I am a person of many addictions. Some are relatively harmless, like rearranging my apartment on a daily basis. Some are potentially deadly, such as smoking cigarettes. And some seem innocent, but are, underneath, disastrous—such as my compulsive shopping. A few years ago, I went to a lecture by a well-known psychiatrist in Knoxville who noted that a bipolar person can wipe out their whole life savings during an episode of mania.
I have bipolar disorder, and it usually takes me three or four hours to spend my monthly check, which is around $2,000 or so. Granted, some of this money is spent paying back the charges I owe from the month before, but the rest is spent on one large spree. I do it every month, and every month I vow never to do it again. For years, I have said the same prayer every addict worth his salt has recited time and time again: “God, if you get me out this one, I’ll never do it again.”
Alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers—the principle is the same. You are compelled to do something you know is bad for you, but you continue this behavior because of the short-term pleasure it brings. Finally, the pattern is imprinted in your brain and you are hooked.
It’s difficult when you get paid only once a month, unless you are very good at managing your money, which clearly I am not. There is a long, dark period of abject poverty at the end of each month, when I go groveling and begging around the neighborhood to get enough money to keep myself and my dog, Mallory, afloat.
Picture, if you will, Mallory and me eating mayonnaise and crackers on the last day of the month. I have already called the bank several times and walked back and forth to the TVA Credit Union from Fourth and Gill two or three times. I am like a racehorse chomping at the bit for the gates to open and the race to begin, at which time I will zoom out into the world to spend and spend and spend.
And what do I buy? Everything I see, basically. Clothing, flowers, lamps, dangling, shiny earrings. Since I mostly hang out in Market Square, I usually buy clothes: silk skirts that swirl around your ankles and leggings of hot pink and bright orange. Top the skirt and tank-top off with a wraparound watch (or several wraparound watches) and a pair of red translucent earrings, and I feel unstoppable.
Next it’s time for dinner, the one time a month that I can take myself out. I go directly to the bar of Cocoa Moon, my favorite restaurant, and order a tom kha soup, with calamari to follow. Each time I enjoy it more. For one day, I can have anything I want, within reason—or unreason. I feel rich. I feel successful. I feel pretty and competent. All is well in my world. Almost.
After a couple of margaritas, a wonderful meal, coffee, cigarettes, and a chat with the bartender, I ask for the check. Around $58. No problem. I can handle it. When I look in my wallet for the money, I can only find two or three dollars. Could it be I am already out of money? I look in all the pockets of my purse. No money. I am beginning to be very anxious, not to mention humiliated. I hand the bartender my debit card as if there is no problem. Mercifully, I still have money and the bill is approved. I leave a 40 percent tip and walk the door, happy as a lark again.
Going into the liquor store, I stop for a bottle of good red wine. Oh, well, maybe a bottle of vodka, some orange juice, and a couple of packs of cigarettes. Again, I wait with some trepidation for the card to go through. “Denied!” clangs in my ear. I have heard it before. I will hear it again.
“Take off the bottle of vodka and one pack of cigarettes,” I tell the man. He does this and the card slides through. But I am broke. Finished. No money for the rent or KUB, not to mention food or cigarettes. I break into a cold sweat. I have done it again. After I swore I wouldn’t. I will be evicted, not for the first time. I will have to go to the mission. But what will become of my dog, Mallory?
When my parents were alive, they would have bailed me out. There is no one now. I sell a few of my paintings to Architectural Antics on Broadway and they help me pay the rent, even though they do not want or need the paintings. They have helped me more times than I can remember.
I slink home and take my medicine, which clearly is not working. I remember what a former friend of mine once said: “I keep hoping they will find a medicine that will work for me.” Yeah, me, too. For the rest of the month I live on bread and hummus, crackers and mayonnaise, some American cheese. I will never do it again, I swear to myself, knowing I will.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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