest of my life. Every time I travel, the walls could start breathing again. Every spontaneous action needs to be monitored. All excitement, snuffed. My life is never going to be what I imagined it would be.

“It gives a lovely light.”

“Are you feeling any better?” my friend asked as they collapsed into the bed beside mine. “Yeah. Just had a quick mental breakdown faced with the fact that I’m bipolar forever & I’ll always have to worry about it & every break in routine will always be terrifying, forever,” I whipped through the explanation in one breath. Then I shrugged: “But, you know, that existential crisis had its hour, & I’m over it now.” They laughed and waited for me to acknowledge that I probably wasn’t totally over it after one lousy hour of self-assurance---which felt desperate & nothing like the self-confidence I usually rely on. My life isn’t going to work how I imagined it would. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make what I want of it. It only means that I’ll get there differently from how I first thought. Spontaneity is going to be a risk, but one I can probably learn to weigh properly. Travel will be rough, but my sort of travel’s a bit more extreme than most anyway. If I can handle six people crammed into a Land Rover, which breaks down twice, as we drive across Iceland hiking out to lava tubes & up to glaciers for two weeks, then I can probably handle other traveling, too. I thought back to the yoga practice that kept me anchored in India, the only thing, other than the consistent thought “I hate myself,” that was solid enough to cling to during my depressive episode there. I thought about Forney, & how she admitted to originally scoffing at those “yoga people,” & how she also was scared that routine meant boring. I thought about the price I pay for a doubled, unboring fire.

“It gives a lovely light.”

“It’s about balance,” I told Marlena as she picked out the ink colors & prepared them for my tattoo in downtown Reykjavik. I was mostly back in control by then---I’d battened down the hatches & lowered the sails & other than one incident of falling into a stream because I didn’t think it was real, mania had not stormily swept me away. The meds are working. I mulled over the implications of my tattoo in the quiet studio, studying the art penciled up on the walls. There are a lot of layers. One side lit, one not could represent the dual nature of my disorder. The sinking smoke could gesture toward my own disappointment or original sense of loss in limiting the flame. Or it could be what I see in it---a reclamation. One end remains lit. I am sustainable: I am alive. My candle will last the night, & still it gives a lovely light. I never thought I’d get a color tattoo, but when I saw Marlena’s work, I knew I wanted her to design this one. The shifting teals & magentas, the purple wax, the dancing sparks, they all serve as a reminder: balance does not exclude vibrancy.

Balance does not exclude vibrancy.

Balance does not exclude vibrancy, I etch into my body in a few fewer words. My reading may change with time, as interpretations do for every text. For now, though, “First Fig,” Marbles, & this beautiful, perpetual infection on my arm all help me to imagine a new way to be more than I ever imagined I’d be. & I am who I’ve always been: vibrant.

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