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.

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