Behind my Madness: My Love/Hate relationship with bi-polar disorder
I have bipolar disorder. Phew. I said it. It’s out. Not that I usually have a problem admitting it to myself—well, actually that’s a lie. It’s very hard to admit, believe and more crucial—accept. However, it’s even harder for me to write–especially on this platform. But, what the hell, I’m going to be brave, wave my own flag and hopefully, give someone else courage to do the same. For now, I’m more interested in enlightening you about what it is like (at least for me) to live with madness. The scenario below gives you a tiny taste of my early morning crazy.
Maybe I should Feng shui my living room? I’ll just sample some old paint on this wall really quick. I really like this eggshell white. I’ll just wake up Shane really quick and ask him what he thinks. Oh yeah, it’s 3:30 a.m. Crap. I forgot to feed the dogs last night… ”Sookie come!” Ugh. I just woke my son. I’ll let him settle back down. Maybe Lucky is awake—she’ll know the perfect color. She said I could call at any time. Is it too early? I’ll just run the dogs really quick and navigate by stars—they’re a light-bright plugged into the sky. I’ll record my ideas while I’m sweating and take some photos of the tangerine horizon. Better climb on this rock platform to get a better angle! “Sampson! Now, where’s his leash? Crap. 7 am! Gotta wake kids. Ugh. We’re going to be late again.” My mind and energy override all rationality.
Now, I want you to imagine the energy behind the mania and apply it behind a severe depression. These mixed episodes are the most dangerous because the energy that fuels the mania also fuels the depressive episodes. Please do not be one of those uneducated ass hats who claim that “everyone has depression or insomnia at some point and with some mindful changes in your attitude, you can conquer your mental illness.” Even though less orthodox treatments like mindful meditation, clean diet, energy work, or herbal tinctures have proven to be helpful to me—they do not replace my medication. It took me years to convince my grandmother that her philosophies of “positive attitude, quantum thinking and mental manifestation” could not replace the keys that could free me from my mental prison. Do I believe some people are enlightened enough to use meditation to change their chemicals? Yes, I do. Is it me? No—not even with a lifetime supply of yoga pants.
Is it madness, mania, insomnia or my ADHD? Truthfully, it’s a combination of it all. Which is better? Treat the mania and deal with dulled creativity and vibrancy? Or use my mania to my advantage? Mental illness is a personal journey and just like some individuals prefers Rocky Road over Vanilla, unique symptoms, medication side effects and challenges present more variety and choices than Ben & Jerry’s. After all, I should be a sponsor for Merck pharmaceuticals as I have tried almost every mood stabilizer (Lithium) , MAOI inhibitor (Prozac) and antipsychotic (Risperdal) they make. Side effects can be unbearable like short-term memory deficits, unsteady gait, slurred speech, blurred vision, vomiting, irritability, weight gain (I gained 30 pounds in 2 months!) and a variety of other ailments–quietly mentioned in the background of a shitty pharmaceutical commercial. If you ask anyone why they would discontinue their meds, the response will probably be geared towards the horrid side effects of the medicine. Nothing better than gaining 20 fucking pounds to cheer you up, right? Unless your mood symptoms are severe (possibly with delusions or voices), most often the medicine side effects are less risky than you opening up your femoral artery to bleed out on the floor. Psychiatrists have a huge responsibility in researching effective meds and all degrees of severity cause different approaches to treatment.
I cannot compare my symptoms to the homeless man arguing at the bus stop with his judgmental delusion or the woman who scratches her skin exterminating the imaginary insects. Every person who has mental illness is on a spectrum, and even more confusing—a spectrum that changes in priority depending on which mood states are dominant at the time of swings. Even though many people might think mania sounds great—more energy, more vibrancy, more creativity. It can also lead to excessive spending, gambling, promiscuity and extreme irritability. Even worse, the depression that typically follows a mania can be crippling and self-injurious.
Typically, my depression is all-consuming. Ruminating thoughts of worthlessness and self-loathing. Anyone who knows me—knows I typically check my mailbox ONCE a month. Sounds pretty irresponsible, doesn’t it? Although, feeling like a heavy anvil shackled to my bed—repeatedly tortured by my evil thoughts isn’t exactly ideal for functioning as a normal human. Often, I cannot sleep at all during a depression. Research studies indicate that people who suffer from depression often wake in the early am hours trying to return to sleep, but often ruminate and obsess about their insecurities, fears and suicide. I am no exception to this discovery, and on average, I get between 3-6 hours of sleep in a mixed episode or 14-16 hours of sleep during a major depression. Unfortunately, sleep is the most important cough syrup for a depressive flu.
Sleep was the main culprit in discovering my bipolar disorder. At 14, my first-love (who was 19–gross) cheated on me with a rich, French model, left the states, traded in his Powell Peralta skateboard and lived the remainder of his life in the hillsides of vineyard country. NOW THAT is something to be depressed about. That plot might be a little embellished…. ok, she wasn’t French, or a model, and he didn’t live in the hillsides. In reality, my first love cheated on me with a stripper named Nikki, started doing meth, moved in with her, dropped out of high school and became a disappearing character in my Summer journal. See, you’d rather hear about the French model, wouldn’t you? Regardless of the idiocy of this situation, at 14, I was completely and totally destroyed.
I inhaled more THC than Cheech and Chong’s Chihuahua. I drowned myself in Tylenol PM, Little Debbie and Mickey’s Big-Mouth’s. I slept for 16 hours a day—occasionally waking to drink water, self-medicate or go to the bathroom. During this time, my mother was frantic with worry. She had got a job in Flagstaff, and I was in Phoenix staying in the guest home behind my grandparent’s house. I don’t remember telling my mother that I broke every dish in our house, burned my arms with cigarettes and cut my legs with plate shards. They were all superficial wounds, but to me, the marks were a comforting reminder of the pain I felt inside. They were the words I couldn’t scream. They were the pain I couldn’t feel. The cuts were hidden under my hoodie of self-loathing I felt for myself. My mother pleaded for my best friend James to stay with me 24 hours/day until her work week was over and could return from Flagstaff. Unfortunately, my high school friends were a tribe of skate-board hellions and graffiti artists—but the good news is—they were loving, loyal and most of all compassionate. During the week of the meltdown, friends were worker bees—punching in to start their “Shawna Patrol” shift. Friends came and went with hugs, dime bags, hope and new Vans.
This type of depressive episode would occur about 6-8 more times throughout my life—usually following a significant life change or traumatic event. The second episode was 17, the third, I was 26, the fourth, I was 31, the fifth, I was 39, and currently (although I pulling out) is 42. All episodes followed a major trauma or life transition including pressing charges against my step-father for 10 years of sexual abuse, relapsing over opiates after rehab, suicidal delusions with postpartum depression, burying my 47-year-old mother who had breast cancer, supporting my boyfriend with Stage 3 brain cancer or breaking-up over alcohol-related issues. You can see there is a pattern of 7-10 years in between. As I’ve gotten older, I can see the cyclic patterns and am better at managing symptoms.
The most important things to remember about my mood cycles is that I honor the symptoms that arise before the shift, being honest and compassionate with myself, and asking for help even if I’d rather hide in my faithless burrow. Isolation is a key indicator for a depression brewing. It can also be an indicator towards self-reflection and self-care. It’s important to recognize the differentiation between recharging and quieting the mind or the isolating and ruminating about suicide. Because symptoms are experienced differently for each person suffering from depression or mania—it’s important to check-in, create daily structure, and educate your tribe about symptoms to look out for, as well as an action plan in an emergency.
I have spoken to my children about my illness. I do not hide behind a fake-ass mask to protect them. Secrets do not protect your loved ones in these circumstances. It is important to be vulnerable and honest with your tribe. Even if there is people who disagree about my openness—my children are compassionate and strong, and they are old enough to have a simple understanding of my chemical imbalance and mental illness. There will always be people on the peripheral who are judgmental and more concerned with fake appearances than the reality of the situation or how their family appears to others. Children should be educated about symptoms and behavior of certain mental illness. It also helps them build empathy for those struggling with delusions or odd behaviors. I’m very proud to say that I am molding compassionate children—I believe whole-heartedly that my children are my contribution to this ugly world, and their example (upholding the values of any enlightened human ie. Jesus or Buddha) of tolerance and compassion is what will influence others to be kind, patient and accepting.
Recently, I asked my children what it is like to have a mom with bi-polar? Can they tell a difference? “Mom, I’m pretty sure most moms don’t roller skate in living room, write poetry at 4:30 am, scribble all the reasons you hate “The Bachelor,” or paint over floors without newspapers down,” my oldest might say. Saying it out loud does sound ridiculous, but in the moment—it makes perfect sense to my overly-active brain. They also say, I dress more vibrant, sexy or adventurous. I love to be in front of an audience. I spend more money than I probably should. I talk, walk and eat very fast—or most often, I don’t eat at all. I start several projects or ideas without finishing or starting them. I can uncontrollably sob when a new client tells me of her friend’s child who is struggling with cancer, which is sad. However, when it is a first client—it could definitely be awkward. You might be surprised that even though clients choose to share personaI, vulnerable information with me —I think most are surprised at my compassionate nature.
I become extremely irritable—mostly because my brain and body have so much activity—even one disagreement, loud TV, dick at ATM line, dog barking, phone ringing bright lights, wine glasses chinking or loud thunder or any other stimulus that can override my sensory receptors can push me to the brink of explosion. In fact, one punishment I made for myself was to patch the evidence I had made by kicking holes in the drywall, cracking the trims on door jams or power-throwing a pillar candle into the drywall. At one point, I told my children we needed a code so I knew my anger was building. We decided on the Incredible Hulk. “Mom, is turning green.” This inner Hulk is the major reason I chose to take the medication route. Treating my children harshly, yelling or throwing shit is completely unacceptable—it may not be directed at them, but I am setting the example of how to handle anger and impulsivity. Hardest job in the world for me, but very necessary.
I think my depression probably affects my children’s mood and spirit. I can cry at the drop of a hat. I sleep much more. I cannot smile (that’s right, my mouth cannot move.) I obsess about hurting myself or punishing myself. Not to mention at the brink of a depression an insult about my personal worth, irresponsibility or judgement can push me to suicidal ideation. Even if they are total uncompassionate assholes—it doesn’t matter. I add those cruel ingredients to my mix of my depressive batter and eat the cake with hatred and enthusiasm!
Recently, a part of my inner circle said, “In the end, you’ll be judged for what you did (which is?…) The children will figure out who you really are…” I have heard this statement or similar ones from this people who know how sensitive I am. These are the type of cruel undertones and statements in which I’ve been judged my entire life. They don’t care about my struggles—even though they have witnessed the cutting, sleeping and crying. They instantly say I’m “making excuses.” I wonder how a person who used a wheelchair would react if someone said, “Just stop making excuses and stand up and walk. Just think positive!” Sounds ridiculous. I hate to compare mental illness to someone who can’t use their legs—but during a depression, I feel crippled. Crippled mind and crippled spirit.
Anyone who knows me knows I am reliable. I am an extremely creative person who is very disorganized. There are paper stacks in little piles around my house begging for a file cabinet. I might be late—but I’ll be there. I’m very compassionate and helpful. If you need someone to gather women in a courtroom to mean mug an aggressive perpetrator—I’m your girl. I do not pay my bills on time. You can call me at any time if you are in trouble, and I will come get you—no questions asked, unless you are wearing a knitted unicorn hat. Right Kaytie? I will do anything for a friend—including getting a bloody nose—which has happened many times, right derby girls? I constantly live in a dream world. You might talk to me for 20 minutes, and I’ll be thinking of the vacation I’m planning with you, without hearing a word you’re saying. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. It means I cannot focus. It’s not a fucking excuse. It’s a fact.
Regardless of the pain I endure from constant judgement, I still hope to bury the stigma, the jokes, the stereotypes and all the other idiotic assumptions people have about mental illness. After all, without Isaac Newton, Ludwig Beethoven, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Virginia Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Pablo Picasso, Charles Dickens, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollack, Ernest Hemingway and Michaelangelo are just a grains of sand in an ocean of creative madness and scientific genius. So before you judge all the crazies, just remember, without them, we wouldn’t The Catcher in the Rye, “Starry Night”, The Truman Show, Patch Adams, A Call to Arms, The Sisteen Chapel or even electricity people! So for fuck sake, leave me alone already. I’m busy writing my Pulitzer Prize winner…on my roller skates—of course.