“More Pieces of Us”: A Quilt, Mental Illness, and Things Passed Down
A quilt made by my great-grandmother became a life preserver when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When I decided my mission was complete, I crossed the street and went back inside my house.
I kept the quilt near me for the next several months. Even after my mind healed and the paranoia and hallucinations subsided, I continued to keep it out in the open, out of the wooden chest. It’s a life preserver in my illness. It’s an anchor in my wellness.
The quilt was made in the 1950s by my great-grandmother, Granny Boyd. She passed it on to her daughter-in-law, my Grandma Boyd. She had it for several years before passing it on to my mom when I was a teenager. I remember it hanging on a wall in my parents’ guest room when I was in college. I asked my mom to give it to me for Christmas several years ago. One day, I’ll give it to my daughter.
I can see a younger version of me sorting the pieces by color—all of the reds in one pile, all of the greens in one pile, all of the yellows in one pile. If I think about this enough, I might be able to create a memory of something that never happened.
American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007,
I used to feel immense guilt and grief whenever I thought about how my mania and depression might have affected my kids in the past or how it might affect them in the future. But now I accept reality for what it is. It’s not my fault I have bipolar disorder, and it won’t be my fault if my kids end up with their own diagnoses. During a recent meeting with counselors at my daughter’s high school, I described my history and how my illness has impacted my children. One of the counselors asked how I was able to discuss all of this without getting emotional. “It’s just part of our story,” I told her. “There are more pieces of us.”
I’m not sure why the quilt grabbed my attention when I first got sick. Maybe something in me wanted to connect to the quilt and what it represents. Maybe I needed tangible evidence that I’m a part of something bigger than myself. I know I need that evidence today. I know I bend toward the quilt and absorb a form of nourishment I can’t name.
The quilt covers me during cooler nights while I sleep. It’s one of the first things I see when I wake each morning. Sometimes in the early hours of the day, as the sunlight is starting to sneak into our bedroom, I examine the various pieces of fabric sewn together. The colors of the individual swatches don’t always coordinate, and some of them seem like they shouldn’t be beside each other. But together, as a whole, they create a work of art.
The pieces of my life and the pieces of the lives of others in my family who have used and will use this quilt are all woven together in a similar fashion. There are common threads throughout our stories that knit us close to each other and point to a larger, more beautiful narrative. That narrative holds more than my illness. It holds more than any illness Granny Boyd might have had or the current and future illnesses my children have or might have. This larger, more beautiful narrative holds the scraps of our lives that have been stitched together to make us who we are, who we will become.