My Bipolar Freakshow
Hi kids… watch out! I’m Bipolar — the “bad” kind. Bipolar I.
I’m that particular brand of crazy where the world seems to bend to my will before swirling in on my psyche and showing me, in very clear and certain terms, that I am a god and with just a little good ol’ American how-do, I can achieve my potential.
I’m also medicated, so all of that sits behind a quetiapine-induced haze.
Let’s straighten something out before we keep going
- Being Bipolar isn’t the same as being moody. Depending on your classification, the highs and lows are something “normal” people don’t, and can’t, understand.
- Bipolar is on the psychosis scale. Schizophrenia and Bipolar occupy that same spectrum, albeit on “opposite” ends. Case in point: the same medications are used to treat both illnesses. Also, and this is important, depression medications can make symptoms significantly fucking worse. If your depression meds work, you’re probably not Bipolar.
Full disclosure: I’m not a doctor.
I’ve toyed with the idea of idea of making this public for years.
Sorry, “toyed” is the wrong word.
I’ve fretted and panicked over this idea for six years. Those closest to me already know, as well as a relatively large group of friends who helped me through my worst times. The only folks who don’t know, frankly, are literally everyone else.
The person I pass on the street.
The folks who I provided tech support for their businesses for 17 years.
Why is that?
Because I got lucky in a lot of ways that I’m going to list out here before going onto the meat of this article.
Ways Mike Hit The Bipolar Jackpot:
- I have a family history of this exact mental illness.
- I had a support network who was willing to help me through it all
- The job I had provided an in-house disability system that got me through the worst of it
- I’m white as the driven snow
Without those four things, I’d have been placed in in-patient and probably over-medicated, then pushed out and into the world to live on disability for the rest of my life.
This happens ALL THE TIME, especially in high poverty areas and to minorities.
Let’s move on to the “fun” part of this article, shall we?
How it Happened
Since high school, I’ve been a high performer. Sure, I suffered from some typical anxiety back then and was bullied a little bit, but for the most part I had my grades, my core group of friends, and video games to get me through the worst of it.
I don’t come from an educated or, traditionally, financially stable family. During high school I lived in a two-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment with my mom, my sister, my cousin, and my newborn little brother. Breakfast was a piece of bread with the most generic peanut butter imaginable. Lunch, free and clear if I signed my name in front of everyone (I wouldn’t freshman and sophomore year). Dinner, usually a pan of drumsticks for $.39/lbs and some flaked potatoes. On special nights we had goulash, made in a massive pot, and ate those leftovers for a week. Our annual income as a household during that time was somewhere in the realm of $13,000 while working full-time (minimum wage in the 90s was a shit show). My mom refused to go on welfare or other social programs, though, after much yelling/discussion we finally committed to Food Stamps and heating assistance in the winter.
Why mention this? Because getting quality medical advice and/or mental health evaluations is damn near impossible in this scenario.
You believe otherwise? Bring receipts, because mine are written in the blood of my family.
*cough* Sorry. Moving on.
That said, I always had notebooks and pens and pencils.
I used to be an artist… charcoal and pencil work, mostly, and I like to think I was pretty good.
Oh, and my mom — who is also bipolar — had gone off her meds while I was in high school because of my little brother being born. She then decided she didn’t need her medicine for the last two years of high school.
It’s at this time that I decided I was going to college and redoubled efforts to get into extracurricular activities to fluff up my applications. Another bit of luck I had at this point: people believed in me.
Many thanks to the librarian at JCB, Mrs. Drexler, for silently paying for my community college credits in AP English and convincing the administration to lie to me about where that money came from until after I finished the course.
Many thanks, as well, to my ex-girlfriend’s parents for continuously working to send me to Marching Band competitions and paying for god-knows-what to make that happen. It was a messy breakup with their daughter and I never properly got to thank them, so… thanks.
Where was I?
Oh yeah. I was a high performer and people saw that. I’m also charismatic and likeable (like most Bipolar I folks as it were).
And super white. (Did you see the picture?)
In college, I continued to be a high performer. I think I graduated with a 3.49/4 or something while working a full-time job, running a couple campus groups, courting the hell out of my current spouse, and running a custom-built, weekly, four-year-long D&D campaign that I’m currently working on converting into an epic fantasy series with one of the players.
Oh, and I had a healthy relationship with (most of) my roommates and we played games most nights as the “Gamers Guild” should.
First Brush with Bipolar
During my last semester, I slammed together a novella for my Honors thesis. My double-major and honors program cross-qualifying honors thesis. I don’t remember much sleeping for a couple months. In fact, I recall watching my fiancee sleep more than I did as I hammered away at this monster.
At the end of it, I graduated with honors in two degrees and, specifically, from the honors program.
I walked the stage.
I thanked everyone.
I went off and got married to that fiancee.
We moved into our first apartment…
And then I couldn’t get a job.
And it happened. Finally.
My worldview collapsed. Suddenly, the fact I was a high performer didn’t matter because I couldn’t get in the door. I went on a slew of interviews in IT land because it was the only applicable experience I had and, despite having run interviews for four years, I blew it.
At one point, I was shaking and begging for a chance at showing them what I could do. I don’t remember leaving the interview or the ride home.
Again, though, my luck kicked in and I got a job at the University I attended in a position that was created because, when I graduated, it turns out there was a void they needed filled and the current student body wasn’t cutting it.
Because I’m an overachiever… and my specific brand of controlled psychosis makes it really hard to replace me with 1, 2, or even 3 people.
Crisis averted… ish.
Four years later, I’d gone as high as I could in the University structure, gotten a job in California, got bored, got a job in San Francisco, burnt out, cussed out the Executive Director of the company, waited a few months, quit, and moved back to New York… as the news of the housing market collapse echoed over the radio while driving cross-country.
During the next four months, I focused on writing (it’s a side story I’ll tell another time). Between December 1st — January 15th, I wrote my first 100,000 word book fueled by lack of sleep, alcohol, and copious amounts of homemade espresso.
Then we ran out of money and I went back to work.
Months later, after a ridiculously long interview process, I started working at Apple in a management-ish position (Lead Genius… sounds fancy, right? It’s fucking not.).
My job there was to grow the Genius Room team, and the store, as quickly as possible. During my two years, I took a 6 person team to ~35 people.
It broke me. It broke me because I grew to love my team. I viewed them as friends. As family. And anytime someone hurt them or attacked them, I, to quote one of those friends, “went momma-bear on those assholes”.
The internal politics were horrific. Leadership failures lingered everywhere. Corporate mandates following Steve Jobs’ death were an absolute shit show.
Sometime in there I disappeared to Cupertino for a project I’m not allowed to talk about beyond mentioning it here. Suffice to say, I didn’t sleep much.
When I got back, my team was burning out.
I’ll spare you the details (and spare myself the call from Apple Legal), but I decided to place myself between everyone and my team. If there were coaching issues, they went through me. If someone had a complaint, it went through me.
And, if you dared to go around me, you were going to hear from me for a good long time.
Until I finally broke.
You see, I’d been riding a manic high for nearly a year with tiny little depression hits. Honestly, I was probably Cyclothymic until this point; just long, reasonable highs, and long, reasonable lows.
Then I hit a depression I couldn’t get out of punctuated by anxiety I couldn’t control.
So I did what any good American with health insurance does. I asked my doctor.
And like any good American doctor, he loaded me up on anti-depressants and Xanax, while signing the prescription form with a Celexa pen.
In two months, I was an unhinged mess. I couldn’t sleep without drinking a 12-pack. I popped Xanax like they were candies. I even found an old prescription for oxycodone with a few pills in it and used those to get me to stop shaking and twitching.
Pro tip: don’t do that.
And then I broke the hydraulic door at the store in a rage. The damn thing is about twenty feet tall and covered by sheets of steel. No idea what it cost to fix. (Sorry)
That was my last day at Apple and my last day thinking everything was okay with me.
The Worst of It
Sorry. Had to step a way and gather my thoughts for a minute because this sucked.
Steps to total collapse:
- Think you just need a break and all will be fine.
- Sand, scrape, repaint, and refinish the front deck (in two hours).
- Do literally every chore around the house while ignoring the little sprites and creatures in your peripheral vision.
- Read as many books as you can and force the voices to be the characters.
- When time and space get fuzzy, take a walk around town. Spend 30 minutes staring at an out of season flower.
- Walk into a Post Office because your “Spidey Sense” told you there’s danger in here and ask the young lady behind the counter if she needs help. Really mean it.
- Run home, nearly break your hand on a stud in the garage when you realize what’s been happening over the past week.
- Go to the doctor and ask for help.
- Get told you’re faking it and you’re going to lose your job.
- Through the haze, twitching eyes, and shaking hands say: “I think there’s something wrong with me.”
- Doctor leaves in disgust. Nurse does a referral to a psychologist because there’s a massive shortage of psychiatrists in the area.
- Go home and stare at the appointment for an hour.
- Remember you’re married and have four pets and haven’t spoken to anyone in days.
- Get drunk and have a few hours of blissful normalcy.
- End night ranting about how you can cure cancer if you just had the facilities and a few weeks.
- Wake up after two hours of sleep and realize symptoms could mean either Bipolar or Schizophrenia, both of which run in your family.
- Spend the next three days in a state of panic.
- Do chores. All the chores, including clearing the garden in the back of the house for reasons you forget later.
- Go to your appointment, trying not to puke.
- Fifteen minutes in: “I think we need to get you in to see a psychiatrist. I think you’ve had a psychotic break and need medication.”
- Agree as your entire body shakes.
- Get on medication.
- Lose yourself in the simulation until, one day, you open your eyes and everything is good again.
What Happens Next
I’d like to say, “and I spoke to the psychiatrist, he was in my insurance coverage, and now I’m medicated and all is well,” but that’d be a line of bullshit.
That motherfucker didn’t even take insurance, then closed down and disappeared.
*takes deep breath*
Every day has the potential to cause chaos. Each morning as I open my eyes, there’s a moment of panic as I react to the world and wonder if it’s all real. I got very lucky with my prescriptions because of my family history, so my road from complete shutdown to “functional adult” was relatively short. Only two months.
Let me clarify something: It’s not the sort of struggle where I’m warring with a psychotic demon threatening to send me into a murderous rage.
It’s the struggle of realizing you’ll never be what you were again. I’ll never be able to stand in a group of people and rapidly answer questions on damn near any topic again.
I can’t work on two things at once anymore.
They say humans can’t multitask, that it’s a social and mental construct we developed to make ourselves feel fancy (paraphrasing). Well, I could multitask. I could fix a laptop while providing marital advice and keep that Genius Bar running on time.
Now, if I stop and think about coffee, I forget I’m writing this article for a moment. If a car goes by, I can’t keep typing. I turn, look, wait, then finish what I was doing.
But for all that, I refuse to go back there.
Feeling like a god might sound good on paper, but it’s a horrifying feeling. If there’s one thing this experience taught me, it’s that being a god, or even God, is a horrible, thankless job.
I’d rather monotask, thanks.
That’s a good question. For now, I’m focusing on the artistic side of my brain. I’m working on three books and regularly submitting my fiction to various markets. I try to make sure my spouse, who for some insane reason stuck by me through this, is happy. I pet my pets. Even this one:
I’ve retired from IT. That’s a big one. Even the most mundane IT task shoves a red-hot poker of anxiety up my ass still. Honestly, I’m fine with that. IT is a shitty career.
So… off to write more dystopian fiction and, maybe, more articles like this focusing on the realities of living with a demonized mental illness.
After all, it’s only a “freak show” if you don’t know anyone on stage.
Until next time.