After probing deeper, asking my about my childhood and my teenage years, my history of extreme substance abuse and my irregular sleeping patterns, she recommended an appointment with a psychiatrist. A few days later, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and prescribed a common anticonvulsant with minimal side effects.
Within a few weeks, the psychosis was fading; it wasn’t gone altogether, and it took nearly a year for the voices to subside and the refrigerator to keep its opinions to itself. After a few months, though, I noticed how even I felt. No sleepless nights or lonely days in bed. No racing thoughts, no crying episodes that lasted for hours. A year later, I realised that my fears had been unwarranted. I hadn’t lost myself at all. I had found myself.
But then, I lost my health insurance and, subsequently, my ability to see a prescribing doctor. So I stopped taking the drugs. And for a while, it seemed okay. To me, anyway.
In a few months, I noticed small things changing. More sleepless nights and skipped meals. More pyjama days and TV bingeing. I was calling in sick from work nearly every week, and I was drinking more than I had at any point in my life. I’d stopped reading, something I always loved to do. If I wasn’t working, I was either in bed dealing with depression or out until late in the evening, drinking too much, talking too much, thinking too much. Manic. Depressed. And back again.
Within three years, not only had the mania and depression come back, so had the psychosis. Angry voices screamed and whispered in my head, and I would lay in bed at 3 a.m. listening to that damn refrigerator. And even though I knew better, even though experience had taught me that I was completely wrong, I was afraid of treatment for the same reason that had stopped me years earlier. I was afraid I would lose myself.
In the fall of 2014, when I once again had access to health care, I sat in a psychiatrist’s office crying. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying,” I told him.
“Are you sure?” he asked. I was puzzled. He gave me a knowing look, like he was stripping away my exterior and examining my soul.
“You’re afraid. You’re afraid you’ll lose something about yourself.” Now, I was sobbing, large tears dripping onto my thighs, shoulders heaving. How could he know that?
He knew because so many of us feel that way.
Mental illness isn’t just something that happens to you. It becomes you in a way that is both disturbing and comforting.
I recently saw a friend share an essay on Facebook that argued that our medical industry is killing our geniuses and prophets — that psychiatric pharmaceuticals are numbing our Vincent van Goghs and Sylvia Plaths. Of course, van Gogh shot himself in the chest and Sylvia Plath stuck her head in a carbon-monoxide-filled oven, but presumably the author found their unbearable suffering a reasonable trade for their contributions to history. The essay argued that treatment for mental illness would cast our generation’s geniuses into obscurity — that they would fade from history because their artistic potential was medicated away.
I was deeply hurt by this, because it played into every fear I had ever had about treating my bipolar disorder. I have many aspirations — to write a great novel, be a successful performer, to inspire my students to make meaningful change in the world. But I also hope to live a long, happy life with my husband, to have stable and healthy relationships, to see the world change in ways I can’t even imagine right now. Are those two desires so at odds?
The fact is, I am more productive, more creative, and have more potential since undergoing treatment for my bipolar disorder than I ever was before. My writing is better. I read more. I catch up with old friends and make dinner with my husband and even do my laundry once in a while. And even though my behaviour and my daily life has changed dramatically over the years, I’m not a different person than I was before. It wasn’t some kind of revolutionary change that altered my personality; it wasn’t a rebirth. I didn’t lose anything. I found everything.
I don’t mean to suggest that medication is for everyone, or to deny that some medications have the effect of numbing you, of stripping away your spark or making you feel like you’ve lost yourself. Not everyone’s experiences mirror my own, and I understand that. I’m very fortunate that my bipolar can be treated with an affordable drug that has very few side effects. Others aren’t so lucky. And of course, abstaining from medication is totally reasonable for some. But I will say, this drug saved my life.
For now, my life is lived mostly between the poles. I have mood swings, I make bad decisions, and I have anxious and negative thoughts. But they’re much more manageable, on par with most other people’s experience.