A week beyond walls

I finished reading “Madness: A Bipolar Life” yesterday and was floored by Marya Hornbacher’s style, fluidity, candor, and innate sense of storytelling. (I want to pause for a moment here to mention a book that I read yesterday: “Marbles” by Ellen Forney. It’s new, a comic, and amazing.) Hornbacher’s book was released after I stopped questing for information about BP, in a lull of my life when no one, especially myself, was sure exactly what made my brain tick. I was in college and still technically being medicated for BP-II (Lamictal, Lexapro, Ambien, Imipramine, Adderall, etc—the cocktail was forever changing), but it was at my own behest. In retrospect, my psychiatrist would probably not have treated me with most of those meds if she thoroughly disagreed with my theory about BP-II, which I became suddenly set on my sophomore year after I read “An Unquiet Mind.” It was a revelation to me that I could be bipolar without being bipolar type I.

Aside from my med-induced craziness at Three Lakes, I had never had a truly manic episode. I had never been psychotic or hallucinated or had any serious break from reality. But I had had a lot of the symptoms of hypomania, I discovered. I would pick up projects, make plans, get very excited, set up a whole litany of things to do and pursue them for an odd amount of time, only to have the passion fade, the focus flit away, the drive grind to a depressive halt, and the self-loathing kick in as a I would settle in another depression under my comforter. In HS and college I was (and I’m being generous with myself here) impulsive, reckless, and thoroughly idiotic about drugs and sex. I would randomly go on shopping sprees, or decide that I needed to tell everyone everything about my life (hmm, self-awareness moment, is this what’s happening now? No matter. I’ll help someone!), or think that I could solve someone’s problems by being brutally honest and dissecting their issues. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Bipolar-II was new territory for me, and it made more sense than what I’d been told before.

In total, I spent about a month at Three Lakes. I became intimately familiar with the grounds, the walk to the cafeteria building, the walk down to the school building, the kickball field (really a baseball diamond but who’s going to give teenagers in a psych ward a baseball and bat), the creaky stairs up to the girls hallway, the doors that buzzed to let visitors and staff in and out. After a while they revoked my privileges to go to the school building or the art rooms because of my habit of stealing staples and squirreling them away to my room so that I could scratch myself.

During a psych ward intake everything you have that could pose a potential threat to yourself or others is taken away from you: makeup containers, shoelaces, razors, belts, any and all medications, tweezers, even spiral notebooks (which, at the time, was what I had been using as a journal. Of all the things taken from me at that moment, I was the most upset about that, relegated to starting over in a solidly bound notebook. I was teenaged and moody and resentful. And it just wasn’t fair). Watching a nurse or staff member dig through your belongings, which only days ago were entirely yours to enjoy or ignore, is a special kind of demoralizing. For me, those are the moments when I come to grips with the reality of my situation (having undergone this process almost a dozen times now, nearing thirty years old). I’m locked in. I can’t choose to leave. I cannot be responsible for myself. These people have total control over me. Eyes widen and my mind churns. I grind my teeth. I think a million miles a minute. Anger wells up inside me. I become unruly, belligerent, loud. I scream or yell and pound my fists. I try to argue, but I don’t make a lot of sense, even to myself. Finally I slump, dejected, defeated, exhausted, and I retreat into the recesses of my mind until it’s safe enough to come out again.

At the time, my ears were pierced heavily, with I think about 8 earrings in each ear, maybe more. I had to remove each and every one so that I couldn’t hurt myself with them, or let someone hurt me. This I did reluctantly and with much protestation. I think I eventually earned the right to have them put back in because I convincingly argued that the holes were going to close up and that I could be safe and trusted with them, which turned out to be true. They were not sharp and I was vain (remember, 14 years old people).

My parents, mostly my mother, brought me new clothes whenever they came to visit, something cozy and comfortable to curl up in. More often than not I was sick of the hospital’s food and requested McDonald’s. I still cannot hear Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” which played ad nauseum on the radio that month, without being transported to the small teen unit kitchen where I would sit quietly with my mom and sometimes my little sister and dad, munching on a cold quarter pounder and fries at the dark wood table and bench, thinking, “Well, this is weird. Objectively. I mean. This is really weird.”

One of the problems I encountered in my weeks in the psych ward was that doctors go on vacation. I had two different psychiatrists/prescribing doctors while I was in my first stay at Three Lakes, and one of them was not even there for much of the time that I was. This made medicating me a crapshoot. I couldn’t have had more than a session or two with them before serious med changes happened and follow ups were few and far between. Besides, three weeks isn’t a clinically significant amount of time to be on any psych med, so why they changed them around so rapidly and so frequently is beyond me. Maybe my memories are squashed. Yes, it’s probably that.

If I can skip forward for a moment, I began today thinking about the week that I spent out of Three Lakes before I was very unceremoniously readmitted. This was the weirdest week of my life. I was back at home, my friends and boyfriend came to visit me. My mother had locked every single medication in the house into padlocked toolboxes (I kid you not, everything, including and especially the OTC meds), and I wasn’t allowed to have a razor. I still felt crazy. I felt uncontained. I had actually gotten used to the hospital and its rules and walls and limits and tenuous safety and the constant presence of medical staff, who I often sat with and just talked to for hours in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, before they gently suggested that I take a sedative and got shooed off to my bed. It was like I didn’t remember how to be a person of my own accord. Life was big and open ended and without structure and I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. So I wanted to go back. Somehow, and don’t ask me because this part of my memory is completely gone, I managed to get a hold of a bottle of aspirin (I think? Maybe I had it hidden somewhere in my room from before?) and swallowed most of it. Then I panicked and confessed and had yet another exciting visit to the ER where, for the second time in a month, I became intimately acquainted with the taste of liquid charcoal. This time though they put a tube in my nose and directly into my stomach because I refused to drink it after one sip. That was not fun. 

After this I wound up back at Three Lakes, but in a different unit, one lower on the hill that I had only been to a couple of times in my first stay because this was where the (ahem) more serious padded rooms were. This was where I had sung to my unknown neighbor in the room next to me. The staff knew me, most of them were sad to see that I was back, but I didn’t see a lot of them again because they worked up at the other unit. I got a new doctor and this man was the first person in my life to say “Bipolar” to me. I remember a lightbulb going off in my head, looking around his office at the posters on the wall outlining different mental disorders, thinking, “Huh. That does sound a lot like me. It explains a lot of things that I couldn’t make sense of. This man is a genius! I should hug him. Should I hug him? Maybe he doesn’t like to be touched. Why am I standing? I should sit. Now I’m sitting. What is he saying? Right. Bipolar. Medication. Something something Depakote. I wonder what that is. WIll it make me feel sane? When do I start. Why am I standing again? I should sit. Maybe if I bounce my leg I can stop myself from standing up. I should stop grinning. Maybe nodding would be appropriate. Can I go yet? Bipolar!” My thoughts tripping over each other, overlapping, like a cacophony of realizations happening simultaneously in my anti-depressant addled brain. The only words that I actually have a solid memory of him saying were “Bipolar” and “Depakote.” Nothing else from that exchange made any lasting impression or survived beyond the fog of medication that I was in. I could absolutely not tell you what he looked like. In my memory, he’s a cross-legged faceless man in a chair, wearing glasses and a beard, who sounds an awful lot like the adults in the Peanuts” cartoons. “Wah wah wah wah Bipolar. Wah wah wah wah Depakote.”

So they put me on Depakote, released me after a week, and I went to explore the terrible world of mood stabilizers on my own.

Trying to Share a Voice

I’ve been reading like crazy lately. Today I read “Turning the Mind into an Ally” by Sakyong Mipham, at the behest of my therapist who lent it to me in an attempt to satisfy what seems to be an insatiable desire to consume words. I think her hope was that if I could focus on the message of mindfulness in the book, that I could ground myself and maybe employ some of the meditation tactics that Mipham discusses. I think I can. It’s a good hope. I will try.

I’m also in the middle of “Madness: A Bipolar Life” by Marya Hornbacher. The interesting part about reading memoirs of madness is that they can be so visceral that I sometimes feel as if I’m the mad person. I’ve been diagnosed and undiagnosed what feels like a million times in my life. I have a creeping suspicion, and have had since I was something like thirteen, that bipolar explains me. But then someone, another doctor or a person close to me, will come along and dissipate that diagnosis entirely, pointing to some other cause. I did have CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome) which they think (theory!) was probably caused by underlying chronic Lyme, never caught, never treated, sneaky. I have my doubts. My therapist tells me that the diagnosis doesn’t matter, per se, as long as we can treat the symptoms, the day to day. She’s right, and I’d like to do that.

(Just as a warning to any of you Internet people who might somehow find yourselves here, the rest of this post could be TRIGGERING (self-harm) so please try not to read it if that is something you could be sensitive to right now.) 

I have a strange history with medication. At fourteen I was so incredibly depressed that it didn’t feel like anything could possibly make life better. Eventually, after months (years?) of struggling, telling only one of my girlfriends and sometimes my boyfriend what I was thinking about, I finally asked to see a therapist. I had no real conception of what this meant, but I knew that I needed someone with training to help me sort out what was happening. I’m naturally curious in general, and I tend to do a lot of research of my own volition. At the time, the Internet was a place where I could find, at least, a modicum of explanation, enough to understand that what was going on in my head wasn’t just basic teenage upsettedness, but something more and potentially dangerous. I learned what depression meant, that bipolar was a thing, that borderline personality existed, schizophrenia, cyclothymia, body dysmorphia. I wanted to absorb the DSM-IV (was it DSM-III at the time?) just so I could make sense of myself. I developed a fascination with cutting as a theory, and then as a practice. I flirted with anorexia (sometimes worked, but not really my style) and bulimia (no, definitely not my thing), and I got high on people worrying about me. I knew what I was doing was nuts but I didn’t know how to regulate it and I definitely didn’t know how to stop it.

I recall one time in particular that I had cut fairly extensively and decided to use one of those henna style plastic bracelets (this was the late ’90s) to cover up my wrists. My friends, of course, were wary, always watchful, and saw through my subterfuge almost before I had a chance to lie about it. My one friend L. took my hand, looked me in the eye, and asked, “Sixteen toed cat scratches?” I remember my eyes widening in pain and shock as she pressed her fingers against the cuts. I know now what she was trying to tell me, that what I was doing was somehow bad and that I should not be doing it, but at the time I was simply fascinated that people were concerned.

This is a recurring issue in my life. I struggle deeply with the question of self-worth, as I’m sure most people do from time to time, to a greater or lesser extent. In high school, my self-worth was in the negative range, hovering somewhere deeply below zero, and knowing that my friends cared and worried about me was both perplexing and oddly tantalizing. I remember lying in bed just thinking, or writing in my journal, trying to piece together why people were taking time out of their lives to pay attention to me or try to help when I didn’t seem to have any intrinsic value that I could see. This was, of course, a side effect of the depression that I had fallen into. When I’m healthy, I don’t question my innate right to exist on the planet, in this universe, in this life. When I’m not healthy, it seems like I just take up space, that nothing is right, I should just quit.

Most of my years between 14 and 24 are a swirl of blurred memories, marred by time, drugs, depressions, alcohol, medication, and repression. It’s piecemeal, and I’ll do what I can to remember it as accurately as possible, but it doesn’t all make sense, especially to me.

The first time I was medicated ended badly. At this point, research on the negative side effects of anti-depressants on teenagers was just, just hitting the mainstream. My luck, my very first prescriber of meds decided to put me on the wonder-drug of the day: Prozac. I was depressed. This was what was very visible, obvious to myself and everyone around me. Prozac made sense. The problem with Prozac is that it can spark some people into intensely manic states, even if bipolar isn’t necessarily indicated (which, I think, in my case it is, but wasn’t obvious at the time). From the time I started Prozac I remember feeling different, better. I could think again. I was thinking a lot, about everything, and it didn’t feel like I was living inside a dark cloud. This was nice. It was warmer, brighter, intoxicating almost, but it wasn’t enough. I still had terrible thoughts, suicidal ideation, I think I was probably still cutting. The part it took away was the desire to lie in my bed all day every day and ignore the world. The sadness lifted little by little but in its place came a new feeling of intensity, creeping and seeping and encompassing me from the inside out. In the course of a few weeks, maybe months, they upped my dosage so drastically that I felt practically nuts. I naively tried to poison myself: I swallowed a lot of pills and then I think I went to school. I don’t remember most of the day, but I remember being in my therapist’s office and confessing what I had done that morning, still somehow cognizant and coherent, and then being whisked away to the ER where they made me drink charcoal to counteract what I had done to myself earlier. I think this is what happened. This may be an amalgamation of a couple different memories, but it’s close to enough to reality.

This was my first experience in a psych ward. They put me in the teenage/child wing, which I remember thinking was rather gray but not entirely uninviting, and definitely more soothing than my bedroom, which was haunted by the dark thoughts that I entertained there. It was my first experience with doors that locked behind me. But it was somehow…safe. I felt contained and unsteady but OK-esque. Not dead. And that part was OK. Here’s the thing about my town: we have a fancy, often celebrity-filled psych hospital and rehab right in the center of city limits, and growing up there it was a running joke for all the kids. “Be good or they’ll cart you off to ______!” Or, “Careful, if you go crazy the guys in white coats will come and take you away to _______!” So, when presented with the mandatory hospital stay, I flatly refused to be taken to this running joke that my classmates had so often made. This was probably one of the worst decisions of my life, unfortunately. Little crazy me was too concerned with my little crazy reputation that I demanded, instead, to be moved to a random hospital out of town, a teen psych ward on its own little psych campus tucked in the woods far enough from my house to be both inconvenient for my family and psychically comforting for me.

It was at this hospital, which for the purposes of this story I will call Three Lakes, that I 1) punched my first adult, 2) kicked a woman in the groin, 3) helped a fellow inpatient escape, 4) stole staples from the school building to try and scratch myself with, 5) filled an entire notebook with crazed writing, 6) was entirely overmedicated, 7) lost my mind, and 8) became entirely too accustomed to living, sleeping, and being locked in padded rooms.

Anyway, the episode in particular that I was reminded of today as I was reading involved me trying to be generous with my fellow inpatients. The way that we communicated with the outside world was limited to a dilapidated payphone that was underneath the stairs to the girls hallway directly across from the nurses’ station. You could use quarters to call or you could have a calling card (remember those?). My parents had given me a calling card and, for lack of anything else to do most of the time and because I ended up using it so often, I quickly memorized the number. So it happened that one of the girls I had befriended in my unit wanted to make a call but didn’t have a calling card or quarters. I graciously offered to type in my calling card number and then let her make a call on my dime. It was probably all of a dollar or two, a drop in the bucket, nothing to be remotely concerned about. I think there must have been a rule about sharing calling cards because I got in some serious trouble for this. One of the nurses’ completely flew off the handle and demanded that I turn over the calling card that I had “given” my friend. When I explained that it was just a number that I had memorized and I didn’t give her anything that she could use again, I was met with what I could only process as undue and illogical anger. Her anger and my shock at being told I had broken rules set off some chemically induced crazy reaction in me, and for the first time in my life, I felt violent. I remember being told to stop yelling, even though I was the one making the logical argument here, to go up to my room, to sit, to be still, to stop. I remember fighting their arms. I remember looking for the staples I had stashed away and scratching my arms. I remember being held in place on my bed while sitting up so that I couldn’t scratch any more. I remember something snapping my my brain. Snip. Pop. Static. I remember smiling, laughing, and crying all at the same time. And then I tried to kick her, hard, in the groin, the nurse I had been yelling at. Hitherto I had just been struggling against their restraining hands, not really trying to hurt them, just trying to get them to let go which, of course, they weren’t about to do until I calmed down. I remember kicking her hard, I remember her gathering my legs up, and I remember her pinning them between her legs so that I couldn’t move any more. It was probably around that point that someone brought me Thorazine to take, and eventually I earned myself a time-out in the padded room, on the naked rubber mattress, with the bland white walls, in sight of the nurse’s station, with the door that only locked from the outside, the plexiglass windows with their metal criss-cross bars, and a deep, sedated sense of confusion, shame, and insanity.

I remember thinking that I wasn’t me, that this wasn’t right, that I should stop, but I simply couldn’t. A combination of natural madness and medication induced psychosis turned me into someone I wasn’t, someone that I am not, and have, since that hospital stay, not been. When I first got to that hospital, I think that they quickly switched me off of Prozac (dangerous in and of itself, I learned later) and substituted another antidepressant which they also increased at an alarmingly quick rate. Anyone familiar with these medications, teenagers, and the reactions they can induce in people with Bipolar will share my retrospective alarm at what happened to me in those few weeks. My best guess is that the ADs sparked me into a medicinally induced Mania with psychotic features. I have thought and thought and rehashed every element of my time there that I can remember, and nothing else makes sense to me. I have never been violent since my few weeks at the hospital. Angry yes, but not violent. Loud, yelling maybe, but I haven’t tried to hurt anyone, which I did, sadly, repeatedly at Three Lakes. The memory of the sheer amount of time I spent feeling violent while I was there sometimes overwhelms me and I get a panicky feeling, like anyone who looks at me on the street can see that I was at one point legitimately crazy. It sparks a deeply rooted sense of shame, like something that I cannot possibly atone for and yet long to forgive myself for, though it seems convoluted and sometimes impossible.

Bringing up Crazy


My most intense memory is of the time that I was pinned down by a handful of fully grown adults and jabbed with a sedative-filled syringe while they thought I was having a psychotic episode. To be fair, I was flailing, inconsolable, and my eyes were rolling around my head. I’ll give them that one. This is followed closely by the time I was wrapped up in a pseudo-straight jacket and carried like a human burrito to a van that took me to a building with a large, supervised padded room where I was sequestered for god knows how many hours. In that padded room, I decided to sing to my neighbor who was also locked away for reasons unknown to me. I forget what I was singing, but I do remember being told to stop, refusing to stop, and maintaining, in my mind, that I was keeping up a peaceful protest against “the man” (or, in my case, the men in the white coats). Then there was the time that I kept scratching myself and I was forced to wear medical mittens that Velcro’ed to my hands and left me feeling inhuman.

This all happened when I was fourteen. Fast forward and I’m almost thirty, living on my own, and working on a post-grad degree at a prestigious university. To people who haven’t known me my whole life, I probably come off as a perfectly average, even sane and well-adjusted adult. That is mostly true, most of the time. But even if I’ve outgrown a lot of my crazy, I remember. These scenes, and dozens others like them, resurface unbidden at truly random moments. I can be riding the subway and a smell will remind me of a particular hospital stay, or I’ll be in an English class and talk about a troubled writer will jolt me into a vivid memory, or an Ambien ad will make my mouth taste like charcoal.

I’m always torn between wanting to divulge my whole story and wanting to shut it up tightly, keeping it locked safely in the recesses of time where it can no longer hurt me or anyone close to me. What I worry is that there is another person out there experiencing similar situations who could benefit from my untold stories. I know that I was always comforted reading Sylvia Plath or Kay Redfield Jamison or books like “Girl, Interrupted.” Knowing that you’re not alone in your experiences alleviates some of the psychic strain that they can inflict.  I am an avid devourer of memoirs by lady-writers—most recently Jenny Lawson, Carrie Fisher, Caitlin Moran, and Rachel Dratch—for precisely this reason, I think.

Even though this will be difficult, I’d like to follow in the footsteps of the ladies who’ve paved the way, in hopes that somewhere, sometime, someone scouring the Internet for a glimmer of hope, an echo of experience, will find my stories and know that they are not alone.