In the Middle Ages, it was called melancholia. In the early 1900s, it was known as neurasthenia. From the 1930s to about 1970, it was known as a nervous breakdown. “Nervous breakdown” is a term that the public uses to characterize a range of mental illnesses, but generally it describes the experience of “snapping” under immense pressure, mental collapse or mental and physical exhaustion.
My lovely daughter once dropped a quote that I thought was pretty funny at the time; “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” Now I think back on it, she was acting as a prophetess.
I’ll always remember the winter of 2012 as that pesky time when I lost my freaking mild altogether. Losing one’s mind is way more inconvenient thank losing one’s cell phone for example. You can always call yourself from the house phone and follow the ring to where the darned phone is hiding…this time. If you haven’t silenced the ringer – then you have to turn off everything in the house and listen for the vibration.
Checking all your coat pockets and purses you’ve used recently doesn’t help much either. A lost mind tends to lurk around in the shadows and pounce on you at inconvenient moments. Say, just long enough for you to put 2 & 2 together and realize that your answer, 42, is not quite right.
It’s really weird to be on the inside of a mental meltdown. Part of you decides to play the part of spectator and stands off on the sidelines, cheering and wincing. “Come on Girl, you can do it. Just put your pants on one leg at time, it’s not that hard once you get started.” Or “Oh, I can’t believe she said that, that’s going to be hard to explain.” Or “Oh crap, she’s never gonna live THAT down.”
I spent the majority of December 2012 and January 2012 feeling like my brain got put into a food processor and spun around on high until I ended up with a bizarre brain puree not suitable for consumption by anyone.
The whole meltdown thing started innocently enough. I began to display evidence of losing my aplomb. Minor incidents were suddenly earth shatteringly serious. I went from being annoyed by the self-destructive antics of friends and loved ones to being annoyed by their very existence on the planet.
I think one of the things that saved me from total chaos is that I can type really fast, almost fast enough to keep up with my thoughts when they are raging in a manic episode. I can sit down with a cup or 2 of coffee and bang out a novella on the outrages of using a poorly constructed can opener, 8 to 10 thousand words easy – no problem. And it all makes sense, at the time. I’ve saved a few of the crazier ones for a private look back guide to tell when I starting to careen off the rails. I just wish I could channel some of this energy into the book I’m writing. Sometimes I can.
Well, all of this nonsense ended up in an enormous train wreck from my perspective. I spent a lot of time being profoundly grateful that I was retired and didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of melting down on the job.
I saw it happen to a work friend and it was not a pretty sight. She was suffering from “forced speech” that frequently accompanies a manic episode. This meant that she couldn’t sit down in her cube and couldn’t shut up no matter what. She took to walking around wearing a blood pressure cuff as a bracelet and updated everyone on her stats on a continuous basis, about every 15 minutes.
This went on for 2 days in a row. Being the one responsible for keeping track of employees at that time, I had to be the one to have HR call her husband to come get her. Actually I was relieved that he came and quietly spirited her away. We spoke for a few minutes and I thanked him for coming to get his wife. He thanked me for doing something instead of just ignoring her. I felt terrible that she went through that. The company ended up giving her a generous retirement package and we never saw her again.
I heard through a mutual friend a year or so later and she had received treatment and was feeling much better. She was working part time in a low stress, small grocery store owned by a family member. She was able to get out of the house, and a huge benefit was that they were kind and patient with her when she had “one of those days” and was unable to handle being in the store.
I’m grateful for my beloved husband for bearing with me during this episode. I don’t know how he stood it really. I couldn’t even stand myself. It must be incredibly challenging to face someone who switches from “I’m pissed that you left the toilet seat up, please don’t do that” – to – “I’m pissed that you left the toilet seat up, therefore I’m leaving and moving to Brazil!’ in the blink of an eye.
Mother I tried please believe me, I’m doing the best that I can.
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through, I’m ashamed of the person I am.
Isolation, isolation, isolation.
But if you could just see the beauty, these things I could never describe,
These pleasures a wayward distraction, this is my one lucky prize.
Isolation, isolation, isolation, isolation, isolation. (Ian Curtis, Joy Division)
I’m not feeling depressed or particularly sad today, just isolated and angry. How many good people have I pushed away over the course of my life? I can’t even begin to count. Part of it was a fear, an overwhelming, paralyzing, bone deep fear.
What if I get to know you and like you and then you slam me down hard? Safer to stay at a distance. Even worse, what if you get to know me and like me and then I kick you to the curb one day when I’m out of my mind with agitation. I don’t know how or why I’ve lived like this for so long. I think another part of this comes from feeling like damaged goods. “I’m a loony toon; you better stay away from me for your own good.”
I know it’s ridiculous to feel this way, but that doesn’t help much. It’s like having a broken leg, you know it is broken but it still hurts like a bitch. Every time phone rings I almost jump out of my skin and think, “Oh God, what now? What loose string have I left untied? What did I do that I need to apologize for or explain?”
Regaining a semblance of sanity and balance is a good thing. But, when I look behind me and see the of destruction I wove while in and out of my mind, it’s like looking at a aerial footage of the path of a tornado.
Yea, yea, I didn’t do as much damage as a tornado, but not by much, at least that’s what it feels like. Would it have different if I had been diagnosed with bipolar years or decades ago? How can I know that? Would I have made different decisions? Chosen a different path for my life? Hiding behind the skirts of my wackier family members it was always so easy to wave a banner and say “See, I’m the normal one, taint nuthin wrong with me!”
Some part of me knew something was not right in my brain. I guess I just wasn’t ready to face it head on. Who is to say anything would be different? Maybe it would have been worse? Maybe I would have used mental illness as a crutch to excuse myself from inexcusable behavior.
Today I go to see my physio-key-atrist. I’m expecting it to go something like this. “OK, we’ve abated the crisis and stopped the bleeding, the hypomanic mixed states, but what now? Where do I go from here?” I don’t know how or what a normal stable state feels. I feel like a blindfolded painter expected to draw a landscape I’ve never seen. I just don’t know where or what to do next.
Confusion in her eyes that says it all.
She’s lost control.
And she’s clinging to the nearest passer by,
She’s lost control.
And she gave away the secrets of her past,
And said I’ve lost control again,
And of a voice that told her when and where to act,
She said I’ve lost control again.
RIP to Songwriter Ian Curtis (1956-1980), Joy Division
So this is what normal feels like? Don’t know because I’ve never been normal. But if this what it feels like, I think I can get used to it. Maybe even grow to love it. I’m sitting here on the patio and the raging out of control thoughts are …just not …there. Where did they go? Are they gone or do these bipolar meds give me a volume control? If this is case then it is fabulous, I love it.
It also feels like if I somehow stood in the great hall of my brain and shouted hello, I would hear echoes. HELLO, hello, helloooo. But I don’t feel empty at all. I just feel …peaceful. Yeah that’s it.
I still hear all the sounds that were driving me absolutely climbing the walls crazy just a few days ago. Bird cawing, traffic in the distance, hubman blinking, a neighbor banging around her garbage cans, a barking dog, leaf blowers, the sprinklers.
The sprinklers are the best of all, they don’t sound like Niagra Falls now. I don’t have to run for my life, get in bed and put a pillow over my head to drown out the roar. The sun shining through them is making little rainbows. I have a yard full of rainbows. How cool is that? I couldn’t sit still long enough to notice that before. Looking back on the last few months I spent most of my mental time zipping around on the ceiling fan.
I hope y’all pardon me if I spend some time obsessed with this whole bipolar medical adventure and the meds that are helping me so much. Thank you Chemists every where, thank you, and thank you some more. It’s all so new to me and it’s like getting a new brain for Christmas and I do love new gadgets. And it’s a wonderful gadget, this brain. Don’t have to plug it in, it won’t short out if I spill coffee on it, can’t lose the charger cord, and the warranty won’t expire.
The absence of the constant assault on my senses, the absence of having a panic attic when asked a simple question and the ability to just BE is a gift from the Gods via modern pharmaceuticals.
The outward proof of returning to center is that I am doing “normal” things without stressing out. I don’t feel the need to upchuck from the fear of getting in the shower. I could force myself into the bathtub instead, but it was a complicated process. I would sit on the edge and put one foot in, take deep breaths try to calm down, put the foot in and calm down. It would take like 10 minutes to finally get all the way in the bathtub. The sensations were overwhelming. Then I’d start to panic and fear that I would fall asleep and drown. And standing up to get back out, shivering while reaching for a towel? I would rather go to Disney Land and ride Space Mountain. Not even close to being as scary.
I’ve always been a tactile kind of person to begin with. So with having my brain go haywire the sensation in the shower were as frightening as if someone expected me to base jump off Angle Falls in South America. Too much water, too much noise, to many sensations – hot, cold, wet, soapy, steamy, the smell of shampoo, scratchy wash cloth… GAAAaaaAAa. Head for the hills! The H2O Armageddon was coming.
Unfortunately the devil of “what ifs” is starting to knock on my door. What if I end up as dull as a hitching post? What if the meds turn off my creativity? Will I be perceived as fragile or even dangerous? One of those people who you talk softly and slowly to because they’re afraid you are going to go off on them? Will I start to shuffle along like someone in an institution. Have I donned a chemical straight jacket? I’m back to writing at least and that’s a good sign. I’ll take it.