The Moment Bipolar Mania Strikes
I remember the night I realized something was very wrong with me.
It was a Thursday.
Heart racing, I looked in the mirror and saw sickness staring back at me. Eyes of olive and death stared out at me, wide and unknowing. You don’t belong to me.
At that very moment I knew something was up.
With shaking hands I grabbed my phone to check the time. It was 2 a.m.
Why do I think it is morning?
There is something very wrong with me.
What is the time?
It’s 1 a.m.
Go back to bed. Get some sleep.
I climb under the covers. Ten thousand thoughts strike the edges of my skull like pinballs. I grab my husband’s arm and pull it over me. I feel safe buried in my man-made cave. Dave’s breath soothes me and rocks me to sleep.
I awake with a start. I can’t catch my breath. My heart is pounding. Two steel fists drum the walls of my chest. My breath is epileptic. Every cell in my body is screaming for escape. I hold on for dear life.
What is happening to me?
I know this.
This is panic.
Calm your breath. Calm yourself.
I tried. I swear I tried. I couldn’t stop it.
My body shakes uncontrollably. I tied myself in knots and try to slow my breathing. Nothing helps. I have lost. The noise inside is deafening and all I can do is scream to drown it out.
Dave wakes; startled, he turns to me and says, “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. Hold me down. Can you just hold me?”
He threw his arms around me, and I held on for dear life.
“You’re going to be OK,” he whispered. You can get through this — come back to me.”
It was too late. I was gone.
Dave held on and was able to pull me back.
“I need help.” I cried, “Can you call my doctor? I think I am manic.”
Dave made the call and I curled in the fetal position on our couch. I lay whimpering and terrified, buried under a heavy pile of pillows and blankets.
With my doctor in another state, she urged my husband to get me to the hospital as quick as possible. The nearest hospital was three hours away, so Dave piled me into the car and off we went.
I was flying, no longer panic stricken but as high as a kite. Before we got to the emergency department I had convinced Dave to take me on a shopping spree. First stop, a newsagent where I bought magazines: Country Style, Vogue, Frankie and Tattoo Life (which looking back seems like an odd but suitably manic selection). Next stop: RM Williams, where I tried on everything and asked the sales assistant to write the details of every garment down for me because, “I am heading into the hospital now and probably shouldn’t buy anything until my mental health assessment comes back clear.” To which the now wide-eyed sales girl nodded politely and continued jotting down dress codes and sizes for the clearly loopy customer.
I was greeted and assessed by the CAT (Crisis Assessment and Treatment) team at the emergency department. This involved about an hour of questioning; during which my mouth motored, my hands danced and my eyes scattered all over the place. I was redirected and refocused from time to time.
I felt joy then persecution. I felt excitement then dread. I felt extreme empathy and then total disconnection. I was all over the place. I was bouncing off the walls. I was delusional and yet exceptionally articulate.
What was wrong with me? Is this mania? I don’t have bipolar, do I?
I remember finding their final series of questions humorous.
“Do you have any special powers?” said the CAT doctor.
“What do you mean?”
“Can you do anything special? Any new skills?”
“Oh yeah, I can pretty much do anything right now, I am super skilled and super intelligent.”
“Alright. Well do you have any super powers, you know, like a super hero.”
I found this hilarious.
“No! But I do understand people. I know what they are thinking. I know what you’re thinking.”
“OK. But can you do anything unusual? Can you fly or perhaps talk to angels?”
“Ha, no! That would be really cool though! Do you think I might be able to?”
Silence — and a lot of note taking.
The CAT team asked that Dave and I stay in town under observation for a couple of days. They said the most important thing was that I sleep, providing medication to assist. By now I was sleeping less than an hour each night and hadn’t had a full nights sleep in over three weeks.
I remember asking what was wrong with me. They said it was impossible to accurately diagnose me and after I interrupted the doctors with my thoughts on diagnoses, they reminded me that what I needed now was sleep.
Dave and I left the hospital optimistic. As we bounced back to the car I turned to him and said with a chuckle, “You know when they asked me about super powers? Do you think I should have told them that I have been talking to the cows at work?”
“Do they talk back?”
“From time to time.”
We laughed all the way back to the car.
I guess sometimes all you can do is laugh.
It beats the hell out of crying.
After a few days of observation, the CAT team sent me back home with a quality selection of medication and a head full of questions. They said they were unable to diagnose at this stage, but to return in three weeks if I wasn’t any better.
Dave and I returned home and tried to muddle through as best we could. Even with medication I still wasn’t sleeping. This had been going on for weeks. I was exhausted but restless and neither of us knew what to do. My head was flooded with ideas and my gut filled with energy. I became less and less able and my behaviors became more and more inappropriate. I tried accompanying Dave to work but my moods were all over the place. One minute I was standing on the haystacks singing at the top of my lungs, the next I was curled in the fetal position in the passengers seat of Dave’s truck crying. In one sentence I would joke and then yell at Dave for not understanding. I wasn’t getting better and I didn’t know how long we could hold on. I was coming undone. Fast.
A week later I resigned. I was unable to work and unable to express what was happening inside me. I was given hope in the shape of rehabilitation promised in my company’s policy. When I pursued this promise, I was met with insolence and ignorance at every turn. To quote an HR representative from the head office, “Listen Natasha, this is a business and whatever it is that you are going through, it has nothing to do with this company.” The decision to resign was easy after that.
Not long after that I was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
For two weeks I watched the sky fall and near drowned in a pool of my own self-pity. I tied myself in knots trying to escape and lost myself in a fog of medication. I yelled at the moon and wished upon the stars.
It took the advice of a schizophrenic bank robber named “Nurse Betty” to wake me, and breathe a little sense and positivity back into my neglected bones.
“My darling, having a mental illness is like having a baby,” he mused while waving a plastic cigarette enthusiastically in the air. “You nurse it and attend to its needs morning and night, day in and day out, whether you like it or not. But — and this is important, so listen — if at any stage you can’t look after that baby, you give it to someone who can. In here, the nurses will look after your baby – they will nurse it and attend to its needs while you get better. No shame in that. But while you are here you better bloody well start looking after yourself and learn how to live with this baby cause your bloody stuck with it – whether you like it or not. So best start making the best of it. Did you hear me sweetie?”
I most certainly did and in the end, he was right – the time away gave me a chance to learn, accept and move forward.
So here I am. I have been back home for a few weeks now. Every day I am stronger and more able. Work is not on the cards just yet, but I am hopeful for the future. Dave is flourishing in his job and right now I am just happy playing house.
And Nurse Betty was right — that baby needs attending to — morning and night, day in and day out, whether I like it or not.
My bipolar disorder sits with me — in sickness and health — sometimes for all to see, but mostly visible only to me. I tend to its needs. Water it daily. Sometimes it flowers and sometimes it needs trimming. I take time to learn and together we grow — and on the days that I can’t make it work — I have a great team that takes over.
I am proud of who I am and what I have accomplished.
There was a time that I thought something was wrong with me.
Now I just know myself better.
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Getty image via korinova