Editor’s note: I wrote this post a year ago, but didn’t publish it at the time due to just not being ready to talk about some of the darker aspects of my treatment, but after touching on these themes in articles for BP Magazine last summer and Essence Magazine most recently in January, I decided that this might actually be of benefit to other mental illness sufferers or loved ones caring for someone struggling with mental health issues.
I’ve always been someone who was good at compartmentalization — which, for me, is the ability to function under horrible circumstances. My gift for it often masked the depths of my disease, bipolar disorder, because I was so “high functioning.” Kind of like an alcoholic who can hold down a job. Or, in my case, a manic-depressive person who could get a college degree, have a career, and have healthy relationships with friends and family … and still be incredibly self-destructive.
As a kid, even when I was dealing with intense bullying and harassment, having daily anxiety attacks and going to the nurse’s office almost every day at school, I still got straight As. I think this lulled myself and my parents all into a false sense that I had great coping abilities or would just “out-grow” these issues. When, in reality, I didn’t have good coping skills and they just all turned into something else. I got better and better at putting the hurt in a box when it came time to “perform” as a good student. The day I couldn’t suck it up and just perform anymore was the day I realized I had a serious problem.
Right now, I’m working on chronicling the hardest part of my struggle with mental illness, 2001 through 2009, almost a decade of severe depression marked by insomnia, hypomania, and self-destruction. And remembering all that time has brought up a mix of emotions within me.
There’s a line in the graphic novel Watchmen where an aging, female super hero who had survived a brutal sexual assault by a friend and lover (amongst other tragedies), recalls her past, saying that time had essentially caused even the grimy parts to be a bit brighter. This often happens with my own memory, where I tend to dwell on the good times more than the bad. How sometimes I have to remind myself how truly horrible something was because I’d put the nightmare in a box and didn’t care to look at it anymore.
Writing a book means opening up those old nightmares and reliving them again. Every moment with them is a reminder of how better I am and how truly awful it used to be.
Like, I tend to focus on my time in California as overwhelmingly positive. A place where I made many good friends, had a lot of adventures, felt loved and respected, and had a very good job with a great newspaper. It’s often difficult to reconcile the bliss I often felt there with the fact that I was sick most of the time, was hospitalized for depression three times, spent too much time in Bakersfield Hospital’s emergency room, had to take extended leaves of absence from work and when I was at work, was so miserable the most I could do was grunt a hello. If that. That my mental illness was “life-threatening,” in that my peers feared I’d kill myself on a whim or on accident and my mother would call me at 6 a.m. in the morning because she was having anxiety attacks over me being so far away and sounding like a corpse over the phone.
Like, how if either of my sisters came to visit I was so happy to see them, but almost always flew into a deep depression the minute they had to return to St. Louis. Two of my hospitalizations happened shortly after one of my sisters had come to visit me. The first time was after my sister had spent a summer with me, then returned to St. Louis. I missed her so incredibly much and felt so alone, that I stopped sleeping and eating, developed a violent nervous twitch that I still sometimes deal with to this day and three weeks after she left had to be dragged to a hospital by my friends and co-workers.
This sounds weird to say, but I think the only reason why I survived it was because so many people were completely invested in keeping me alive, even if I was only half-assed interested in living. I had A LOT of friends for a self-loathing, suicidal person. Even my employers seemed dedicated to the task, once forcing me to take three days off work and see a doctor after I’d fallen asleep, mid-meeting, mid-conversation with one of my editors. I never once got a bad employee review. They never once even came close to firing me even though my medical bills and chronic absence had to be money losses. Even after I had to be moved to part-time for six months, they tried to figure out a way to accommodate me and make things work. I eventually left on my own, realizing I couldn’t do the job anymore. Then, even though I quit, they approved my unemployment insurance because they agreed that I was too sick to do my job. Me sobbing on the phone profusely, recounting all the hospitalizations and leaves, and my executive editor on the other end of the phone, agreeing with the claims adjuster that I deserved the unemployment check. I’d been very sick.