Earl and Gloria

As Earl churns his way towards the Eastern Seaboard, states from South Carolina to Maine are on high alert, watching for signs of impeding stormy doom. The local newscasters have compared the preparations to those of twenty-five years ago, when Hurricane Gloria roared through.

In September of 1985, I was in the middle of a whirlwind of my own making. Gainfully employed, I was still making financially unsound decisions, racking up huge credit card debts at the ripe age of 19. Granted, I lived in a cheap, run-down apartment and I drove an old car, so my expenses were otherwise low. I also had a sugar daddy, of sorts.

I was involved with a man that I barely knew, but who made a great deal of money as a fisherman. AJ would be out at sea for seven to ten days, and then swoop in, unannounced, to my shabby place and take me out shopping, dancing, drinking, and lots of sex’ing. It wasn’t the healthiest of relationships, and a lot of bad stuff happened in later months between me and AJ, but in September we were still pretty new to each other, and tolerant of the faults.

As Gloria approached, the boats of the harbor moored up, rather than ride the storm out at sea. AJ invited me to ride along on the Grey Lady as she was moved from the offload facility to the protection of the dry dock. It was the first, and only, time I was on one of those huge fishing vessels (think The Deadliest Catch) and I loved every minute of it. AJ got one of the other crew members to loan me their oilskins, those yellow coats and pants, so I would even look the part.

Once AJ’s job on the boat was finished, a bunch of us piled into a car and drove out to Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth. The storm had started to build up by this time; the winds were whipping the waves into a froth, and the sound of water crashing onto rock was deafening. The wind was so strong, we may as well have been paper dolls.

Laughing, we grabbed the corners of our oilskins, one in each hand, and held them out like bat wings. We leaned forward, into the wind, eyes closed, oblivious to the sting of the salty spray. We jumped… and then we flew.

I can’t help but smile now, as interviewed tourists complain of ruined vacation plans and governors declare states of emergency. Hurricanes are dangerous, to be sure. Gloria wreaked havoc when she came through; Earl certainly has potential. But every whirlwind, no matter how dangerous, will also have its thrills. Storms with bright centers, and dangerous wraparounds. I learned that with Gloria. I eventually learned that with AJ, too.

NaPoWriMi #6 – purgatory

Her ice cold eyes watch warily
Ignore her at your peril
She’s not here voluntarily
The padded room is sterile.

Restraints, they hold securely
The demon may run wild.
Her parents named her poorly
No beloved god’s own child

Cautiously, she smiles at you.
Confusion fills her face.
“S’cuse me please, I need a clue.
Tell me. What is this place?”

“Well, you’re here for your own good.”
Safe response, not unfair.
“But friend, you misunderstood.
“I asked not why, but where.”

You can not ease the torments
Of madness or delusion.
“I am still sane” she represents
“Someone brooks confusion.

“It’s a mistake, I do repeat,
In here I won’t remain.
Unhook these, but be discrete.
Make it legerdemain.”

Watch out! Beware! Trickery,
The demon-cursed exploit
You are not an equerry
To perform a task adroit.

“I’m sorry, Miss, I am indeed,
But you must stay right here.”
She hisses then, and sprays a bead
Of spittle at your ear.

“A pox on ye, kin and kith,”
She cries, her voice much changed.
Focus now, finish forthwith
Your job; ignore deranged.

“I am Lilith, in the flesh
A lady nightmare reigns!
I destroyed Great Gilgamesh
And devoured his remains!”

Try not to see the hideous
Contortions of her face
Sickness is insidious,
To push such falls from grace.

Lock the door and walk from here
Join those who came before,
Don’t look back, don’t interfere,
You can not be her savior.


“Just a moment, please. I seem to have filed your chart again.”

In the year or so since I began visiting Dr Frank, only once had she remembered to pull my file before my scheduled appointment with her. I sat on the edge of the couch, my right leg a blur of nervous energy, and looked around the cluttered office. She had been to the library recently. I reached to take one of the books when Dr Frank walked back in. I snapped my hand back into my lap.

My psychiatrist pulled a sheet of pre-punched yellow note paper from the pile on her desk and slipped it into the chart on her lap. “So tell me, Amy, how has the last month been?” Pen poised to take notes, she looked at me expectantly.

“We closed on the house.” She nodded. “I had a few down days.” She scribbled something. “I mean really down days, like I probably should have called you but I talked to my friends instead down days.”

Dr Frank looked up from her notes. “As bad as last month?”

“Well,” I started, “I have had worse days. Like, if I was going to put them on that scale of one to five with one being I am hardly bothered by the thoughts and five means I should have called an ambulance already, then we are talking threes and fours. Lately.”

“I am really concerned, Amy, that you didn’t call me.” She wrote several more things in her chart. “Is the light therapy working for you?”

After a year, I’d learned that what she wrote down in my chart and what we actually talked about in session were very different things.

“I don’t use light therapy, remember?”

“Did you sell your light then?”

“No. You loaned me yours and it had no effect.” I tried to sound patient. “I gave it back months ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. And I can see you are not having any luck with your weight. That must be so frustrating.” Dr Frank was often so tactful. “Is that why you are depressed all the time?”

“No. And I am not depressed all the time. I am depressed twice a month. I have a really neat sine wave, if you want to see it, on my mood chart.” She waved her hands. “Well, I thought it was neat,” I muttered.

“I am really quite concerned about your ongoing depression, Amy. Especially that you are still having these suicidal thoughts. I think…”

I interrupted her, “I didn’t call you because it’s not what you think. I mean, yes, I feel that bad and yes, I have those damn thoughts in my head. But I can finally call on my friends for help now, when I need to. I even know how to, well, reboot my brain. To get it to stop spinning round and round in places I don’t want it to go. All those years of cognitive therapy have taught me it isn’t what you think, but how you think it that is important.”

Dr Frank looked at me as though I were nuts, as I went into mini-manic-mode: my arms gesturing, my legs bouncing, my words racing and tumbling about; all the while I explained how I rebooted my brain to break a major depressive episode. Eventually, I regained some measure of control.

“You know, there is some scientific evidence to back you up on that.” Dr Frank made a couple more notations on that yellow paper. “I still want to adjust your medications, but would you mind meeting with a student next month? I think they could learn something from you.”

I nodded, and pulled out my Treo to check for an open calendar appointment. I could put up with her idiosyncrasies for another month, if she could put up with mine.

Pain Is A Four-Letter Word

Stability is something I strive for. Each morning, when I receive my One-Click Mood Chart reminder, I am proud when I can click the “Normal mood” link. Each successive day of normalcy allows me to pretend that I am just like every one else; that I am not at the mercy of misfiring neurochemical receptors in my brain; that I really can enjoy my full-bodied coffee in the morning and my diet Pepsi in the afternoon. Most especially, that the glass or two of wine I had with dinner, with friends, alone watching television, that those wonderful glasses of pinot noir or plum or riesling, in moderation are not going to hurt me.

I am wrong, of course. I love denial.

Yesterday was a horrible, no good, very bad day. It was one of a string of bad days; today is even worse. I wish I could do something about it. I’m actually kind of scared.

I feel like I should have seen this coming. After all, stress is a trigger for me, like most bipolars I have met (or read about). The minimizer in me points out that I have it easy. My job in life right now consists of cleaning a two-bedroom apartment, cooking dinner each night, making sure the laundry and dry cleaning get done, and trying to stay on top of the bills. It doesn’t seem like much. I have plenty of free time for writing, sewing, and goofing off however I choose. I get vacations. I travel. Everything is great!

The realist suggests I might want to expand my definition of responsibility, as well as my sources of stress. There is the whole house thing: not only is the purchase still up in the air, but change in general is stressful. I will be the one handling the details of the move from both our house in Kentucky and our apartment here in DC… Shit, there is no need for a laundry list of stressors. They just exist. No one really cares what they are.

Physically, I am in a lot of pain. A little pain, I ‘m used to. I ‘m getting a little older, and even though I exercise, the occasional aches and pains in the morning aren’t out of the ordinary. Neither is some stiffness if I sit too long in one place. This pain that I feel right now is different. Every joint, every muscle aches, as though I were a stretch Armstrong doll and some nasty child is trying to torture me. Perhaps he will pull off my head; I would feel much better, I think, then.

And no, the pain relievers are not helping. I am reluctant to take more right now. I am reluctant to go anywhere near my medicine cabinet.

In a way, I suppose I should be grateful. I am so tired, so full of pain, that while the ideas of self-injury are there, tickling and teasing at the edge of my consciousness, they are easy to ignore. I haven’t the physical strength to consider, let alone carry them out.

G*d help me if I slip into a mixed-mode. That is the most dangerous time: when the depression is strong, but the insanity of mania suggests that not only is suicide the best escape option, it is completely achievable.

It is funny. I fell asleep, lying here on the couch, right in the middle of writing this. Perhaps that is the best way to end. I know it must be better than any alternative running through my head.

My Transformation

Bipolar disorder is never easy on anyone involved. There are many articles available to read about how to recognize the signs of the disorder in other people, how to seek out a diagnosis, and how to support a loved one in time of crisis.

At 36, I knew I was rushing headlong towards a cliff.

During my teens and twenties, I suffered through three major depressive episodes and countless minor ones. It is easy now to dismiss the minor ones as insignificant, compared to the mind-numbing despair that accompanied the majors. I did not just feel “bad.” There was a coldness on my soul, even in sunshine. Colors washed out, food tasted bitter, and words sounded hollow. Pain hurt more, and the drugs they gave me to dampen that pain muted the entire world. There was nothing left to care about. Medications kept me alive by taking away every desire, even the desire to escape.

When I wasn’t depressed, life was wonderful. I jumped out of second story windows, onto bare grass, for amusement. I raced my car, much like any teenager does, even when there was no one to show off to. One of my nicknames in high school was “Maneater,” like in the song; I was willing to flirt with anything. I would often stay awake for a couple of days at a time, drink, smoke, but always maintain my 3.89 GPA. I did have a terrible temper, though. I kept my bad habits right through my first semester of college, where I majored in drinking; and my first managerial job, where I slept in the office occasionally.

I met my first husband while dating his younger brother. I started my first administrative job, where I worked longer hours. I left there and took my first consulting job, followed by my first independent consulting job, which led finally back to school. I managed to get married, have two kids, get divorced, and remarried in this same span of five years. During all this time, even though my cash flow was variable, I lived a high life of compulsive overspending, overindulging, overcompensating, and over-imbibing. When the crashes came, as they always did, I locked myself away until I was pulled out, unwilling, and fed the drugs that would keep me from feeling.

The manic life was a grand life. I was creative. I wrote poetry, short stories, and essays. I started projects: paintings, crafty things, skirts, shirts, jewelry, and homemade paper. If I could be distracted by it, I was. I collected things: purple things, pen things, fuzzy things, fabric things, pattern things, people things. Did I mention I drank? Smoked? Occasionally, I felt down, or down right depressed, or so depressed that obsessing about suicide seemed a reasonable thing to do, for a person with no reason to think so. Years later, I discovered I had made up bits and pieces of lives I hadn’t even lived, in order to fill the empty time. I have danced with the music that only I can hear, I have watched the goldfish swim in the air, and I have prayed for release.

At 36, I started seeing a therapist because my husband was depressed. Not me, him. I was, and am sort of self-centered that way. After a few sessions, my therapist administered a standard bipolar inventory and I passed with flying colors. My first psychiatrist refused to consider anything but a Depakote and Lithium cocktail; I quickly fired her, being manic at the time, and looked for someone else. I have been seeing my current psychiatrist for nearly five years. He has been willing to work with me, trying to find a combination of medication and cognitive work that would keep me stable. I have been medication compliant for him for all those years.

I have chronicled, here in another journal, all the medications I have tried since 2001. I have recorded, for my own edification, and for the education of those who wish to find and read the entries, the dosages, side effects and efficacy of the various cocktails. For the record, most psychiatric medications suck. The damage they cause is worse than the benefit they give. I feel the cliff edge beneath my toes, the rough ground crumbling beneath my bare feet as I struggle to find my way.

So, after five years of occasional stability, punctuated by one major depressive episode, and several minor ones; after five years of nightly handfuls of medication and daily side effects; after five years of not knowing from day to the next if I will be up to handling “normal” tasks; after five years of life on psychiatric medications, I am taking a medication vacation.

I talked to my psychiatrist this morning. He was not thrilled, but he will always support me. Like those who love me, my family, my husband, will support me. This transformation, from medicated bipolar to unmedicated bipolar, may not be the wisest move I have ever made, but I believe it is the right one for me, right now. Johnny Blaze, in the movie Ghost Rider, said, “You cannot live in fear” before he did his big stunts. He needed to believe he was the one jumping.

Medication is my stunt air bag. I will walk, and show I don’t need it to land safely if/when I stumble and fall.

And if I do, that is ok too. At least, I can say I tried.

I am not a doctor, and do not presume to give medical advice. I have a formal plan for going off my medication which includes a tapering schedule. Please do not stop taking your medication without first consulting your physician.

Addendum: This was originally written in April, 2007, and I have left that as the publication date.  However, it is now October, 2008. My experiment as an unmedicated bipolar lasted a mere five months. I went downhill very quickly, slipping into a very deep depression.  It took several months for me to find both a medication regimen that worked again, as well as a psychiatrist here in DC that I feel comfortable working with. I now suffer from mixed episodes, even though I am medication-compliant, some of which are quite severe. I have discovered that music and exercise can help bring me out, help center me, if only I remember.