Chapter Eighteen: Sentenced to Life

Laura Delano
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A few weeks after my college graduation in the summer of 2006, my five-year high school reunion was upon me. I had expended a tremendous amount of emotional energy convincing myself to feel excited about reconnecting with all the friends I’d had in those times. How could I have felt depressed in high school? I thought. Life was idyllic, compared to what it is today. Searing pain tore through my gut as I reflected on who I was then—a teenager struggling with understanding who she was yet still capable of enjoyment and of cultivating a vision of the future for herself—and realized that I was staring at an infinitely deep divide across which sat the long lost sensation of hope, no longer an innate part of me. To think of hope filled me with nausea, for I’d come to see it as cheesy, fake, and glaringly bright and shiny. Hope in a future for myself? What a ridiculous idea. Hope is for the ignorant, for the delusional.

However, a sliver of me remained convinced that maybe, just maybe, returning to campus would allow me to re-become the ‘Laura’ I’d been in boarding school. If I thought about it enough and figured it all out in my mind, maybe it would become possible for me to fall right back into that time period—emotionally, psychologically, experientially—like college had never happened. I yearned to relive just one of the many blissful nights I’d had with my best friends as teenagers, from smoking cigarettes at dusk behind the tennis courts and running from the golf cart-driving security guard to the safety of the dark, hidden hallways of the athletic complex, our chests heaving, hearts racing with exhilaration; to late-night gossip sessions in the dorm, talking about the newest crush on a boy, chins propped in our hands, legs and arms tangled and falling off the edges of the tiny mattress, as four of us tucked ourselves into the cozy space of surrogate siblinghood that had evolved over our years of living together; or even to the painful times, the moments of conflict with my closest friends that ended up being productive, allowing us to grow stronger, our bonds deeper, because we were able to open ourselves up to each other and share our fears and frustrations and know that we’d still be together on the other side.

I thought back with a profound yearning, seeing that old me as young, naïve, and impressionable, wishing in vain that I could somehow travel back in time and tell her not to make the mistakes I made—Take a different path! Make different choices! Cultivate a better life for yourself! Never abandon your friends!

If only, if only.

Temporarily fueled by this longing to go back to a better life, I tapped into the last of my emotional resources and motivated myself to spend the week before reunion scrolling through my cell phone, calling old friends. They were surprised to hear from me, as most had tried diligently to stay in touch during our college years and I, in response, had pushed them out of my life. I had become ‘sketchy’—what teenagers these days call unpredictable, unreliable, erratic, baffling, befuddling—a girl from whom no one knew what to expect, upon whom it was almost always illogical to rely.

It had been too much to stay connected, even to the friends who’d once meant the world to me, because I had so little to give others. With thoughts about my bipolar disorder and the seemingly hopeless state of my life continuously banging around in my mind like pinballs in a never-ending game, I was unable to get out of myself, to be available to others with any sort of consistency or dependability. This filled me with shame, but I felt it couldn’t be any other way. I hated myself, but I was all I thought about. I knew if I were to translate these thoughts into conversations with ‘normal’ people– mentally well, high-functioning, forward-moving people—they would feel poisoned and depressed by my draining, toxic negativity. I decided, therefore, to spare them from my psychological baggage during our college years. Too exhausted to maintain these connections, which I’d come to see entirely as work, I collapsed into myself, slowly compressing, contracting, and disappearing, all the while the pressure building.

But here I was, Laura Delano—‘Delano’, ‘Delly’, ‘Del’, or ‘Lo’ to my boarding school comrades– calling out of the blue, sounding excited and happy and energetic, however unnatural it felt to my withered sense of self. Little did my old classmates know that I had been institutionalized two years earlier, that I took several powerful psychotropic medications every morning and every night, and that I had bipolar disorder. Little did they know that I kept the thought of my last breath tucked safely away in my mind, bringing it out each and every day as a soothing reminder that I could find a permanent, dreamless sleep whenever I’d exhausted all other options.

In their minds, I was still the old Laura, returned from a five-year hiatus. I suspected that rumors might have traveled about my whereabouts in the interim, as they tended to do about those of us deemed ‘sketchy’, and remembered—vaguely– that I’d had a few disastrous drinking nights on vacations past, whether in New York City, Boston, or elsewhere, that couldn’t have gone unnoticed. But didn’t everyone have a bad drinking night here and there in college? I was sure that my deepest, most fundamental truth—that I had bipolar disorder and that it had me by the throat— had not yet been exposed.

With the mask of my old self secured firmly over my amorphous face and my acting skills in tow, I made plans for extensive pre-reunion festivities with a group of my old friends. It was decided that we would gather in Boston the night before reunions began on campus, a three-hour drive away. As I prepared myself for a long night out, I fantasized again about the possibility that maybe I would naturally slip back into the old ‘me’ and that it would stop feeling like an act, that I might have some emotional muscle memory deep within me that would bring me right back to who I used to be, and that the last five years of my life would just fall away as though they’d never unfolded at all. Maybe, by the end of the weekend, I would discover that this downward spiral of the last several years was nothing more than a horrific nightmare, and that I’d finally awakened, separated from it, free from its bondage, and ready to live my life as a happy, high-functioning person. Maybe, the long years spent fantasizing about becoming ‘normal’ would finally morph into reality.

I made plans with several guy friends, as the girls from the old ‘crew’ had decided they wouldn’t be able to attend the reunion, to start the night at a bar near the State House in Boston for drinks and trivia. I felt unfamiliar surges of energy pulsate through me as the repressed memories of my time with these friends flung themselves out of the locked rooms of my unconsciousness and filled my thoughts. Upon seeing these friends, a false smile pulled across my face, I realized, with profound sadness, that even the history between us couldn’t bring me back to where I’d been in boarding school, for none of who I was then was real anymore, existing only in my memories. The rift between us, built around the numerous secrets I now knew sat trapped in my mind about my bipolar disorder and the heavy load it brought with it, was too great to cross. Desperate to escape this realization, I turned to what I knew would shut me off from reality—I drank.

Searing rip of can brought to life, its patiently awaiting insides now a soothing gurgle of foamy, amber waves. Succinct pop of cork, a contained explosion of smell so thick it can be tasted on the tongue. Clink of bottle on glass, the most beautiful of tintinnabulations, promising me a solution to my despair, no matter how temporary it may be.

intoxication: noun

  1. inebriation; drunkenness.
  2. an act or instance of intoxicating.
  3. overpowering exhilaration of excitement of the mind or emotions.
  4. Pathol. poisoning.

Reaching a state of intoxication—drunk, overwhelmingly exhilarated, and poisoned all at once—became my primary focus that night at the bar, just as it would be nearly each and every night for the four coming years. I was sure I had no other way of escaping from my reality— that I felt sentenced to my life, to years of imprisonment in my skin, in my thoughts, in my hopelessness. The intangible, inner part of me sought complete apathy, and in this space of emotional disconnect, my outsides—my appearance, my attitude, my personality—was amorphous, a blank slate on which I could write any character. Outgoing, charismatic, adventurous? Coming right up. Pondering, waxing philosophical, existentialist? No problem. Fueled by the alcohol coursing through my veins, my chameleon-like exterior did whatever it took to blend in, to appear just like the environment around me, to be a ‘part of’. And the more I drank, the easier it got to pretend, perform, and belong. Alcohol, I had come to believe, did what no psychotropic medication or therapy session had yet been able to do—it had given me a salve for my broken self, allowing me to take on living what I saw as my inescapable bipolar life. It was with this firmly held belief that I pushed through my reunion weekend.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, reunion festivities soon coming to an end, I am standing at ‘The Rock’, the peak of the small mountain that sits across the road from our boarding school campus and gives the best view of the sprawling beauty of Western Massachusetts. I am drunk, deliciously blissful and carefree, swaying slightly despite feeling in equilibrium, soaking in the sight of blinking lights below me with a few friends. Holding a lukewarm beer in one hand and a camera in the other, I watch as the night sky’s blackness softens into midnight blue and burgundy red. I am unaware of anything other than the moment, temporary amnesia stripping my memory of the past. The fact that I have bipolar disorder and am fighting life on a daily basis is but a faint glimmer on my mental horizon. I am sure that I have found happiness, convinced that life doesn’t get better than this.

“SHIT! We’ve been locked in!” Someone yells from the woods. We turn and stumble in the darkness towards what has fast turned into a whir of chaos and confusion. As it turns out, an angry neighbor, upon witnessing a caravan of weaving cars invade the quiet of ‘The Rock’ in the early morning hours, their owners clearly far from sober, had taken it upon himself to lock the gate covering the width of the only road off the peak. We find ourselves, about thirty or so drunken alums, locked at the top of a mountain, our slew of twenty cars scattered about the dirt parking area, awaiting our fates.

With brains astir, a few of us see a potential adventure. Gliding on the wave of my euphoric state of intoxication, I am at the forefront of the planning.

“We can get around the gate! If we pull the fallen trees away and throw some brush in the ditch to lessen the drop, we can do it!” I yell with my spontaneously assembled teammates. My heart beats faster than it has in a while. I feel the foreign sensation of excitement, my adrenaline pumping. I come alive.

We spend the next chunk of time—whether an hour or three, my memory evades me—building an off-road path around the gate, in a mode about as MacGyver-style as a group of young drunken-folk can operate in. We are sure our cars can manage the two-foot drop, more sure than we’ve ever been of anything in our lives. We are going to evade the police! The Academy’s authorities will be baffled! This will go down in school history! When the path is completed, the cars weave their ways, one by one, around the metal gate, as a line of young men and women, determined to stand straight and direct effectively despite alcohol-infused brains, speech deliberately clear and unslurred, directs traffic along the drop, past the rocks, up the side of the ditch, which had now been lined with sticks for the tires to find grip, and onto the dirt road, to safety! To victory!

Only one car fails to make it around the gate on this early Sunday morning. We mourn it as a fallen soldier (at least until the gate is unlocked after daybreak), and journey back to the Red Roof Inn, the sun making its presence known. Each and every one of us is sure we’ve accomplished one of the greatest feats we’ll ever face in our lives. For a glimmer of a moment, I trick myself into thinking that my life has meaning.

But, as usual, I sober up after a sleepless night, and everything is the same again. The colors have faded, the exhilaration has ceased to beat in my heart, and I realize that the proverbial clock has struck midnight, my fantasy having dissipated into the grime of the hotel room carpet. The feelings I’d had on ‘The Rock’ aren’t innate to me, but rather the product of the countless beers I’d ingested throughout the night. I am just as empty as ever, and it hurts more because I had felt so full of life just hours before. Now in the last morning of reunion weekend, I walk the same sidewalks I’ve walked thousands of times before as though I am here for the first time. I feel like an intruder, like I’ve awoken with amnesia and am unsure of how I’ve gotten here, where I’ve come from, or who I am.

Equipped with a hangover that made my bones ache, a stockpile of memories mostly ranging in clarity from gray to brown to black, and a profound sense of emptiness, I returned to Boston from my high school reunion weekend in the early summer of 2006 feeling more broken than before. Despite the many moments of bliss, none more memorable than the late-night experience on ‘The Rock’, the goal I’d gone into the weekend aiming for—to become the ‘old’ me once again, to slip right back into the mindset I’d remembered having as a teenager, of hope and optimism and a reassuring faith in the future—had collapsed before my eyes.

I had spent the weekend escaping from myself and into drugs and alcohol, other people, and my repertoire of numerous acting roles, the lines of which I was sure I knew by heart— among them, the philosophical nihilist fresh out of Harvard, disillusioned by postmodern America; or, the ‘chill’ girl who was one of the guys, laidback and down-to-earth; or, the crazy, spontaneous adventurer up for anything and fearless. I now understood that none of these roles gave me satisfaction or made me feel whole, and that the more I acted, the less I felt of anything.

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Laura Delano
Journeying Back To Self: Laura Delano is an ex-mental patient who writes about her thirteen years of psychiatric indoctrination, how she woke up in 2010, and what it's been like to come off psychiatric drugs, leave the "mentally ill" identity behind, and rediscover an authentic connection to self and world.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Laura,
    Thank you for writing your memoir Journey Back to Self. I am sure it was not an easy endeavor, drudging up all of that pain and suffering. I know I speak for many when I say our life stories are eerily similar – from the psychotropic regiment which began with an antidepressant, followed by the addition of one of more mood stabilizers, eventually an antipsychotic is added, then stimulants and benzos. They then proceed to call this handful of multicolored pills a “cocktail” (making it sound like a pleasant experience).

    Then there is the constant upping and adding of dosages which ultimately leads to additional diagnoses (bipolar of course) and finally being labeled “treatment resistant” when all of their magic bullets didn’t work, not to mention the memorable stays in the psych ward.

    My one psychotic episode that led to a week stay in a psych ward was caused by a doubling up on lamictal that my therapist prescribed. She so much as admitted to this but claimed she then had to change my diagnosis from Chronic Depression to Bipolar I. She stated that although the lamictal most likely triggered the episode, I would never have had such an episode had I not been predisposed to Bipolar. What a joke.

    I have, in the past, weened myself off meds many times only to be scared into going back on them. This same therapist also told me there was no such thing as withdrawal from psychotropic drugs.

    A year ago a mutual friend of ours, Emily, introduced me to Mad in America and Robert Whitaker’s book Anatomy of an Epidemic. I am proud to say I have been medication-free for over a year and life has never been better. I still struggle with bouts of depression and some anxiety but I am working towards wellness. Since going off the drugs – all mania and/or hypo mania behaviors have disappeared.

    Once I started reading your Journey Back to Self I simply could not put it down! Emily tells me you are considering writing and publishing your memoirs. I look forward to buying the book when it is in print. You write so eloquently and paint a perfect picture. I could relate to everything.

    Laura, I got the impression that you never had a reprieve from your illness all those years. I at least cycle in and out so I get some relief. How you survived with no relief is beyond me.

    I have one question for you. Do you still have cycles of depression and anxiety and if so how do you handle it?

    from a new Mad in America follower
    Annamaria