My boyfriend bought the bunnies for me on Easter day of my sophomore year in college. It was the sort of ludicrous, stupid, expensive thing he was always doing for me because I asked him to. What I asked for had little to do with what I actually wanted, and everything to do with seeing how far I could get him to go.
We were driving back from somewhere, probably an expensive brunch charged to the “emergency” credit card on which he ran up thousands of dollars, because I told him to. (I also used to call his parents’ house late at night, collect, and drunk. I was a treat.) Then we saw a sign for “DWARF BUNNIES!” at a strip mall pet shop. “We should look,” I told him. We both knew what that meant: at the very least, it indicated a spectacular misunderstanding of the word “should.”
At first it was fun. The bunnies were tiny, one a white fluffy egg with ears, the other gray, with a white spot on his forehead. We named the white one Obie and the gray one Boo, short for Caribou, and they were our bunny children. The roommate I’d been assigned had moved out; she was smart enough to get exhausted by my life before I did. So there was no one around to mind when my boyfriend and I took the bunnies from their cage and let them hop freely – no one except for the proctor of my dorm, who couldn’t stand me but for some reason didn’t report me. (Nobody ever reported me, for anything, and as a parent and an educator, I honestly don’t know why. Today, I’m sure somebody would, but today, they wouldn’t have to. I got so many chances I didn’t deserve.)
The bunnies ate dining hall carrots and got carried around campus and even risked expulsion by coming out to the quad to play in the sunshine. When I brought them home over the summer, my father helped me build a bigger enclosure, with screened sides and room to hop. Like so many other things, it seemed fine, until it wasn’t.
It became not fine when, sometime in the winter of my junior year, Boo grew to twice the size of Obie (dwarf, my ass) and no longer liked to be held. I don’t know why. My boyfriend and I were probably on one of our many breaks, and so I took them out to play a lot less. Maybe Boo resented being caged for so long, but he didn’t help matters by starting to bite. Then, out of what I can only describe as pure bunny spite, he started to scratch the screen of his cage in the middle of the night. I stopped sleeping, and, after a while, I stopped thinking too hard about what I could do to start sleeping again.
Someone must have helped me to carry the crate down to the basement of the commune-like house I lived in. There were a few open, light spaces, but I couldn’t leave them anywhere they might be vulnerable to wandering partiers. So their cage got tucked in a corner, and while I fed the bunnies twice a day, changed their water, carried Obie upstairs for carrots, bright, daily life no longer went on around them. One day I was in the kitchen preparing a bowl of vegetables when a guy I hardly knew stormed in and burst out, “How long are you going to leave those rabbits down there in the dark? It’s fucking irresponsible. Keep them or don’t, but get them out of there. It’s not fair.”
He stomped out again, and I started to cry. A friend put her hand on my arm, but didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say, really. He was right, and a cutely-composed bowl of carrots and celery didn’t change the fact that I was delivering it to a dungeon.
Maybe I remember them down in the darkness for longer than it actually lasted because I see that time as a harbinger of what came after, even if the bunnies had not yet actually been abandoned. I remember carrying Obie to the vet when he needed his teeth clipped (a rabbit’s teeth, like a dog’s claws, grow if not worn down with regular friction). He was so docile I could easily tuck him into the crook of my arm for the half-mile walk and know he wouldn’t squirm or run. But Boo, who grew big, who bit, who rattled his cage with fierce rabbit rage, was beyond reform, and my nonsensical ethics at that time made me unwilling to separate them.
If I try to remember who I was back then, the closest I can get is a sort of cold, Cubist version of who I am today. All the angles are off; the perspective is wrong; the planes don’t align in real space. Some swaths of me are brilliantly bright, while others look flat and inhuman. I’m recognizable, but barely, and only because I know where to look. I’d done worse things before that, and I’ve done them since, but most of them hurt only me, so they don’t really count. Until then, nothing other than myself had ever been so completely in my control. I drove to that grove, and I left the bunnies there, and I drove away. If anyone asked, I lied that they’d found a home with the family I occasionally babysat for, on their farm. They’d be happier there, I said, and no one could argue with that.
Looking back, what I see most clearly is that I was selfish, but that word feels wrong, because I didn’t have a self. Being me felt like trying to run with water in cupped hands. I know I was ungenerous and unkind. I didn’t mean to be. I simply existed in a constant state of self-protection and preservation. I saw myself as incorrectly assembled, fundamentally wrong, a poorly-programmed Deep Blue figuring out not how to beat a human, but how to be one. And I was far too busy keeping myself together to acknowledge the wholeness or need of anyone or anything else.
I know now that I was, depending on the day, either mildly or severely mentally ill. I know that I drank and took drugs to dispel the sense that my edges could fly apart. This worked until it didn’t, and I was fun until I wasn’t. When I got wasted, being a person felt like playing pool: there was a brief window in which I was awesome at it, and then my game fell apart. If I couldn’t get sex to shove me back in my body, I got mean, or I got sad. Often, I got hurt. Thankfully, no one else did – not physically, anyway. I made emotional rubble of anyone dumb enough to get close to me. Even now, I recognize people who give off the same aura I probably did back then: “My need is so deep, I can’t even see you.”
That poor boyfriend. Those poor bunnies.
In the fall of 2015, I spoke at a conference, thanks to the largesse of my friend Briallen – the sort of friend I am still figuring out how to be, the kind who gives whatever she can to whomever’s in need. I read aloud an essay about my daughters that made me cry, then we went out afterwards for beer, to celebrate and to recover, and to talk about our book projects.
Briallen was the first person both brave and wise enough, close enough and far enough away, to tell me how unstable I had seemed when she first met me, in the early 2000s. I was a literary critic with an academic book contract, the mother of two hilarious, intelligent young daughters. I was also beyond neurotic. I was emotional, unpredictable, dangerous.
I agreed, and told her about the memoir I was working on, the story of my mother, my grandmother, and the madness they passed down to me. Only medication, I believed, had freed me and my children from that fate, by eventually making me able to mother in a way that my mother and her mother could not. I didn’t feel superior, so much as fortunate to have been born when I could be fixed, to have the health insurance to cover it, and grateful to be well enough to help my daughters, too.
We were on our second beers in a basement bar. Rain gusted through the casement windows until the bartender came over to close them. I was walking Briallen through my line of thinking: my grandmother and mother had suffered from the unavailability and inadequacy of mental health care in their respective times and milieus; their lack of treatment caused chain reactions of sadness, substance abuse, and self-recrimination that extended through at least three generations. I was the first to receive competent, appropriate care before indelibly damaging anyone else; thus, in both my mind and the book I had not yet written, the damage ended with me.
Briallen must have said something. I don’t remember what it was. But I can picture her there, that day, long blond hair against old red wood, impossibly smart even without the glasses that make her look, impossibly, smarter. She was silent. Maybe I saw her reading my story from the outside, because for whatever reason, right then, I knew I was telling it wrong.
It is June, 2003. I have been married for four years, and we have two daughters, one 3, one 18 months. I am finishing my Ph.D. at a prestigious university, where I just completed a competitive fellowship. I am plopped on the floor of an empty room in an empty house in a seedy suburb about five miles away from my ivy-covered office, and I am surrounded by piles of cooking magazines. The idea is to cut out all the recipes I want to keep, tape them to plain white paper, and put them into clear plastic sleeves in a big, black binder. I have scissors and tape and paper and sleeves, and I have been looking forward to this project for days. I’m choosing what matters, leaving the rest behind. It’s not clear for whom I plan to make all these meals, since I will be living alone now, and I have stopped eating.
I am manic as hell.
I take a break from my labor to scan the New York Times. There’s a feature story on Lambertville, a small, pretty town on the Delaware River, across from the hippier New Hope. Lambertville has cool galleries and restaurants and fairly affordable rentals. The schools are not bad. I can see us living there. Maybe we should look into it.
And then I realize, for the first time, that I am no longer a “we.”
I can’t quite describe the effect of this realization, but I remember it as an impact both sudden and subtle, a wave that hit me all at once and water that came to a boil around me. My family would never move to Lambertville, because I didn’t have a family. I didn’t have a family because I had told my husband that I didn’t want to be married anymore, and I offered him our children with the same indifferent generosity that I had offered him the coffeemaker – I liked it a lot, I might want it back at some point, but I didn’t need it right now.
I had already been hospitalized for depression that spring, but this moment stands out to me as the real unraveling, when not being able to cope devolved into not being able to live (which is different from dying). To say that I hated myself for ruining my family would imply that I still knew who I was, and I didn’t. I didn’t have the energy to hate. I just wanted to cease to exist, and I sincerely believed, right then, that, if I killed myself, my daughters were young enough to forget. They could start over with a better mother who not only knew how to take care of them, but could teach them to be human. Unlike me.
Amy Hertzog’s play Mary Jane is about a mother whose entire life encircles a terminally ill child we never see. Her husband leaves; her family grows distant; her friends are the superintendent of her building and one of her son’s home-care nurses –intimacies of tragedy and proximity, not of choice. Mary Jane is repeatedly told to care for herself, and repeatedly refuses. By the end of the play, her world has shrunk to the size of a hospital room, where a female monk sits vigil with her during her son’s final surgery. They talk of God and of callings while Mary Jane waits for her child to die and for her migraine to blur her vision. In last line of the play, the monk asks Mary Jane, “Can you still see?”
We never know, but we can hope. In the extremity of her motherhood, the totality of her self-sacrifice, Mary Jane is wonderful, in the scary, sublime sense; she is all and only generosity. In her abject selflessness, she is the mother we all wish we were, until we see the horror of what it means to give everything. What remains for her, after her son, with no job, no partner, no friends? The play ends when she realizes not that her son will die but that she will live. It’s as if she’s doing penance for some sin that, like her son, the audience can’t see, but cannot help imagining. Why else would she make herself suffer like this?
If your life is shaped by mental illness from childhood, you cannot draw clean lines between your self and your sickness. There is no other, “better” you to look back on longingly, no one tells you that you’ll be “yourself again” soon, because by this logic, you have never been yourself. It was so rarely that I recognized anything as mine, as like me.
I’d been so sure I was a good mother, albeit by chance. Then that day, in that bar, I looked at Briallen, and I realized: of those three mad mothers, I was the only one who had walked out on her children. And suddenly, I realized why I call my daughters my bunnies.
Why can’t I just tell myself: You were so sick. It was so hard. But if I forgive, I might stop watching. So, like Mary Jane, I sit vigil, because it could happen again, and the shrapnel from my broken self could shred someone I love. That love helped create me, it constitutes me, I found my shape, at last, inside and because of it.
Fifteen years have passed since I sat on that floor, surrounded by pictures of food I would never cook. College acceptance letters have arrived every day this week for my oldest daughter, and the imminence of her departure crushes the air out of me. I already have to share her with her dad, a kind man who is a great father and still, somehow, my friend. To be without her completely, and to know that, in two years, her little sister will likely follow, is akin to the onset of their births when I was heavily pregnant: both inevitable and unimaginable.
Maybe the bunnies were fine. Maybe they frolicked, loving the freedom, the clover and the sun. Maybe I get locked on those small, abandoned creatures because the other abandonments, the actual and the almost, are too hard to think about, much less forgive. My children are here, now: brilliant, complex people whose stories and selves are both separate from and intertwined with my own. Yet for me, mothering is not a job or a blessing or a prize. It is a practice – one that, on most days, leaves me crazily grateful, giddy with love. On rare others, it reminds me of a darkness so deep that my mind lied to me to help me survive it, blocked memory with metaphor until I was ready to see.
I got yet another chance.
Beth Boyle Machlan teaches expository writing at New York University. Her essays have appeared in Avidly, The Rumpus, the New York Times, The Hairpin, and The Awl. She lives in Brooklyn and is working on a memoir about houses and mental health.