While my fellow ‘Class of 2006’ graduates celebrated with embraces and high-fives on Commencement Day, jumping excitedly into group photos with caps and gowns, sunglasses, cigars, and a giddy hopefulness about the ‘real world’ awaiting them, I had one goal in mind— to run to my dorm room, gather my belongings, throw them into my parents’ car, and escape. I had lost both the ability and any desire to maintain friendships long ago, as I was sure it was impossible for another person to understand me or what I was going through and found it overwhelmingly exhausting to even attempt to explain. I found myself on graduation day with no pals to take candid photos with, no best friends to hug and to reflect on college memories with. As I was still officially a member of the ‘Class of 2005’ despite taking my year off, I wasn’t required to be at any of the 2006 festivities and wasn’t relieved that this was the case. I even decided to skip hearing the commencement speaker, who happened to be the creator of ‘Family Guy’, a popular animated sitcom, because I knew I would be completely unable to find any of it funny, let alone be able to laugh.
I felt entirely alone amidst the crowds of hundreds of students, families, friends, and professors. I was surrounded by laughter, joy, and positive energy, but had concealed myself beneath a bell jar, the sounds around me dulled and hollow, the sight of optimism nauseatingly bright, my body aching with a deep yearning to be a part of it all yet feeling completely enervated. I felt like a cornered animal, defenseless and scared and confused. All I could think about was retreating from the unattainable happiness that seemed to saturate everyone around me. I couldn’t face looking at my peers, with whom I should have been embarking on the next chapter of our lives. I was stagnant, stuck in the mire of my self-imprisonment and convinced that I would be forever incapacitated, watching as everyone around me set off towards their bright and promising futures, their heads held high and their eyes sparkling with exuberance.
I had absolutely no capacity to savor the moment of being a college grad, of feeling like the world was my oyster, my exciting destiny awaiting me with a Harvard diploma in hand. I couldn’t bear to face my future, because this future, I firmly believed, held no promise, no direction, no meaning. It would be more of the same, more of the repetitive motions of ‘doing life’, over and over for decades upon decades, and this fact overwhelmed me. How could I ever hold a job, let alone develop a career? Live independently? Have friends? Get married—and have children? I wished more than anything that it could be different, that I could go back in time and relive the last five years of my life so that I could be standing in that very moment with a different, better past, viewing my college graduation as the closing of a productive and fulfilling chapter and the beginning of an exciting, promising new one, but this just wasn’t the case. I knew in my heart that such imagining was a fruitless exercise, but my mind’s refusal to accept this made me feel like I was going to explode, my quaking emotions ready to erupt, forever releasing the pressure that was pushing me to the edge of collapse.
I saw that my world was not brimming with possibility like my peers’, but was shriveled, dark, and barren. With no future to live for, I told myself that I would just have to push through for as long as I could. I knew, in the back of my mind, that I always had the ultimate escape—promising in its permanence, tempting in the utter oblivion I knew it would give me. This option, which I kept hidden in its safe, secret place in my mind, allowed me to give my post-college life a shot. If it wasn’t for me, then so be it. I could depart it whenever I so wished– I was free to do this, and saw it as my most fundamental human right, a belief I kept to myself because I knew most people would profoundly disagree. The reassuring thought of eternal sleep by my own hand felt warm, comforting, reassuring. The ultimate escape, the most beautiful of promises.
Without the structure that came with being a student, my day-to-day life unraveled rapidly. There were no reading assignments to complete, papers to write, or practices to get to. Without these daily goals, I felt unable to orient myself towards making any sort of progress, to fuel myself with even the slightest amount of momentum, and I floundered. I couldn’t handle being faced with the state of my life, with the fact that it seemed as though everyone around me had direction and passion and excitement, an ability to connect with others through laughter or even simple conversation (a skill I was convinced I’d forgotten), a sense of self-confidence that encouraged ‘adult’ choices like pursuing a job, preparing to apply for graduate school, developing healthy relationships.
My life, on the other hand, revolved around being bipolar—getting to my therapy appointments, taking medications, practicing radical self-acceptance about my disease and the consequences that came with it, and keeping track of my symptoms on a daily basis. Were my thoughts racing? Manic. Was my anxiety increasing? Hypomania. Was I ruminating in thoughts about the state of my life? Mixed state. Did I talk too quickly, or was my speech pressured? Manic. Was I reactive with my family, quick to get defensive or aggressive? Manic. Was I having expansive thoughts, especially about the meaning (or lack of meaning) in my life? Manic.
I was constantly in a state of depression—isolated, fatigued, apathetic, incapable of self-care, darkly ruminative—and I had long ago accepted without question that this was my reality, but I had been told by my psychiatrist that it was important to stay on top of my moods, thoughts, and behaviors throughout the day, so that we could ‘nip in the bud’ any potential manic episodes. As a result, although I felt like I had no ability to change my state of profound depression, I came to believe that I at least had control on a daily basis over the manic side of my bipolar disorder. I told myself over and over that this was empowering, and that, by following the recommendations of my psychiatrist, I would feel like I was an active participant in my treatment.
I no longer questioned the fact that my medications never seemed to help no matter how high the dosages became— I had been told that I was one of those people who simply had a high threshold for medication efficacy, and that eventually, once we got the dosages high enough and the combinations properly adjusted, I should notice a change. I stopped wondering about the effectiveness of my psychotherapy despite knowing that our two or three weekly sessions consisted of discussing a revolving loop of issues that never seemed to change for the better. Resigned to this broken record of a life, my expectations for positive change growing smaller by the day, I continued to tell myself that at least I could stay on top of my bipolar disorder by self-assessing symptoms and triggers and warning signs of oncoming mania. The central focus of my life became management—of my medications, my behaviors, my thoughts and feelings, of eating and sleeping and taking care of myself– and I was finding it harder and harder to do.
With graduation come and gone, I could no longer distract myself from the fact that I was no longer living, but rather managing being alive. I was with me, myself, and I, day in, day out, with what felt like no reprieve. As a result, my mind and body began to experience the familiar, intense surges of desire to escape from myself. Not the ultimate escape—not yet—but the one that I’d known from the age of fourteen that I could rely on to take me away from the present moment. A deep, unconscious part of me remembered what it felt like to fill myself with alcohol, which I had abstained from during the squash season and for much of my thesis-writing, other than the occasional binge, which had always been the way I drank.
Subtle, insidious, and without my conscious awareness, this liquid promised me an end to the feeling that I didn’t know who I was, that I was empty, fake, void of a genuine self. It promised that I would no longer care that I envisioned no future for myself, that I believed I had utterly failed at life, that I felt incapable of connecting with others, that I didn’t feel entirely alone despite being surrounded by people. I had unwittingly found the solution to my problem—which I had come to view as life, itself, and the profound difficulties that came with being bipolar—and I began to seek this solution on a daily basis. I was completely unaware that this deepening relationship with alcohol during those first few weeks after graduation would set my life on a course that, even in the worst of times, I could never have imagined.
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.