Some days there is a knot in my head and I wonder where it comes from. I awake early with the pain of memories lingering in my mind. What do you do when a memory is stuck? It plays like a tape on repeat, reminding you again and again it is there. You were there.
As long as the memory repeats itself, it will always be in you. When it stops, becomes a fragmented memory, then transforms into a whisper and perhaps fades away, it will still be in you. It can never truly be freed. It will never go. I learned when the mind becomes stuck and repeats itself, it is often known as racing thoughts. This was one of the first warning signs to me that perhaps my mind was not well.
Whenever I think about my bipolar disorder diagnosis, my mind plays stories over and over to itself. There never seems to be a place where I can pinpoint any particular moment of pain or suffering. It is just like this memory that is stuck. The stories repeat themselves and become torrents, whirlwinds, spiraling uncontrollably around my mind. This continues to the point wherein the trauma of experience seems mundane. The agony of my mental prison seems simple and not noteworthy.
Then, my body shudders and aches with anxiety. Once again, I am reminded these memories and experiences mean something to me. They are noteworthy because they have replayed themselves to me countless times. I have awoken with a familiar anxiety on more days than I can count. They are all there, these experiences, buried somewhere within me from all the times I have pushed them down and said to myself, “Don’t listen. They are insignificant. They will go.” Time has taught me they are not insignificant and they will not go.
At age 11, I believed magic existed. I have grown, turned, twisted, warped, unraveled and returned since then. At age 23, in the throes of a psychotic episode, I still believed in magic. At age 10, I believed in God. At age 11, my mother had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. I remember the smell walking down the corridor of the hospital to see her.
The corridor was long and the smell kept changing. First, it was a hospital smell of chemicals and medicine. Then, a musty smell, as if that particular part of the corridor wasn’t dusted very often or walked by too frequently. Then, the smell changed to the smell of fear. I cannot describe that smell in words.
I saw a woman standing with hair awry. She was talking. I could not really hear her words, but I did understand the crease and cry of a fearful, desperate voice. Her eyes were wide. She looked like my mother but she didn’t seem to be my mother at all. She wasn’t touching me, but I felt as if she was pulling me, grabbing me toward her. My heart was pounding. I could not look at her. I did not want to be there.
I don’t believe there are many 11 year olds in the world who understand what it means to have a mental breakdown. I most certainly was not one of the ones who did. At age 11, I believed in the devil. My mother had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. In my mom’s case, I could not really associate bipolar with a list of symptoms. To me, the diagnosis meant watching this person I knew and loved, most importantly who I knew to have a calm disposition, to be positive and always coyly smiling at her own little jokes, switch suddenly into a wrathful rage, eyes full of anger and hurt, a stormy, violent being. Her voice would change from a sweet ring, as if she was smiling inside as she spoke, into a screeching, angry, cry.
To anyone who has really looked at another person, and I mean really seen them, people carry emotions in their eyes. When a person smiles, it is really the eyes that wrinkle, glow and get wet with happiness or sadness. I believe children sense this better than anyone.
At the tender age of 11, when I believed the woman standing in front of me wasn’t my mother, it was because in her eyes she was not there. I have seen it many times through her many relapses. It was the first thing I was told when I was on the recovery end of one of my own manic episodes. When the psychosis had begun to subside, people would tell me they could see me again. I didn’t understand what they meant until I looked in the mirror. For months on end, my mind seemed to have retreated into itself and when I looked in the mirror, I could not recognize the person in front of me. It was like looking at a ghost. It was terrifying.
The first and most significant sign of recovery was to look in the mirror and see myself looking back at me. I would often tell my doctors I could not identify with the symptoms of bipolar disorder, (perhaps because a symptom of the disease itself can be a lack of insight) but also because I wasn’t doing a lot of the things typically associated with mania, such as going on extravagant spending sprees and behaving recklessly. While the depressive states were easy to identify, the mania would come on suddenly and throw me into a state of psychosis before myself or those around me could see anything wrong. In the morning I would be laughing joyously and within hours shouting at others in a state of paranoid confusion.
In the beginning this inability to recognize anything wrong in myself gave me a false sense of security. I wasn’t ill, I would tell myself. What I’ve learned about this illness is that it can be very subtle. I would often complain of physical symptoms associated with anxiety but it was very difficult for me to associate the physical and mental pain I was feeling to the term anxiety. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is while it is helpful to learn from others’ experiences of illness and recovery, one of the best ways to survive and defeat this demon is to learn who you are, to know yourself and to know your own mind.
I took in every opportunity for learning more about myself I could, including counseling, yoga, meditation and mindfulness. What I discovered is the line between wellness and illness can be incredibly fine. What seems like productive day-dreaming can quickly transform into racing thoughts, the hallmark of a manic mind.
Oftentimes, I have felt my experiences, even with the illness itself, are not important enough. In the throes of depression, it would take me months to admit to anyone I was suffering. I believe this may be why many people refuse help. I feared to admit I was suffering firstly because I feared being perceived as crazy or not right. Also, I felt like I was admitting defeat to myself.
We are often told we must be calm or we ought to be happy. In the long-run, however, my experience has been to deny myself the right to grieve over my own pain or to laugh at my own mirth has been more self-defeating. Initially, I thought I would find peace in the tenets of the things I was learning such as yoga, which teaches both mental and physical calm. However, what these tenets really did was to teach me how to tune into my own emotions, be they welcome or perhaps unwelcome. In time, by allowing myself to process both pain and happiness, I have found balance. I believe the best way to find balance is to allow oneself to feel both the joy and pain of life. I hope others find balance on their journeys as well.