At the behest of my husband and from my own desire I want to take a pause from the present sweetness of my valley life and talk about my illness. It is synonymous with me and always will be. I am bipolar. It is not a thing you outgrow, it cannot be cured with essential oils or mediation, or even prayer. But there is a community of people who know enough about this deadly disease to save lives. So here is just a peek into what it’s like to be me.
It’s an indescribable feeling to realize you’re turning 41 in the mental health wing of a hospital. I can’t say I minded all that much. That had everything to do with my family bringing balloons, cheesecake, candles, flowers, my daughter dressed in her gorgeous cream dress I bought her, the other patients, the nurses, my doctor and my anxiety medication. Now I think about it and the tears come. I cry for myself now because I couldn’t then. I never allow myself the luxury of self pity, only compassion after the fact. It’s how I survive. Once one begins to wallow there is no end to it. My chest also floods with feeling for what the nurses and doctors must feel for every patient that sits in front of them wavering between realities clutching a birthday balloon. For every weak bird in purple hospital scrubs who says in a small voice, “Today is my birthday,” I wonder how many of them pray for us at night. Especially the ones of us for whom on our birthdays no one comes.
Providence Behavioral Health, known as 4 west, or as those of us who have been its “guests” call it “the mental ward” is actually a beautiful place. Clean, staffed with well-meaning, over-worked nurses and at least one or two brilliant doctors, not only is it a haven for the mentally ill, it literally saved my life more than once. I am among the lucky ones not to have been sent to Alaska Psychiatric Institute with its high level security measures, over-population and the most severely disturbed patients including the violent ones however I don’t separate myself from the patients there. On many occasions when there simply aren’t available beds at providence patients are sent to API like lambs to the slaughter. I very nearly was sent there myself and thank my lucky stars to not have had to experience it. Having talked with other patients who have it remains for me a lurking dragon that keeps me taking my meds regularly. That and the beast of unreality which will always and forever haunt me; a thing I would wish on no one.
Whenever I tell anyone I’ve been (voluntarily) committed to the psych ward I hear two things. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Girl Interrupted. I have one thing to say. No. No, no, no, no, no. Let me be clear. NO. It is not 1960. There are not secret rooms or day passes or drama of the kind movies drum up. Patients are not sneaking in and out of windows, fooling staff and running the show. The ward is a calm place. A place of healing. We spend our days in therapy. Our nights closely monitored and most of us if not in natural sleep, an assisted medicated version of it. Yes we form bonds that sometimes last after hospitalization but whatever drama that follows is not part of the hospital stay, which has strict rules about sharing contact information and sharing physical contact although we do still hug each other when the urge overtakes us, such as when someone is crying or there is a shared moment of great joy. I have broken the rules about sharing contact information. It is so very hard not to, so very difficult to remember that people who are one way in a controlled environment may become completely different once not required to take their medications and then may not refrain from drinking or using drugs to cope with the re-emergence of symptoms which causes in some cases epic backslides. I can say the rule exists for good reasons.
I myself do not drink or use drugs. It’s not because I don’t want to. I love wine. I hate pot however, it almost killed me, heightened my symptoms to the point where I thought I was the next messiah. More on that later. But yes, I miss being able to have wine with a girlfriend or sharing a bottle with my mom while watching an old classic film. But I’m too sick to drink. If I’m not in a manic state I can have a glass or two like a normal person. But once that mania hits I will literally drink everything in the house. Just before my last hospital stay I had a manic episode where I binge drank almost all of the alcohol in my mother’s house and had no memory of it.
Lets talk about the ugly side of bipolar 1 with psychotic features. First: The psychosis. How would it feel if you thought by just standing near someone you could send them to hell? A kind of hell only Dante could dream up. How would it feel to be convinced a demon lives inside the right half of your body and so your right eye stares out at you from every picture and every time you look in the mirror you can see yourself decomposing on that side and so you stop looking in the mirror? How would it feel to believe you have a wolf living inside you that will jump out and eat your daughter if you don’t hold your breath. How would it feel if your psychiatrist’s daughter who is the same age as you and suffers from the same condition hangs herself and you believe you caused it by being near your doctor?
Second: The Mania. At one point I was sending my husband who was trying to run a newsroom 50 to 60 texts a day about Hitler and Goebbels and the Holocaust and whether or not it was real and white supremacy and the percentage of ash found in the gas chambers. I was texting him pictures of dead jews and articles claiming they were fabricated. I kept asking him over and over is this real is this true this can’t be true. I would pace and clean and take Alice all over town (she literally had no idea and thought I was just fun hyper mommy. The thought of what was really going on still terrifies me to this day.) I would take Alice over to my girlfriend’s house and let her watch cartoons while I did all of her dishes for her. On weekends I would garden until it started getting dark out which for an Alaskan summer is quite late. Nick and Alice would press their faces against the glass wondering when mommy would ever decide to come inside. I would stay awake for hours, long after everyone had gone to sleep my mind racing. I would go online and read about aliens, genetic engineering, ancient Egypt, serial killers, celebrities, Isis. I became obsessed with Isis, terrified they were coming any day. I started reading everything I could sometimes crying hysterically wondering how anyone could do anything with this horror in the world. I was angry all the time. I would fight with my girlfriends, yell at my kids, fight with my husband, even my mom. I lost more than a few relationships during that time. I have easily forgiven myself. I was sick. whoever can’t accept that doesn’t belong in my life anyways.
Third: The Depression. Quite literally you become so tired from battling the symptoms which come and go, because it’s important to note there would be long stretches where I would be fine or at least appear fine. Especially if I was hypomanic which is this lovely little land where you’re the life of the party, your house is always clean, you have boundless energy for your children and you’re the funnest, funniest, sexiest wife ever. It’s a lie and it doesn’t last of course. Friendships made during a hypomanic phase are as false and fleeting as dead leaves in the wind. So to feel that energy start to slip away yet AGAIN is just heartbreaking. You also become tired of the medication merry-go-round. The trial and error of this and that other drug. The litany of different doctors, each with their own theory on why you are so broken and will not be fixed as if it were under your control. You become tired of the side effects or as part of the side effects. You stop eating or you eat everything in sight, mine happened to be the latter. One drug I took ballooned me up 50 pounds which I have yet to lose. You become quite simply tired and you want a way out. Any way out.
As I have said I am one of the lucky ones. I have one of the brilliant doctors. I have my sanity back. I have my friendships back, at least the ones that matter, and the gift of knowing they love me unconditionally. I have the full support of my family who are healthy and working with me through my recovery. I am safe, my children are safe. I have my life back. I could write volumes about my life before I found the doctor who saved me and the people who cared for me at my worst and I will. But for now I’ll leave you with another poem that I feel speaks to the commonalities between all of us.
To the mother who’s son brought a gun to school today I say I love you.
To the mother who’s son steals cash from her wallet to feed his habit and tears from her eyes to wash his soul clean, I say it’s okay to feel abandoned by God.
To the mother who’s son was expelled from school for selling amphetamines to classmates on school grounds, I say it’s NOT ALL YOUR FAULT.
To the mother who’s son never calls, never writes and never cares I say I CARE about you even if HE doesn’t.
To the mother who’s son sits behind bars facing charges of sexual misconduct, domestic abuse and assault I say you’re not alone, it only seems that way….
To the mothers of vandals, thieves, rapists and killers I say you can hold onto the scent of his head when they laid him in your arms. It’s okay to love a broken child. It’s okay to know he’ll never be what he could have been and love him anyways.
To the mother who has yet to give birth to her son I say love him but not so much that if he chooses to drown, you are pulled under the waves. Love him but not so much that you forget to love his father. Love him because he is your baby without expectation.
The only joy guaranteed you is that first moment of his existence, the sound of his cry, the sight of his little fist with its tiny wrinkled fingers. Rejoice in your ability to create life. Hope for his happiness. Expect to be disappointed in some way. Accept that love was never meant to be a painless endeavor. On the contrary it rips us from our couches and thrusts us into the fevered beating heart of existence, pummeling us with awful truths and vivid dream deaths, ultimately haunting us with the notion that we are truly powerless in its wake.
To the mothers of brutally broken boys and men I say you are not so different from me. What divides us is only the hands we are dealt, the circumstances of our losses and how well we can hold onto our goodness while our worlds crumble and our hopes fade. Beneath our skin we are all the same.
Down deep we are all just bones.