Ghosts of “Normal” Yesterdays

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Yesterday was Friday, and it felt like a Freaky Friday to me in more ways than one.  On that beautiful, sunny day I planned on driving to downtown Santa Cruz with Marilla to meet with an optometrist.  Rilla’s vision had become blurry during the past week, so much so that her teacher called me to advise getting her tested for glasses.  We headed for the outdoor shopping strip known as the Pacific Garden Mall where we’d meet her optometrist.

Santa Cruz, ninety minutes south of San Francisco, is located on the Pacific coast.  It’s a gorgeous place to live and many movies have been filmed here because of the landscape.  I grew up in Los Angeles and at eighteen I moved here to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz.  Like many other transplants, I’ve stayed in the area ever since.

During my first year of college I lived in a small room with three other girls.  It was claustrophobic, and while my roommates were nice coeds, I didn’t bond with any of them well.  I decided to get a weekend job that would require me to be off campus to distract me from my loneliness.  Since I was a chocolate fiend, I located a French bakery that would be the perfect setting for me to work.  I interviewed with plenty of enthusiasm and landed a counter job that paid less than five dollars per hour, with no benefits except access to sweets.

I bought a friend’s neon green and black-polka-dotted Honda Spree scooter.   The eye-catching transport would allow me to reach the bakery by my 5:00 a.m. call time.  The scooter topped out at a whopping twenty-five miles per hour, but I didn’t care.  It got me where I needed to go.  It took twenty minutes to reach my destination, and it was cold riding outside on those early mornings.  Tears ran down my face from the icy breeze that rushed towards me as I put-putted down a steep grade. 

When I reached the bakery, I entered the kitchen where the fresh chocolate truffle batter was mixed daily, and I discreetly helped myself to some of it.  I also had no compunction in sampling some of the amazing French pastries and bread.  All of those yummies contributed to my classic “freshman fifteen” pound weight gain.

As my shift rolled on, I sold many cups of the aromatic French roast coffee.  I can’t believe I’m typing this, but I actually hated coffee back then!  The brew wouldn’t become a staple in my life until a couple years later when I began work as an office manager.  Behind the counter, I often peeked outside at the brick courtyard to watch some colorful locals walk by.  One of the standouts was “Rainbow Ginger”, an elderly woman who dressed in rainbow colors and carried a tambourine.  She would sing, dance and kick her leg up high whenever she felt moved to make a spectacle.  Little did I know that this woman was actually related to my future husband.  (He doesn’t wear rainbow clothes, sing or kick up his legs, although he plays a mean guitar!)

I only lasted at the bakery for four months, which was a good thing, because I would have kept pounding the French pastries and truffles and gain the freshman forty.

A year later, the bakery building and surrounding courtyard would be demolished after the ferocious 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.  Several people were killed when a bookstore directly across from the bakery collapsed.   The quake was a 6.9 on the Richter scale, and it was so terrifying that I slept in my car the night it happened, not trusting my apartment building as I feared it could crush me.

When Marilla and I looked for the optometry building, ironically it was directly next to the empty lot where the French bakery, courtyard, and bookstore used to be.  The lot was an eerie site.  Most of the young people I watched sauntering by us probably had no idea of the grim history of that area.  I decided against telling Rilla about this particular piece of history for the time being.  She hasn’t been in an earthquake yet, and I felt there was no need to discuss quakes before her battery of eye tests.

We had some time before our appointment, so I asked Rilla if she wanted to walk by some places where I had worked, and to my surprise she said yes.   I briefly showed her some other spots where I toiled during the years leading up to my bipolar diagnosis. We stopped by the gym where I worked for two years as a certified personal trainer and class instructor.   In my late twenties when I was hired at this gym, I was a paragon of health.  I doubt that any of the members or my clients ever suspected I would become a card-carrying member of the bipolar club.

Five days a week I opened the gym at the grisly hour of 5:00 a.m. all by myself.  I am surprised I didn’t carry pepper spray – this was before I had a partner or children, and I was naive and foolish about my safety.  The most important part of my  job was to be bright and cheery in greeting the incoming members, many of whom were prestigious members of the community.  We had the top newspaper editor, the founder of Netflix, the museum director to mention just a few. While working at the gym I suffered with depression, but I hid it very, very well.

After the gym pit stop, we passed by our county’s largest library, where I held two jobs I despised: library clerk and assistant at a library-related non-profit.  I suffered with severe depression during both of those positions, but I attempted to stick with those jobs as long as I could.  Although I knew I had serious depression at that point, and I had started seeing a psychiatrist, he didn’t suspect I had bipolar disorder.

Then we meandered by a wildly popular restaurant where I had a short-lived waitressing career.  Waitressing wasn’t my forte!  I was only twenty-one at the time, and I didn’t even know how to open a wine bottle.  That dilemma caused one disgruntled diner to actually yell at me in front of his embarrassed family.  If my bipolar disorder had kicked in back then, I would have countered that nasty fellow with a rage that would have made his head spin!

I worked at the restaurant when it had first opened over twenty years ago.  Waitressing in a brand-new restaurant with unexperienced management was awful.   The kitchen staff took what seemed like centuries in preparing their dishes, and I had many unhappy customers waiting for their food.  I didn’t even mention the significance of this place to Rilla – it was definitely an unhappy memory.

We circled back to the optometry building.  It had a view of the office where I held a state park office job.  Although I was an unhappy camper at that job as well (I admit I was very hard to please, and yes, pun intended!) that view stirred up a very happy memory: my husband. When we began dating, he lived in an apartment right next door to that office.  I worked at the office when I became pregnant with my first child.  When I returned to work after my maternity leave, I was only making $2 an hour after paying childcare costs.  I was able to leave my work to be a stay-at-home mom to Avonlea, and I was over-the-moon.  It would be eighteen months later when I’d be diagnosed with bipolar disorder weeks after Rilla was born.

Going downtown with my sweet, inquisitive girl was a poignant field trip, as it was very rare for me to visit that area anymore.  I now live up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is only twenty minutes away from the mall, but quite different in terms of its residents and scenery.  All my memories of the Pacific Garden Mall were based on the years before I identified myself as “severely mentally ill”.

Even though I feel like I’m still thirteen, I felt my age of forty-four in a poignant way on that Friday.  So much had changed downtown.  There were so many new stores, new museums, and extensive remodels of the buildings where I had worked.  I found the most unnerving aspect was that I didn’t spot a single familiar face among the throngs of crowds walking up and down the street.

Rilla met with the optometrist, who found a vision problem requiring us to return to the Pacific Garden Mall next week

At the close of this adventure was a pilgrimage I had been wanting to make for some time.  I heard about a new cupcake store called Buttercup Cakes that was said to be extraordinary.  It was only a block away from the optometrist, so we made a beeline for it.  Being in Santa Cruz, land of the alternative health conscious, the bakery offered gluten-free and vegan options and everything was organic.  We were easy to please – we’d eat anything we saw there.  Rilla chose a strawberry-frosted vegan creation while I opted for the hibiscus frosted chocolate cupcake.  The deep rose-colored buttercream frosting was out of this world.  I could have eaten a cupcake-sized ball of it.

At the close of our day, I felt good about our afternoon.  I had been a responsible, caring mom in taking Rilla to get her eyes checked.  I was doing what “normal” parents do every day for their children.  I wasn’t bedridden with crippling depression like so many times in my past.  I was taking charge instead of requiring my husband to do the work of two parents that he had been forced to do year after year, relapse after relapse.

My ability to take my child on a simple doctor’s visit made me feel incredibly thankful.  The ghosts of my “normal” yesterdays have become flimsy specters.  When I focus on the present: sharing my past with my daughter, getting her eyes checked, and lest we forget, eat amazing cupcakes, I am no longer haunted by what I could have been without bipolar disorder.  I’m in recovery now and that’s all that truly matters.

I am publishing this post in honor of the first World Bipolar Day, March 30, 2014 and lovingly dedicate it to my father, Richard Leshin, who had bipolar one disorder.  He always had a blast visiting us here in Santa Cruz!

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2 thoughts on “Ghosts of “Normal” Yesterdays

  1. What a gorgeously written, perceptive comment, dear Nina! You understand what I’m writing about so well! Thank you so much for reading and for your encouragement!! p.s. I “liked” the FB page you mentioned the other day – hope that goes well! xoxoxoxoxo lots of love!

  2. Beautiful writing, lovely memories of a by-gone era of the Mall. But great that your “normal” past is not by-gone at all–it just needed to catch up with you again! Love you!.

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