November 17, 2014

To the Edge and Back (Living with Bipolar Disorder).


In August, I wrote a piece for elephant journal about depression.

The piece was written in reaction to Robin Williams’ suicide.

I wrote the piece because I think a lot of people remain ignorant about depression and mental illness. Many people don’t realize that mental illness is treatable but not curable, that it is both a daily and a lifelong battle, and that it can be sheer hell for the sufferer.

I decided to write this, as a sort of follow up to my depression piece, because, being bipolar, depression, for me, is only a part of the battle. I also experience mania and psychosis, and I think elucidation regarding these aspects of mental illness is just as important as elucidation regarding depression.

My hope is that such elucidations will lead to lesser stigma (both social-stigma and self-stigma), and perhaps help those suffering from mental illness, whether firsthand or secondhand. So, without further ado…

These days, my life is pretty boring. In fact, it’s so boring that I began writing this piece on a Friday night and finished writing and editing it over the rest of the weekend (I used to consider a weekend spent inside a wasted weekend). There was a time, though, when my life was very exciting. My days were spent recovering from crazy nights, and my nights were filled with drinking, drugs and lots and lots of partying.

Ever since I was about 13, I drank a lot and partied hard. When I was about 22 or 23, after nearly a decade of partying, though, things started to get out of hand. I remember, at one point, smoking crack with an elementary school teacher, who was also kind of my girlfriend at the time. Within a week of that happening, I experienced what alcoholics refer to as “a moment of clarity,” and I decided to clean up my act and get sober.

I ended up in AA, where I managed to get sober, stay sober, get to multiple meetings a day, and quickly make a bevy of new friends, most of whom genuinely seemed to care for my well-being. (Though I don’t get to many meetings these days, AA, and the people I met in AA, no doubt saved my life.) It was pretty tough, getting sober, but I did it. Unfortunately, my drinking and drugging weren’t the only problems that needed work.

At around the end of my third month sober, something was clearly wrong. I didn’t realize it, but pretty much everybody around me did. I had become fully manic and absolutely psychotic. I was starting to experience delusions of grandeur, including thoughts that I was the immortal Second Coming of Jesus Christ; paranoid delusions, including thoughts that people were out to “get me;” and I too suffered from what’s referred to as “delusions of reference,” in which I was incapable of experiencing even the simplest of events, such as watching a television show or reading a news article, without connecting everything I saw or read with me and my own personal experience.

I was also experiencing uncontrollable fits of anger during this manic episode (I think it worth noting that the word “mania” is derived from a Greek verb, meaning: “to be mad, to rage, to be furious”), and I would take my anger out in brutal personal attacks upon friends and others who did nothing to deserve such attacks. Never physical, always verbal, but man, some of the stuff I said was so vitriolic that if I didn’t manage to hurt the people I hurled my venom at, I at least managed to shake them up and push them away. Indeed, particularly because of my fits of anger, it was during this time that I managed to push away virtually everyone besides my family and my AA sponsor.

When I became completely out of control (probably a month into my manic episode), my family finally did the right thing and forced me to go to the hospital. While at the hospital, I was fearful that I was going to be put down by a doctor. Luckily, the doc I saw just shot me full of something that put me to sleep for the first time in three days. I woke up (either the next day, or the day following that) in the psych ward of a mental hospital.

During my first few days in the psych ward, I was still psychotically manic (so much so that I was diagnosed as schizophrenic rather than bipolar, which is what I am). I still thought I was the Second Coming of Christ, and too, I thought I was capable of controlling the weather and the media. The day after I entered the loony-bin, a huge blizzard occurred, and the front page of the local newspaper (copies of which were made freely available to the loony-bin patients) featured in big, bold letters, the word “Powerless.”

The word was used with reference to the major power outages caused by the storm. I, of course, viewed the storm and the power outages as my own doing, as revenge for being locked up, and the paper’s choice of the word “Powerless” as a reference to all those who were conspiring against me. Later that day, I was given some pretty powerful meds, and the next day, I finally started to regain my sanity.

Within a week or two, I was on a strict regiment of anti-psychotic and mood-stabilizing medications, was free of delusions, and was released back into the wild. I went back to AA meetings, started making new friends (though I went to fewer meetings, and I made friends at a much slower rate than before), and I managed to find a new girlfriend.

I also crashed. I crashed heavy. And by crash, I mean I became depressed. Suicidally so. This sort of crash isn’t all that uncommon for someone who has experienced a manic episode as severe as the one I had experienced, but that kind of info doesn’t really help when one is as low as I was. Anyway, back to the psych ward I went, though this time of my own accord. My meds and such were tweaked, and again, after about a week or two, I was released back into the wild.

I stayed sober, kept going to AA meetings, had an amicable break-up with my then girlfriend, made new friends, watched as many of them moved or went away to school, and eventually got so bored with life that I decided to stop taking my medications. As you can imagine, this didn’t go well. Delusions came back almost instantly, so too did the anger, and I become so anxious and paranoid that I had trouble leaving my house. Perhaps most regrettably, I pushed away my best friend at the time with some really vile text messages I wouldn’t dare repeat. (Now, over a year later, we remain out of touch.)

I, for a while, felt abandoned by her (my best friend at the time), and by the friends I pushed away during my previous episode(s). I felt abandoned by everybody, really (at this point, few non-family members were talking to me, or I to them). But looking back, “abandoning” me was probably the best thing anybody could have done, because after I had pushed away the last of my friends, again, I finally realized that the problem was not theirs but mine. Yet again, I checked myself into the nuthouse, but this time I decided I’d comply with the doctors and my treatment plan upon release.

Since then, my life has been pretty boring. But I’ve made some new friends, I’ve remained, for the most part, sane and healthy, and anyway, I’m 26. I think once one reaches my age, leading a boring life isn’t such a bad thing, especially when the only alternative seems to be utter insanity.

I picked up a serious interest in poetry just before I got sober, and over the past few years, I’ve read and studied poetry voraciously, and I now review poetry for a literary magazine. That is pretty exciting, I think. Maybe not as exciting as smoking crack and believing I’m the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, but still, pretty exciting.

Although it’s safe to say that I am out of control when my illness fully kicks in, it’s also safe to say that I am completely in control when I am in between episodes. And while in between episodes, it’s up to me to take all of the necessary precautions to keep another episode from occurring.

What’s important to know about mental illnesses is that having a mental illness is not a choice, but seeking and getting help is. Even with solid social support, a solid treatment plan, and medication, one can still experience symptoms, even episodes. But I’m here to say that you can get about as close to the edge as possible and still come back to one piece, sane, and able to lead a healthy, normal life.


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Author: Christopher Cadra

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikipedia

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