[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]
What can I say about living with bipolar I disorder that wouldn’t be redundant or too clinical? I can see the rejection now: “She wrote the same trope about being depressed one moment and frantic the next, how she either has to organize her pills obsessively or throw them all in the air and catch them in her mouth at random, jeez, doesn’t this chick have a therapist? She’s kind of a mess. PASS!”
Of course, that could all just be in my mind. A lot of things are. But let me give it my best shot.
In the ten years that I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar I, days have not been “normal.” A “day in the life” can go from laying in bed staring at the wall, to dressing up in a little black dress and shopping until my bank account is empty and my credit cards are tapped. I either can’t leave the house for days, or I can’t sit still for a single, solitary moment. I can’t have it quiet, ever. Quiet makes me nervous, so you might want to turn on the television when you read this to get the ambiance right. It doesn’t matter what you watch because you won’t be watching it. That takes too much concentration. So just turn something on so you’re not alone with the quiet. The quiet will drive you mad.
I can even pass as normal to my customers. And they told me my theater degree would be useless!
Wait, I’m supposed to be talking about myself. OK, strike all of the “yous” and change them to “me.” That should fix it. Or maybe I should stop typing altogether. This is kind of a mess. I should be cleaning this room, that’s what I should be doing. But I’m not quite manic enough to do that. I’m manic enough to be writing, which is good. I’m manic enough to go to therapy 20 minutes away but not quite enough to shower beforehand. Manic enough for makeup, not enough for clean clothes. Depressed enough to hate everything I do, but not enough so that I can’t go to work. Depressed enough to fixate on my hours at work being low enough that they don’t count against my disability payments, depressed enough to obsess over the idea that even though I’m doing absolutely everything I can regarding work, they’ll take my money away anyway. Depressed enough that I dissociate more often than usual now, shut down, and sit in the static between the stations in my mind. Sick enough, not sick enough. Not sick enough to be in the hospital today, but sick enough that one missed dose of medication would certainly land me back in.
A typical day. A typical day is the last paragraph played at double speed in my head over and over again. Or … nothing. A day can be absolute nothingness. Curled in bed popping non-narcotic anxiety meds and drifting in and out of sleep but sleep so restless and nightmare-ridden that I wake up in a soaking sweat, so confused as to what is real and what isn’t that I make mental lists of things I know are true, and things that might be true or might be figments of my imagination that seem so damn real they couldn’t be made up. Why would I make up thoughts that scare me so much?
A day in my life. I wake up. I go to work, or therapy, I play with my landlords’ kids, I hide in my rented room, I talk to my boyfriend over text, I play on the internet. I might even do a “normal” thing like grocery shop or take a selfie or buy a coffee. I smile and chat with my customers. To them, I’m just the woman at the register with red hair. Normal. Forgettable. Certainly not a certified looney bird who has been in 12 different psych hospitalizations, takes seven psychiatric medications daily, and holds so tightly to the gossamer threads of sanity that I have left, so tightly that they make my hands bleed, or maybe I just imagined that, but if I imagined that, why is my hand bleeding?
Do I scare you? You, reading this? Do I scare you? I scare me, but please don’t be scared of me, I’d never hurt anyone, not a hair on another head. I’m only a danger to myself, and these days I’m not even that dangerous to myself. Meds. Therapy. They finally started working for me, and I promise I’m OK now. I can even pass as normal to my customers. And they told me my theater degree would be useless!
That’s a joke. Please laugh.
A day in my world means laughing. At myself, at kids, at animals, at my friends, all tucked away on the internet where they don’t have to see me when I don’t have my makeup on or my hair fixed, where they don’t see the chaos I live in. That lives in me. Bipolar I means sometimes I think and feel and see and hear things that are so incredibly real that I almost believe they are. So having the computer helps, because I have to sit with those things long enough to type them out and read them over before I come to the conclusion that they are, in fact, real. For example, I just read over this entire piece, and although it’s all real to me, I wonder if anyone else will recognize it in themselves. I hope so. I hope my reality isn’t just me. That would be a terribly lonely life to have. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Are you there, person like me? Were you able to read all of this? It’s pretty long—you must be having a really good day if you’ve gotten to this point. I hope you’re having a good day. Me? I feel like I just vomited all over the computer. But a cleansing one, you know? One that makes you feel better, not sicker. That’s why I write, of course. It’s messy but it’s me. Just like my room, my hair, and my mind. Messy. Are you messy? It’s OK if you are. Maybe we can sort some of it out together. But not all of it, no no. Our mess is part of us. We don’t belong in alphabetized files and drawers and cabinets. Don’t be afraid to be messy. Don’t be afraid to be you. I’m right there with you. This diagnosis, it’s us, but it’s not our entire existence. So be messy. Be gloriously messy. Just remember where in that mess your meds are. And your laughter. And your heart. Then you’ll have a good day. A “normal” day. A day in your life.
. . .
The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy. They develop influential public service announcements (PSAs) and pilot evidence-based, peer-to-peer programs at the undergraduate and high school levels, engaging students to eradicate stigma. Because science is essential to achieving this mission, BC2M’s work is grounded in the latest research, evaluated for effectiveness, and shared with confidence. Headspace is proud to partner with them as we shine a light on the day-to-day experiences of living with a mental health diagnosis.
This series will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.
Artwork by KAREN HONG