The Only Living Boy in New York

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741

“Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where, and we don’t know where.” — “The Only Living Boy in New York,” Simon and Garfunkel

Story goes that Andy Edison killed himself early one April morning in ’78, just shy of my father’s 14th birthday.

Dad wrote that he remembered Edison for his heavy gin breath, unfocused eyes and penchant for leaving the TV on 24/7. He had a house overrun by plants, an unexploded shell left over from his days fighting in World War I and a wife who was dead. So my grandmother pitied him.

Once every few days, Dad or his sister would make the walk, weaving under the trees separating the houses, to drop off some leftovers, books, whatever his mother left on the table for that “poor old man.” On Christmas, they’d sit across the table from their surly neighbor, embodying that acutely awkward feeling you get when you’re confronted with another person’s sustained pain. (You’re sure there’s something you’re supposed to do or say, but you can’t ever seem to tap into the right script or choreography.)

Despite the dazed almost-expressions shared in those visits, he was obviously grateful for it all. Sometimes you just need to know that someone, anyone still cares.

Before Edison went, he gave my grandmother a little over $2,000. It was a check she didn’t want to cash, but three months owed-rent, several part-time jobs cleaning houses and a husband who fancied himself a vagabond intellectual left her little room for pride.

The check cleared just hours before he pulled the trigger. And even though she wasn’t the one to clean the warped halo of blood off the walls, the story left a strange taste in his mouth. Dad called the money “a finders fee,” which is funny until you remember that it isn’t.

Dad wrote that he’d thought about Edison a lot since then, especially after he got arrested and after he was diagnosed, when he picked up the bottle and put it down again every couple of years and when he finally knew what it took for a man to get there.

* * *

The day before the story hit the papers, we made the drive to Riverdale where my older sister was a freshman in college. The September air hadn’t started to take on the bite of fall but, the way I remember it, it should’ve been winter. We picked her up at her dorm, heading toward Broadway without really knowing what we were looking for.

“You might hear some talk in the next few days,” he took a pause and the engine hummed underneath it. “But I’d rather you hear it from me.”

He left his former job earlier that summer and we were just finding out why. He said a lot in that hour, but he never could get to the part I wanted to hear: that this was a big misunderstanding.

“I’ve always been crazy. When I’m good, I’m good, you know? But, when I’m not…” he started. “It’s not that I don’t know right from wrong; it’s that I just don’t care.”

Again, a pause and humming. I thought of the road trips where he’d drive too fast and charm his way out of traffic tickets; the late summer days where he couldn’t bear to watch the leaves change (or get out of bed); how he turned periods of break-neck energy and enthusiasm into walls and pillars overnight; how he picked fights and apologized within minutes but never seemed to care whether he’d hurt someone.

The bipolar disorder made a lot of sense. Although the way he explained it was purposely simplistic and self-deprecating enough to engineer the least panicked reactions from the three of us.

My older sister held her hands in her lap, fist making crescent-shaped marks in her palm as she listened. I flicked my fingers over the child locks on the backseat doors. Up down, up down, up down.

* * *

An old picture of the author as a child and her father He used to run track. He still holds records at North Salem High School and a plaque sits at an awkward angle just to the left of the attendance office at the school. I remember he showed me it once. It’s there among a mass of other haphazardly-placed awards from the kids who grew up and had families and the ones who didn’t.

Some days I try to picture him running: A face without frown lines, muscles relaxing with legs that seem longer and less pained as his feet hit the pavement. Maybe there was something rhythmic and peaceful about the practice back then. I can’t really see it, to be honest.

Dad was a sprinter. It suits him when I really think about it: that rush of energy and adrenaline. There’s no need for economy in step or effort; use it while it’s here. Recover later, if you can. No shame in burning out, as long as you’re ready by your next race.

That always made sense: On good days, there were good races and he hurt like hell after. But, he’d always prefer to ice a win.

* * *

A few months after the arrest, Dad started to work odd jobs at construction sites in the city. He was trying to bring some money in by relying on favors from the old friends who’d still pick up the phone.

He always caught the last train home, getting off at Valhalla or White Plains, somewhere with cheaper parking.

He’d spend his nights tapping away at empty word docs with that posture that’s so intimately familiar to me now, writing up the chapters and stories of his life  —  I know these were words that he absolutely never meant for me to find. I love them anyway.

He was trying reclaim that bit of himself: He wanted to remember what it was like to be the young boy who walked New York City streets with father on their way to work, to be the heartsick teenager who was one half of “the longest running mutual crush, lubricated by coffee.” He was looking for what it felt like before he “embraced the crazy.”

He still doesn’t know I read those words or that I squirreled them away, keeping them close for all these years to reread on nights when the house gets too quiet. It’s like some private reminder that there’s something  —  other than our eyes and our tempers  —  that the two of us still share.

“I’m too mean to die,” he wrote, quoting a line his grandfather liked to use, “at least when I’m manic. I hope I’m too sad to die when I’m not.”

The worst nights, he wrote, he’d watch streetlights make shadows over the train tracks, the weight of everything tugging at his bones. He wondered what that final step would feel like (I’m thinking that maybe it weighed as much as that 8-inch by two-inch shell.) But, make no mistake, I hated this part of the story.

“You know, Valhalla is the only place in the state where the dead outnumber the living.” I heard that at my great grandpa’s funeral. I guess it stuck.

A few months later, after he finally stopped taking the goddamn train every day, he’d managed to find another way to slowly, slowly rebuild. Every day since I’ve been thankful for that.

 * * *

I don’t know if my dad is ever going to pick up his story again, if he’ll ever try to look at it with new eyes. I haven’t managed to fully make sense of the last six years myself.

But I’ve gotten good at telling the story in a way that makes everyone seem a bit nobler, a bit smarter and a bit nicer than we really were. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to unpack the ways our family has been touched, broken and rebuilt, but I’ve gotten used to explaining the parts of our lives that are still inching back on track.

“I got a win today,” he still says when finally, finally something goes right. Coming in after a long day, breath heavy with his beloved bulldog at his heels. “We got a win.”

There’s a part of the story that I don’t get to tell all that often, about what comes after the fall, after the pain, when the world finally starts to look normal again.

It’s not quite a happy ending or some kind of temporary calm. It’s the part of the story I’m not all that good at telling just yet, but it’s the promise that the next page is coming.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Images courtesy of Katherine Speller

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What It's Like to Have the Other Type of Bipolar Disorder

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I have bipolar II disorder. This is my story.

First, some background. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic-depressive illness, and many people still know and refer to it that way. The term “bipolar” reflects the concept that there are two extremes to the continuum of mood disorders, and some people swing dramatically from one to the other. According to this definition, clinical depression by itself is “unipolar,” occupying only one end of the spectrum.

Depression is to sadness as a broken leg is to a splinter. Depression sucks the life from a person, mutes all emotions except misery, denies any possibility of joy or even contentment and makes life seem meaningless or impossible. This is hell.

Mania is to ordinary happiness as diving off a cliff is to diving off a diving board. Mania brings exhilaration, ambition, confidence, abandon and invincibility, with no brakes. It is hell on wheels.

Oscillating between the two extremes, that’s bipolar disorder, type 1. It is a serious illness. Left untreated, it can cause destruction of families, careers and more. It can lead to psychosis or suicide. The treatments for it are no picnic either. A severe case of bipolar disorder often requires hospitalization. If the symptoms can be controlled with medication, then the patients must have frequent blood tests to assure that the drug is present in the right quantity.

When I was (incorrectly) diagnosed with unipolar depression, I used to wish that I were bipolar, on the theory that at least then I could accomplish something. Boy, was I wrong about that. Plans made in mania never come to fruition. They are started, rethought, abandoned, exchanged for something grander and ultimately fizzle out when the mania wears off.

My diagnosis actually made some sense at the time, as I never experienced anything like the manic highs. All I got were depressive lows. This leads us at last to bipolar II disorder. The mood swings are not as extreme, the lows less debilitating and the highs less overwhelming. The person with bipolar II stays closer to a baseline of normal mood, but still experiences swings back and forth.

Technically, the mini-lows are called dysthymia and the mini-highs are called hypomania. In my case, the lows were just as low as in unipolar depression, but I never got the mini-jags of buoyancy that accompany hypomania. Instead, these feelings, came out sideways, as anxiety. My brain was still racing with little control, but in a different direction. Instead of elation and purpose, I was beset by in worries, fears and catastrophizing.

One of the difficulties with treating bipolar disorder (of either type) is trying to find a medication or a combination of medications that will level out the person’s moods. Usually this requires more than one drug, and finding the right mix or cocktail of chemicals usually requires more than one drug. It takes a great deal of trial and error. In the meantime, the mood swings continue.

At this point, my bipolar II is fairly well-controlled on medication. I still have spells of depression. Now, they last at most a week and sometimes just a day or two. Untreated, they could last months or years. I still have anxiety too. However, I have the medication I take for that so I don’t feel like I’m about to jump out of my own skin.

Most of the time, I’m fairly high-functioning. I can write, work and earn a living. I have a great marriage and a number of friends, including some who are closer than family to me. I have never been hospitalized, nor have I had electroshock (though that was a near thing). Before I got my proper diagnosis and treatment, I would have not believed this to be possible. My goal in life was simply to stay out of a psychiatric hospital as long as I could or at least until I qualified for Social Security Disability.

I’m sharing these experiences with you today because I believe mental disorders should not be hidden or viewed with shame and horror as they have been in the past and sometimes the present.

It’s undeniable that there is a stigma associated with having mental illness. Going public with it entails a risk. I’ve seen the fixed “smile and back away slowly” reaction. I’ve seen sudden turnarounds in my work performance evaluations, but I’ve also seen the, “Me too!” response.

There is strength in numbers. As more of us who live with psychiatric conditions talk about it and share our stories, the more we build understanding. Perhaps, we also encourage those who are “roller-coastering” to seek treatment.

So that’s the nuts and bolts of it: Bipolar II disorder is a mental illness. I have it and live with it every day. I do not go around threatening the safety of other people or my own. I take medication for it. I know I will likely have to for the rest of my life, and I’m OK with that. I hope that eventually the rest of the world will be, too.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Why I Wear My Bipolar Like a Badge of Honor

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I’m allowing my bipolar to be a badge of honor.

I know at this moment you are going, “‘Crazy’ lady say what?”

But the truth is I am the strongest person I know. Bipolar is horrible, but I fought back and became stronger. This horrible, painful disease made me fight. I fight to fall asleep every night when insomnia hits. I fight to wake up to go to work when my body is frail and wasted from not going enough rest. I fight to smile and control all emotions so no one will see my anger, my anxiety, my overwhelming joy or whatever bipolar threw my way that day. I fight the fatigue that drains my body throughout the day.

I fight not go near or become dependent on shopping, alcohol, food, drugs or whatever I think I need to ease my pain at the end of the day. I fight to be productive even when I feel like I’m more tired than everyone. Because I never compare myself to them. As I lay my head back on my pillow, I fight the urge not to think about tomorrow.

So yes, bipolar is a badge of pride. I am a fighter, and no one can take that away from me.

I’m a child sculpted out of mania, rage, tears and joy. I’m a child formed out of bipolar. When I was tired, bipolar taught me to keep going. When I had 50 emotions, bipolar taught me self-control. I worked harder than the day before because I never knew when I was going to feel OK again. Through the pain, I became the strongest person I know.

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The Kindness of a Psych Ward Staff Member Saved My Life

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I hit rock bottom in life a little more than 10 years ago. I lost everything that was important to me, from my child, to my car, to my house, to my dignity.

This is when I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I ended up spending six weeks in a short-term psych ward. The average stay there was five to seven days. I blew that average right out of the water.

I made a lot of poor choices before that hospital stay, which ultimately cost me custody of my child. For a time, it also cost me my family and friends. When I was staying at this hospital, I had no friends or family to come visit me. Everyone had written me off. I had no one to call during open phone time. I had no one to bring me money to get a soda or something besides the semi-edible hospital food.

That kind of isolation will wear on a person, until they begin to truly believe they are nothing more than a body breathing air and taking up space. This being a difficult point in my life, I actually contemplated ways to end my life while in the hospital. I hated myself, and I felt like no one should waste their time on me.

Since I had that attitude, several of the nurses and techs treated me as such. There was one who didn’t though. He treated me as if I were a person, as if I mattered. He was always subtle in his approach to letting me know I had value, but it was always there. It was the little things like getting me a soda every week or so or buying me french fries from the cafe downstairs. He knew I wasn’t getting that stuff any other way. He would let me choose the radio station and encourage me to rock out.

These don’t sound like huge things, but they were life-altering for me. I was able to slowly come back from the brink of the dark abyss because of his actions. I started writing while in the hospital, to get the words that were poisoning my soul out. I started trying to live again, even though every day was like having a glass shard in my heart.

I learned a valuable lesson from this man’s treatment of me. I learned that you never know how much of a difference you can make in a person’s life by being kind. So be kind, always. He’ll never know that he helped save my life, just by treating me as a person.

Now, I try to pay that forward whenever I can. Random acts of kindness are my favorite things to do. If you’re ever in a position to either be kind or say something hurtful, then always try and choose the higher road. You never know when you’ll be saving a person’s life by doing so.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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On the Days Happiness Is Just a Tease

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Wake up, shake up, searching my brain,

Good day or bad day again?

Out of bed to clean and call a friend,

Is this the day I will be on the mend?

Nope, it’s telling me the same old stuff.

You’re worthless.

They hate you.

You’ll never be enough.

I hate days like these.

Dragging me down, happiness just a tease.

On those few days I feel like me,

I remember how I once used to be,

Happy, laughing friends and free.

I’d give anything to just be me.

You hear a lot about mental health these days. It’s hard when people don’t fully understand it. I live with bipolar disorder, emotionally unstable personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder, which ties into my anxiety and panic attacks

I’ve been this way since a teenager, and now, I’m 25. I’ve destroyed so many friendships, so many relationships. I have so many people hate me (or at least I think they do).

Well, a lot of people have said they do.

The problem is I already hate myself. I also have my thoughts and this little voice I hear telling me I’m worthless, I’m nothing and that I have destroyed my life. I can’t even walk out my front door without someone accompanying me, in case I’m attacked. Of course, that’s only on the days I can actually get out of my bed.

There is a lighter side these days though. I’m in a new relationship and holding this one down so far. Seeing my mental health team helps me vent my emotions even when they are hard to express. Every minute of every day is a struggle. I’ve tried to end it, but I won’t let go. I won’t give up this time. I will carry on. I will stay strong. I hope this time it works.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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5 Tips That Got My Mental Health Recovery Back on Track After a Crisis

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It’s inevitable at times for something to happen that can shatter the beautiful recovery we’ve worked so hard to maintain. This is life. Reclaiming that recovery after a crisis can happen, but it may take some time. I recently had to deal with a few crises that happened all at once, which almost broke me. Here is a list of some tips that helped me and may help you get back on the road to recovery.

1. Focus on getting sleep.

There is so much to say about sleep therapy, especially with an illness like bipolar disorder. Make sure both during and after the crisis you get enough sleep. I know that depending on the severity of the crisis, you may not be able to sleep. However, bipolar disorder is one of those illnesses that can require you to maintain a routine. If you are able to, make sure you at least go to bed at the same time every night, even if it is just to close your eyes and rest your body.

One of the events that happened to me recently was that my son had unexpected surgery, and I stayed with him in the hospital every night. I made sure to go to sleep on my regular schedule, which helped me get through this tough situation more smoothly. If you are unable to maintain your normal sleep routine during a given crisis, when the crisis is resolved, try to get back into your sleep routine as soon as possible. Here is an article that may be beneficial for you in your quest to get back into a sleep routine.

2. Make sure to take your medication.

Another thing that helped me through these crises was being sure to take my medication regularly. Taking my medication helped prevent an even bigger crisis from unfolding: a relapse. So even though I was going through tough situations and dealing with a tsunami of emotions, I knew I would be in a better state after it was all over than I would have been if I stopped taking my medication.

3. Lean on others when you need help.

I tend to try to tackle everything on my own. I hold back from asking others for help because I am extremely independent and feel like asking for help shows weakness. However, when the load is just too much to bear, it’s OK for you to ask for help. Your loved ones would probably rather you ask for help than see you overwhelmed or get hurt. At one point during these crises, I reached my breaking point. I called family members who would make my work load more bearable, and it was the best decision I ever made. You never have to struggle or face things alone.

4. Prioritize.

Trying to get back to the way life was before a crisis can be a difficult journey. My life was flipped upside-down, so the best thing for me was to prioritize my life. Basically, I tackled situations and tasks that needed my immediate attention while less important tasks that were not as relevant were put on hold for the time being. This helped me feel less overwhelmed and not like I was drowning in all of my responsibilities.

5. Be kind and patient with yourself.

It can take time for you to get back to the way you were before your life took this twist. Be patient with yourself. Don’t expect to be back to normal overnight. There will likely be meltdowns, crying spells, and thoughts of giving up. During these times, be kind to yourself and do something for you. Self-care is one of the most important parts of recovery with any mental illness. Do something fun: go for a walk, eat your favorite food, meet up with a good friend, watch a movie, drink some coffee, or get a pedicure. You only live once, so take care of yourself and know that in time, recovery will happen.

These twists and turns in life can be challenging for a person living with bipolar disorder, but the tips I just listed and discussed can help you through a crisis and help you get back on your feet afterwards. Life is not easy, nor is it linear — so we just have to make sure we have the tools we need to recover from whatever life presents us with. If I can do it, I know you can, too.

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A version of this post originally appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation.

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