I have no illusions that my experiences are all that special or unusual, but I also don’t expect my conclusions to fit into anyone else’s life; but just in case…
I have been hospitalized three times for psychiatric problems. The first time, I was still somehow covered under my mother’s insurance and ended up in essentially a country club. They had to throw me out when my thirty days were over. The next two hospitals were state hospitals; I couldn’t get out of those places fast enough.
Circumstances and an inherited brain issue made me think of nothing but death. I was 17, homeless, fully expecting God to kill me because I’d left ‘the church,’ beginning to realize I was gay, terrified because I knew that definitely meant AIDS and death, and fighting what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. It’s almost impossible for me to relate how dark those days were because my last hospital visit was 25 years ago and I’ve been at least eight different people since then. But one thing has always stayed with me through all the times I’ve reinvented myself – abject fear that those times were coming back again someday.
I have always had the manic and depressive spaces, sometimes cycling as frequently as monthly. The manic times are awesome! The hard ones are like a ten day cocaine binge without the bloody nose and headaches. There’s the danger of forgetting to eat and not really sleeping enough, but you don’t have to pay for that until it’s over. Even when the amplitude is down, those blocks of time are my most productive – ideas flow and I have the energy and motivation to implement them. Since I’ve refused medication (have you seen the side effects on those things?!), I’ve instead learned to plan accordingly and ride things out.
Now that I know the signs, I’m not only able to just tolerate the swings, but I plan around them and use them. The harsh part of the swings (and they are nowhere near as high and low as they used to be) usually last around ten days.
When I first realized this, I would time them. I was to a point where I could ride out a depression without too much trouble, but as soon as one went longer than ten days, I started to panic. What if this is it? ‘What it?’ you might ask. And at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. In my head I was doing my best Fred Sanford impression, scared to death that this was the Big One, and I had no idea what I was afraid of.
Now, I know clinical depression is different for everyone because even though anyone with that diagnosis had at least that in common, we all live completely different lives and react differently to stimuli, internal and external. But, my depressions aren’t the kind I always see pictured on websites. I never sit silhouetted in a window, staring out at a world that I think has betrayed me. I never even find a canopy bed on which to lie and write in my diary while Joni Mitchell sings in the background (even though I am a fan). I used to crawl under my sheets and cry myself to sleep and think of how everyone I knew would be better off without me… but that was ages ago. Now, my mind and body just slow down. I have no energy, have trouble collecting my thoughts, and (of course) will cry at the stupidest commercial on television and not know why. I cannot be creative during those times because I have trouble making connections between ideas.
Once I realized that there is absolutely nothing I can do about that – it’s a difference in the way my brain works – I decided to see if I could use it to my advantage. Now, I’m no longer five or so days into a depression or mania before I realize it – I know the signs of both and adjust my life accordingly. There are parts of my job that are completely mindless maintenance, which gets done during a depression.
I can’t think, many days I have trouble even talking, but if I’ve set myself up well enough, I can stay on track. Not that this is possible every day during a depression; there are days where pointing my browser to Netflix takes every bit of energy I have. But, I always know that there are simple repetitive tasks that I can do… and still have a TNG marathon on Netflix. Though not completely seamless, I’ve constructed my life in a way that takes advantage of my brain glitch. Bursts of euphoric activity and creation, rest times when I feel no guilt about inactivity, and the in-between times that other people might call ’normal’.
Even with all of this figured out, there has been a horrible specter hanging around: a fear so big that it could almost immobilize me. I finally realized that I was afraid I was going to kill myself.
The fear of being who I was before; it’s bad when you don’t want to be you… even if it’s a former version of you. It’s worse when you don’t realize it. I still vividly remember the days huddled in my dorm room on Saturday nights staring at a PBS Doctor Who marathon when my roommate had gone home to his parent’s (now, I consider that a damned good time). I remember every emotion I was feeling when I took those pills and was med-evac’ed from my tiny college city to a hospital in Baton Rouge: the times I called the suicide hotline: the sound of the metal door clicking locked behind me when the nice sounding nurse tricked me into the locked part of a ward – you get the point. Those emotions are still in me. They’re part of what’s shaped me; part of my story. And they scare the hell out of me.
But, naming a monster goes a long way toward, if not slaying it, at least taking away some of its power. There may come a day when one of these swings hits me so hard that I fall apart again. Even my General Practitioner, whom I adore but will never discuss this part of my health with again, gave me some cautionary tale about someone she knew who dealt with bipolar disorder very well for years and then up and committed suicide in his 50’s. But I know that I will never fall apart like I did during those years. If it happens, it will be something completely new and different. I know this because I know that there are too many differences between me and 17 year-old me.
I’m no longer worried about the wrath of a deity, fitting in with what other people (or myself, sometimes) expect of me in my personal life, and the complete rejection from my family hurts them far more than it does me now. I can roll with the punches and even deal a few myself when it’s necessary. And most importantly, I know that life is change. Nothing lasts forever, except death. As long as I’m alive, there will be a new love, a new opportunity, something new to learn, see, and do.
I’m not one to live in the past, which is why recognizing this fear surprised me. I’ve gone to great lengths to learn to live in the present – meditation, lectures, all kinds of things. I have that part down… possibly a little too well. What surprised me even more was to realize that I was starting to think about the future. I never took the future seriously before because it didn’t seem like a real place. I guess it’s still not technically real – but, it’s actually starting to feel like a possibility now.