Bipolar isn’t just moods in conflict–self love and hate battle, too.
by Helen Chappell
[This essay is another entry in our series "I Am Mental Illness." Trigger warning: discussed suicidal ideation and attempts.]
The last time I saw my midwife, she offered me a prescription for Vicodin to help me cope with my severe headaches. When you’re pregnant, it’s pretty much Tylenol or narcotics or nothing at all for pain. I turned her down, even though my headaches are too stubborn for Tylenol. I don’t like to keep narcotics in the house, I said. It’s a long story.
I’m 27, happily married, with our first kid on the way. I have a close-knit group of friends, a healthy social life, a successful career doing something I love. And I have bipolar II disorder.
I lied to my midwife. My dislike of narcotics isn’t a long story at all. It’s actually very short. The closest I’ve ever come to killing myself was with a bottle of Vicodin.
It’s hard to explain being suicidal to someone who hasn’t been there themselves. We like to think of suicide as a terrible last desperate act of despair, romantically tragic and passionate. For me, being suicidal means I’m coldly, chillingly rational. Every interaction with the world is reduced to an equation. How many of those pills do I need to never wake up? How far must I turn the steering wheel to hit that truck? How many inches do I need to lean over the edge to fall? Which car is most likely to kill me instantly in the crosswalk? Even when I’m not actively suicidal, there’s always a whisper in the back of my head, reminding me how close we are to death at every moment. Death is so easily accessible that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so damn scary.
Luckily, there weren’t enough pills left in the bottle the night I wanted most to kill myself. Taking them would have given me nothing but the best sleep of my life, so I didn’t. There was no point in doing things half-assed, I thought.
That was about the time I realized what I’d been thinking, and that it scared the hell out of me. And thus began the long journey towards getting the help I needed.
I wasn’t actually diagnosed as bipolar II until about a year ago, though it’s been four years since I almost tried to kill myself. When I first sought help, I was having a rough go of it. I’d moved across the country, started a Ph.D. program I didn’t feel cut out for, and three of my extended family had died in quick succession. I had no real reason — nor did my doctors — to think that it wouldn’t all get better in time. In fact, my first official diagnosis was “adjustment disorder.” It was a pleasant thought to imagine it’d all go away when I settled into grad school.
With the wisdom of hindsight, though, my bipolar disorder was obvious. No, I didn’t have the florid manic madness so often associated with bipolar disorder (that’s bipolar I). Instead, I had incredible, exhilarating hypomanic periods where I’d be incredibly productive and social, staying up all night to work or party. I’d feel brilliant and unstoppable and everyone would tell me how great I was doing. I couldn’t sleep because my brain was buzzing with ideas. I wrote my entire master’s thesis in one frenetic, sleepless week.
But sometimes, those incredible highs would be darkly twisted. My brain would buzz with self-hatred, replaying every guilty moment of my life over and over again. I would stay up all night to work because I thought it would help me think better of myself. I would drink myself to sleep because that’s the only way I could escape the whispering current of self loathing.
In this state — psychiatrists call it a “mixed” state as opposed to manic or depressed — even wonderful things would make me hate myself. I won the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship when I was 22. After the dean stopped by my office to congratulate me, all I could think about was that I’d never be good enough to deserve it, that I won it by some fluke. I stopped on the way home that day to get my nose pierced. My logic, I remember vividly, was that after shoving a needle through my face, my day could only get better. I gorged myself on chicken and biscuits as comfort for my horrible day. My horrible day where I’d just won a prestigious fellowship. I have celebrated other would-be proud achievements with similar dubious fanfare.
And when the storms passed, I’d settle into despair. I could go weeks without stirring from the house except for food, doing nothing but rereading my favorite novels in bed. The thought of working paralyzed me. I compared myself to how I felt and how much I achieved when I was hypomanic, and constantly found myself wanting. I was terrified of facing my colleagues, of facing even my roommates. I would have days where feeding and walking the dog seemed like an insurmountable task.
And then I would climb out of it and start the cycle over. I always liked to think that I was beating my depression with nothing but willpower.
With a proper diagnosis and treatment, living with bipolar II has gotten easier, though it wasn’t at first. Hearing that I wasn’t going to get better on my own, that my periods of misery weren’t just attributable to grad school or some other external circumstance was a huge blow. Worse than that, I couldn’t stop analyzing every happy period for evidence of hypomania. Every time I felt good, was productive, or was spending lots of time with my friends had to be relabeled as something pathological. I wasn’t that energetic, creative, happy person — my disease was.
I am my disease and my disease is me. I am that energetic, creative, happy person, and part (but only part) of the reason why is my disease. It has certainly shaped my life and no doubt will continue to do so, but today I’m no longer at its mercy. Medicine and routines keep me grounded and consistent. Therapy has helped me accept my need for medicine and has helped me stop judging myself by the standard of my impossible, unhealthy highs. I’m learning to recognize when I’m sliding into depression, mania, or those terrible frenzied-but-despairing mixed states, and I’m learning how to ask for help pulling back from the edge.
And for the most part, I’m happy. I live a life that’s normal, even charmed in many ways. Nobody would ever guess that I’m bipolar unless they were there with me for the worst of it.
But I still worry a lot. I worry because the disease tends to get worse with age. I worry that I’ll have to watch my child struggle with it. I worry that it’ll make me lose my job. I worry that my husband will one day decide living with me and my illness is a burden he doesn’t want.
Most of all, I worry that one day I’ll be desperate and there will be enough Vicodin in the bottle.
As an endnote, I just want to mention to those who don’t already know: suicide is preventable. I’m living proof. If you think someone you love might be suicidal, the single best thing you can do for them is to remove the means. I threw away my narcotics. I keep my kitchen knives woefully dull. And I will never, ever keep a gun in the house.
I also encourage you, if you have the means, to donate to Hopeline, a nonprofit organization dedicated to suicide prevention and awareness (www.hopeline.com). They do great work.
[Helen is an exhibit developer, recovering physicist, and sometimes-science writer based in Durham, NC. In her spare time, she climbs mountains, bakes delicious cookies, and tears it up on the ultimate frisbee field.]