Life Interrupted by Samantha Smirin (published by Jacana Media) is a memoir about the true struggles of living with mental health issues. Bipolar is not glamourised or sensualised here – Samantha Smirin writes on her real experiences of psychiatric experts, medication, natural remedies, clinics, lock ups and electro-convulsive therapies. This excerpt is published by permission.
Seth emerges as my angel on a blustery amber autumn day in Covent Garden. It is dark, splintered and dank in the student canteen at film school. I am shrouded and seated alone in a scuffed wooden booth.
He asks tentatively, kindly, “Can I join you?”
“You’re welcome.” I reflect his soft warm open smile.
He sits down and I pop open my cool drink, fizz spritzing through the opening can.
“How you finding it so far?” he asks politely. A surprisingly soft American accent.
Thinking he’s just asked about me meeting him, I’m caught off guard.
“Finding what?” I reply, confused.
“Film school.” There is no expectation in his reply.
“Good so far, and you?”
“You’re … I mean, it’s a dream come true. Where d’you come from?”
“Joburg, South Africa.”
A moment of pause.
“Texas, America,” he offers.
“But your accent … I mean, it’s so soft.”
He laughs at my reply.
“Yeah, well, I’m not a typical American.”
“And I’m not a typical South African.” Not knowing what that means.
“Guess we’re in an international school now, thank God”.
We amble through the streets of London together. He poses in front of a boutique wine shop, with South African wines listed in coloured chalk on a blackboard behind him, acknowledging my birth country. As gentle as mottled shadows and light filtering through the branches of an old oak in Hyde Park – that is Seth. Kindness describes his lithe body, and softness his gentle brown-blond hair. It’s as simple as that, for Seth is my counterpoint. I’m the wild wind on prairies, sometimes as silent as the desert at night, changeable as the weather on steep mountain slopes. He’s moderate, his temperament blue jazz and soulful skies.
Life is challenging for me on Tegretol. How does Seth help? He steadies my stride. He takes my hand when I look for his, offering it in gentle reply. Lost and confused as I descend the dimly lit staircase into a theatre to watch a classic Bergman or Hitchcock, he motions to me to join him in an old, cracked, red leather seat by his side. Hitchcock makes full-length movies in four shots that are masterly crafted – in opposition to the staccato cuts and ragged editing of my own life. Seth seems to know what I’m thinking. I feel comforted by not having to explain my thoughts to him, relief from the usual questioning of the workings of my mind.
In his room in his house in his generous arms he holds me, gently loving me in the emergent hours of dawn. We walk smiling through the early crisp mornings in London to satisfy our passion for image and sound.
We hear the languages of all nations united in that school just down from Covent Garden’s market, where we buy fresh food for our suppers that we cook together at night.
Seth shows me committed, unconditional love. We bob on calm seas in a sailboat with or without each other. I edit his final black-and-white jazz film on 35-millimetre celluloid. In my editing suite, baskets of hoops and cloth hold developed multiple frames of film to be joined by my learning hands. We think a lot about the edit. Once cut and joined on the table, it is final. It’s not the age of non-linear quick-fit digital editing – the type where you can insert other segments and scenes you’ve left out.
This is the art and technique of film-making. Linearity. My life is one of non-linearity, confusing and altered in a moment just like that. Seth shows me that life can be dependable. But I don’t feel dependable any more.
I complete film school in a daze. On the outside, I appear to be competent, and I am awarded a diploma.
Seth and I go back to his America. I am sickened by overweight Texan burger patties and malignant Mexican taco stands on dusty perimeter side streets. The conforming and overflowing, the badly directed expenditure, make me cower from wasteful American might. We make the ubiquitous road trip from Texas to New York. Through and across states of great contrast, I admire the scope of the land. New York itself is a mosaic, a swell of humanity spilling onto the steaming dirty streets, yellow cabs hailed down on demand. Gracia, Seth’s friend, is a masterful driver and negotiates us through unfamiliar right-handed roads.
But South Africa calls us both – the opportunities of a young democratic land that I yearn to fall into. We fly from JFK to Jan Smuts airport and are welcomed by my doting parents.
We dream of getting into the film and television industry. I buy a small house in Westdene, a suburb in Johannesburg, and we settle relatively close to my parents.
Seth deals with my depression as best he can. I am victimised, feel impotent and restless. I change Seth’s stable steadfastness.
“What you up to today, Sam?” he asks.
As if I can plan ahead…
“Nothing,” I say. “In case you haven’t noticed, I have manic depression and I’m depressed. You know what that’s like?” I spit out aggressively, my illness overpowering my identity yet again.
“As best as I can,” he quietly replies.
I am off on a tirade again. Consumed by anger and confusion, life is too extreme for me.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to live your life knowing you shouldn’t drink, can’t stay up too late, your weight going up and down like a yo-yo, that you’re controlled by psychiatrists and psychologists, that every job you’ve ever wanted you’ve lost because of this lurking beast… I may be a permanent patient that no one – not even me, with nine years’ experience – can control,” I babble on.
“I understand,” he interrupts out of sheer anxiety and frustration, “but at the end of the day no one can make the choice except you. You can take control or be sick for the rest of your life.”
His wise words fall on deaf ears. “I don’t care,” a defeated voice says inside me.
Crushed, I call Rebecca, the first of many ineffectual therapists, to cancel my next appointment. What is the point anyhow? I am in the dark hole again; I might as well stay here.