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Looking Bipolar in the Face

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One summer, I turned 18, cut all my hair off and went to college. I bought new sheets. I bought a little cactus. I collaged my side of the room. And then, as if some strange animal kicked my door down, I had my first serious manic episode.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

It was a bad one. I’m talking really bad. For some reason, no one hospitalized me. Then again, no one really knew me. Maybe they thought it was something else. But I didn’t drink. I didn’t take drugs, not even the ones that were supposed to make sure I didn’t have another seizure. I hadn’t had a seizure in over a year. I was away from my family, so no one would know if I quit them. Within weeks of arriving at school, I flushed them down the toilet.

But here’s the thing: some anticonvulsants live a double life as mood stabilizers. It was working a second job for me. My bipolar disorder was emerging fast, banging on the borders of my medications. The meds helped hold it down. Once it was gone, so was I.

There are gaps in my memory of that first year. I don’t mean typical gaps from 20 years of distance. I mean actual gaps. The hazy world of back to back episodes, swinging wildly. My bed like a magnet, keeping me immobile. Crying. The next moment, I didn’t sleep much at all. Losing time. Wondering where I was. Talking and talking, unable to stop. Why can’t I stop moving? Why can’t I open the door when people knock on it? Paranoia. The long hours dancing. Writing in my journals for so long I had to switch pens. The angels and fairies. Trying to turn into a witch. Flirting with every single person that crossed my path. Sitting on the curb outside my dorm in winter, skinny and chain smoking, wide and wild eyes burning from cold.

The next fall, I dropped out. Like a lot of bipolar people, my decision making was spontaneous and rash. The registrar tried to talk me out of it. I told her I thought I was depressed. It was the first time I remember saying anything like that out loud. She asked if I had a doctor, a therapist, a diagnosis. I lied, and said yes. Yes, of course I had a doctor, therapist and diagnosis.

I knew about being depressed. But I didn’t have words for anything else that happened. The exhilarating high I didn’t, and couldn’t, come down from. It was intoxicating.

If you’ve experienced mania, you might know what I mean. When it’s good, boy it’s good. The unshakable confidence. The bursts of creativity. The way the light glimmers. The sex. The important weight of everything. Everything magic and meaningful. Your fingertips grab at it so tightly. You don’t understand the manic high can start to fall apart, and suddenly you are losing your grip. Before you know it, you’re snapping at everyone, picking fights with strangers, seeing things. Confused. So you think it’s someone else’s fault. People just don’t understand. They don’t want to listen. They are trying to shut you up, shut you down. Someone asks if you’re OK, and you say of course you are. God, quit asking.

I knew my dad’s family history included serious mental illness. I wasn’t like them. They were crazy. I was not crazy. I could handle it. I was handling it fine. I got a job at a bookstore and met the man who would become my husband. He was shy and a little aloof, and I was loud and impulsive. We were a perfect match.

At a certain point in my 20s, amid years of episodes, a startling truth grew like a vine. It squeezed my insides and spread until I couldn’t breathe. I reached in and ripped it out at the root. No. Shut up. Fine. I was bipolar. Maybe. Probably. But it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t serious. I was a writer. Mania was where the creativity came from. Mania was a gift. I did not need medication. It would ruin everything. Erase me.

The problem was, I conveniently skipped over the negative. The heavy drinking so I could slow down or sleep. The thoughts of suicide when I crashed. The injuries. The pleas to be hospitalized. The fights with my husband. Fights and fights and fights. I didn’t care about what. I felt persecuted and bossed around. I did not see his concern as love. Not even a little bit.

I quit the bookstore on a whim, just like college. I quit smoking and traveled a lot. Two jobs later, I was pregnant. Within two years, I had two children. I stopped working, tried to ignore my postpartum depression and birth trauma, and was thrown into rapid cycling moods. Between the hormones, lack of sleep and slogging through early parenthood, I couldn’t slow it down. I was a functional mother. A good one, even. But there was something else in the room, that strange familiar animal just out of sight. Something I ignored over and over again, because if I slowed down, I’d have to look it in the face. So I didn’t. I nursed my baby, chased my toddler around, played peek a boo. I went to the park, sang songs, made bread. But I also cried, and slammed doors, and got so anxious I couldn’t see straight. I remember being at a big family gathering, being furious at my husband for some inane reason and throwing my plate down so hard everyone stared.

Five years and a cross country move later, I couldn’t look away anymore. It was still in the room, arms still winding around me, frantic and loud and terrifying. It had grown so large there wasn’t much room left for me to move. Something happened, an event that changed everything, and I couldn’t run away anymore. I went to the doctor and got a diagnosis. For real this time. When she said I was bipolar, I felt a flood of relief, but driving home, I broke down. All those terrible weeks and months and years. So much wasted time. So many gaps and regrets, so many exhausting hallucinations and racing thoughts. A harsh and bright light swung over my memories, and I could see them for what they were. Sickness.

Three years have passed. I still see the doctor often. My medications have been endlessly tweaked, but I still have trouble. My type is tricky to control. It’s really hard work. There is a curious grieving for the manic parts I thought were actually me. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I got help when I should have. I’ll never know the people I could have been. Things I could have done. For a long time, it made me sad, but it’s getting easier.

I am thankful for so many things. My children will know me as someone different than I could have been. It’s the greatest gift I have to give them. Someone asked if I was doing this for them. I am, but it’s also for me. It’s for the me that struggled and didn’t know she was suffering. I can care for her, now. I can try.

Mental illness is a crapshoot. We don’t know why it grabs some people by the throat and rattles their teeth. We don’t know why it ignores other people. Mental illness doesn’t accept bargaining or prayers. You can’t force it off your DNA. You don’t raise your hand and volunteer. It just closes it’s eyes and points. This time it pointed at me. It is something I will live with for the rest of my life. But I am finally looking it in the face, the frightened creature with my eyes, slowly reaching out, pushing its pointing hand down. Shh. I can see you. I’m looking right at you, now. I know what I am. I know who I am. And we’ll be fine.

Getty image via Marjan_Apostolovic

Originally published: January 17, 2018
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