Unless the people around you are brilliantly aware and ceaselessly supportive, the troubling reality is that it often takes years, decades, for you to come to understand your life through the narrative of “brain disease.” Once you finally undertake an examination of the details of the disorder, only then does your life begin to make sense to you. But even then, after what may feel like elation at having found some answer, some reason for all the confusion, pain, and madness, you find that having a reason doesn’t necessarily make living with the disease any easier. It’s still a riptide that holds to no rhythm, that pulls away from the beach of your mind and rolls in at no regularly scheduled hour; there is nothing about the disrupting rhythms of bipolar disorder you can count on except its existence: it will always return.
Reading about mania, hypomania, depression, mixed states, and suicidality never quite seems to reveal what it feels like to have the disease. Jargon-laden literature can help you learn how to talk about your disorder to doctors who need to know how to medicate you, or family members who have no reference for you, but eventually the high of having a language to describe you wears off. It occurs to you that this diagnostic language only scratches the surface. It’s the finest veneer on the tip top of the iceberg.
The books and brochures, the nurse practitioners and prescribing therapists don’t seem to have a true language with which to communicate or understand how there is such a thing as, say, accidental suicidality. When a mixed state becomes so troubling, so utterly unbearable that you lash out at your own thoughts or the tiny hairs on the back of your neck that feel like fire by now. You attack your body or your brain with pills or sharp objects or racing speeds and a last minute swerve. You weren’t necessarily intending to die; you weren’t even thinking of death. You just wanted to still the thoughts and calm the agitated feelings in your body, the way it felt painful to hear the sound of someone chewing, unbearable to be touched even lightly. There is a word for this: allodynia. But you aren’t interested in words; you have to make the feelings STOP.
But then you wake up and find yourself in five-point restraints in a cold padded room where the staff is underpaid and unmovable. Unless you are willing to admit to having deliberately attempted to take your own life, who knows how long they’ll keep you. No one is interested in what you have to say on the matter; your word is the word of someone “insane.” The tide that rolled in and ripped away your footing is not considered separate from you; no one looks in its direction when it’s time to place blame.
When the sand beneath you loosens and you begin falling, falling, nothing to grasp or steady you – no one understands. Pick yourself up, they say. Shake yourself off, they command. But how can you when there is no you left? The bipolar ocean sucked you under and carried you down, down, down. The you they see is what was left lying on the rocks, empty eyes, a fish woman. You can’t breathe the air or reach the water. You’re slowly suffocating. You have no legs, yet they expect you to walk.
You gasp. And gasp. And stare. The air weighs 10 thousand tons.
Then, it feels like centuries later but it may be days, weeks, months? The brine splashes you. It crashes over your body and suddenly, as if for the first time, you notice the sun, the way it sparkles. How everything glimmers and shines because of the sun. Even you. Suddenly, it’s as if the whole sky is behind you, inside you. You’re thinking, thinking, thinking. Your thoughts race over and around you. You have so many words. You can’t wait to find someone who’ll listen.
You’re tapping your foot a lot, clicking your pen. Have you ever noticed that guy at work who clicks his pen all through the meeting? Maybe he’s like you? Should you say something? You probably will when you’re like this and you’ll do it in a very low cut dress and in very high heels and then later you’ll totally regret it but that’s how you are when you’re like this because you do and say all the wrong things and in long run on sentences like this one. You don’t stop. You can’t. It’s amazing until suddenly it isn’t. Suddenly it’s terrifying or aggravating or irritating and you’ve just snapped or screamed at someone you love or someone you don’t know at all! You’re a mess.
But then: maybe you go days, weeks, months, even a year, years, when everything seems OK. You feel mostly in control, sane. You fall in love with the right person. You switch careers and are working in a job you finally love. You feel successful. There are episodes but they’re small; you feel you handle them well. You begin to think the past was something that happened because you were young and less mature and possibly because of that thing that happened in your childhood and the fact that you never went to therapy when you needed to. But then another Great Depression hits, followed by the most devastating mixed state you’ve ever experienced. And it’s in Your Most Devastating Mixed State when you (when anyone) becomes truly suicidal. Depression has the desire for death but lacks the motivation; mania is too all out exhilarated for the bleakness. You set out with the intent to really and truly die.
But, to your bitter surprise, you don’t.
This attempt may not be the first or even the last time. It’s harder to die than you thought. Living is incredibly harder than that. But despite the fact that in your worst moments, when the disease is clanging in your every synapse, burning in your every pore, there are others who know exactly what it is like to have this disease. To know where you are and how utterly impossible it feels. The words written here have enlivened you because you see them in yourself and they have done this because they were written by someone who came to realize she has this illness, not because of the diagnostic criteria or the words used by doctors and therapists, but by the words of other women who also suffer and who told their stories.
This is a disease that makes you feel utterly and insufferably alone. Do not let it win. Read the memoirs of other brave survivors. Gather together with other women and men who have this disease. Tell your stories. Seeing your life in narrative is the best and maybe only way to make sense of it; telling your story is perhaps the best way to save yourself from the fact of it. And then, of course, there is the one thing that is always true: this too shall pass. Try to hang on until then.