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Coming Back to This Place
On "Bluey," and the black hole
It’s recess, and Mackenzie (an anthropomorphic border collie) and his friends (an anthropomorphic terrier and red kelpie, respectively) are playing outer space. Though his friends want to have delightful adventures, Mackenzie can’t play. He’s drawn inexorably back to the tunnel near the schoolyard—or, in Mackenzie’s inner world, the black hole. No matter how much his friends may ask him to join in, Mackenzie’s urge is to sequester himself. He’s visibly anxious, but his place is in the black hole. As far as he understands, it’s where he belongs.
Towards the end of the 34th episode of the third season of the hit Australian family show Bluey (this episode of Bluey is called “Space”), we come to understand the reason. Using the black hole as his device, Mackenzie is compelled to obsessively revisit a memory: once, while crawling through a play structure very much like this tunnel, he lost track of his mother, leaving him terrified—or, it’s more appropriate to say, traumatized. In that moment, the black hole inside Mackenzie bloomed, a private place where only he can go, and the significance of which he can’t express to his friends.
My dear friends (because that is what I consider each subscriber to this newsletter, whether or not I can attach your name to a face/pfp)…there is so much that I have wanted to express to you over the past six months. But it’s been impossible; I’ve been lost in the black hole that lives somewhere towards the center of my chest. I’ve begun essays intended for this newsletter, hoping I might find the right avenue to express myself to you. The closest I came was a consideration of the 1989 CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove, as the Larry McMurtry book it was adapted from saved my soul following my first manic episode. I took some notes—they circled around a confession from Chris Cooper’s character, one that felt too resonant for comfort: “It’s been so long since I done anything right I don’t even remember”—but it didn’t work. Thanks to a combination of antipsychotics and the depressive phase that necessarily follows a manic one, I couldn’t string together a single sentence I was proud of, let alone a paragraph.
The problem was something between writer’s block and a deep embarrassment. I couldn’t write—this is no exaggeration, and I have a fat stack of dead-end essay notes and half-finished chapter drafts to prove it. But there’s also the fact that I chose to let last winter’s manic episode (arguably hypomanic, a distinction that was important to my tenuous psychological grip at the time but now feels like a quibble) an exceptionally public one. During a period of incredible force and velocity, I made myself an incredibly public person, and I frankly don’t recall much, if anything, about the depths of the episode. I can’t imagine you all saw a version of me I’d be proud to share today. As things climaxed, I produced a seething mass of hypergraphia and then publicized it like there was no tomorrow—I wanted everyone to know. I thought it might help, and it did. People reached out to say it had helped them, and I do believe it helped me battle some of the stigma surrounding mood disorders that I’ve wrestled over the past decade. I believe that’s important, and so I still believe that…essay(?) was important, too.
But the thing about mania is: it’s an intoxicant, which means it’s an impairment. The experience is directly comparable to taking a euphoric drug, and you shouldn’t operate heavy machinery on those, nor make a lot of important decisions. But with your mind and soul inflating as dramatically as if someone had pulled a ripcord, everything that happens feels like a source of delight, no matter how much soul-cracking stress is accumulating beneath the surface. I felt joy expressing myself here and on Twitter, and the results rewarded me. So why stop?
It’s hard to quite articulate why I barely posted on Twitter for half a year. Yes, I shared news of my book, and of Pod Thomas Anderson, though even that latter effort was a struggle, and I would often wait a day or more to share the link. Why? Because the black hole has a voice, and that voice says: nobody cares. Nobody wants to hear from you, and in fact, they’d rather not. It was as true to me as a law of thermodynamics: sit down and shut up because everyone would be happier if they could just forget about you.
Please don’t try and correct or comfort me—the response to my last newsletter, the Asteroid City semi-review, served that function, and it helped rewire my brain (at least for now). I’m tweeting again. I’m writing again, and I’m proud of the sentences, and even the paragraphs. But still, I’ve struggled to return here, to return to you, and to venture out into the space between art and life together. It’s been a good few weeks; I’ve gotten a lot done. The black hole hasn’t called to me except when I’ve considered writing here.
Last year, Bluey helped. Still riding the hypergraphia wave, I wrote a consideration of one exceptionally poignant episode, using it as a vehicle to talk about my own feelings. And then, last week, ten new episodes of Bluey were released on Disney+ (several years after they aired in Australia and stop gloating, Blake). My kids love Bluey, but I love it more, and so, with a certain degree of embarrassment, I sat down in my co-working space, pointed my computer away from curious eyes, and watched all ten episodes alone. I was looking for something: another episode that could offer me some framework for my own confused feelings. Maybe I could hitch my tow line to Bluey once more and let her family pull me out of the psychological mud.
Nine new episodes of Bluey disappointed me. They’re brilliant, of course, some of the greatest media produced for children this century and that, if anything, is an understatement. But I skipped past “Space”—the episode description suggested Bluey wasn’t in it, and I was on the hunt for a sequel to last year’s Bluey post. In particular, I had my eye out for episodes centering on Bandit, Bluey’s dad, and one of the most intensely relatable characters I’ve ever encountered. I would circle back to “Space,” I told myself. It could be my last resort.
I had just about given up when I cued up “Space”—much as I couldn’t turn back to Lonesome Dove, maybe two posts was too much to hope for out of a ten-minute cartoon aimed primarily at preschoolers. I’ll admit, I was a bit checked out as “Space” unspooled. What could Mackenzie have to offer me?
Every Bluey episode is special in its own way, whether because it’s hilarious, poignant, or beautiful (most often all three). So I clocked that the writers had something on their minds with Mackenzie, some lesson to impart. I was right. But I wasn’t prepared.
Mackenzie cowers in the black hole, impossibly far from the confused friends who really wish he’d come back and play. But just when it seems the darkness—the trauma of his single most horrifying memory—might be all there is for him, who should appear but his teacher, who offers him a few simple words: “You don’t need to keep coming back to this place.”
That’s all it takes. Mackenzie’s internal chemistry shifts. All he needed was for someone to offer that permission, something he didn’t believe was possible. And with that, he runs back to his friends, the familiar music soars, and the credits roll.
I won’t belabor the point: I guess I needed to hear it, too. I have felt the need to live in the black hole, telling myself that I’d made mania so central to my identity last year, now I needed to account for my own well-being. Maybe that’s who I am now, I told myself at times: a publicly bipolar person. But for as much as I’ve synthesized my diagnosis with my identity, each of my episodes is still a genuine trauma filled with pain and regret that only accumulates. The black hole still whispers about mistakes I made in 2011, and there seems to be infinite space on the running list of traumas I’ve endured—and, I fear, inflicted—while manic. The black hole has an unfathomable force of gravity; how are you supposed to just walk out and stay away?
I didn’t stay away, obviously. Here I am again, back in a headspace that I was just celebrating no longer needing to revisit. But this feels good; I think this time I’ve managed to just stop by the black hole for a visit. Mackenzie’s tunnel isn’t going anywhere, either. He’ll glance at it every day while he plays. But the gravity has lessened for both of us.
My very dear friends: I have missed you. Let’s go play.