Dealing with mental illness has been a beast from the beginning. In 2006, Bipolar II 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.
In 2006, after only five months of college, 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 psychotic 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 hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, severe depression, racing awful thoughts, irritation, anxiety, excessive energy in my body and physical agitation. When I started having episodes and did not have the medicine, self-knowledge, or coping skills to help me feel better, I would have suicidal impulses as soon as the episode approached its peak. With no resources, my first episode confined in a hospital was literally unbearable, and suicide was the only option available to change the way I felt. I used it; it was the only solution I had. I tried to hang myself from a tall bathroom door with a cord when I was unsupervised. My neck did not break when I kicked the chair out from beneath me and jerked downward, but I could not breathe at all. I felt the complete relief of solving the biggest problem I had ever had. I was sure that I could die from thorough strangulation. I fixed it. I fixed the problem. I was found when my vision was almost completely whited out but before I lost consciousness, and a nurse cut me down. I took one gasping breath in and started wailing like a wounded wolf. I was an animal in unimaginable pain, angry and afraid. There was nothing I could do, nothing I could hold on to. I was just falling and flailing all the way down inside the miserable pit of my own mind.
For my safety, I was placed on “one-to-one” observation for five days, which means I was kept by myself and had a nurse within 12 feet of me at all times, including during sleep and 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, which was another 6 grams. I fell back to sleep, vomited in my sleep again, and woke up to find myself still alive in my vomit-encrusted bed nine hours later. I have never been lower. I remembering crying bitterly where I lay without moving at all. I did not believe in god at that time in my life, but that day I did believe. I told my mother that “God said no. God said no.” over and over. I wanted to die. I tried to die. I had planned it out for weeks. It should have worked. The only thought in my head was “God said no,” and I hated him for it. I went back to being an atheist the next week, but when I woke up from my lithium overdose, god was the only explanation I had for the awful thing that had happened, and I needed someone to blame for my failure. I don’t remember telling my mom about my overdose, but she assures me that I did. 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 mixed with water 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 doing 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 or lighting the fireplace is not acceptable in that state, for example, because my functioning is severely impaired and I might make a dangerous mistake and get hurt or leave the gas on. I have no desire to burn down my home.
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 partner 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 when I don’t want to. I take all my medications on time every day, even though that means I have 6 alarms set on my phone to go off at dose times every day, which is crucial for me and I highly recommend this practical tool 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. 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.
If you want the lurid details of my second stay in a psychiatric hospital, read What It Is Like To Go To A Psychiatric Hospital
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter
I am not a doctor or any sort of mental health professional. I am a psychiatric patient with multiple mental illnesses that I have survived for 12 years now. My secondhand knowledge comes from doctors, psychologists, therapists, books, college courses in psychology, and the internet. My firsthand knowledge comes from the feelings, experiences, thoughts, symptoms, problems, and solutions that I have lived through. I know myself well, but again, I am not a professional. The information on this site is not a replacement for getting an actual diagnosis or professional help. Coping skills are fantastic, and I hope you learn some here and that they help you, but please seek and continue real medical treatment if you are struggling with mental illness. I wish you the best. You can do hard things.