Soon after awakening to my crisis of ‘self’, I was sent to my first therapist. My social circles had changed, and I’d begun to spend time with a more marginalized and less straight and narrow group of girls. I was confused, disoriented even, and I felt trapped. Trapped by my town and my school, by the social standards I’d been raised to never question, by the reputation I felt I’d had to uphold for as long as I could remember. I was a prisoner in my own skin, years and years of an identity built up around an empty core.
And now that I’d realized all of this, what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t just change and be someone else, and even if I could, I didn’t know who that would be. I frantically thought of options and decided that the only way to resolve the situation would be to move to Maine to live with my grandmother and start afresh, arriving as a stranger in a new town with no history and nothing to live up to. I sat my parents down and told them the plan. Understandably, my parents rejected this idea. I was left to sit with the chaos building in my mind.
This chaos erupted in anger. I didn’t know how to deal with it- how to allow it to move through me and take its course, how to channel it or talk about it. I feared it and hated it and simultaneously was drawn to it because it was the only emotion intense enough to capture what I was feeling. It was this, primarily, that put me in a therapist’s office one day early in the fall of eighth grade.
The woman I was sent to see was older, in her late sixties or early seventies, and as kind as anyone could be. Her office was attached to her home, which happened to be up the street from me, and I remember dreading the walk every week. Each step I took, with hands thrust deep in my pockets and head down to make sure passersby wouldn’t recognize me, reinforced the idea that I was not normal, that what I was going through was ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, and that I wasn’t doing life the way I ‘should’ be. These realizations were fundamental blows to my sense of equilibrium both within myself and in relation to the world around me. I became filled with fear, doubt, and insecurity. Most of all, I felt alone.
The solitude I’d always been able to feel as a kid, whether on adventures in the woods after school or tucked in bed reading a good book at night, evaporated that fall. It had become pure and unadulterated loneliness, and I found myself in a bind. On the one hand, it was miserable to feel so alone while mired in the chaos pulsating in my mind, but on the other hand, being around people required a tremendous amount of mental energy. It was exhausting to constantly act and pretend around others, and I was left feeling like a fake and a fraud. I was constantly in limbo, never at peace with being on my own or in the company of others.
Eventually, my therapist recommended a more intensive plan. Our sessions, which had been focused on managing my anger, were not proving productive. She thought it critical that I begin to see a psychiatrist who could prescribe medications, should they become necessary. And with that, my weekly walks up the road ceased. They’d brought me to the door of clinical psychiatry, and I was about to be led in.
I fought this decision with all my might. I believed I was in a battle for my life and for ownership of myself, whatever that was. Agreeing to see a shrink meant forfeiting, giving in, losing. The self-imposed stigma I’d placed on myself was all-encompassing and never challenged by my surrounding environment. I was told to let no one outside of my family know that I was seeing a psychiatrist. In school, girls struggling with emotional issues were labeled by many as fundamentally weak. They were never the role models, never the ones others looked up to.
While the outside world still saw me as the strong, confident, high-functioning (though now slightly rebellious) girl I’d always been, the picture was entirely different behind closed doors. My inner turbulence had started to bubble over, and I felt out of control, weak, and pathetic. Thus, I came to feel overwhelming shame for who I was, for this tremendous secret I was harboring. Each and every day, I wondered, “If they only knew…” In essence, I was living two separate lives, the former of which felt like an exhaustive performance and the latter an unmanageable reaction to constantly being on stage.
And thus, it was determined that I needed a psychiatrist with the arsenal of psychopharmacology at her side. With no choice in the matter, I went to my first session with the new doctor and explained to the best of my abilities what I was struggling with. At the end of the fifty minutes, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and written a prescription for Depakote.
With the snap of a finger, I was labeled and forever changed. I was now a case in a file, a category, a collection of symptoms. I walked out with a script in my hand, not sure of what had just happened. What I did know was that I felt even more alone. My entire life, with all of its good and bad and beautiful and confusing and bright and scary and exciting and emotional pieces I’d elaborately been putting together throughout my childhood, as every child does, was to be resolved with a pill. I was speechless. That evening, at dinner, I took my first dosage of the turquoise and white capsules I was to begin a relationship with. Pandora’s Box was opened.