At no moment in my childhood– whether in those weekday hours after school spent exploring the woods with my dog, or on the early Sunday mornings in winter when I champed at the bit to get to center ice, anticipating the sight of my condensed breath in the air as I lined up for the puck drop, or on those countless Friday night sleepovers with best friends in which we’d play sardines, eat too much candy, and wreak typical, innocent havoc—would it have seemed conceivable to me that one day I’d grow up to be a young woman with a mental illness.
But there I was, in the early stages of college, dragging myself desperately out of my teenage years, searching for and needing an answer to my personal struggles. In the first of what was always said would be the ‘best years of my life’, freshman year in college had drained me emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. I had been beaten down, mostly by my own hand, into an inchoate mass of feelings, thoughts, and core values that no longer made any sense together and that had left me on the verge of a complete breakdown of self. But with an answer, a dazzling ‘Truth’ that I had now come to believe had been there all along but that I’d stubbornly, proudly refused to acknowledge— that I, Laura Delano, had bipolar disorder—I had finally started to put together the pieces of my chaotic life.
Incorporating this one word, ‘bipolar’, into my vocabulary of self suddenly allowed me to feel like I could become whole again. It was as though all the entropic chaos– the constant confusion and frustration and desperation that I’d lost the meaning of my life somewhere along this tumultuous path and that things would never again make sense– was calmed, neutralized, and defused. The dust began to settle, and I believed it would be for good. By feeling the solution this diagnosis provided sweep through me, filling every empty hole of my being with an answer, I suddenly had the confidence to go on. It would take an entire reconfiguration of my beliefs about normality, about acceptability, strength and weakness, and pride, but I knew that it was vital to my existence that I take on such an endeavor. I was bipolar whether I liked it or not, and what I did with this knowledge was now entirely in my hands. I could let it break me down even further, rendering me powerless, helpless, and stagnant, or I could embrace it, shape my concept of self around it, and refuse to surrender to the social stigma I saw, and maybe even felt a bit of, in the environment around me. I chose the latter.
I now saw that my life had been ripped apart by this insidious disease, the shreds of sanity lying at my feet, and I began to live my life with one goal in mind, oriented not towards happiness, serenity, or contentment, but towards control. I became determined to regain everything I’d lost throughout my years of personal collapse and decline resulting from this mental illness. I chose this goal because it was tangible, visible, and measurable– I could see my progress with my grade on a paper, my weight on a scale, the length of my run along the Charles River. And unlike happiness, an intangible sensation whose origins seemed indefinable to me, control was black-and-white, promised me results, and made me feel like I was finally achieving purpose in my life. Controlling the ramifications of my disease made me feel worthy.
As the months went by, I reduced my life to its bare essentials, which, in my mind, included my studies, my psychotherapy and medications, my exercise, and my restrictive diet. I shut out friends and substances almost entirely from my life, with the exception of a sporadic and usually intense binge during which I’d spend an entire weekend or vacation actively socializing and thus confusing friends who hadn’t seen me for ages, only to retreat back into my hole without a word of explanation. With each of these reappearances from isolation, I’d show up changed, my body significantly more thin and my personality significantly more hollow, as the months went on.
I had come to firmly believe that having friends, these once-essential facets of my life, were now unnecessary for and even destructive to my newfound purpose. If I didn’t use all of my reserves to strive for control, I’d collapse again, and I couldn’t risk such a consequence. I was no longer fighting a diagnosis; I was now fighting the disease. Relationships with others simply became too exhausting and complicated for me. The emotional bonds I’d thrived on in high school to keep me feeling grounded and alive had transformed into superfluous baggage that needed to be discarded. I had become my own version of an ascetic, determined to reduce my life only to the components that were connected to physical and intellectual performance. I was convinced that I’d left behind my escapism and had now connected with my true inner self, though I was still unsure of what that was. Becoming bipolar gave me the direction and purpose that I was sure I’d lost during years of refusing the diagnosis.
As time wore on and I moved through sophomore year of college, happiness became a distant memory, and with each day that passed, I forgot about it a little bit more until it became a nonentity in my daily thoughts. It had receded into the dark horizon of my mind, glimmers of it fading until they were indistinguishable, and finally, completely extinguished. The child that I’d been, that girl who’d been able to experience excitement and passion for life, became separate from me. I no longer related to her, remembered her as myself, or even thought fondly of her anymore. I was a different person. Happiness wasn’t in the cards for me, and that was OK. My life didn’t need happiness in order to have purpose. I was stoic, brave, and proud to be suffering daily with this disease.
I began to see happiness as an indulgence for the emotionally greedy that I no longer had a desire for. The thought of even acting like I was in a good mood, let alone actually being in one, made me squirm and twitch with discomfort. I convinced myself that being in such a state meant being ‘fake’; experiencing happiness was unnatural to my being and therefore wholly unacceptable to my personal integrity. A subtle and perverse sense of arrogance that I, as this emotional martyr, was stronger than ‘normal’ (mentally healthy) individuals because I’d been dealt the bipolar card and all its resulting adversity began to stain my perspective on the humanity that seemed to so vibrantly circulate around me. I became perpetually ‘separate from’ everything external to me, convinced that all those mentally healthy people did not have the capacity to understand me because they didn’t have a DSM diagnosis. I began to envision a barrier keeping me from the rest of the world, the only people who had the capacity to permeate its walls logically being others who suffered with mental illness.
Initially, as my doctor and I spent most of our sessions attempting to flesh out the cause of these existential issues, my medication regimen of an antidepressant, an on-and-off antipsychotic, and sleep medicine remained pretty uncomplicated. As time went on, however, dosages began to increase, and by spring of my sophomore year, an antinarcoleptic was added, as I began to have trouble staying awake during the day. My inability to fall asleep at night because of racing thoughts, however, required that I take a sleep medicine seven days a week, and at a dosage that was doubled what it had started out as. My antidepressant dosage had tripled by the spring, as well. I continued to take my antipsychotic sporadically, on an ‘as needed’ basis. By the end of my sophomore year, I had left the antipsychotic behind and was being medicated for depressive symptoms, narcolepsy, and insomnia.
The figurative tightrope of medication, the length of which I’d now fully accepted as being life-long, had been swaying ever so slightly since beginning my treatment, with slight wobbles here and there. However, a storm had moved in, seemingly out of nowhere, and I was to begin my fight for balance amidst the oscillations that had begun to progress in intensity by those spring months of my sophomore year. ‘Side-effects’, ‘counter-balancing’, ‘evening out’, ‘adjusting’, ‘fixing’, and most often, ‘increasing’—these words were starting to infiltrate the conversations with my doctor about the status of my med regimen. I was assured that increased dosages would mean increased effectiveness. I assumed, therefore, that decreasing dosages would mean decreased effectiveness. Who was I to question medicine? I’d think to myself. He’s a doctor. He went to Ivy League schools. He is backed by objective science. I reminded myself that I was at a hospital that was considered to be the elder statesman of psychiatry. I tried to convince myself that the insomnia at night and the lethargy during the day were caused by my racing thoughts and depression, respectively, brought on by being bipolar. They started to feel more and more normal to me, and I stopped thinking of them as side effects. They simply became who I was. With this willed ignorance, I simply bought a bigger bag to hold my pill bottles, and continued on.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.