A Monstrous Beautiful Mess
I want to talk about mental illness.
I have studied mental illness. I have worked with people suffering from various mental illnesses. I have spoken about and advocated for mental health treatment reform. Yet I have always avoided sharing my own personal experiences with mental illness. But I am starting to learn that there is strength in allowing oneself to be vulnerable, and part of being vulnerable is sharing your truth with others. So here it goes…
Last year I was diagnosed as bipolar.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of mania and depression, cycles of extreme highs and lows. During a manic episode one might experience unusually high energy and high moods. Feelings of euphoria or grandiosity. Racing thoughts, distractibility, or speaking in rapid incoherent sentences. Mania may lead a person to engage in reckless or impulsive behaviors. In severe cases, a person experiencing mania may have delusions or hallucinations. On the other end of the spectrum we have depression. Depression is characterized by extended periods of hopelessness or sadness, a loss of interest in activities, and changes in appetite. During a depressive episode a person may lack the energy to complete everyday tasks and experience changes in sleep.
I have always been a mercurial person. Growing up I was prone to mood swings. Slamming doors, screaming through hot tears one moment, laughing and joking the next. As a teenager I struggled with depression. It wasn’t until my junior year of college however, that I started exhibiting real symptoms of bipolar disorder. While at the time I did not recognize these behaviors as symptoms, looking back I am sure this was the beginning. The timeframe certainly makes sense, as most mental illnesses tend to manifest during a person’s early to mid-twenties. It was during this time that I started to notice more extreme and prolonged mood swings. In the following years my symptoms became more severe and harder to ignore. I have always been very aware of how I am perceived by others, and have prided myself on my strength and confidence. So the more I started to lose control to this new internal chaos, the more I struggled to convince myself and everyone around me that I was fine. I have become very skilled at masking my mental illness. I thought this made me strong. But as I said earlier, there is strength in allowing yourself to be vulnerable. My experiences with mania and depression are as follows.
I am manic.
It’s like being high, all of the time. And at first it’s tremendous. I am full of creative inspiration. I can do anything, I can be anything, in fact I am everything, all of the world’s potential is there. It is inside of me. The ideas come fast, and if I don’t write them down they disappear. I stay up all night, writing furiously, compulsively, pacing around my room, around my house. The sun comes up and I go for a run. I’m not tired, in fact my sleepless night was invigorating! I go outside, and I see the world as if it is painted in pure pigments. There is beauty in everything, the universe is wonderful, and intrinsically I am a part of it all. When I am manic I feel incredible. No, I am incredible. I truly am the best version of myself. But every once in a while, the mania turns dark. The sleepless nights become riddled with fear and anxiety. I am reckless and destructive. I succumb to every impulse, good and bad. I spend thoughtlessly, on things I do not need, art I will never hang, books I will never read. Drugs. I sleep with strangers, a new one every night, why not? I’m invincible and nothing really matters. I’m full of rage, I throw out words like sharpened knives aimed to hurt those I care about most. I throw actual things too. At its most extreme, my mania manifests itself in paranoid delusions. I hear things.
Suddenly I start falling, fast.
I slip into my bed, wrapped in fleece blankets, I close my eyes and sleep. And sleep. 15 hours later I wake up exhausted. Nothing is interesting enough to motivate me, and the endless energy I once had is all gone. Everything seems a few shades darker, stained gray. I am crying in the shower for no reason. I rest my forehead on the cold tile and think about the impossibility of living like this for another month, another year, jesus another 60 years. I’m drunk. I’m stoned. I don’t feel anything but hopeless. I am driving down the highway and find myself thinking about how one sharp turn would end it all.
At this point you’re wondering whether or not I’m suicidal.
The answer is yes. During my most extreme depressive cycles I often contemplate suicide. Many people living with mental illness contemplate suicide, but this isn’t a topic we as a society typically like to talk about. Well fuck that. This is real, these are people’s lives, we can’t keep pretending this does not exist. I can’t keep pretending this does not exist.
Last year I attempted suicide. At the time I was experiencing simultaneous symptoms of mania and depression, or something called a “mixed episode”. I had just began medication, and was struggling to adjust. The mania I was experiencing was extreme, and I remember waking up that morning and feeling as if I was choking on my own anxiety. Throughout the day I had been drinking and was around a lot of people which only exacerbated my anxiety. After so many hours of pretending to be stable and fine, I finally bottomed out. My anxiety had reached it’s peak, and I wasn’t thinking about anything or anyone else, just my overwhelming desire for everything to be quiet. I went to my room with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a prescription worth of sleeping pills in the other and an unrelenting need to quiet my mind. I swallowed one round white tablet. And then another. And then a handful. The rest is hazy.
I was shaken awake, and asked if I was okay. I was carried downstairs to the bathroom and started to throw up white foam. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I was carried to the car and taken to the hospital where I was hooked up to an IV and purged myself of the remaining undigested pills. I was held and received an evaluation from a psychiatrist. Eventually I was released.
At home I told my roommates that I had had too much to drink (which was at least partially true) and that my new medication had made me sick (I suppose this is also technically true). “Really guys I’m fine” I reassured everyone. I didn’t want to talk about it. I wasn’t ready to accept what had happened. I was ashamed. The only person who really knew the truth was the one who found me and took me to the hospital. I am so sorry for putting you through that. You know who you are. You saved my life, for that among countless other reasons, I am forever thankful.
Since then I have started on new medication at a higher dose. I still struggle finding balance, but treating mental illness is a process. Looking back it’s hard to believe all of this really happened. It’s surreal, and still a blur in my mind. It is difficult for me to accept that such a dark and dangerous place exists within my mind. It is a place I have been and never want to return to. I was ashamed of myself for allowing things to get so out of control. I still struggle with the shame. Writing the truth of these events is one of the hardest things I have ever done. But I’m doing this because I want others, no I need others who are struggling to know that they are not alone. I want people to know that things do get better. There is help out there.
Stigma around mental illness is real.
It isn’t something we like to talk about, and it is stigma that often prevents people from seeking treatment. We live in a world that values strength, integrity, and perseverance. Our culture views any inability to cope with external or internal chaos as a sign of personal weakness. We have five versions of the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) that doctors use to diagnose mental illness, however as a society we still treat mental health issues as character flaws, something a person can control, rather than an actual illness. This is a problem. This stigma is literally killing people.
I plan to flesh these cultural issues out more fully in a later article. But for now, I would like to leave you all with a few final thoughts.
If you are struggling with mental illness, know that you are not alone. Know that it is not your fault. Know that there are people who care about you. Know that I care about you. Know that your mental illness does not define you. Know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Know that it is okay to be vulnerable. Know that you can heal.
If you know someone who is struggling with mental illness, know that their struggle is real. Know that what they are feeling is real. Know that much of this is out of their control. Be patient. Be open. Don’t be afraid to ask if they are okay. When they are ready to talk, be ready to listen.