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Bipolar Bipolar
by Abigail George
2012-08-11 10:43:39
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Tense, numb, anxious, pensive, I left the psychiatrist with my mother. He wanted to talk to her in private. The magazines in front of me on the table held no interest for me. They were just one thousand and one stories of staring into nothing. I was alone except for the young receptionist. She had short hair. She was pretty, helpful. She did not stare at me. Instead she busied herself with admin. The good doctor had studied in Vienna. That had to count for something, I told myself, imagining the gates of the university, its spires; if it had lofty towers, students walking across green spaces, trees blossoming. ‘Our last resort will be to have you hospitalised. This will mean Elizabeth Donkin. We don’t want that to happen. So I’ll see you next month, then.’ Just like that, my life as I knew it was all over.
Julian came to visit me often at Tara. He drove his sister’s car. She worked in a bank and had worked herself up from being a teller to working in the finance department.

Julian had schizophrenia. He played the guitar in the band at his church. Some times he would have good days and sometimes bad. If it was a bad day, it would be really difficult to communicate with him. He had long, dark hair. We would talk for hours on everything under the sun; the physical and emotional horrors of treatment, the isolation that accompanied grave mental illness. Sometimes we would just sit together on the grass, saying nothing at all, in our own thoughts. He’d buy us cans of soda at the café at the hospital that was open in the early afternoon until 4 o’ clock. We’d sit together so long outside, on a park bench that the soda would become warm and we’d sip the fizzy drink that now tasted like water through straws for intermittent periods of time. Both of us staring into space, imagining our futures intertwined with periods of ill health, euphoria, the mania that came with bipolar. Sitting down face-to-face with yet another psychiatrist, psychologist, other in-patients in the canteen; imagining what hell must be like, feel like for eternity and having to process that yet again.

For me, hell was slowly becoming a walk in the park. It meant a life surrounded by pills, nurses who would take my blood pressure, draw vials of blood to check the status of lithium, the wonder drug for manic state or a bout of depression, lithium streaming through my veins and arteries keeping me balanced. Being at Tara meant being surrounded by nurses who would routinely check up on you (suicide watch). Lights out literally meant lights out. The night staff would stay awake watching the glowing television in the dark. There was only one channel. I fell in love. I fell out of love. I made friendships I knew wouldn’t last. Then there was Natasha. An extrovert, confident, her mother worked for the Portuguese Consulate. I liked them both. I was drawn to them, to their close mother and daughter relationship, the bond they shared. Natasha made me laugh. Julian liked her. The only problem was that I wanted Julian to like me. But sometimes we would hang out together and Julian would play his guitar when he came to see me.

The world inside a psychiatric hospital’s grounds is very different to the outside world. The two environments were world’s apart. I spent 6 months at Tara. When I came home I had a birthday and turned 21. The family on my father’s side was invited over. My mother asked a pastor that she knew to say a few words. He brought his guitar with, his wife, his newborn son and sang. He saw our piano and then hit out a few tunes, then a few hymns. Then we all had cake. There was carrot cake and chocolate, cousins who had grown up, who were now growing teenagers. I did not want this ‘party’. It was my mother’s idea. I did not want people around me. People I regarded as ‘Outsiders’ for most of my life.

I had goals which I did not put aside when I was at Tara. I applied to film school and was accepted. The love of telling stories and fairytales had already bit me, sunk deep into my consciousness ever since I was a small child armed with a library card and books I had to return. I had a lion’s mouth. I reacted badly when people ripped me apart for being condescending and insensitive towards the other students. ‘Who do you think you are?’ Their eyes would stare at me accusingly as I suffered this humiliation inwardly and privately.

When the pressure intensified and I tended to believe that I was above recrimination, teachers would take me aside and say, ‘This is a warning. We can’t accept this kind of behaviour. You’re good. You have talent. You’re intense. Tone it down or you’re out of here.’ After Tara, I got tangled up in compliments, displaced in relationships, stopped going for checkups. Warning bells began to ring but I tended not to notice the blinking obvious at the time.

Sitting around in a class, I still felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t deserve to be there. Unfortunately, my masked insecurities that came from my gut was seen as sheer arrogance by a lot of people that I came into contact with. Of course, in retrospect, I would have done it differently. I would have been more considerate of other peoples’ feelings, been more sensitive, my thinking more rational and would have had much more clarity of vision. I would have been the most emotional mature person in the room. I would have been more aware of my manners and my mannerisms would have screamed subliminally, ‘etiquette, etiquette, etiquette at all times, Abigail.’ Instead, I became more and more withdrawn (at this time I wasn’t taking any meds, I didn’t feel I needed them anymore, I was ‘happy’, ‘content’, ‘balanced’, ‘coping’, ‘sane’, ‘healthy’), a hellish, highly intelligent human robot going head on through the motions of being a highly kind of normal that I thought my parents, the people around me, rooting for me, the ones who had my back, who believed in me expected of me. Looking back, all the signs were there. I wasn’t sleeping. Three days would go by and the most sleep I got was a few hours, a long midday nap or I would pull an all-nighter with the boys in the edit suite; staring, glassy-eyed, at frame after frame after frame until the early hours of the morning. I tried to make friends with the girls but they were not having any of that. It was as if they could already sense a disconnect within me, my altered states of mind, the dopamine and serotonin clicking away, speeding away in my brain; endorphins slowly but then more surely rising to higher levels. In their heads, there were no wasted or lost years, there was no wilderness unfolding into the barren playing fields of living with years of a mental illness, no trial and error only beautiful, biological perfection. Perfection I could not call my own.

They tolerated me but I was never really accepted into their clique, their group. ‘I’m emotional too.’ I wanted to say. ‘I have needs. I want friends; women friends.’ They would fuss with their hair leaving me with the unanswered question of why? Why fuss with your hair when it’s already in place. They would never raise their hand in class; contribute anything intellectual really to a discussion, debate. I was envious of them. Their masterful control of their femininity made me feel more different than ever. They were secure in the knowledge, with their hard laughter, their crooked smiles whenever I spoke aloud in class that they had complete faith in their pull in the world, the sexual impulse that done men in. I had always needed help along that way. I did not yield to the extreme of passionate exertions of lust, what they obliquely thought of as love like I did to my commitment of finding my voice in the inner, salutary calm of the universe, the eye of the storm.

Living with and note I do not say suffering from, because at the end of the day, whether you will want to admit to it or not, what you’ve sacrificed for having a semblance of emotional stability, no matter how long it lasts, how purified you feel when those meds start to kick in normality, you learn to live with it in the spirit of what ‘it’, mental illness takes from you, curses you with (humiliation, insomnia, tremours) and the gifts it gives back to you, whatever it gives back to you; creativity, employment and most of all your family, children if you have them, your spouse who loves and accept YOU.

Mental illness and craving, half-dreaming wellness; a sense of spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing is an eternal battle; you are locked into it mentally with no viable exit out. No matter how long, how hard you hate yourself, you punish yourself, you loathe yourself, you push against this daily struggle, this trauma, hoping against hope that it will finally let go of you, you live and you learn to let go of working so hard to keep a pretence up. The plain truth is this, if you don’t let go of ‘it’, it the humiliations that burned you, what you said, how you said it, what you didn’t say, in that few precious moments when you still had the time to take that hurtful accusation that came out of nowhere, from you, yes, you; you will go insane and it’s not that much of a struggle, if you’re halfway there already. Half-drowning, flailing like a bird with a broken wing, mourning the life you once you knew you had, when you were perfect and not sick. Not getting out of bed, not eating, pulling the covers over your head when the sight of afternoon light hit your head, not taking care of yourself, of your home, of your family.

Doing ordinary chores that once made you feel human and grounded in reality like working in the garden, for God’s sake watering plants is me feeling normal again, going swimming, for a walk on the beach. Stroking a pet’s fur, washing the dishes, cooking a meal, doing activities that gave a more novel meaning to your life, sharing secrets, conspiring vengeance upon the enemy that is mental illness. Feeling normal is the ancient darkness of despair, the gut-wrenching, explosive volcano of the paranoia of mania that only settled when you got your rest and when they stuck the needle painlessly in. I mean (you’re so high, you can hardly feel a thing), and perhaps here, I am talking in secret code to those who would know that part best; when sleep becomes your best friend, your only friend when you’re knocked out stone cold. It’s a magical alliance with no flurry, detailed illusions. You’re finally dead to the world, almost as if in a coma. Your skin oh so pale and beautiful.

I was there.

I did all that, went through it all. It sounds like drama but it doesn’t just end there. The black dog of depression comes on you like a fork in the road. It rises out of nowhere like lists, an item you remember wearing and then cringe at your choice because of the trends at the time. It rises like a ghost from your past; like faces and limbs whose features come unstuck at the edges and become blurred, sinking and swimming in ripples of water;   something that was lost in haste and then found once again amidst bliss and glee. So important to you now that it will be buried like treasure in a sock, under a mattress, in a drawer; held dear, never to be lost again. If only regaining your emotional health could be so easy, I hear myself say over and over again like a stuck record. 

I never truly fitted anywhere. I tried too hard or not enough. I was too different. My hair, my posh voice, me, me, me was too different. I stuck out like a Band-Aid on a sore thumb, a bloody finger; an accidental cut with the meat knife. With pain pulsing in short staccato waves murdering me every inch of a movement, a stubbed toe against the peculiarly angled corner of a piece furniture that you can’t make out in the dark.

You get lots of ‘space’ in hospital. You get ‘lots of time to think’, ‘lots of time to yourself’ and ‘lots of time to weigh up the labels you’ve been given or are going to get given in your life’. But most of all, you get ‘lots of headspace’ and too many people picking at your brain and sometimes you find yourself loving, craving all the attention your own mother did not have the energy, to give to you, because you wanted all of her. You wanted all of her, when she was tired or busy running errands or just facing whatever issues grown ups, in her day, faced.

‘Bring it on. More. More. Ask me anything you want. I’m an open page. I’m not afraid of the truth.’ Then you realise, that your truths swiftly, really, reveal who you are, when you begin to open up, and it is this; that you’re one hell of a psychological mess, on a road paved with good intentions, goals that are within your reach if you work hard enough with courage and commitment. And yet that road is still leading you faraway, further and further on a pathway straight to the hell and the preeminent burden of mental illness. So I told myself, I’m sticking to my childhood stories of name (the person who caused you the most), pain and blame (them for everything that went wrong in your life).’
Sometimes you’re sick of it, your honesty, and how painful the process of what they call here ‘cognitive therapy’ is, but most times you find it a bit self-indulgent. And by the third month you’re just thinking, ‘Am I ever going to get out of here? Am I ever going to escape the stigma of this place, of taking daily doses of lithium to ‘cure’ me? Nobody even knows what lithium is, so they’re not going to care anyway.’ And I heard, like a song on the wind in the heartland of winter in the countryside, the most heartbreaking words of all in the English language. ‘Nobody will ever love me again. Nobody will ever hurt me, touch me, hug me, embrace all of me and know what I had to endure, live through to get this far in life, to get to the other side again.’ The other side was humanity. A breath of fresh air considering what I had been through to get there.

I was wrong. People did hurt me but I did my fair share of hurting people too. I could be mean, nasty, petty, jealous, throw the baby out with the bathwater and wasn’t above from throwing a tantrum when I didn’t get my own way. Sometimes I apologised. Sometimes I didn’t. I was embraced and I wasn’t afraid to let my feelings be known. Although that first impression stayed with me for a long time before I realised it was just a white lie I drilled into myself to keep me sane and to make me believe in sobriety. For some people, mental illness and alcoholism simply, with no forethought, go hand-in-hand. They are inseparable buddies for whom sobriety could be a killer. I had to work on it, like most things. Patience did not come easily to me. I had to focus especially on not getting distracted at the task on hand. My anger could easily flare up and then I just saw red. A high exposure of red scribbles, a thin red line drawn through a conversation, red flaring up through my body, from the tips of toes, to the top of head in a mad, wild, hot rush and next, I would feel nothing. Calm would descend; a cool desert of calm at twilight complete with Magi and camels and ‘that’ star. Yes, almost as if there was something oddly religious and meditative about it, the calm that descended, like the calm that would come from praying; saying the Our Father out loud, counting slowly to ten under your breath before all hell broke loose inside or outside of me. Reading a passage from the Bible seemed to help me a lot with coping with something that I thought was not within my reach. I needed some sought of mechanism to fix whatever was hurting so badly inside me and that was it; a meditative passage of Scripture or prayer. As I grew older, faith became all-important to me and I discovered I could begin to ‘read’ my moods; when I was up but especially when I was down. Different things work for different people. For some people it’s a glass of wine and sushi, a circle of friends, playing an instrument like Julian, the relationship between Natasha and her mother; the respect and devotion for one another that they share. For me it’s this; having faith.

I love those words. Electric. Electricity. Fire. They tell me when I should be on the lookout, on the alert for any signs and for me they don’t mean so many things, only one. Panic and mania.

In the past when I started to feel like that, I could already imagine the onslaught of mania. It was as if I was on fire.

I don’t know what wavelength I’m on or connected to, I just write. It helps me figure out what’s behind ‘all of this’. The years I spent speaking to therapists isn’t wasted on me. I can draw from those ‘behind-the-scenes’ experiences and use them when I write to their full potential. I know who I am now. I’m not perfect but then again, who is? Who isn’t? The possibility that this is what saved me from a fate worse than death is not completely lost on me. I am living a full, productive life. I’m healthy for now. I’m happy. You have your good days and you have your bad days and I can see them through. I’m learning how to handle the ‘episodes’. Rage, sadness, the torture of having your nerves on edge all the time, gritting your teeth, retching, feeling the butterflies flit in your stomach because there are just too many people in the world today for you to face, if it means going out just to buy milk and bread, eating disorders. It’s shameful what we do physically and mentally to our bodies when we hate ourselves. Who do we hate more? I hated the depression but it came with me, my head, my brain ticking away like a time bomb and my body that was slowly wasting away.

I hated the suicidal depression even more. The more I resisted it, the more it would not let me go. I thought to myself how peaceful it would be, just to drown in it, give up and give in.

There’s two words for it; human suffering. I could have said mental health or the awareness of mental health or mental illness but everyday somewhere in the world human beings are suffering and there are others who remain obstinately in denial of it and  indifferent and aloof to it. Who do you feel sorrier for now? Those who suffer in silence or those who do not care at all? I have discovered there’s always a story behind any kind of illusion found in life. There is always a lie or a scar. Everybody hurts. The monster doesn’t have to be mental illness or a mood disorder like bipolar.

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