My Life with My Cohort…Now Collaborator
I began experiencing serious depression around the age of 11. As the years went by it got steadily worse. I began cutting when I was 12: first my left thigh, later my left forearm. I kept them covered. People don’t seem to understand what cutting is about. It’s not a suicide thing. Depression is excruciating. For me, it toggles between extreme pain and total emptiness. I lose me. It’s like a having a partial brain amputation…perspective disappears and any ability to think rationally flies out the window. Losing those resources is what makes it so horrible and dangerous. I cut, because I needed to feel something—anything to make sure I was still there.
Early on, I remember praying every night that I wouldn’t wake up. Eventually, it morphed into almost constant thoughts of suicide and obsessive planning. I started stockpiling over-the-counter sleeping pills from nearby pharmacies.
I’m not sure death was even part of my “thinking,” I just wanted the pain to stop and I couldn’t figure out another way to make it happen. I hated myself for not having the courage to do it.
School was painful. Showering was painful. Getting out of bed was nearly impossible. I did my best to function, i.e. to seem “ok.”
I first attempted suicide when I was in my mid-teens. I was discovered unconscious by a friend, taken to the E.R. and had my stomach pumped. Apparently I was legally dead—for exactly how long, I can’t say. When I came to, I was irate, but even more terrified that anyone would find out what I had done. I begged the staff to let me go with my friend and a compassionate nurse he had called to help. I’m not sure how it happened, but my promise to tell my mother that I needed professional help, and, most probably, the backup of that amazing nurse that turned a blind eye for me—it all somehow worked. They knew, as I still do, that if they had forced me to stay, I would have found a way to end my life. There is no record of my 36 hours in the E.R.
Traumatized and grateful that my attempt was unrecorded, I followed through. My mother found me a psychiatrist and I was put on medications. I hated the doctor. He was cold, condescending and attributed my “drama” to a lot of completely whack, non-issues. No diagnosis was made. None of the drugs helped. Eventually I faked “better” and stopped seeing him. He, consciously or not, violated the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.”
Around sixteen, sleeping too much was replaced, most of the time, with not sleeping. That’s when “crazy" became my identity. The wall next to my bed sometimes looked like it was melting Dali-style. Soon, terrifying faces started pushing through the paint from time to time. I was relieved when my mom renovated her house years later, now that wall no longer exists.
Despite feeling way less than sane, suicidal, and coping with undiagnosed dyslexia, I did really well in school. The determination to "pass," need to stay busy and inability to sleep helped. Photography and getting involved with the Washington D.C. Riot Grrrl feminist-political-punk movement was also pivotal in my survival. They both gave my pain a voice.
I was accepted into plenty of impressive liberal arts schools. I was also accepted into a prestigious art school, so I went. I still don’t know how I had the guts to take that leap of faith. It must have been a fleeting moment of clarity, and a tiny bit of self-love.
A college boyfriend pushed me to get help for the depression that kept getting worse and harder to hide. I tried again. My school’s health services recommended a psychiatrist. She diagnosed me as having Manic Depression. I knew practically nothing about the illness except that I was now “officially” crazy. I was prescribed Lithium and Zoloft—remember those TV ads? A sad-faced blob with a dark cloud overhead suddenly bounces around smiling with an animated avian friend…yeah, of course that’s how it works.
As far as I can gather from my medical records, during those first five years post-diagnoses, there were only two blood draws—both in the first three months. If that doctor had demanded blood work every three months (the protocol for anyone taking lithium) and more than a dozen appointments, it would have been obvious that I was not taking the Lithium, just the anti-depressant. It made me feel elated, confident, charming, sexy, appealing, productive—without a struggle, pure fun and fearless. I had never experienced those feelings.
Looking back, I was hypo-manic and full-on manic for most of college. The inevitable crashes into depression were fairly short compared to the constant desperation that had become normal. They were quickly forgotten—by me, not my friends. My “happy” behavior apparently wasn’t so forgettable either. I did and said a lot of really stupid, dangerous, messed-up stuff. I still regret the things friends have told me about.
Eventually, my medication preferences caught up with me, big-time. I had my first major, beyond terrifying, psychotic episode several years after graduating. I had just gotten married. I thought that decision would make me feel safe and more sane. It didn’t. Nothing situational could’ve. Apparently my psychosis involved me screaming at a Barbie doll and breaking a window, attempting to get her to shut up. I landed in McLean Hospital, outside of Boston. All my possessions were taken and I was physically restrained while injected with drugs. I was surrounded by other people living in their own hell—I’m sure we all terrified each other equally. I was followed everywhere, even to pee. I learned what “24-hour watch” meant. Then I was released, without a local psychiatrist on board and definitely still dealing with severe paranoia and constant thoughts of suicide.
It was months before I could leave my apartment. Even after medications stopped the Barbie-action, I saw things moving in my peripheral view, heard whispers. I was convinced that I had lost it, for good.
Pssst: Cheer up now, here comes some of the better part, and I saved the best for last…
I never, ever considered—or have since—ditching meds or skipping out on doctor appointments.
Since that first documented hospitalization 17 years ago, I’ve been inpatient five more times and undergone a long round of ECT. I’ve seen it work miracles, with no lingering side effects. It just didn’t in my case. I have had at least 34 different medications in and out of my system.
I’ve had many long periods of depression, some ending in catatonia. When my meds have suddenly stopped working and hypo-mania has reared it's head. Now it's dysphoric, not euphoric. It’s agitation beyond belief: sleeplessness, a total lack of concentration and I have the ability to say things that deem not to be retyped here and can’t ever be taken back. I’ve experienced the mind-blowing hell of rapid cycling many times. You’re manic, depressed, wash, rinse, repeat—over the course of 24 hours.
It's pretty impossible to have a non-bipolar day, even when things are good. There are a lot of necessary, annoying things that have to happen if you want keep things on the upswing, here’s my strategy: keep a consistent sleep schedule, take meds multiple times a day, ignore pesky side effects, spend the amazing amounts of money on pharmaceuticals and health care, abstain from drugs and alcohol, schedule every day to-the-hour, function as well and as much as possible (when doable) and be ok with a lot of med tweaks.
The best: a lot of great stuff has happened too…
After years of working with many doctors, I’ve found an amazing medical team. For the last five-plus years, I’ve been trusted implicitly, respected, heard, and my observations vis-à-vis: how I’m doing, given absolute credence. My medication regimen has been streamlined, and actually works the vast majority of the time. I have not been in a hospital for five years. I've also been able to drop my fear and pride. I now let friends and family get my back. That has been such a gift.
My dream to begin counseling work has been met with total support, encouragement and hands-on help. I’ve been healthy enough to learn how to live well, not just drag myself through minutes, hours, days. I’ve been taught to see beauty, have faith and maintain hope.
I’ve learned to love myself, appreciate the strong, beautiful person I’ve always been, and continue to become. So much so that I’ve been able to ditch a lot of very wrong beliefs—some I embraced by hearing them way too many times, and some are ones I accepted from society at large. I am not: “damaged goods,” “worthless,” “unloveable,” “crazy,” “a lost cause,” “the reason my life is ruined”…you get it. I could go on, like the people who said those things, but it’s time to move forward.
I’m done with allowing myself to be abused. I didn’t ever deserve it, and I won’t put up with it ever again. That said, I’m still very able to torture myself when things get dark. But I'm working on that.
My art mojo is flooding back in a reasonable, non-manic way. I rarely wakeup panicked, gasping for air thinking: today’s the day the shit’s going to hit the fan and I’m going to hit the floor, again. Now I can appreciate a good day and stop assuming the next med change is around the corner.
I can choose to “pass” if it benefits me. I don’t feel like I have to do it for anyone else. I can be open with people who can handle it and want to help me when I’m in trouble. I’m getting better at figuring out which people should be on the "need to know” list. (Seeing someone wanting but struggling way too much being around you, trying to help, just makes the situation harder.)
I'm still here, dammit! I've accomplished a lot of great things. I’m proud. And I've finally become able to be a lot more open about my experiences—through peer counseling and anti-stigma work…even with the art I’m making. It’s a huge accomplishment and beyond liberating.
I can honestly say, when my chemistry is cooperating, that I wouldn’t change a thing. We are what we’ve lived and we’re better for it, if we can see it. I love the way my thoughts bounce around when I let my brain loose. It let’s me see things from a zillion perspectives. My artwork is better for it. Most of all, my compassion level has way more than tripled.
When I love, it’s hardcore. When people let me down these days, I can forgive much more easily. I’m finding that I judge others less and less. I know what unfair judgment, unkindness and assumptions do to peoples’ souls. I refuse to consciously play that game. I’m not willing to hold onto anger, bitterness or negativity. Years of therapy and having to continuously “check-in” have given me a greater understanding of who I am. And I really like that person, most days. Anyone who can’t see past a label, or how I seem when I’m struggling, well, they’re really missing out.