Waterfall

I lift my head from my chest and rub my gummy eyes. The undersized television flickers some late-night talk show, the audio mute, and barely illuminates the room. I thumb the off switch of the remote and the screen goes dark, but not the space. An array of blue and green and red indicator lights shine on, casting ghastly shadows through the mass of gadgets and wires in my entertainment center. I close my eyes, but the colors continue to glow, to pulse, to burst in a shower of sparks against the backdrop of my eyelids. It is my own private fireworks show, exploding suns I dare not touch.

* * *

I’ve missed my medications, quite accidentally, three days in a row now. The first night I simply forgot. The second night I fell asleep on the couch and forgot in the morning. Tonight, I fell asleep on the couch again, waking up at this odd time, in this odd mind, with this odd rhyme winding its way through me.

* * *

I stumble up the stairs, through the dark. The hardwood floors are cold beneath my feet. In the master bedroom, I avoid the harsh glare of the room lights and make my way by memory to the master bathroom. A single Indiglow nightlight, soft and soothing, does nothing to banish the shadows from the corners of the room, but it is enough at the vanity to find the hated little plastic containers. I count out my pills blindly, two and two and one and one, matching the shape of each to its function: control my flights into madness, take charge of my mood, slow down the tremors, let me sleep. Their taste is bitter in my mouth.

Slipping free from clothes that stink of two days’ continuous wear, I turn on the shower and step in. Too-hot-water scalds my skin; I stand here, in the blackness, and cry.

* * *

Shower finished, I slide open the door and shiver in the contrasting cold. I grope for the clean towel I know hangs somewhere beyond, wrap it around my shaking body, and slide my still-wet self between the sheets of the empty bed to sleep. My last thoughts, as I drift away on the waves of chemically-forced slumber, are of sea walls and ocean swells. A woman, yearning to be free of this life, leaps from one to the other. She slowly slips beneath the water with me.

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.