Growing up I was faced with my fair share of challenges. I don't want to put them under the category of grievances and I am thankful for a relatively safe journey into adulthood. I made it! And if there is nothing else to be thankful for I always have that.
My father left my mom, brothers, and me at a very young age- I have been told that I was about two or three. Later, as an adult, I learned about his all too defining delusions and harrowing mood swings which ranged anywhere from princely to violently abusive. I am thankful that I will never know just how bad it was.
However, being raised by a single mother with three children has a whole new set of challenges. My mom had overwhelming depression and ADD, a childhood which proved far harsher than my own, and the responsibility of raising us by herself. As I understand it, most children with split parents or single parents grow in unstable emotional climates, exceedingly so when the parents themselves are emotionally conflicted. My childhood proved no exception; I felt an unrelenting need to prove just how amazing I was so that a) no one would abandon me again and b) for once I could finally make my mother happy. Both hopes are neither reasonable nor helpful in having any real self-esteem, in fact, they lead to a façade you cloak yourself with but never truly believe in.
Something that was not immediately apparent was that I, too, would inevitably develop the same bipolar symptoms my father had and they would eventually become exacerbated by a lack of steady emotional foundation. Around the age of sixteen it occurred to me that my behavior was not typical and other people do not experience the same intensity of roller coaster emotion that I do on a regular basis. I wouldn’t necessarily call it suffering at that point. Initially, the disorder was identified as hypomania (as it often is at beginning stages of bipolar disorder) and really what that meant was that I regularly had insomnia and never ending rains of energy that allowed me to do things like: maintain a full time scholarship at a ballet conservatory, work as an intern at a Medical Center Laboratory, take around five Advanced Placement classes every semester, be Art Editor of the high schools literary arts magazine, found the photography club at school and still somehow find time to do drugs, graduate sixth in class with distinction of the National Honor Society, tape magazine eyeballs to the inside of my glasses lenses to see how people would react and tend to my brothers’ basic needs while my mother was at work. I could also recount all the wonderful products that were sold on late night infomercials and watched way too many late night I Love Lucy reruns. I was literally convinced that I was an invincible superhero minus supernatural powers. This AMAZING energy gave me the jam packed resume I needed to get into my top choice university but it also left me overly agitated and constantly irritable. I always reacted violently to small things and had very few friends because I struck people as odd and potentially mean. For everything that I was capable of doing really well I was never able to be an agreeable person. Sure I could come off as charismatic when necessary but I was hyper and insatiable, aggressive and unbalanced. I could never seem to be happy with my own accomplishments and nothing I did ever felt good enough.
My personal relationships tended to be chaotic. I knew that I was emotionally stunted but not quite sure how and I promised myself that when I left this place behind to go to college I would become a whole new person—not just someone with a degree and potential for a high paying career, but someone who could have a healthy relationship with other people and herself.
But as the saying goes, what goes up must come down.
I might be able to call this next era one of suffering. It was an intense period of self-dissection in every way imaginable from formal education (you mean no one in the professional world writes papers this way?!) to personal emotional growth (OH, so that’s what was really going on). I felt like I was trying to relearn everything that I thought I understood about the world, even how to do something as simple as ask a question. At this point I was 18, well aware that I had some type of mood disorder, had been taking a low dose of a mood stabilizer for a couple of years but was barely devoted to therapy. This was when I learned a few very important things: 1) I need to regularly see a therapist that I can be dead honest and open with 2) do NOT take recreational hallucinogens when you have a mood disorder and 3) when you have spent a week in your bed without showering, without going to class, or leaving your dorm at all except to buy donuts to eat in that tiny XL twin bed in exile, it’s time to look for some serious help.
There are two different kinds of suicidal thought that I am aware of, the first being the more heard of route of taking your own life, and the second not so well talked about route of passive suicidal thought. The passive comes into play by wishing on the sly something catastrophic would happen and by means of coincidence take your life. Although it goes under the term passive, it is still an extremely dangerous place to be emotionally. I vividly remember once in high school, years before, legitimately wishing we would get into a horrific accident on the way to school just so I wouldn’t have to live another day of a raging internal discontented hell. That moment was brief, but back to the week in my dorm as a stinky donut eating hermit, I was drowning in the desire to perish. My brain had me believing that I was worthless, selfish, ugly, stupid, horribly untalented, and in all ways just a horrendous obstacle that everyone else needed to hurdle to make their lives better. It wasn’t subtle and passing as some people might say “Oh! Kill me now!” when they miss a dead line or brake up with a significant other, or even when they experience a tragedy and say it as a sentiment for how much life sucks in that moment. I have never felt anything so real, never yearned for something as whole heartedly as I did that week.
I will never understand why but something compelled me to get out of bed, dress my stinky self and go to my therapy session where I regurgitated a string of depressed self-worthlessness and proceeded to double over in tears at the tremendous weight I felt in my chest; it physically felt as if my heart had turned to lead and expanded in my ribcage to make it difficult to breathe, to move, to talk, and to live! I felt capable of nothing except laying motionless on the ground and letting the tears seep out of my eyes into puddles of salt water and snot.
And then, in her simple, gentle, motherly voice, Dawn the counselor asks me, “Genn, do you need to go to the hospital? Do you need a break?” She said this to me in such an easy, loving way. She said it as if she was asking me if I needed a Band-Aid and the answer was yes. I needed a gigantic human sized Band-Aid to wrap around me and make the inability to move myself, at all for anything, go away.
After that I was whisked away to the emergency room. I had a small doubt that I was worth the time of an emergency but then when the nurse tried to take a blood sample from my arm she couldn’t seem to fill the vial. My blood pressure was so low that it took about ten minutes from a vein in my hand, the only place that seemed to produce blood, to fill that tiny little tube. Then I started to really understand that it wasn’t just my emotions at play here but a serious physiological imbalance; just sadness alone shouldn’t be responsible for lowering blood pressure to that extent.
As someone who has consistently experienced these cycles of highs and lows, I have come to learn about a great enigma that depression embodies, and it is very much like the chicken-or-the-egg phenomenon. Was whatever made me so upset that week a real meaningful life changing event of sorrow? Or was I so down about these things, apparently so insignificant that I can’t even remember what they were, because I was physiologically depressed? My answer: I have no idea, and hopefully one day science will make a breakthrough in which we can finally point out just what happened. I can, however, confidently tell you that after spending about four days in a hospital and gaining the final diagnosis of Bipolar II things started to turn around for me. It took me years and a few more hospital visits to learn that this overachieving behavior I participated in was causing tremendous amounts of stress and preventing me from taking care of myself with respect to my bodily and emotional needs.
What I am about to propose might just blow your mind: People need to eat and sleep and occasionally relax to maintain mental stability. I know, ground breaking, but in a storm of people pushing you to be the best and to go to college and to be super smart and perfect at anything you may have an inkling of interest in, you might forget about that detail. Under the stress of trying to prove something to the world around you, you can entirely forget that your mental health hangs in the balance. You can also lose sight of what you, yourself, may need for the life you want to live. You may even catch yourself totally unaware that the expectations you had held yourself to were of your own invention in an attempt to escape the pain of disappointing another person, and being abandoned all over again, as I did.
It was high time for me to let go of the ridiculous expectations I was making for myself. I didn’t enjoy working in the lab, and I realized that working there just because I loved the positive attention and commendation was no reason to stay. It wasn’t feasible to run around all the time to every dance class I could find just because I craved the compliments on my physical abilities. It was time for me to start paying attention to what my grades and heart proved dedication to: art. I dropped my biology major and switched to sculpture, dropped all the unnecessary classes and extra-curriculars I was taking, and instead put myself 100% into my therapy twice a week, joined the photography staff for the campus newspaper (which had a flexible commitment level where you could choose the assignments you wanted to take or even none if you desired), and focused on basic school needs and healing.
I struggle to this day with forcing myself to stay below the threshold. It means that I have to let go of my inclination to be the best and instead work really hard at doing what is best for me. Do I become aggravated with my lack of accomplishment? Yes! but mostly because of my childhood dream of becoming this all achieving superwoman who makes everyone she touches happy and content with themselves. I have a condition that I live with that explodes and hospitalizes me when I don’t respect its boundaries. I like to compare it to having a giant grizzly bear as a housemate… only it’s more in my head than my house. If the dear bear cannot hibernate, she lashes out. If she cannot find a tree to scratch her back against, she flips tables. If you throw rocks at her, she just might eat you, and always remember that even a trained dancing bear has the ability to bare her teeth and tear off heads when provoked. So long as I keep her happy with a lot of love and a little honey, I will continue to live in one piece.
When I finally gain the courage to reveal the disorder to people I avoid saying I AM bipolar and make a point to say I HAVE bipolar disorder. It does not make me weaker, less eager to learn and grow, nor makes me lose confidence in my abilities, but I have a condition that runs parallel to my life. I manage to keep the paths from crossing as much as possible with self-care, family, some medication, and intense psychotherapy. I have actually assuaged the disorder so much that people often look at me like I’m crazy when I admit to having it. “Why do you take medication when you seem so normal?” they ask. This question confuses me to a great extent because it’s not like anyone will ever ask you why you took an ibuprofen now that your chronic pain from arthritis has subsided. That wouldn’t make sense, but people insist that just because I seem fine now (due to my treatment, no less) that I don’t need it anymore. If that person never took the ibuprofen the chronic pain would not have subsided; the treatment that people with mood disorders undergo is by nature the same. With a healthy treatment system you can alleviate the potential harm the disorder can cause but, otherwise, the mood episodes will run rampant and make a field day of your life. Just because you may seem alright in the moment does not change that you have a chronic disorder that must be treated accordingly.
To this right, I am differently abled. I have a lower breaking point than your average person and I keep myself mentally stable by respecting my sleep, diet, and by staying away from mind altering substances. Drugs can seem like a super fine out for relieving emotional distress but in the end you can alter your brain chemistry to a dangerous degree and exacerbate your disorder. I also maintain my distance from stressful personal situations and jobs that do not respect my boundaries. I am currently living off some money I saved in order to work on my portfolio. Hopefully, I can start a business with it and get to a place where I have the time to illustrate an idea I have for a book. It is slow and sometimes grueling, but being able to take my time and play has been the most therapeutic decision I ever could have made for myself, and it was a luxury I never allowed myself as a kid. I am finally in a place where I can say that I am okay with this, and it keeps me happy.
Openness with others and yourself is a gift and a curse; you wear your heart on your sleeve but power lies in the wake of your vulnerability. Even if it means taking the risk of suffering for what can improve your life, you will become stronger for it and grow to see the joy of your decision. Don’t get any crazy ideas that just because you are older that means you are all grownup; every day holds a beautiful opportunity to grow. It is never too late to find a healthy way to live. It is never too late to ask for help, and most importantly, always remember that you deserve it.