Bipolar is Just a Side Effect of Being Awesome

At 15 years old, I was sleeping on the cement floor of a kind friend of a friend in a subsidized housing co-op. I thought I was invincible, and too smart for school. The truancy officer for the school board tracked me down and gave me a lecture about attendance. Technically, I was legally obligated to go to school until at least age 16.

“Give me the equivalency exam,” I demanded. “I’ll pass the exam no problem, and go right to college.”

He had been nervously chewing his Bic, and there was a long blue ink smear across his left cheek and lips. My 15-year-old brain couldn’t focus on anything else.

I had no idea how I would afford college when I didn’t even have a stable place to rest my head, but in my own mind, I was unstoppable. I was sleeping maybe 3-4 hours a night, and spending way too much time hanging out with an unsavory (drug-obsessed and unemployed) crowd. Down to my last three dollars, I packed up all the books I had taken with me when I moved out of my father’s house and took them on the 3-hour march downtown to the used book store (I couldn’t even afford a bus ticket). I walked away with $6 for a bag of pasta and a no-name can of sauce.

Not wanting to risk the consequences doled out to 15-year-old dropouts, I registered at the closest high school. After two months, my host received notice that she had an unauthorized tenant and I had 30 days to leave or she’d be evicted for violating the rental agreement. And so, with no job, no prospects, no idea what to do with myself, I left school again (abruptly) and wound up living in a trailer in a closed-for-the-season trailer park, with strict warnings not to be discovered. I ate plain mustard and used old t-shirts wrapped around paper towels as maxi pads. I like to refer to this section of my random life as my McGuyver phase.

Then I started coming down. Gone was the “BRING IT ON!!” attitude I’d been living with. I sought the quietest, darkest corner of every room to avoid socializing. I knew I had to go back to school, but didn’t know if they’d even let me back in. I was useless, penniless, worthless, and associating with me was a pointless endeavor. I couldn’t stay at the trailer, so I needed to find something before school. I wound up renting a bedroom in a 4 bedroom townhouse in a tiny town an hour bus ride from my high school. But hey – beggars/choosers, right? I was turning 16 and could apply for student welfare. I had this overarching compulsion to get back to my original school, the only thing I was any good at, so I went back.

And holy sh*t kids are ignorant. There were rumours upon rumours about where I’d been and that I’d flunked out (really? With a 96% average in enrichment classes?), that I’d been working as a stripper or prostitute; it never f*cking ended. I sought -and found- solace in the private practice rooms in the music room where it was just me and a piano or oboe and I could tune everything out. And slowly, the sadness waned, and one day I realized that I was happy to be playing in the concert band. That I actually *wanted* to sing with the jazz band. I wanted to scream at the top of my voice: “She’s baaaaack!”

That little flipping of the switch started up the fire I would come to love as mania. I loaded my coursework and played the lead in the school musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet. I did outreach work for sexual assault survivors with a team of unlikely friends. I got a co-op placement at a slick commercial recording studio and soaked in as much as I could. It was then that I decided to take Recording Engineering at college. I was already awesome at so many things, this would obviously just come naturally. Or so my manic brain told me, persistently.

I wound up in my own studio apartment here in London that made getting to/from school activities much easier. My music teacher knew I couldn’t afford lessons, so the school wound up paying for vocal and oboe lessons for me so I could catch up with those who started in grade 9.

I experienced my first mental health slap in the face that year. I had previously babysat the music teacher’s two young children at his house in a quiet suburb, earning some much-needed cash. They were delightful children. We always had a good time.

Well, apparently the music teacher hadn’t known about my traumatic past when he entrusted me with his children. Once he found out, from another teacher I presume, he called me into his office and fired me as his babysitter. Because, as he told me, I was a bad influence. There was so much good going on at the time that I couldn’t process the dismissal. Was he concerned I’d be recommending that both his kids pack up and leave and go on welfare and be drop-out failures? Didn’t he see me winning awards and performing for thousands and giving back with a social-work initiative called ‘This is My Story’ where I actively warned kids about following my shitty path? Well, so what? I was, so I thought, the master of my own delightful world. Again.

And then I crashed. My mom and I had reconnected and she arranged for me to get my hair cut by her hairdresser. The blonde highlights burned my hair to a dry, frizzy, tangled mess. I got home and bawled. I sat on the garage step and just wailed. I was ugly, no one would like me, there was no point in going to college. The pain was overwhelming, and my mom suggested we go see her doctor.

Enter Prozac.

It was the first of many creative medical interventions that saw me on a seemingly random assortment of psychotropic medication and a primary diagnosis of depression.

No sh*t, Sherlock. Everyone sobs uncontrollably for 10 hours over a bad haircut. But the negativity spread to the other areas of my life, and I ranged from sleeping 20 hours a day for literally days to not sleeping for four days straight with no sign of slowing down. This was July. College started in September. Prozac kept me alive but also numbed my emotions to the point where I felt like I was experiencing life through a layer of gauze wrapping my whole body. And still, I kept going.

College was largely uneventful, completing courses and projects while balancing the delicate medication dance I was on. And I was ok with having depression. It was something I could wrap my inquisitive mind around to justify side effects that might otherwise cause me to quit. And it turns out, I didn’t want to move to a bigger city to follow my musical dreams. I would have to start from scratch when I felt like I was making out okay. I decided to choose another career, one that would leave me time to sing as a hobby and look after myself when my symptoms flared.

My first real job was at an insurance brokerage where I was hired at my first interview because I fixed my supervisor’s computer while I had been there a grand total of nine minutes. I knew a decent amount about insurance and was good at it.  I liked it. My supervisor talked to me about moving into a marketing role, a challenge I was eager to take on. Then things got weird.

It started taking me ages to do the bare minimum daily tasks. Things like looking up driving records became seemingly impossible. I started crying on the bus on the way to work and getting so sick to my stomach that I couldn’t keep anything down. It was me, I thought, it’s too much for me. I’m too stupid. I’m too slow.

I’d better quit before they fire me.

So I did. The VP Finance tried to talk me out of it, to explain that it sounded like I had an illness and that was not who I really was. Looking back now, he really was incredibly understanding. But back then, I couldn’t believe him. I walked out and didn’t look back.

The next eight months are a disjointed blur. All I remember is that my shih tzu Bailey would lay on my shoulder for hours when I couldn’t get off the couch. I couldn’t get up for anything, even the one creature that loved me unconditionally, and I made him a doggie litter box with newspaper flyers so I didn’t have to take him outside. Feeding him was the only reason I bothered to get out of bed. I coloured my red hair brown so fewer people would look at me. I struggled to choke down food and lost 60 pounds.

My boyfriend at the time had an incredible family doctor who agreed to take me on as a patient. And so the drug treatment roller coaster began again.

prescription medication for bipolar
Some of my meds

It took 5 years of hit/miss/hit-miss/miss/miss/sorta hit/worn off/experimental before the doctor admitted defeat and referred me to the head of the Mood Disorders Clinic at the regional mental health facility. In a 90 minute assessment, the psychiatrist asked me about my life. All of it. He took copious amounts of notes, eventually breaking out the whiteboard and diagramming my experience. Nothing makes you feel more significantly fucked up than realizing your life is a random sine wave, and that it has an actual name: bipolar disorder.

The psychiatrist was surprised that I didn’t immediately go into shock or outright denial, but I had been prepared for anything. This man could help me and the only thing I knew for sure was that if I didn’t let him help, I’d remain trapped by my traitorous mind for the rest of my numbered days. So more medication, just different flavours. Mood stabilizers, sedatives, anti-depressants, antimanics, sleeping meds, and therapy, oh my.  I was on the right track, but wasn’t as smart as I thought. I knew nothing about how each complicated medication worked, or how to avoid side effects and negative interactions. But this next bit, that’s all on me.

I was having a manic episode and hadn’t slept in days. I thought I knew which medication would quiet my brain, but ended up overdosing on Effexor to the point where I hallucinated a wolf on my front porch – yes, a real wolf – and my legs went stiff as boards while my heartbeat raced. I rushed to the hospital to learn about how easy and dangerous it is to screw yourself up on those meds. Serotonin Syndrome is terrifying, and I brought it on myself. That was a hard lesson to learn about following directions written by smarter people.

The thing I am most afraid of is what is known as a mixed episode. When it happens, I am severely depressed and fascinated by ending my own life, and just manic enough that I actually have the ambition and energy to do something about it. My most severe mixed episode saw me smashing my collection of blue glass, cutting off my own hair so no one would look at me, hyperventilating and hiding behind the bedroom door, screaming, after someone in my family called an ambulance. The only thing that stopped me from taking all my pills that day was the look of absolute terror on my little sister’s face. It was something I couldn’t bear to see again, especially if it was my fault. She was so sensitive, and the very thought of her having to go to my funeral was like dumping a bucket of ice water on my confused head. At that moment, she gave me something to live for. I certainly didn’t have the strength to live for my own screwed up self.  

I was hospitalized for three weeks and put on a new medication regimen. I started group therapy, CBT and DBT, plus a bipolar group. Slowly, things evened out and we found a combination of medications that seem to do the trick at prolonging the time between episodes and limiting the damage that is done when one occurs.

Since then, I’ve fallen into a fragile routine that stays pharmaceutically stable for a while, then the depression or mania sneaks in, and it’s met with a satisfactory slap from an ECT treatment.< Here’s an article I wrote on it > I have episodes that require hospitalization for risky, rapid medication adjustments, but the majority of the time, my wellness team does a great job adjusting therapy according to the nuances of what is going on in my life at the moment.

The past 5 years have been equal parts challenging and rewarding. I have a great job with a progressive company that appreciates that bipolar “comes with your awesome.” They had already read the piece I wrote for The Atlantic detailing my first ECT experience (link above), and the only thing my soon-to-be bosses were concerned about in my interview was the potential memory loss side effect. But my ECT doctors switched it up from bilateral to unilateral and my memory is better. Not perfect – I try to write everything down just in case.  But good enough that it hasn’t interfered with my performance at work.

I take 15 pills a day to stay stable. I’m thrilled to announce that this is my maintenance year, wherein my doctors and I stick with what works and keep living without a rain cloud following me around. The following statement is a rallying cry, coming from the place inside me on constant alert: Right now, I am ok. And I’ve learned so much about staying well, that even if something unexpected happens and sends me off in a sideways shuffle, my wellness team won’t let me stumble too far. I know who I am, and how far I’ve come, but with that comes knowing how far there is to fall. Thankfully, I am surrounded by people, both family by birth and family by choice, who don’t think less of me when I need help. Loving them is what keeps me moving forward. And if, as my boss says, bipolar is just a side effect of being awesome, I can stop worrying about being somehow better and simply live my life being me.

Bad Brain Meets The Snooze Button

Every morning, I open my eyes. I visualize getting out of bed, but there is a bridge between waking up and actually getting dressed.

The troll living under that bridge tells me that it’s pointless to get up and get dressed, because I’ll still be useless, and I should just come back to bed and hide. It tells me my incompetence will surely reveal itself, and I’m on borrowed time until that happens. So why even try? Why risk being open to criticism when the bullshit that comes out of my mind most days is more critical (and harshly so)?

alarm clock snoozeI get the impression that people who use the snooze function on their alarm clock use it to delay getting out of bed. To lay peacefully and enjoy the silence, pet the dog and start to plan their day. That when it’s time to get up, they at least have a purpose. Getting showered and dressed, feeding starving pets and/or kids, making lunches for you or a crew, and making sure you have your phone charger, just in case.

This sounds like a fairy tale to me. Allow me to invite you into a bipolar mind dealing with Bad Brain at all hours.

Bad Brain is how I refer to those negative, interrupting thoughts that arrive in my mind in my own voice, so it’s doubly hard to assign fault to them. It’s my inner dialogue and it is compelled to perpetuate the negative in any situation. And, in case nothing dramatic is happening, Bad Brain is well-skilled at making drama out of nothing. But it never *feels* like nothing. It always comes down to weakness, my personal failures, the inevitability that my loved ones will grow sick of my bullshit and tell me to take a hike. How do you deal with your own inner voice telling you that you should end up alone because you’re too much effort?

You hit Snooze, you nuzzle your pillow and relax in your 9 extra minutes. I hit Snooze and have to fight the imaginary bridge troll that stands between me and accomplishing anything at all. Today, I almost didn’t make it. Today, the troll was particularly clever and was content to poke at my fear of inadequacy until I wasn’t even sure I could make it to work. I sat in bed and cried softly as I put my socks on, determined just to get out of the house and let whatever happens after that, happen. Some days, that’s the best I can do.

The torture continued in the bathroom as I tried to style my hair and apply my makeup. I couldn’t handle looking in the mirror, so I applied waterproof eyeliner by touch and styled my messy hair with a comb and a bobby pin and that was it. If I didn’t have such secluded office space, I’d say people might have picked up on it by now, but my desk at the office is quite private so there’s no one to compare one day’s look to the next. Bad brain kept up its commentary, telling me how stupid I look, how I try too hard with minimal results. But it helps me feel finished.

At this point, I am dressed and ready; I let the dogs out and fed them while packing my lunch. I was already going to be a tiny bit late – surely an extra five minutes wouldn’t hurt. I thought I would try something I’ve been meaning to try for a while: Review my Core Desired Feelings (h/t Danielle Laporte and her Desire Map program) and try to make my to-do list based on how I want to feel today.

But Bad Brain wouldn’t have it. For every feeling, there is a pesky way for Bad Brain to undermine it. I long to feel resilient, to believe I am resilient, to acknowledge that my fight is worth something. In my life according to Bad Brain, I am not resilient, I am a doormat. I was meant for people to walk all over. It’s all I deserve. And it plays out over and over as I sort through how I *want* to feel and try to determine how to make that so. Not only am I fighting this Bad Brain battle that exaggerates my fears, it sets me up to be a continual disappointment to me and everyone around me.

This may seem a bit unconventional, but I’ve found that my ECT sessions help quiet the ever-present interior monologue enough for me to quietly tell Bad Brain to go f*ck itself. Or, perhaps more entertainingly, have my Mummich tell it to go f*ck itself.

On days like today, I somehow find the strength to overcome the Bad Brain and work as the original, creative, resourceful, kind human bean I’m striving to turn into. I can believe in my CDFs (Resilient, Creative, Authentic, Kind, Joyful, Connected, Grounded) and can choose to do my work in a way that supports those feelings. But it was tense getting there today. I almost lost it and went back to bed to finish crying. I almost gave up. I have a love/hate relationship with the snooze button and a hate/hate relationship with the Bad Brain’s exploitation of my ambivalence by making things more pessimistic and telling me not to bother trying.

Trying anything.
Trying to live.
Trying to love.
Trying to silence this motherf*cker with my sheer awesomeness. (Ha! Can’t blame a girl for trying)

And oh, what a difference between me this morning, perched on the edge of the bed, one purple sock in hand, Kleenex in the other hand, dabbing away my tears, and me now, ready to write. I made it through the day. I did a damn fine job, actually. Too bad the Bad Brain will try its damnedest to make me feel inadequate and useless when I open my eyes tomorrow morning. Bad Brain is difficult to fight… but not impossible. Listening to my Core Desired Feelings, along with planning the simple tasks I can do to create those feelings, takes a huge amount of pressure off.

Ok, Bad Brain. Provided you’ve been vanquished for the evening, I shall read and write and do laundry like an average woman does. And then, when I’m hopefully rested and able to ride a magic dream carpet until dawn, I shall see you in the morning. Only this time, I’ll be ready to fight back.

Total Eclipse of the Mind

Once upon a time, I was falling in… ha! There’s your ear worm. Turn around, bright eyes. Every now and then we fall apart.

There is a rhythm to this illness, a strange syncopation of the synapses as conducted by one f*cked up composer. The melody one moment dominated by a slow swell of sweet cellos, next punctuated by an accelerated staccato piccolo that pecks at your eardrums with increasing speed.

One moment sings distant, forlorn and fragile, the next a strange tarantella racing through your mind. The rhythm fractures and mutates, leaving you dancing on tip-toes under the control of a maniacal metronome. Continue reading “Total Eclipse of the Mind”

13 Ways to Talk About 13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why is everywhere, and I am still seeing people argue with school boards, mental health associations and suicide awareness centres over whether or not the show is *good*. No one claims it is not a good television series. It is also, however, socially irresponsible.

So, let’s stop arguing and find a way to help kids/people think critically about bullying and suicide. I humbly offer my suggestions below, and hope they give you somewhere to start. Continue reading “13 Ways to Talk About 13 Reasons Why”

Memories of a Bullied Nerd

I went to five (five!) different elementary schools ’cause we moved a lot, so I was always the new girl, the nerd girl, the cross-eyed girl, the steals-my-solo girl, the outsider, the weirdo, the freak. Because I’d skipped a grade and was born in October, I was also the youngest.

But I thought if I could somehow be better, the other kids wouldn’t be so mean. I was so f*cking naive. Big brain, not a clue.

Recess was torture. The schools were small, and the herd mentality was well established. In dodgeball, I wasn’t a target. I was a piñata. Not only would I be chosen last for a team, but the team that wound up with me would simply sit down and go on strike. The other team would be furious and taunt me until I just tiptoed away, crying.

I was nine. Continue reading “Memories of a Bullied Nerd”

How 13 Reasons Why Let Us All Down

HEY YOU: If you are having thoughts of suicide or are making plans to end your life, please call 1 (800) 273-TALK – or visit this website to chat online with someone who really can make things better: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org (US and Canada). I know they can help because I’ve called them before.

Everyone I know who has watched the hugely popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has been absorbed (and obsessed) with its intense storyline about a high school student who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes detailing how her life slid so far downhill.

Each tape names one of her tormentors and explains what they did to screw up her life.

** Spoilers ahead, and discussion that will probably upset sensitive readers ** Continue reading “How 13 Reasons Why Let Us All Down”

Exposé Reveals Local Hospital Saving Lives

LONDON, ON – In a shocking revelation, we learned today that LHSC is treating suicidal patients as if their lives are worth something.

“They removed anything I could use to kill myself,” one patient said. “I came here because I wanted to hurt myself, and they wouldn’t even let me try!”

Suicidal patients who were still visibly breathing shared how badly they were mistreated by hospital staff, describing the safe rooms in which they were kept, and the obscene lack of privacy as medically-trained professionals monitored their behaviour – removing their right to execute their plans to harm themselves. Continue reading “Exposé Reveals Local Hospital Saving Lives”

A Peek Inside A Suicidal Mind

TRIGGER WARNING:
This post contains content that may affect even mildly sensitive people. If you are upset, depressed, or thinking of harming yourself in any way, please look here: http://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/ . Or call 800-273-TALK.

Mom warning: you will not enjoy this post. It is very suicidey (which is now a word). You will read things you cannot unread and that you will think about for a while. Seriously.Suicide hotline 800-273-TALK

But I have committed to shedding light on what having Bipolar I Disorder feels like from the inside, so I’m addressing something very few people will talk to you about.

Suicide. Continue reading “A Peek Inside A Suicidal Mind”

My 7-Day, Mexican, All-Inclusive, 5-day Vacation

How much I love to fly

My entire family just returned from a fantastic trip to a 5* resort in Mexico, where our every whim was catered to, no request was too outrageous, and no buffet was shown a shred of mercy. Twenty of any family would be loud and boisterous. This twenty of my family knows a lot about decibels and how to raise them, uncontrollable belly laughs and how to solicit them, and what it feels like to be part of a clan.

Being around them in large doses has always triggered my anxiety. So does flying. I’ve spent the last month working with the doctor and therapist on coping skills, including carrying around a bottle of sedatives to be taken four times a day. Or sometimes, four times an hour. Whatever gets ya through, right? Continue reading “My 7-Day, Mexican, All-Inclusive, 5-day Vacation”

AJ Lee: Bullshit is your Superpower

AJ Lee means nothing to me. I’m not a fan of melodramatic violence as entertainment, so I’ve never encountered her image or name before. But she does have a book coming out (Crazy is my Superpower, coincidentally). It is the story of her life from her perspective: she is bipolar. Not has, is.

These are words from her blog post announcing the arrival of her sure fire bestseller:

By Flickr user Starship PaintOne day I made the choice to stop throwing myself a pity party. I chose to stand up and fight… Continue reading “AJ Lee: Bullshit is your Superpower”