A Leaf in the Ocean
March 21, 1980, I was diagnosed with manic-depression, it was the best day of my life. As a woman, the illness came on a couple of years before manifesting as depression. The antidepressants, tri-cyclic Tofranil at the time, threw me from my long-running depressive state into mania in a way everyone loved. I was funny, spontaneous, sexual, quick-witted and generally a much better time from my depressed stay-in bed self.
But it didn't stop there. Everyone was entitled to my opinion, I stayed up all night, slept with all my co-workers, dazzled with brilliance so fast I couldn't write them down and then, one day, it stopped. My magic was gone. I was human with a path of inescapable destruction and debt. So I took all the pills in the bottle and my husband said to sleep it off when the ambulance came but I wouldn't get in.
Clear headed, and now without a job, I considered ways out from what I had become. No one understood that something had taken control on both sides of my fence. Depression like a heavy unmovable cloud that sat on my chest crushing my soul. No one got it that when the cloud lifted, I felt not answerable to anyone or anything, just free and powerful to act at will. And then there was me. A puppet to them both.
So everything was unraveling including my marriage. We went into counseling and it was My husband who broke into the discussion about my long depression and said,"What about the times she wakes up at night and needs to move the landscaping around?"
An innocent enough question, but one that flashed in the therapists eyes, "You are manic-depressive, not just depressed. Do you have relatives with this?" And I told her of a cousin my age who had just injected an overdose into his penis, the needle still hanging there when his brother came to identify the body. And the uncle who wrote a note, "Say hi to the folks" before calmly dragged a living room chair down to the basement and shooting off his face with a shot gun. And my aunt, who called us overtaking fast and in rhyme telling us the FBI was hiding in the corn field gunning for her. And that I could go on.
That sent me to my first psychiatrist and then to small-town psych ward where they administered Thorazine like M&Ms and put me on lithium, 900 mg. a day. I didn't want to go. I packed the car, strapping my childhood toys to the roof to drive away from it all, but it got to be noon and the back was closed and I had no money, so I gave in.
It was a crazy dumping ground where they kept you until you stabilized, me and 17 others all with different problems: junkies, teens, criminals, the senile, retarded, damaged, abused, angry, suicidal. We painted ceramics. I, the art major, worked to make mine the best. JoAnne, who wasn't born right painted them fast and in one color: red, green, yellow and black. Sally's father abused her, she smashed her rabbits and ground the white powder they had become into the tiles. Ben's girlfriend dumped him, he painted her name the tables. Vi just sat. Joe cursed and spat, asking when he would get his next cigarette. Don was hiding out after his wife caught him in bed with a secretary who worked where I used to paced. My roommate Tammy, a teen on a high dose of Haldol, snored into her cut-up arms her folded pillow.
Not a perfect system, and yet I woke up the fifth day, and for the first time in memory felt clear. As if I had been trying to land a 747 my whole life but this time, I taxied in firm and solid, like I knew how my whole life.
And that was the cure lithium, Thorazine and once a week with my psychiatrist Dr. Kaderadski, a thick tongued German unflinching. I had a big time mental illness required to take once week blood tests to ensure I didn't skip a pill. But I would not have, as for the first time in my life I felt well, in control. And I did well. Too well. Friends and family came around and whispered,"You were never sick. You don't need drug. You are fine. Get off them."
And I listened. I quit the meds, quite seeing the expensive doctor and the power came back in spades. I was exceptionally quick, bright, funny, sexy. I rose quickly to a position in state politics, met a lawyer who was running for state office, we became lovers, I campaigned with him as his wife shaking the hands of farmers smiling, left my husband, bought a house in one hour, drank a bottle of wine each night to slow the world down but not enough to sleep, I baby sat for the governor, I was so beautiful, powerful, the patterns of the universe appeared when I shut my eyes, I heard the voice of god. This is where I belonged.
It was a fabulous run. I'm glad it happened. No one can take the memories of it away. But then I crashed, suddenly. The day of atonement had come for me. I was the lamb in the thicket, I had to bleed. So I punched my hand through the glass door of my new house. Too slow and painful, I gulped every pill I had and dying for real limped to the car and drove tony husband, barely able to say,"I'm sick. Very sick."
He took me back to the hospital. I awoke with leather straps on my bandaged hands.
A nurse came with a tiny plastic cup with familiar pills and I took them and have been taking then since for thirty-five years.
Maybe I'm a sell-out to the system. Maybe I sold-out my art to a career in Marketing Communications, writing and designing my way to the top, unimpaired.
Now they call the illness bipolar and I did an eight year stint working with those who had the same illness, trying to tell them there is a way out episode-free for a lifetime, but had few takers. The world turned and those with the illness didn't try to hide it but wore bipolar t-shirts and felt their illness gave them the right to be ill-tempered forever and never be responsible. I worked hard to talk people off the ledge but never saved a one.
For many, bipolar gave them an identity. They are someone, damaged, irrational, giving up years of their life they conniver get back but someone. For them, I can only pray they scare themselves straight by coming face-to-face with death. Waking up having lost it all in a gutter choking on their own vomit. Most stay just far enough away from this place that they play both sides of reality and love it. You can't talk someone out of love, especially if it's a tremendous fuck and trust me, nothing compares to a drunken one-nighter on bipolar.
So March 21, 1980 was the best day of my life. The day I was given a name for the monsters inside me. Monsters wrapped in fine furs, elaborate tapestries, and the best in psychedelic fantasy, demanding only the surrender of self to reap their boundless rewards. So seductive but monsters just the same because it was them not me acting out. I had to rise and fall as me only without the magic at my fingertips, because I also learned that no matter what, I was held 130% responsible for the results anyway, good, bad or normal.
Bipolar is for life. One manic episode brands you. It can never be erased, even after decades of without episode. The tides, seasons, and equinox still pull in a tangible way. They whisper of the magic. Magic I remember so I don't need to go there to bring it back. A mental illness with positives for sure, but as long as it controls you, you can't be your own self, just a leaf in the ocean waves.