The other day I was out to dinner with some colleagues of mine. We were talking about nothing really. One of them asked me how I was doing. I knew exactly what she was asking. Her concern was very authentic but for a mili-second in my mind I paused. Could I tell her how I really was? Could I trust these women that I was munching casually on chips and salsa with the heaviness of my truth?
As with most things in my life I took a “I-won’t-know-until-I-do-it” attitude and decided to just put it out there. I’m pretty good at diverting attention and changing the subject if the conversation got too uncomfortable for any of us. So I told her I was doing much better, but that the summer had been a rough one.
Thinking this would suffice and we’d move on talking about better things than my mental health like making money, who said the dumbest thing on Facebook this week or even sex but no, she wanted to know more. She asked, “What happened?” Again, I know her concern was genuine. The past summer as far as anyone could see I had pulled back on work and relationships and pretty much went into hiding so I know that her asking me that question was valid. I had decided long ago that I would not be embarrassed or held back by my mental health diagnosis. My mission in this area to bring awareness so that other people, especially women, can feel comfortable being who they are and not resent this one part of themselves.
It’s been almost 19 years since I was first given the diagnosis of bipolar disorder II. I’ve had ups and downs over the years. I’ve been in and out of therapy, on and off meds and through numerous changes in the cocktails of medications over the years. I know the prognosis of my condition. I know that most people with bipolar disorder must be medicated their entire lives just to live a seemingly normal life (and sometimes that isn’t even possible). I also know that bipolar depression is a contributing factor in many suicides. I know these things; I live them daily.
For most of these past 19 years I’ve been stable with minor mood fluctuations. Most people would have no idea that I carried a mental illness diagnosis. I’ve held jobs, advanced in my career, raised children, sustained relationships and paid bills. Nothing on the outside would have hinted towards what I was fighting (and winning) everyday.
But this summer a shift happened. I remember feeling physical symptoms of the manic mood, but I didn’t put it together. When you’re living it, it just feels like it’s a part of who I am. It’s not like some kind of monster separate from myself. It’s not something that has “taken over” When I had headaches and my heart raced I never even thought about how those symptoms could be a manifestation of the bipolar.
I often joke that when you go crazy it’s not like a switch gets flipped. You don’t hear it. It’s not an alarm and there are no red flags being waved. No one is there at the threshold between normal and out of you fucking mind saying, “you have now crossed over.” It’s slow and progressive. I didn’t realize I was manic until much later and only once I leveled out.
What I did feel was when the bottom fell out. I did know that I was spiraling down a deep dark abyss of which I’d never be able to get out of on my own. I didn’t hear the sudden swish of the rug being pulled out from under me as my feet flipped up over my head. I didn’t feel as I tried to grasp onto anything that would hold me up. I gasped for air; I begged to keep my head up. I fell and I never landed, I just kept falling.
I became frightened of where my thoughts would lead me and what they might make me do. I didn’t want to die. The thought of it made me shudder. I couldn’t imagine leaving my family alone to deal with the hurt that would cause. I however, didn’t trust that in an irrational haze my unpredictable chemically imbalanced mind wouldn’t take over and convince me to kill myself. You don’t know when your having crazy thoughts, that’s what makes them crazy.
During a more lucid time I told my husband and doctor what was happening and about my fears. She decided to put me on what she called “home hospitalization”. Someone was to be with me 24/7 in case the irrationality took over. I was not supposed to work or have any stress in my life. Then my grandma died.
I couldn’t talk to anyone except my husband. Literally, I didn’t answer the phone or make any calls. I stayed in bed and only felt safe when Bob was home. I didn’t eat and barely slept. I had completely lost who I was. Like when you’re in an airplane in the fog. You have no concept of where you are in space. That’s how I felt. With gray space all around me and no way to know if I was right side up or upside down. I had to trust Bob to tell me if I was okay or not.
Meanwhile my doctor changed my meds and slowly but surely they started working. The fog got thinner and thinner, I started to see my way out. Eventually, it thinned out to the point where it was a few clouds here and there. And that’s about where I am now.
So that’s what happened. It’s not the first or the worst and it won’t be the last. After I told my story one of the other women said, “You’re such a bad ass. You’re just so authentic and open about your bipolar. And you keep going, you don’t let it hold you back.” I appreciated her words but this is me. I’m not special. I fall down and get back up; it’s all I know. I take one day at a time, and on this day I choose to live. I am Heidi and I am bipolar.