I’ve spent an hour, give or take, furiously pacing the floor of my apartment. They call this “psychomotor agitation,” though I don’t know it yet.
I feel like I can’t stand to be in my skin another second, like I’m completely wired and simultaneously the most depressed I’ve ever been. They call this a “mixed episode,” though I haven’t realized that yet.
My apartment is my sanctuary. I remember when I moved into the place – the joy I felt to be downtown, to be in the heart of things. It was full of 1920s charm. It felt surreal to be in a place so nice. I put a lot of thought into how I decorated the place, down to the candles and the twinkle lights and the succulents.
It was my safe place – was, up until that moment, when suddenly the train was coming off the rails.
I abruptly stop pacing. I know what I need to do.
I grab a pad of paper and a pen, and begin to write.
“But nothing was actually wrong,” I say quietly. “I wouldn’t have changed anything about my life – just how I felt.”
I’m in group therapy for the second time that day. We all sit in a circle, wearing pajamas and hospital gowns.
“Bipolar disorder doesn’t give a shit about my ‘perfect’ life,” I continue. “I had everything I wanted and I still wanted to die.”
My body trembles ever so slightly.
“It can be hard to accept that these illnesses are not always within our control,” the group facilitator says. “We can feel very vulnerable when we realize this.”
Vulnerable. Vulnerable doesn’t even begin to describe the fears that have overtaken me since my breakdown.
Was it really possible that, no matter how I arranged my life – no matter what the circumstances were and how meticulously I controlled them – I could lose my mind anyway?
I could have a career that I loved, a community of friends and partners that brought me joy, and yes, the charming little apartment, but as soon as the chemicals in my brain turned on me, all of these things were irrelevant at best.
“I thought building my perfect life could keep my illness away, could keep me safe,” I tell the group. I look down at my hospital band around my wrist, a painful reminder.
I was sorely mistaken.
I’ve gotten too drunk. Again.
This is a new habit of mine. I’ve taken to drinking in the middle of the day, drinking alone, which everyone tells me is a bad sign.
They all tell me to sober up, and I don’t listen. I don’t listen because it’s better to be drunk than to be restless, the kind of restlessness that feels like thousands of insects crawling underneath your skin.
I glance at my phone.
“We found your note, Sam,” a message reads.
The panic begins to settle in. No one was supposed to find it until after I jumped in front of the train.
“Just tell us where you are,” another message reads. “Please.”
“Almost everyone who has jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived said they regretted it immediately,” someone else says.
I already know what that regret feels like.
Seven years ago, the closest I’ve ever come to death, I felt that regret after the seizure and before I blacked out.
And in that moment, the memory of that regret scares me.
The answer is horrifyingly simple: Lithium.
The answer is not an apartment, or a relationship, or my job – the answer is lithium, and three days into my hospitalization, the chaos in my mind begins to subside.
“How are you feeling?” the psychiatrist asks me.
“I’m getting better.”
“That’s good news,” he says. “What about the voices? Are you hearing any?”
“No,” I reply. “My head is a lot clearer now.”
I should be overjoyed that the tides are turning. But I am in shock – was this really all that it took? Was it really just brain chemicals?
I don’t know whether to be glad that the answer was so simple or fearful that it was beyond my control.
In outpatient, I sit in a support group and listen to people talking about what led to their crisis.
“I lost my job.”
“I had a terrible accident and the recovery was difficult.”
“I lost my brother and mother within six months.”
“I was in a coma.”
It’s my turn.
“I was in denial about my mental illness.”
Denial, like when you ignore all the warning signs because you don’t believe you’re sick. Denial, like when you think that if you control every element of your life, it won’t affect you. Denial, like when you’re convinced that if you take your pills every day, you’re cured.
Or when you believe that if you have everything, you won’t break down.
But the truth is, you can have everything and still want to die.
Because mental illness doesn’t care about the life you’ve built. It’s only interested in what it can take away.
A note on labels: Like many people with mental health struggles, I’ve experienced my fair share of misdiagnoses. Since writing this piece, I’ve finally been correctly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and complex PTSD, which have been life-changing realizations for me. That said, I hope that the resources I created in the past can still be helpful. (Jan 2019)