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Wincing at a Too Bright Sun: Carrie Fisher, Bipolar Disorder and Me

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I like to think I am brave.

Of all the qualities a person can possess, benevolent bravery is the one I most admire.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I love the kind of bravery that lacks reason, that makes those of less conviction shake their heads. I like a person’s boldness, compassion and desire for justice to be so consuming, they have no choice but to be brave, even if it doesn’t always work out that well for them.

Carrie Fisher was brave.

God, was she brave.

There is so much I could say here, so much about Carrie, about heroes, about pain. But everything I could say has been said in the past few days, and more eloquently than I could muster.

And frankly, right now, it’s just too hard. It’s way too hard.

For many reasons, Carrie was one of my heroes — you don’t have to dig too deep to wrap your head around that. Chubby nerd girl likes sassy space princess — it’s hardly breaking news.

However, there is a bit more to the story.

In memory of Carrie, and days before the start of a new year, I am going to share with you the most intimate secret I hold.

When I was 13 years old, I saw my first psychiatrist. In that session, and what would come to be every therapy session that followed, I did my best to establish myself as an extremely self-aware and mature individual — after all, you can’t be crazy if you are aware of it, right? I spoke about myself as if I were another person, as if I were my own mother, laughing softly and shaking my head as I explained what Jessica had done just the other day. Of course I didn’t use the third-person, but that same sense of utter detachment from your own life, that certainly shone through.

Did I have any obsessions, she asked. Oh yes, I replied. My life is obsessions. I dance between them, a Cinderella too enchanted to notice it’s well past midnight and my carriage is rotting out front.

She continued to cycle through all the questions, knowing precisely what diagnosis she was leading me to admitting I had without ever explicitly stating it. With each step she took forward, I took one back, smiling absent-mindedly as I neared the edge of the cliff.

At the end of the hour we shared together, her grip on her clipboard and mine on my delusions, she told me that while bipolar disorder generally manifests in the late teens to early 20s. I, for whatever reason, had been thrust quite forcefully onto the fast track. With age, she said, everything I was trying to laugh off would become much harder. In short, I was mentally ill.

One more step back.

I’m falling, but there is no sudden thud to stop me — no ground.

I smile politely because that’s what I do.

It’s fine, I say, I can learn to laugh harder.

As I buckled myself into the passenger’s seat, I told my mom I never wanted to go to therapy again.

I didn’t like feeling transparent. I didn’t care to admit someone might have a better grasp on me than I did myself. My battle for control over every and all things, most of all myself, had kicked off — and I was pissed to find myself already on the losing side.

But she was right. It got harder.

Allow me to share with you some of the lessons a black-haired 15-year-old girl learns beneath an oversized black hoodie:

Aspirin thins the blood stream, makes the pills you take more effective. The right combination mixed with a chemically-imbalanced brain, and three days will fly by, no sleep required. What a brilliant girl I was, to find the cure to anxiety all by myself — to find a way to take back the eight hours everyone else gave away so freely. Oh I could draw, paint, sing, read. When the moon rose, so did my own starry-eyes. I could breathe.

But what about when you come down, when the mania gives way to depression? My next brilliant discovery? An exacto-knife can carve exact-o-ly what you want, wherever you want it. I fancied myself a scientist, reveling in my findings and dissecting my own skin.

Sometimes the solution to counteracting the lows wasn’t that extreme. Overeating and oversleeping became some of my favorite pastimes. I tried training myself to lucid dream. If I had my own fantasy land to sculpt, I thought, maybe I could make it better than the one I was in. At least I was making up all the hours of sleep I neglected to get.

I never found a cure for the anger, though. I never found a way to return to my body when the yelling started and the bookish girl turned feral without any signs of provocation. Sometimes I would speak so fast it felt like it couldn’t have been me doing the speaking.

What did I do, my mother once asked me, what did I do to you to make you resent me so fiercely? Why are you so fucking angry?

I don’t know, I fumbled, hands in my hair. I don’t know.

My greatest discovery during these formative years? There are few things more frightening than standing idly by as you witness reality and perception sever ties.

There reaches a point when you realize things don’t line up. When you realize your life is abnormally contradicting — that your being is abnormally contradicting. And, if you’re like me, you ignore it. You ignore it for as long as you possibly can.

You become so confused by your own ambitions, your own choices. What you fail to realize is that you can’t make up your mind when your mind makes up you. So you live life in lists, trying to piece together what it is you’re doing, what it is you want. The problem is, the author switches every few weeks. How do you preserve ambition? How do you remain optimistic once the other side starts putting ideas in your head? How do you know what you want — what you are?

Incessant questions — questions and prose. That’s how my mind works.

I think constantly but never consistently.

There is only one feeling that seems to carry over: an insatiable longing. Love me, understand me, help me, see me. No matter what state you are in, it is absolutely vital that you are recognized, that you are loved or wanted.

Perhaps it also helps to have “daddy issues.” I don’t know my biological father, and when your mind works the way mine does, it simply equates to he didn’t want me. And after the way the next one treated me, it appeared he didn’t want me too much either.

Have you ever had a parent look you in the eyes and tell you, in passing, they don’t like you as a person? I have. The air never fully goes back into your lungs.

Ultimately, the question is, if the people who are supposed to love you don’t, who ever could?

This mentality leads you to dark places.

But it starts off innocently enough!

You love. You love so hard — people, your friends, your family, the underdogs of the world, the characters in your books, movies and games. You want to help, you want justice and you want to personally ensure no one feels like you. If you can be a savior, a hero not unlike the ones you read about, you will be loved in return. You might even be worthwhile. That would feel nice, you think.

It’s not hard to love this much, really. Not when you have a sensitivity that is equal parts startling and intimidating. If anything, it might be harder to be loved by me.

Sometimes though, you don’t love right. Sometimes you are too angry to love — sometimes, you’re too sad. And sometimes, you just vanish. When you have bipolar disorder, you are an excellent illusionist — your audience never really understands quite what you’ve just done.

The next step in attaining love is to give. You give to the point of sacrifice. You resent any amount selfishness because you resent yourself. Your own validation simply will not do. There is no self-care, no self-love, that will make you accept yourself. So, you feel that if you give enough, people will perform that task for you.

You exhaust yourself in people and tasks because that is the only way you can find your own self-worth, if only for a fleeting moment. It’s not that you think you’re lacking, ugly, or anything like that — it’s a little more complicated.

You don’t compare yourself to others, you compare yourself to the impossible you — the godlike creation you are certain you could be if only you weren’t so weighed down by all the… well, reality.

Just imagine, placing yourself on the highest pedestal you can find, just so you could shake your head at yourself — just so you can knock yourself down. That’s what it feels like.

You must be the best. You should be the best. If you just tried harder, you could be happy. If you did better, you could be great.

So do better, you scream at yourself. Do more. Be more.

Some people take advantage of this opportunity.

Some people hurt you.

And you accept it because you know it was your own foolishness that made it happen — your need to please, your pathetic need to be desired.

Even if you did say no. Even if you try to stop it.

One of the worst things is even when this longing seems like it should dissipate, it remains. Things you can’t have? You want them more. The people who hurt you? You get caught in them. Even if 99 percent of the world were in love with you, your life would be putting on a show to attract the other 1 percent. Even if they boo, you keep on smiling, dancing until you bleed through your tap shoes.

Hence the term “insatiable longing.”

So, after I was sexually assaulted, everything grew worse.

Sitting next to a pile of your vomit by the front door of your apartment is not a good place to be, but that’s where I was — too afraid to leave my home.

I ended up withdrawing from college. When family members asked, I told them I wasn’t cut out for it.

One of the hardest times in my life was listening to various family members shame me for my failure while already hurting so deeply. But at the same time, it felt easier to add this new found guilt and shame to my existing supply than to admit to being violated.

I can be shitty. It’s harder to admit the world can be.

So with no school, no drive, no will to leave your studio apartment, you mope. Mope and sleep. Sometimes write. Definitely overeat. You find ways to comfort yourself. You find ways or you die.

Dying doesn’t sound good. You think about it a lot, but it doesn’t sound particularly good.

Notice how I switched to using “you” rather than “I”? That, my friends, is a coping mechanism.

I don’t think I am certifiably suicidal, whatever that means. To me, the thought is more of a oddly-shaped tetris block that falls down on occasion. You shuffle things around, try to bury it effectively, and hope that if you line things up right, the thought will disappear. It never feels particularly scary, the imminence of fatal thought. In fact, it took me way too long to realize this wasn’t a way “normal” people think. The average person doesn’t think, “OK, bills are due on the 15th and also, don’t swerve into oncoming traffic.” That’s just “crazy,” right? This is why sad people shouldn’t listen to sad music, it normalizes the insanity. But it just speaks to us, you know?

I think what’s scarier is the statistics — they really get you, those wolves disguised as percentages. My life expectancy is 10 years shorter than average — we have all the various conditions we are more likely to develop to thank for that — 15 percent of us die by our own hands, 50 percent attempt to and 80 percent think about it. If those numbers were in relation to the general public, it would be fucking mind-blowing. Can you imagine? Watching so many people struggle, so many people flicker out? When you’re bipolar, that is your population — that is your reality. My three uncles who killed themselves are the reality. I’ve gotten pretty good at reaching awful, and, at times, unwarranted conclusions, but even my more rational side agrees, it’s a bit grim.

It’s not all bad though! Researchers say those with bipolar disorder are linked to having much higher intelligence, creativity, empathy and verbal proficiency than those without. So hey, maybe you don’t spend weeks crying, but I art good. What can I say — sucks to suck.

The thing is, with bipolar disorder, so much of life is spent wincing at a too bright sun. It’s all too much — how you feel, how you act, how you are. You are never sad, you are devastated — never hurt, betrayed. This applies to positive feelings too. Fine? Fine is no good. Are you wondrous? Is this the greatest thing you’ve ever seen? There is no small-talk, only grand emotion and sweeping statements.

Hell, even my writing is melodramatic.

Simply put, I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl.

Sometimes, I find this perspective makes keeping friends hard. I am fortunate to have so many beautiful ones whom I get the pleasure of loving so deeply, but I constantly feel like a burden. I feel like it all gets to be too much, the whole crazy, sensitive, artsy, impulsive girl thing. While it seems to be a crowd pleaser on film, it doesn’t translate well to real life- especially when you don’t look like Natalie Portman or Zooey Deschanel. It’s just exhausting, for both parties.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve essentially been told I am too much — that I need to calm down, lighten up or stop being so dramatic or intense. Numerous are the times my enthusiasm for things was mocked, or people merely watched, a little bit dumbfounded, as I spilled all over, without so much as budging to get a paper towel. So much of it is people just don’t know what to do, how to make you OK.

The awful thing is, whenever this happens, you feel the need to apologize. You’re the one who is embarrassed, and it’s your brain that will be playing that moment on repeat for months. You’re the one who greets depression an old friend.

With time I’ve gotten better at controlling it — which basically means I’ve gotten better at existing, really. I try to stay focused at work, though it is, at times, hard. I’ve been back in school a year and a half and am, somehow, earning the best grades of my college career. Panic attacks happen now and again of course, and I say things I regret and reveal far too much constantly. In fact, I’ll probably spend a few weeks regretting this little tell-all. Oh, and God knows I will always have sweaty palms — a constant reminder of my underlying anxiety.

But, what I’m trying to say is, it does get better.

And then, yeah, it gets worse. And then better, and then worse and then better and then worse…

But, what’s important, is that you hang on to the “better.” You have to hang on it or else it’s just all the “worse,” and it’s no way to live. The “worse” doesn’t want you to live.

Different medications help, but at a cost. The fun part is, you never know what that cost will be. With this one, the doctor smiles, you won’t want to kill yourself but you’ll gain 20 lbs. It didn’t work? Try another! Now, you won’t cry in bed all the time, but you won’t be particularly happy again either…

Decisions, decisions.

The best is when they jot down the prescription name, look at you and tell you to make sure you call them if you feel like killing yourself in a week. What do you even say back to that?

Thanks? Will do?

It might seem like this is all dark, but rest assured I am fine right now. You develop a sense of humor.

Sometimes, I picture each pill I’m taking is putting a little hole in my brain, killing a little bit of me. It’s not true of course, or rational, but if you read all the way to this and were expecting a bit of rationality to magically appear, you might just be as “crazy” as I am. Kidding. Kind of.

This past year, I haven’t been the best about taking medicine; it’s been rough, and I, naive. However, as a second act of bravery, my first being penning this small novel of a post, I have an appointment January 17 to get back on a prescription, because let’s be honest, do you want to see me go without medication under that monster of a man’s presidency? Me neither.

It feels so lame to say it, but ~I am not my illness~. It’s more just another little fact about me that influences my actions. Another example? I love dogs, and will literally always pull over to help a stray. I mean, you could judge me solely on that fact, but it’d be kind of strange, don’t you think?

At times, this post got dark. What I need you to understand though, is so do I. Me pretending this part of me doesn’t exist is bullshit — it’s too hard, life is too short and honestly, being silent is ridiculously unhelpful to anyone else struggling alongside me. Or to anyone who doesn’t understand how this works.

So, this is my truth — or at least part of a truth. The biggest truth I have, certainly. You can’t expect me to go listing all the horrible and/or stupid and/or illegal and/or impulsive things I’ve done. I haven’t the time or mental stamina to spill 23 years of intensity, and believe or not, I like to keep some of my secrets tucked away.

Maybe I’ll write a book someday. Some work of fiction about a person who is not me, in a time that is not now, in a place far away from here. Maybe the secrets will be there. But for now, they remain with me.

You know what the wildest thing about me is though? Never in a million years would I change myself. I mean, maybe I’d shave down my thighs a bit, but you get the picture. And if you suffer with any form of mental illness, you fucking bet I don’t think you should change either. I don’t and I never will. In case no one has told you this, you matter. You matter and I love you — with all the intensity my love has to offer.

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

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: December 30, 2016
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