Dealing with mental illness has been a beast from the beginning. In 2006, bipolar disorder first presented in my brain. It is typical for a person to develop bipolar between the ages of 18-23, because the brain continues to change and mature through and past this time, up to age 25 for women and age 27 for men. For me, it happened at 19.
Eventually, in 2006, I had my first severe psychotic break and had to have two stays in psychiatric hospitals. During the second hospital stay I tried to hang myself, unsuccessfully. I was in one of my first episodes. It was mixed-state, rapid cycling, which means that I had aspects of severe depression and severe mania at the same time. This is not happy mania, and it is actually clinically referred to as “dysphoric” mania. “Dysphoric” is the opposite of “euphoric”, and it means that my mania is characterized by the same amount of energy as traditional mania, but I also feel extremely physically and mentally uncomfortable, with lots of severe depression, anxiety, and agitation. When I started having episodes and did not have the medicine, self-knowledge, or coping skills to help me feel better, I would become suicidal as soon as the episode approached its peak. With no resources, suicide was the only option I had to change the way I felt, so I tried to hang myself from a tall bathroom door with a cord. I was found before I lost consciousness, and was placed on “one-to-one” observation, which means I was kept by myself and had a nurse within 20 feet of me at all times, including when I was sleeping and during bathroom breaks. A couple of days later, the color started coming back into my world for the first time in a long time, because my brand new medicines were kicking in. I remember being on one-to-one and sitting underneath a window. I was staring at the sunlight touching my forearm, and I could feel that it was warm. I hadn’t been aware of warmth on my skin in about nine months. That moment crystallized in my memory as a flash-bulb memory, because it was at that moment that I started to believe I could get better.
Two years later, after many successes and failures in my treatment, I had a second suicide attempt; a massive yet still unsuccessful overdose of lithium. The planning of my death was long and drawn out. After giving up on life and finalizing my plans, I had to wait two weeks for the pharmacy to refill my lithium so that I could take as much as I needed to die. I had researched how much lithium would kill a person my weight, which was about 8 grams (1 gram equals 1,000 milligrams). I took 10 grams just to be safe. That in itself was my undoing. My stomach rebelled and I vomited in my sleep, woke up enough to take the rest of the bottle, fell back to sleep, vomited again, and woke up to find myself still alive in my bed nine hours later. I have never been lower. My parents took me to the emergency room. It was too late to pump my stomach, so they gave me two large cups full of activated charcoal in water. It was exactly what drinking powdered coal sounds like. I stayed in the hospital overnight, politely refused to go to the psychiatric hospital next door, and the next morning two police officers came to my room and handcuffed me to escort me to the psychiatric hospital. That was terrifying, but my dad walked with me, holding my hand as best he could, and I will never forget that.
During that third stay at a psychiatric hospital, I decided to live, but without much enthusiasm for the idea. I put together a contract for myself where I committed to do the things I need to do to survive, for the sake of myself and my loved ones. There is a line from a song that I identified with strongly as that time:
“And when I chose to live
There was no joy, it’s just a line I crossed.
It wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost,
So I was not lost, or found.”
-“After All”, Dar Williams
I vowed to learn to take every dose of medicine on time, not miss doses, write down my feelings, meditate, keep a mood chart, not miss any doctor or therapy appointments, and not let my blood sugar get low. That was the starting place for my recovery.
The severity of my symptoms has decreased, and my ability to cope has increased. I still sometimes have very severe psychotic episodes, but I know now how to keep myself safe, which is usually by asking a loved one before taking on any task, so they can tell me if it’s safe. Cooking and lighting the fireplace are not acceptable in that state, for example, because my functioning is severely impaired and I might get hurt or leave the gas on.
I and my loved ones have had to learn how to cope with my episodes, and we’ve got it down to an art at this point. My brain shifted into bipolar in 2006, so my parents and I have had 12 years to learn, and my husband has had the past 6 years to learn with me. It’s all about coping skills. I can meet my own needs most of the time, which is good, because no one else can see inside my brain. I have to be active in my treatment. I go to all my doctor and therapy appointments, even if I don’t want to, and I take all my meds on time every day, even though that means I have 6 alarms set on my phone to go off every day at dose times (which is crucial for me and I highly recommend to anyone taking any kind of medicine).
I have to continue to learn, mostly through therapy and self-observation, how to better cope with my feelings and symptoms. I am currently in a growing period, where I am frequently figuring out which coping skills are appropriate for which situation. Just like any kind of growth, I go through plateaus and climbs; right now I’m climbing.
Very severe episodes still hurt very much and can be extremely frightening, but they are fewer and farther between than they used to be, and I no longer jump to feeling suicidal the way I did for many years. That is a huge improvement after having two sincere suicide attempts.
Not all of my symptoms are less serious than they were at the beginning, but all of them are much easier to weather now, 12 years later. I believe that, with effort, I will continue to grow into a healthier person.
I am only one person with one story. Mental illness affects millions of people, each with their own stories of successes and failures. Please reach out to your community in person and online in search of truth and help. For general mental health information and support, the National Alliance on Mental Illness website is full of resources, so check out their site.
Every person who has a mental illness has been forced to learn hard lessons about self-care, and they each have at least a little wisdom to share with you. If you have questions about mental health and need a community to talk to, Quora.com is a great place to reach out for answers. You can post anonymously, and can even request answers specifically from psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and many people with mental illnesses. Quora has been a great resource for me, and answering questions about bipolar and mental illness has added meaning to my life.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter