I stood outside of my house and let the morning sun warm my face for a minute before starting my fitness app and my playlist. Nearly everything on my body was new – except my shoes, but they had been worn so infrequently that they still looked brand new. Inside the house, in my closet, a bauble of athletic gear sat, tags still on most of the items. This grouping included the new hiking backpack my husband gave me for my birthday. It was half-filled with various items I would need for the overnight hiking trip we were planning and that I was both eager and determined to take.
It was the second of June. In my journal the night before, I explored the significance of the year being half over. At the top of one page in small, swirly handwriting I wrote, “thank you, life, for letting me keep you.” It was hard to believe that six months earlier that all I wanted was to die.
It had been a bumpy six months. My bipolar diagnosis came at the end of January, followed by the testing of a variety of medications and dosages in an effort to try and balance me out. I felt like a seesaw, but also a bit like a lab rat, with the constant kaleidoscope of pills. I sat alone each night and imagined the medicine coursing through my veins, battling the demons that permeated every inch of my body, mind, and soul. Then came the discovery of my thyroid imbalance, which brought along another pill bottle, and finally, real progress. I stopped obsessing about death. I began to feel free.
The road to wellness is much more challenging than I ever would’ve expected. I had hoped, we all had, that medication would simply solve the issues immediately. I didn’t anticipate the other areas I would have to work on: adopting – and sticking to – a regular sleep schedule, finding ways to cope with the pounding heart and urge to flee that characterized my anxiety without popping Xanax several times a day, releasing years of self-loathing and coming to terms with the errors in my ways of thinking. At 35, for what seemed to be the first time ever in my life, I felt good. I began seeing that life could be filled with joy. I was lighter, calmer, anticipating the future instead of fearing it.
I’ve never been “healthy,” not exactly. I watched what I ate only because I’d been battling anorexia for more than half my life. The antipsychotics I’d started and stuck with have a side effect of increased appetite. Because I had been verging on skeletal and literally couldn’t eat when the depression was at its worst, this side effect was initially a welcome one. I really did want to gain back the weight I’d lost, I really did want to want to eat food. As the months passed, I gained back the weight and then some. I talked myself out of being alarmed, but I also realized that what I needed, instead of relying on unhealthy means of weight maintenance, was to take care of my body. Adopt an exercise regimen. Love my body by caring for it. This is a foreign concept to me.
As my shoes hit the pavement in time to the music in my ears, I felt the familiar waves of anxiety. I mistakenly started my walk on a moderately busy road, making me feel conspicuous as the cars passed me. A jeep full of men honked and made obscene gestures and I immediately regretted my decision to exercise. Tingling covered my skin and trepidation climbed up the back of my neck. I shook off the negativity almost as quickly as it came and I felt a firm resolve within me, even as I sensed the edges of the anxiety and agoraphobia that had plagued me lapping at my newly constructed barrier. After a while, though, I was more focused on my breathing and the ways my body carried me down the road. I wanted, more than anything in that moment, to be physically strong. I was ready. I could do the things I’d told myself I couldn’t. The physical fitness I turned my nose up at for so long because, deep down inside, I thought I couldn’t. Thought I shouldn’t. Thought it didn’t matter.
I turned right into a neighborhood to get off of the main road and to try to construct some sort of path that would eventually lead me back home. In the stillness of the neighborhood, I allowed my mind to take inventory of my body. My shoes were hurting my feet, my hips had started aching, I was breathing a bit heavily, sweat ran down my chest. But, goddamn it, I was alive. Glee bubbled up in my throat and I let out a laugh. I picked up my pace and tried to match it to the song in my headphones.
Since my initial bipolar diagnosis, I had been reading memoirs and essays about mental illness nonstop. I gravitated towards bipolar stories, but anthologies of mental illness stories sufficed. From the memoirs, especially, I saw myself in the madness, and I came to understand, with painful clarity, how much worse I could get. My nurse practitioner and I had covered my history fairly well, and through those appointments I saw how long the illness had been lurking. I saw how my mania had disrupted my life over the years. I saw how, when I had believed myself to have an advanced definition of “truth” and liberal morals (which caused me to disregard potential consequences), really everything was clouded by illness. Once medicated, aware, and in therapy, working through the guilt of my past was among the hardest things I’d ever done.
I met with two different counselors before giving up therapy. I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of the sessions, but ultimately it was okay. I came away with some tools and with that heightened awareness. I moved from guilt-stricken to accepting, from paralyzed to eager to move forward. Kind of. I knew I was avoiding some things, but I also decided that my fragile state could only handle so much right then. I decided to leave them deep in the recesses of my mind where I had packed them away. I still don’t know if that was the right choice, but I still can’t find the strength or the desire to unpack them.
The label of “bipolar” and the research I initially conducted sent me reeling for a few weeks. As I catalogued my losses and dissected various points in my life, I grappled with the idea that much of what I had thought, felt, and done might be attributed to illness. I immediately struggled with my understanding of the stigma that could accompany the diagnosis, so I began writing on my personal blog about the diagnosis, hoping to combat any stigma, though really it was just because I had to talk about it. Writing about it was, and has continued to be, as therapeutic as anything. Sometimes it feels as though I’m ripping the words out of myself, and sometimes I lose the ability to say more about pain and my past. But words structure my life. They keep me grounded, but they also help me move through time as it carries me.
As I turned a corner and neared the school, suddenly there were people everywhere. Cars littered both sides of the street and parents scurried to the school grounds. I panicked a little as I weaved around them, afraid that everyone was looking at me, afraid of something I couldn’t identify. I picked up my pace and looked down as I fast-walked around the cars to the other sidewalk and quickly turned down another side street to escape. I felt silly after that, and I found that I was nearing my street. I had to pee and my feet were really beginning to sting where I suspected blisters were forming, so I consciously began making my way back home.
Loving my body never seemed like something I should do. Love seemed unattainable, even undesirable. The abuses I’ve put my body through are numerous, and the incessant feeling of being alien in my own skin is especially tiresome these days. When death seemed imminent, escaping the prison of my skin felt like such a relief. My skin, my mind, these are me, I know this, but I’ve never quite felt right. I imagined pieces of me, separate entities that had been mashed together to create sadness and pain.
I know how fortunate I am that I was not hospitalized, that my marriage survived, that I survived, and that I have the ability to pay for my care. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up in a panic, sure that I’ll lose my grip on reality at any moment, waiting to feel the seduction of death again, fearing that I will have a psychotic break. I remind myself in those dark hours that the problem with most individuals with bipolar who relapse is they think they can stop taking the medication. I know this. I’ve read this countless times. I tame the beast with logic. It usually works.
Within days of starting my thyroid medication, my suicidal thoughts stopped. My anxiety eased up a bit. I began to see the potential for joy. This immediately had me wondering about the antipsychotics I was taking, whether I had to keep taking them. The inner battle I’ve continued to have about whether my bipolar is all related to my thyroid or if it has been a combination of both has exhausted me. I resolved to stop trying to figure it out, because I knew there was absolutely no way to know. No one could tell me definitively what caused what, what was to blame. And, the fact remained that it doesn’t matter. And my fear of relapse, my fear of the other shoe dropping, has been so intense that I refuse to even entertain stopping my bipolar medication. Its side effects are not super fun: I need a minimum of 8 hours of sleep; if I take it too late in the evening, I’m worthless the next day; I can’t have more than one or two drinks without feeling ill; I’ve continued to gain weight. But, fear keeps me going. It prevents me from trying to act like I know what is best and stop taking the pills. Fear is my ally.
The hardest parts have been writing less, the dampening of my emotions, worrying about the future. I’m afraid I will never write with as much abandon as I did during my months of depression and mixed episodes. I’m afraid I am less of myself now that I don’t feel everything as intensely as I did before. But I’m realizing that not everything has to be important. Not everything has a deeper meaning. You can live a life without massive waves of profundity. You can live a quiet life and still matter.
Those understandings have been hard to internalize. But the freedom I have felt and the feelings of the potential for joy have thus far lured me away from the desire to live frantically. I live quietly. And that’s okay.
I opened the garage when I got home and immediately took off my shoes. I checked my app and learned that I had gone well over two miles. I flushed with pride and began mentally plotting the next day’s route. I stretched myself into the few yoga poses I knew and imagined a uniting of all of my pieces. It is strength I desire. It is strength that I strive for, strength that will accompany a new love of myself and join the boundaries of the pieces of me.
This new life that I am living inspires me. And I’m finally feeling motivated enough to do the things I always want to do but never do. For so many years I was paralyzed by fear – about everything, really – and so I never did much. And the years passed me by, and I hated time for passing so quickly, and I hated myself for not being able to do the things. I feel so different now. And I feel flickers of love for myself. And I feel hopeful. Sometimes the amazement I experience about these feelings staggers me. I know I’m still on the road to wellness, but now I’m sure there is actually light not only at the end, but illuminating my way.
Photo by João Lavinha