It's January 31, 2018 - Bell Let's Talk Day. So let's talk. Or to be more accurate, as this is an article and not a live interaction, I'll type and you read. You can talk amongst yourselves once it's over.
I had originally planned to publish this article last Saturday (even took the accompanying photo that morning), but in the end, I couldn't bring myself to follow through. I thought having previously conquered my reservations about sharing my experiences with bipolar depression, I was prepared to share again, but when it came time to talk about my anxiety and mania, I found myself overwhelmed by the prospect and keenly sensitive to the risks involved. The risk of alienating friends and family who might decide I require too much attention, am too complicated, or am too weak. The risk of losing opportunities and income from employers who can't understand my experiences or feel I'm incapable of performing my duties. The risk of not being trusted or viewed as dependable, of having my every decision questioned, my opinions discounted, or my contributions ignored.
My own insecurities and the possible fallout of such exposure loomed tall and quite frankly, scared the shit out of me. So I didn't publish. I filed the photo away and convinced myself I was better off keeping quiet, keeping my "craziness" inside and everyone else at arm's length until I was "right" again. Today however, is a new day, and if Let's Talk Day is going to fulfill its purpose, it seems to me it's going to take people like myself, sharing our stories, to make it happen.
The thing is, my brain can sometimes be a bully, and like all bullies, it employs tactics like threatening me to remain silent in order to protect itself. It needs me to keep quiet about the abuse it inflicts upon me and depends on my hiding the truth for it to survive. It counts on my shame at not being strong enough to speak out, while whispering in my ear that no one will ever understand. I will be ostracized and ridiculed. I will be alone. The irony of course is that by simply believing it, I make it happen. I strand myself on my own deserted island and bury myself in solitude.
Last week, when anyone asked how I was doing, I responded along the lines of, "Things are a bit rough but I'm still here, so I have that going for me." It was an accurate enough (if understated) response to a loaded question, geared to deflect attention away from a potentially serious conversation I wasn't prepared to deal with. The truth is, my anxiety and mania were out of control - or perhaps I should more accurately say, they were "in control" - and all of the medication, meditation, and positive thinking were useless under their oppressive regime. I spent six days not showering or changing my clothes, brushing my hair, or brushing my teeth. I was afraid to go to sleep or leave the house. I made one short trip to give someone a ride when no one else could, but although I desperately needed gas, I refused to stop and fill the tank. I opted instead to risk being stranded on the side of the road rather than step out of the car - and not because I was wearing pajama pants with winter boots and a dirty sweatshirt. I chose to deal with things in relative silence, all the while feeling I was going to implode and explode simultaneously. I downplayed it and I paid for it.
I still am.
Throughout the week, I found myself overwhelmed by a sense of dread, as if my world was about to end and take everyone and everything I had ever loved with it. I didn't know where it would come from, how it would happen, or what form it would take. All I knew was it would be my fault and the knowledge I couldn't stop it, haunted me. Ironically, I also knew it was complete and utter bullshit. Buried in logic, deep beneath my irrational, rampaging self, I knew none of it was real. Yet I couldn't rid myself of its hold over me, so I hid as best I could - or as much as the world would allow me - while I continued to clumsily maintain minimal social interaction and struggled to meet business deadlines in order to pay my looming bills.
It wasn't long before the panic attacks began and I found myself pacing around my apartment, clenching and unclenching my fists or pulling at my hair in an effort to calm the voices in my head. I reminded myself they weren't real, that it was only my own subconscious betraying me, but the more I attempted to quiet them, the louder they became until finally they were shouting so loud I felt deafened from the inside. I couldn't stop them and I couldn't get away from them. Unfair as it is, there is nowhere to hide from yourself.
The worst things I find, the things that disturb me most when anxiety and mania take over, are the intrusive thoughts that come along with them. Suddenly I was being urged to perform reckless acts which, although I knew enough not to perform, still left me shaken and exhausted by the effort it took to constantly push them aside. Out of nowhere, I'd find myself faced with visions of stabbing myself in the thigh, or smashing my hand with a hammer. "Why?" I thought. "Why would any rational person even entertain such thoughts, much less have the capacity to conceive them?" The fact I could do so proved to me how abnormal and alone I was, and still they weren't the worst things I faced. At times, I questioned my ability to stand my ground against the endless tide of abuse and wondered whether it wouldn't be easier to simply not be around anymore to try.
On Wednesday night, I had a manic break. Mania itself can take many forms - from great elation and creativity, to irritability, anger, risky behaviour, careless spending, or even the entire mixed bag. I've dealt with all of these at some point or another, but I generally tend to remember them afterwards. In the case of a manic break though, I become disconnected from what I find familiar and essentially experience a black out. Luckily, Wednesday's episode was relatively short and ended with me waking at two a.m., curled up in the bottom of my spare room closet, wrapped in pillows and blankets. I can vaguely recall pieces of a conversation with a friend, but had to learn about a Facebook post I made and a Messenger conversation I participated in by going online the next morning. A quick check of my phone logs showed no incoming or outgoing calls and there was no sign of me leaving the house or disturbing anything, so other than an apology over some uncharacteristic sentiments shared in a Messenger thread (and a quick closet clean up), it was luckily a quiet affair. Unfortunately though, that isn't always the case.
I once disappeared for several days and after not going online or answering my phone, I forced my family to file a missing persons report with the police. It seems I had walked out of my home with nothing more than my wallet, my keys, and my laptop and drove across the city where I checked into a motel. At some point, I then switched motels and stayed there until I eventually came to my senses and checked my messages. Although confused and alarmed at waking up somewhere unfamiliar with a gap in my memory, I soon realized I'd have to piece things together at a later time because somehow in the course of an hour, I needed to check out of the motel, check in at the police station, and buy a new shirt to wear to a job interview I had arranged only the week before. In the end, I managed to get the shirt, but not the job.
To this day, I remember only fragments from that period and I still can't explain why I would choose to relocate from motel to motel and avoid contact with anyone I knew. Most of what I do know was told to me by the receipts I discovered in my pants pocket - two motels, a large pepperoni pizza, four chocolate bars, and a 36 case of beer (completely empty). Whatever the circumstances of a manic break, the toll is always the same. I'm left embarrassed, confused, disappointed in myself, and plagued with guilt and shame - especially if I discover I've been the cause of pain, grief, or embarrassment for anyone else due to my actions, deliberate or not.
Being bipolar means there are many facets to who I am, but I prefer to believe it's the positive and productive ones who make up the real me. The rest are simply unfortunate houseguests who take up space while the real me is busy elsewhere and I'm forced to keep them in line while he's gone. That's why each time I discover he's left, I'm reminded what hope means to me. It's not that tomorrow will be better or that life will get easier; the hope I cling to is that the real me will always remember to find his way home. That he won't disappear one day and leave me locked away in a room filled with all the worst parts of myself and a reason to finally listen to the voices shouting in my head.
This essay was published on The Mighty on January 31, 2018.