It is Christmas Eve of 2008. I am leaning against the kitchen counter of an old friend’s house, arms tucked tightly across my stomach, as I observe crowds of people from my past, bottles of beer in their hands, filling the air with laughter. I see that they are relieved to be carefree and happy among friends, without a care in the world for the next few days of vacation before they go back to their adult jobs and their adult lives. I am baffled by the normalcy of twenty-something adulthood I see around me, and wonder if I’m wearing my duplicity on my sleeve. I feel perplexed that these friends share the same age as me yet have taken such a profoundly different path through life. Many have stayed in close touch over the years and know each other like brothers and sisters; I, on the other hand, have emerged unexpectedly as a blast from their past, a familiar face before them that they don’t realize is concealing years of accumulated secrets from time spent in the black abyss of living incommunicado.
The biggest secret I carried that night was the previous month of my life, which began with my failed suicide attempt in the end of November and ended just days earlier, when a pair of legs, apparently mine yet feeling foreign and clumsy, walked me off the locked psychiatric unit I’d been on for the month of December, two strange hands swinging awkwardly at my sides like they’d forgotten what their purpose was, and I followed my parents to their car to be brought back to the real world. As we pulled down the hill and out the gates of the storied psychiatric hospital that had housed me all this time and worked hard to assure me I was stable, I wondered what emotion I was meant to be feeling. I felt blanketed by numbness, left with only a faint cognitive sense of what emotions were supposed to look like from what we’d talked about in our daily groups on the unit. They had become encapsulated little units— ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’, ‘anxious’, and so forth— and I no longer felt them as visceral parts of me but instead as discrete, strange phenomenona that felt synthetic and contrived.
And there I was, a smile— not too big, not too small, but just right— painted on my face, alive on my twenty-fifth Christmas Eve. It was a night that carried distant memories of my sisters and me as pajama-clad kids, our eyes glimmering and hearts pounding with childhood excitement as we carefully placed cookies and cocoa on the living room mantelpiece in anticipation of Santa’s arrival and then sprinted upstairs to listen to our father read us The Night Before Christmas. Had that little girl, a person I couldn’t believe I once was, known she was to become me, all those years later, she would have remained convinced it was a nightmare. If these people standing around me at this party saw through me and learned that less than a month before I had been intubated, lying in a coma on an ICU in Boston, I was sure they wouldn’t have believed me. I wasn’t sure what to believe, myself, as I felt no feelings about it one way or the other.
Standing in the kitchen, I felt like I’d emerged from a blackout and was unsure of how I’d gotten there. The day before, a sudden surge of electrifying motivation compelled me to reconnect with these friends, most of whom I’d barely seen since leaving for college seven years prior. I called them, said something excitedly along the lines of, ‘I’m back!’ and there I was, at this party, the night before Christmas, as though I’d leapt through space and time from the last one of these parties I’d been to years ago without anything happening in between— no psychiatric diagnoses, no psychiatric medications, no psychiatric hospitalizations, and surely no suicide attempts.
In their minds, I’d moved home for some normal reason— to save money, to look for a job in Manhattan, to get out of Boston. Disoriented and rudderless in the sea of my mind, I wasn’t sure of anything other than the fact that I had a chronic mental illness and was told by doctors that I couldn’t be trusted to function independently. I had information about myself that these old friends were entirely oblivious to, a twisted truth of what I’d become since the time they last saw me that lay safely in the dark, disturbing recesses of my mind. I wondered if there was a part of me in denial about what had happened in the last month. The rest of me, which I was more connected to, felt a strange sense of pride about what I’d done, as though I maybe could become a modern day version of a character in Girl, Interrupted. I wasn’t sure why I felt this way, and understood intellectually that it would be considered by anyone in her right mind to be irrationally distorted and insane to be proud of such a series of events, but I felt it nonetheless.
What the hell am I meant to say when people ask what I’ve been up to these last several years? The truth would cause someone’s jaw to drop. Maybe I want this? Maybe I want to be seen as someone absolutely crazy, certifiably insane, and enigmatic?
I couldn’t wrap my mind around these things, but what I could see, plain as day, was that my life— every minute of the prior several years of my life— had become shrunken and shriveled, settling on a cold, lonely orbit around my bipolar diagnosis that had pushed out anything resembling health and normalcy. What could I possibly have to say that anyone could relate to? How could I possibly have shared any experiences in common with them? While they were spending their twenties building friendships, dating and marrying, cultivating expertise in their chosen professions, and learning how to live and thrive independently, I had been expending all my energy on getting through another day of living life, an incredibly challenging task that I seemed to have missed the instructions on and that felt more like I was suiting up for a battle than anything else.
Any relationships I’d had were built around escape from ourselves— into the other person, into the bottle, or into isolation. Any jobs I’d been hired for I’d eventually quit, whether because I’d taken ones I was over-qualified for due to fear of failure and found myself resentful of and self-righteous about, or because I couldn’t be reliable at work as a result of my hangovers and emotional jackpots. Any ‘fun’ I’d had was chemically induced. I held no pride in any accomplishments, no confidence in or sense of my ‘self’, and no conception of a future. I realized that I had nothing genuine, meaningful, or healthy to offer these old friends into whose lives I’d suddenly repositioned myself.
And, like a person getting back on a dusty bike that’s been found in the back of a garage after years without use, I slid back into one of the old roles in my repertoire as though I’d never stopped playing it. It was the ‘Laura’ I played during my adolescent summers of drinking games in our parents’ basements, train rides into New York City for concerts and clubs, and cruises around town in cars full of Phish and pot. It was the ‘Laura’ who was always up for another round at the bar or another late-night adventure after a party. It was the ‘Laura’ who was disillusioned with society in the stereotypically angsty adolescent way, and who could talk a post-modernist talk with the best of them, taken, of course, with a grain of salt.
This time, however, I had much more to hide, and it required an extra burst of mental energy that only alcohol could give me. Like magic, I found a bottle of beer in my hand that Christmas Eve, and felt motivated to play the part with ease. I was more convinced than ever that the only thing residing beneath my facade was brokenness and dysfunction. How could there be anything else when, just days earlier, I was locked up from myself with a hospital bracelet sealed around my wrist, colored markers and construction paper to keep me occupied, and an hourly check-in from a clinician to make sure I was safe?
I blended myself into my old group of friends in Connecticut as though I’d never left all those years ago. My memory of that November day on the rocks in Maine a month earlier remained ever-present in my consciousness but drifted aimlessly, like a message in a bottle, corked and thrown to sea. I maneuvered my way through that year like an android, indistinguishable from those around me, feeling nothing, having no agency, but playing the part of ‘human being’ to perfection. I would go on this way until that corked bottle holding my undeniable past made its way back to shore, carried by the currents of my mind’s inevitably raging storms. I would find myself once again at a place of desperation, only this time I would take the right fork in the road. I would find the light for the first time, and start my way towards it.
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.