Deadheading Roses – a month-long essay

Author’s note:  It took me a month to write this one essay, and I’m still not sure that I’m saying it clear.  It’s a bit long.  Stay with me…

It begins on Mother’s Day, a windy blue sky day, as I am deadheading roses in the roses bushes with a beam of sunlightcommunity garden.

I am thinking about mothers: a friend’s wonderful mother who is in declining health, my sister-in-law who is expecting a second son in a few months, my own badass mom, my late grandmother whose hands I sometimes feel inside of mine as I weed flower beds.

Of course I am thinking too of roses.  These sweet, pink, prickling darlings between my gloved fingers, pruning shears snipping, as I lop off the faded flower heads.  The process encourages the plant to pour its energy into producing more flowers as it attempts to go to seed and reproduce.  I am meddling with the fertility of roses, selecting for the characteristics I want: loads of flowers, abundant short-term beauty.  Snip and clip.

Meanwhile, my mind is chewing over current events, pondering how they relate to mothers, genes, ancestry, the heavy past and the uncertain future.  A friend whose daughter recently became a mother shared a poem* with me that speaks to all of this…

The burden of ancestry
is two-sided.
We bear the weight of those before us
And are responsible for those after us.

The night before in Charlottesville, Virginia – where I went to college and lived for eleven years – a group of angry people gathered in a park downtown.  They carried burning torches and looked for all the world like an unhooded Klan mob.  They gathered to protest the proposed removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  The statues stand in a small memorial park in downtown Charlottesville.  They are massive—bronze, both men in full military garb, much larger than life, astride huge horses.

Living in Virginia, where the Civil War haunts much of the landscape, I’ve learned more about Lee and Jackson than I ever intended.  (If you read Hear All The Bells, you’ll hear all about that story.)

I’ve read their letters, visited their homes and graves, and I still do not know what to think of them.  I do not know how to judge individuals from the past.

Within my personal family tree, I have some ancestors who did some bad things.  I know enough of their story to have some context, some of idea of why.  I don’t want to excuse them, and I don’t want to judge them–I want to understand.  I want to learn and examine my own heart and see what remains of the bigotry and hurt and do my best not to perpetuate them.  It seems like forgiveness for past and future lies along that path.

Besides, my ancestors (and yours) were humans, not heroic statues.  Take them off the pedestal, strip off the bronze ‘till you can look them in the eye—each crazy and wise, foolish and graceful, fucked up and yet with an extraordinary, exquisite light, capable of vast transformation when allowed to shine.  Judgment of such creatures, especially from a far distance, is difficult.

Likewise, I do not know and cannot personally judge the torch-wielding individuals in Charlottesville, but their actions are another matter.  I can judge those, no problem.  Those torches are intended to strike fear and perpetuate an ideology of domination.  A few weeks from now, in July, the actual Klan plans to hold a rally in Charlottesville to support retaining those same sculptures along with the old and ugly myth of white supremacy.

These protesters are carrying the burden of ancestry, as we all are, but they are carrying it carelessly and cruelly, without respect for their fellow humans or descendants.  They are taking pain from their ancestors and concentrating it, mixing it with their own desires and griefs and fears, and creating something toxic and and confused, a noxious future without roots in any reality.

The teaching, the lessons, the listening.
What stories to tell…?
How do we keep the universe together?
What manifests our existence?
Why are we here?
What purpose?

Yes.  What stories to tell?  How do we keep the universe together?  How do I explain burning torches to a child who is just old enough to begin to realize that he is not safe in this world?  How do I explain them to an elderly woman who escaped the Nazis in Europe only to see them reemerge in the country that gave her refuge as a child?

I don’t care what happens to those statues.  I want people to be kind to each other.  What does it take for that to happen?

It’s a big question; it brings us back to roses…

I know that I am deadheading all the time, every day—pruning shears flashing and snipping, shaping the story of the past and the future with each decision, every thought.  I am (in theory at least) doing my best to select for hope and clarity, to select for inclusivity, kinship, human decency.  I am deadheading history, all the time: imperfect, awkward, snip and clip.  So are the Klan members.  So are you.

There’s no avoiding it.  Maybe it is why we are here, part of our purpose.  To manifest our existence in what we chose to emphasize and teach.  I am lucky to have miraculous parents who selected for love, who chose to break with certain patterns of our personal ancestry.  They did it in small ways—approaches to child rearing and communication, steering us away from some behaviors and toward others.  They did it imperfectly but consciously, like good gardeners.  Snip and clip.

We all are part of the all.
Whether we feel like we’re just beginning something,
Or at the end of a lineage,
Ancestorily we’re all tied together.

I think a lot about how to help heal the gut-churning anger of the torch-bearing mobs.  It is hard to get rid of anger, difficult to dispel fear—especially if your family selected for those traits and fed you fear and anger for most of your life.  It sucks to be born wild, innocent, and free and then have your ancestors teach you, often through violence, that the world is against you, that you cannot trust your fellow humans, that you must always fear anyone who is different.

That makes for a pretty shitty world, doesn’t it?  But I can understand.  This world is scary, this life is short, and a great many things—human and otherwise—will kill you or people that you love at the drop of a hat.  That’s a hard, heart-breaking thing: we are not safe, at least on one level of reality.  But is that really the only reality?

I will tell you where I find my comfort.  “We are all part of the all,” and that ALL is extraordinary, infinite, and ultimately kind.

Earth and Sun fire.  Galaxies overhead and below our feet.  From spore to soil to the hawk to the whale to the wind.  Stars and fireflies, rain and mist, web-weavers, mushrooms, the forests and the fungi and the deep roots that communicate all around us all the time.  Mountains, woodpeckers, glaciers and beetles, bees and roses.  Our massive family of non-human kin.

We belong to an oceanic wonder.  We belong to the all.  Our grief can be dwarfed and comforted within that vastness, our fear diffused—if only we could focus our attention there.  If only we could remember.  It would change the world utterly.

Just as we belong to this all, our ancestors also remain part of it.  In the biggest circle of life, nothing goes away, but it can be re-shaped.  All life, culture, tradition, history interwoven and tied together, available to us to heal, to entwine.

Even the beautiful, confusing panoply of the world’s religions grows from roots in the soil, draws inspiration from the sun, and finds motion in the cycle of seasons, the rise and fall of rain.  There is no heresy in the embrace of the wild.  Only comfort, belonging, and a deeper joy….

That’s what I think anyway.

Deadheading shapes the direction of future growth.  We select for traits we desire.  So what will it be?  This vast love or the same old fear?  You hold the shears.


*Burden of Ancestry poem by Rodney Webb 



A simple thing

I dream of a new religion –

a religion that does not worship but cultivates.

The core belief is that human goodness exists

and should be valued, nurtured, and embraced in one another.


This religion does not deny or disparage the faiths of the world

but overarches them, underlies them…

in the same way that care of climate, water,

earth and food, air and beauty

overarches and underlies all other human issues

because they bind us together, every one of us;

they allow us to live.


I dream of a religion—perhaps we could call it kinship

that is enshrined in our cells. 

Its sacred texts are a global history too massive to write down

and the microscopic DNA codes

written in the bodies of every person, every creature.

And so each sacred song, every pilgrimage and prayer,

every mantra and meditation and dance

takes place within this kinship – so complex, so simple…

all life is related; all life depends upon the planet.

How beautiful, how good, how lovely this is. 

To belong to here.

To belong to each other.   


The first thing we teach our children,

before doctrine or identity,

is that they are born innocent and good

and they live on a breathing, beautiful planet

with a wild whirlwind of kindred life forms,

(all born innocent and good)

that we must care for

as we care for ourselves. 


Hold faith in kinship, child 

and welcome home, child

Welcome home.

Letter To A Friend


Letter to a Friend is an excerpt from Hear All The Bells.  (Click the link to open the PDF).

I started writing Letter to a Friend — believe it or not — as a letter to a friend. She’d just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was overwhelmed and confused.  She asked if I had any guidance for what to do next.  I started jotting down ideas to share with her and kept adding to it over the years.

Letter to a Friend is an appendix (pp. 339-359) to Hear All The Bells.  Since the book is a narrative memoir, I didn’t want to get too deep into self-help kind of stuff in the main text, but it also seemed important to include information about tools and techniques that have helped me get better in the book.

The ideas in Letter to a Friend are not earth shattering, but I like to think that if I’d read something like this early in my recovery that it might have helped me make better decisions.  I decided that making it available separately & for free on this blog might be useful for folks who don’t have time, energy, or inclination to read the whole book.

One topic that the letter doesn’t tackle is the difficulty of accepting a diagnosis and coming to terms with its implications.  That theme is so deeply wound into the story of Hear All The Bells that I’d encourage folks dealing with that tremendous challenge to check out the book.

If you want to share Letter to a Friend, please follow these guidelines for use:

You are welcome to download, email, print, share, or link to this document so long as it is properly attributed to the author and includes the following publication and copyright information:

“Letter to a Friend” is pages 339-359 in Hear All The Bells by Christina Wulf, Ghost Tree Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0692748190

This document may not be reprinted in publications or on websites without permission of the author.  Use the Contact form on this website to request permission.




I am proofing the final version of Hear All The Bells.  So close, so very close to done!Hear All The Bells proof

I’ve also written a Preface to the bookthat I didn’t initially expect to write.  But I’m going to share it here, in its entirety, because it may be the most important part of the book.  I realized that I couldn’t leave this information out, couldn’t tell my personal story without putting it into social context, even as brief and incomplete a summary as this is.

My favorite lines are the last two.  The truth of them cracks my heart every time.  Hope you’ll take a look…


Hear All The Bells is a memoir, a personal story of my diagnosis and life with manic depression. It is not written to represent the experience of others with mental illnesses, and, beyond a basic level, I do not delve into the societal problems surrounding mental illness.

The societal problems, however, are vast, close to home, and must not be ignored.  A recent news article reported that in my home state of Virginia, people with mental illnesses have made up almost 40% of fatal police shootings since 2010. Nationwide, the number is 25%.

A joint report from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association provides another example.  The report found that in 2012, prisons and jails in the U.S. held approximately 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness.  In comparison, state psychiatric hospitals housed only about 35,000 patients nationwide.  It is almost a cliché now to say that prisons have become America’s new asylums.

The first time I addressed a public audience about my experience with manic depression, I spoke to a university Justice Studies class.  I explained that my personal story would probably be radically different if I did not occupy my particular demographic position.

I am white and cis female.  I’ve had access to health insurance all my life.  My family has the ability to come to my aid financially, medically, and legally should the need arise. These factors hugely boosted my chances of good treatment and recovery.

A psychiatric nurse mentioned to me once that I was lucky to have been taken to the hospital during an intense manic episode.  People in extreme states of mind are regularly taken to jail.  The nurse said that men and people of color are much more likely to be arrested than admitted to the hospital.

I told the Justice Studies class the story of Jamycheal Mitchell, a young man whose story haunts me because, although our diagnoses are similar, his experience is 180 degrees opposite of mine.  Jamycheal, a 24 year old, African American man from Hampton Roads, Virginia, was arrested for stealing $5 worth of snacks from a 7-Eleven.  He was taken to jail.  The judge ordered a psychological evaluation, which found that Mitchell was manic and psychotic.  The report stated that his thought processes were “so confused that only snippets of his sentences could be understood.”  The psychologist recommended that Mitchell be committed to a state hospital to restore him to competency before standing trial (for a $5 theft).

The state mental health and criminal justice systems went on to fail Jamycheal in almost every way possible.  He was asked to make major decisions about his treatment while in a severely-altered mental state.  Mitchell was then warehoused in jail for two and half months, waiting for a bed to open at the regional state hospital, while his health and mental state deteriorated.  Allegedly, the jail ignored his health problems and the distraught phone calls from his family members.  Jamycheal stopped eating, became emaciated, and died in jail of undetermined causes probably related to heart arrhythmia and physical wasting.

It is hard for me to fathom allowing someone to fall between the cracks in such a drastic and inhumane way.  What I can imagine, all too clearly, is how the stress of incarceration could amplify symptoms and lead to rapid deterioration.

The justice issues surrounding mental illness connect up with the deep challenges we face in this country of discrimination and abuse related to race, class, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on.  They connect up with misunderstandings and lack of training about mental illness within the criminal justice system.

Questions of safety and agency and confidentiality of patients with mental illness also go deep.  How do we balance respect for individual rights with the reality that patients in extreme states may not know what their best interests are?  The questions are hard and painful.  I have no solutions to offer beyond the need for us as individuals and a society to turn our attention and care to this problem.  People with active mental illness are among the most vulnerable in our society.  We can begin coming to their aid by not turning away.

As you read Hear All The Bells, I hope you will keep in mind Jamycheal Mitchell and the hundreds of thousands of other humans who are incarcerated with severe mental illness.  My struggles pale in comparison, yet I hope this story can still offer helpful insight.  Even with my many advantages, manic depression was extraordinarily traumatic in my life, as Hear All The Bells illustrates.

As you read, imagine my story taking place without good medical care.  Or in the context of economic hardship.  Or where I am arrested and sent to jail or prison instead of being taken to the hospital or the doctor.  Imagine how rapidly a deeply traumatic experience, when added to these other situations, could ruin a life, not just emotionally and spiritually, but in all ways.  Imagine how incredibly difficult, if not impossible, recovery could be.

This happens. This happens all the time.

Why My Mom is a Badass

cutie parents croppedMy mom is a badass in hundreds of ways, both small and huge, and often both at the same time.  Here are four of them that are specific to me:

When my parents decided to have children, they made a pact.  My father had been raised by a father who believed – to put it mildly – that sparing the rod would spoil the child.

My parents did not want to pass on whatever caused the anger and frustration that fueled my grandfather’s rage toward his children.  So they made a pact that they would never hit their kids, and they never have.

When I thank my father for doing this and for being such a wonderful dad, he always says the same thing: “Thank your mother; it was all her doing.”


I asked my parents to read an early draft of Hear All The Bells and write down any thoughts or memories from that time period that they wanted me know about.  My parents and my brother were the main reasons that I survived the early years after my diagnosis with manic depression – they saw me at my very worst, and my mom in particular intervened several times to protect me and keep me from self-destruction.

The responses that my parents wrote are difficult to read, of course, because they depict how my manic experiences affected people that I love. The extraordinary stress I put them through. The fear and frustration, especially when I kept making the same bad choices.

And yet, early on, my family made another pact. My father described part of it in his writing: “We would never ever give up on you regardless of the number of times or the conditions in which we might find you.” And they would not yield to the stigma of mental illness – they refused to see me as “less than,” as bad or weak or flawed or unlovable. They would never shut me out or throw me away or leave me behind.


My mother talks openly about mental illness. This is a surprisingly radical act. She talks about it as a human condition that’s important to acknowledge and address and not stigmatize.  Even years before my diagnosis, this was the case.  It takes courage to speak out loud what other people may fear to name, but it also creates openness; when difficult situations arise for friends and family members, they seek her out for advice and comfort.

My years of active, acute illness were extremely hard on my family. My mom processed that pain, in part, by helping others. She has been much more open about my manic depression than I have (with my permission of course). While I have struggled to process my internal self-stigmatization, she has spoken in front of audiences and helped start a group at her church that supports people with various mental challenges.


My mom is a wonderful, brave, strong, powerful human being. She breaks down barriers and pushes boundaries. She is also the reason that I am writing this blog and sending the Hear All The Bells manuscript off to the printer.

I started writing the book in 2011. Five years ago. It has hung over my head a loooooong time. Whenever I talk to my folks, they ask how it’s coming. One night when I was visiting them last fall, I told them that I might just let it go. The book was basically done. Writing it had been therapeutic, but the prospect of trying to hunt down an agent and a publisher just… I just didn’t want to do it. I had a challenging job and a busy life; I couldn’t see putting the necessary time and effort into engaging with the notoriously wacky publishing industry. I didn’t know there were other options.

My mom has these huge beautiful dark eyes, and she turned them on me very deliberately.

She said, “Please,” and looked even deeper into my eyes, “Please do this.”

I can’t think of another time when she has spoken to me in quite this way – a plea that is also a command.

She continued, “When you were diagnosed, we had no idea what to expect. Everything we read was terrifying. You need to share your story.”

I remember staring back at her for a moment and then laughing: “Ok! I surrender!  I can’t say no to that. I guess I have to do it.”

She nodded.

So here we are, and here we go.

Thanks sweet momma, sweet parents, sweet family. I am beyond fortunate to be yours.

The Union’s Preserved

April 15, 2016

To Abe, with love.

One hundred and fifty one years ago today, Abraham Lincoln died in the boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC.

He’d had a big month. He visited newly-captured Richmond on April 4th. On the 9th, Confederate General R.E. Lee surrendered to Union General U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Lincoln and his colleagues were on the verge of moving forward with his plans for national forgiveness, amnesty, and reconstruction (but a very different kind of reconstruction from what we ended up with). He took a well-deserved break on the 14th, went to see a play with Mary, and had his life and all those plans snuffed out. Yet another brutal tragedy to haunt America.

During my manic and hypomanic times, I spent a lot of time with ghosts.  A lot of time. Ghosts were more real to me than living people. I wanted to help them, to ease their pain and the pain of the past. I spent an inordinate amount of time visiting battlefields, plantations, Richmond, Jamestown: feeling the old grief of the places and people. Since I live in Virginia, indigenous genocide and slavery and civil war – the original sins of America – were front and center. I wouldn’t say that I was obsessed; rather, I was on a quest. A healing quest.

I was also often quite manic – wild and incomprehensible, sometimes delusional, blithely putting myself in dangerous situations without noticing. Can you see the confusing split here? The odd fusion of paradox inherent in my experience of manic depression?

Mania was ultimately deeply destructive to me and to others. But it was good to seek to heal the world. Very good. Reclaiming that desire to do right, to help, to surface the horror in our history so we can heal – that has been key to my recovery. Difficult too, to forgive myself for going crazy and to believe that there was something of value in my extreme and often bizarre experiences.

Forgiveness, amnesty, reconstruction – of self – in order to heal the world, or at least help one another get well.

Here’s a little snipplet about President Lincoln from Hear All The Bells, from a time when I was on an upward climb toward full-blown mania.

“I have more lobbying to do, this time in D.C. My mother goes with me, partly to keep an eye on me, partly to help out. She likes to support our work and makes a fantastic, powerful citizen lobbyist. We finish on Capitol Hill in the afternoon then make a quick side trip. I tell her that I’ve done enough research into the Confederate side of history for a while. I need to spend time with the Union; I need to visit Abraham Lincoln. So we go to Ford’s Theater. She explores the museum cases displaying Lincoln’s blood stained coat and John Wilkes Booth’s derringer, and I slip into the theater. The space is dusky and unlit, rows of empty seats curving up to the stage. Red, white, and blue bunting marks the Presidential Box where Booth shot Lincoln. I sit in the back row for a long time, considering the space and the tragedy and its implications. Before I leave, I stand and sing, pitching my voice toward the President’s box, a line from Spoon River, the song Adam played for me at a fateful campfire two years ago: ‘The Union’s preserved, if you listen, you’ll hear all the bells!’ I want to kneel and pray, but instead I start to cry and leave the theater, my head suddenly aching; the cracks in my heart are brutal and endless.”

More soon…

Excerpt from Hear All The Bells by Christina Wulf, (c) 2016.

First blog post

March 30th was World Bipolar Day.  Today, April 2nd, is my emergence into blog world.  And soon, within the next few weeks, Hear All The Bells, my book about living with this strange manic depressive condition, will be available from Amazon.

The book is my story, not a self-help guide, but I did put together a “Letter to a Friend” as an appendix to Hear All The Bells.  It gives some nuts & bolts advice — things I’ve learned while managing my recovery — that might be useful to someone who is newly diagnosed or still experimenting to find workable tools for recovery.

It will be available for download here, for free, as soon as I can figure out how to do that…

Here’s a little snipplet from the beginning of the letter:

“Have you had to walk out the doors of a hospital or a doctor’s office with this new diagnosis—’manic depressive’ or ‘bipolar’—emblazoned on your chest? Have you come back to earth from a manic episode wondering how to return to daily life once you’ve been up that high and out that far? How do you fit yourself back into the straight and narrow after your mind has taken you to such strange places—the ragged outer reaches of depression and mania? Even if it was all delusion, how do you set that aside, become ‘normal?’

My simple answer: You don’t. You can’t. You find another path between those two extremes. You find a third way out.”


From Hear All The Bells by Christina Wulf

More soon…