Weddings usually provide their fair share of awkward moments, especially if you don’t know many people there. Last night Andy (my husband) and I were at a wedding for one of his best friends from high school. We were placed at the awkward table – you know the one. Every wedding has an awkward table where the bride and groom put the hodgepodge of people that don’t fit at any other table: the cousin they haven’t seen in years, the plus-ones from the wedding party, the random guy from work who doesn’t know anyone, and the old friends from high school. That was our table: Table 15.
We engaged in the usual small talk that happens at every one of these awkward tables everywhere in the world. Seriously – if you could say the following questions/statements in every language, you could hold your own at the awkward table for any wedding anywhere:
- How do you know the bride and groom?
- Doesn’t the bride look beautiful?
- These centerpieces look great.
- This food is delicious. (Which you say even if it isn’t).
- Gorgeous day for a wedding. (Alternatively: Too bad the weather is terrible.)
- What do you do for a living?
The awkward table quickly became “the nightmare table” once we got around to question 6. I answered that I’m a teacher (normal answer). My husband answered physical therapist (normal answer). This British dude who’s a friend of the groom answered mortgage lender (normal answer). The random cousin from Ohio answered nurse (normal answer…so far).
“What kind of nursing?” I asked. I didn’t actually care. I just asked because, you know, I have to sit at a table with these people for an entire evening, and I know there are a zillion different kinds of nursing. I was trying to make conversation because that’s what you do at the awkward table.
Her answer stunned me. “I’m a nurse at a psychiatric facility,” she said. “But I only work with, like, the really crazy people. The ones with bipolar and schizophrenia and stuff.”
I attempted a polite smile and head nod. “That must be difficult,” I finally said.
“Yeah,” she responded casually. “I don’t like it much. They’re like, seriously insane. I never know what I’ll be dealing with. It’s hard.”
I didn’t have anything else nice to say, so in following my mom’s age-old instructions, I didn’t say anything at all. I was thinking Hard for you? Ummm…how about those of us living with those ‘really crazy’ disorders? You don’t have any idea about ‘hard.’ And you’re a nurse…shouldn’t you have the slightest bit of compassion? Do they not teach that in nursing school anymore?
I looked down and tried to act really interested in my mashed potatoes. Have you ever tried to act really interested in mashed potatoes? It’s impossible. They’re colorless blobs of nothing, but I was studying them as if they were a display in the Museum of Modern Art (which, actually, modern art can be kind of weird. I bet potatoes could pass for a brilliant piece in certain galleries). The potatoes blurred as tears sprung to my eyes, but I was not going to let any tears fall. I studied the potatoes harder. Andy put his hand on my leg under the table – his way of saying, “It’s okay. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.” And I know she didn’t. It still doesn’t make it okay. Since when am I one of the “really crazy” people? Come to think of it, who are the “normal crazy” people? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Actually, if we’re getting right down to it, isn’t “normal” a phantom anyway? Who’s “normal”? Is there such a thing? Probably not. Regardless, it felt like she’d just slapped me. Why was she allowed to look down on me and talk about how I’m a completely different level of difficult craziness? How dare she insinuate that we should all feel bad for her for having to deal with people like me?
Imagine my complete shock when mortgage lender British dude came out with, “See, what you probably didn’t know when saying that is that I’m actually bipolar.”
My head snapped up from the potatoes so fast that I might need my physical therapist husband to fix it from whiplash. The British guy is bipolar? And he is confident enough to tell an entire table full of people?! The nurse suddenly seemed very uncomfortable (which I sadistically loved… #sorrynotsorry). I probably should have chimed in with a “me too,” but I’m just not there yet. Instead, I stared wide-eyed at this man who had just flipped our conversation in a very different direction.
“I was diagnosed fourteen years ago,” he said to a table of six very uncomfortable people and one person feeling a rush of relief that oddly also felt a bit victorious (Don’t degrade mental health patients, you idiot nurse!). British dude continued. “My brother has been hospitalized for bipolar disorder in the past, but he’s fine now. I’m fine too. People don’t understand that people with mental illnesses can fight them, overcome them, and lead very normal and meaningful lives. None of you would have even known I was bipolar if I didn’t tell you. It was a long road to get where I am, but I got here. I’m okay. And that’s cool.”
I wanted to stand up and start clapping or go southern Baptist style and chime in with a loud “AMEN,” but I only stared. That must be what it feels like to feel starstruck – I had so much to say, but I said none of it. All I could think of was I want to be like this guy.
“Anyway,” he said, totally comfortable. “Sorry to take that conversation in a dark direction. I just thought I should mention it.” The conversation slowly dwindled back to safer topics such as “where was your last vacation?” and “does anyone know where the bride and groom are going for their honeymoon?” I didn’t talk much. My mind was spinning.
Later that night, there was a point where the rest of the table was out dancing and it was only me, Andy, and British dude sitting at our table. I took my chance while I had it.
“You know how earlier you were talking about being bipolar?” I asked. There’s no natural way to bring that up in conversation, so I figured I’d jump right in. “Well,” I continued after he nodded yes, “Here’s the thing – I’m recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I’m so very much not okay with it. How did you…I mean…how did you do that? How are you okay?” He explained a bit about his story, a bit about his family, and a bit about the quirks he still has. He told me he never matches socks, and I gasped. “NO WAY,” I said, “I NEVER match my socks!” I made him prove it by showing me his socks. They didn’t match. I know “mismatching socks” isn’t a symptom of bipolar disorder, but it was one more thing this guy and I had in common. It was one more thing that made the all-too-rare thoughts cross my mind that Maybe I’m not the only one and Maybe I’ll be okay.
We were only a few minutes into talking when the now drunk out-of-town cousin stumbled back to the table with her boyfriend. She had busted a bra strap. Classy. We switched the conversation over to her wardrobe malfunction, and we didn’t get back to bipolar disorder for the rest of the night. Before we left, though, the British guy gave his e-mail address to my husband and me and told us to contact him anytime – that he knows what it’s like to struggle with bipolar disorder and that he’d love to help in any way possible. Also, I’m pretty sure he meant it.
What started out as the awkward table ended up making me feel more understood than I had in a very, very long time. Maybe one day I’ll have the confidence to speak up too, and to make only the people looking down on me feel awkward.