This piece is especially difficult for me to write. I am not ashamed of my illnesses, just like I think there is no shame in having asthma, diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. But it isn’t information I volunteer unless I am speaking with people I feel are trustworthy. However, in the last week we have said goodbye to Kate Spade and Anthony Bordain, both of whom committed suicide, and I feel it is important for me to share my own story.
I have type II bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder. In fact, I most likely have OCD, but because I never disclosed my compulsions until after I had been placed on medication, I cannot be officially diagnosed with it unless I were to stop all meds and have my behavior monitored. Considering it took almost twenty years for me to start therapy and an additional four years to receive the correct diagnosis and combination of medications, that is something I’m not willing to do.
I was never abused as a kid. My parents disciplined us, but they never hit us. I was never raped or molested. I never witnessed or experienced anything traumatic until my grandmother died when I was nineteen. I grew up in a warm and generous family, attended parochial school, and never worried that I would have food to eat, clothes to wear, books to read, and a house to call home. If someone were to watch a movie of my life, they would probably call it idyllic; I had more than most people could ever hope for. But I was not happy.
I don’t understand how or when it all started. My parents told me I was a very happy baby and only fussed when I needed to eat, sleep, or have my diaper changed. I did, however, cry if other children around me were crying or throwing tantrums, which would cause me a great deal of anxiety. Even at a year old, I was hypersensitive. But other than that, I was very laid back and cheerful. I loved learning even then, and my mom had taught me how to read, write, and count by the time I was three, right around the time I started preschool. I was looking forward to being in school like all my brothers and learning more all the time.
And then the first day came.
I walked into a room full of toys, books, paper, crayons, scissors, and glue. Basically, any 1990s toddler’s dream come true. My mom stayed with me for part of the day but explained she would leave for a while and come back to get me later, which didn’t bother me in the least. But when one of the other kids had a meltdown after his mom left, I started to panic. After that, I hated school.
Everyday from preschool through fourth grade, I bawled my eyes out whenever my mom dropped me off at school. For the first year, instead of playing with the other kids at recess, I would sit on a bench and ask the teacher’s aide, “When is my mommy coming to get me?” In fact, my principal wanted to hold me back because I wasn’t sociable enough, an idea my grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, nixed and assured my parents I would grow out of that in my own time. She was right; I did eventually grow out of it. And fortunately my parents listened to her or I would have been nine years old and still in preschool.
Along with the constant crying, I was painfully shy, and it didn’t help that I was one of the tallest kids in the class. Imagine that: not wanting anyone to look at you but being the most easily noticeable person in the room because you stand a whole head and shoulders taller than everyone else, including the teacher! But when I turned eight, it only became worse because that’s when the compulsions hit.
My parents explained sex to me when I was four; I didn’t know all the details, but I knew what was supposed to go where in order to make a baby. And yet when I was in third grade, I became obsessed with the notion that if I accidentally touched someone (or even if my DESK touched someone) that I was having sex with them. It sounds ridiculous, right? Even I thought it was ridiculous, especially since I knew you couldn’t “accidentally” have sex with someone. But even though I logically knew that what I was doing was irrational, I couldn’t help it. The compulsions would last a few months but they never completely went away; they just changed form.
Eventually, I grew out of that and became obsessed with cheating: what if, as I was walking by someone’s desk and I saw their papers, I was cheating? My solution to this: always look down. You can imagine how well that worked. Then I moved on to being obsessed with going to hell, believing that every little thing I did would damn me forever. This resulted in my constantly praying to God for forgiveness. Also, we were warned around this same time by teachers and pastors about sex sin and not to lust after anyone. So once again, I resorted to not looking at anyone.
Can you imagine sitting at a restaurant table and seeing someone like me pass by? Someone who can’t look anyone in the eye and mutters to herself, who jerks her head away if someone walks near her? What would you think?
I knew I looked weird. My actions didn’t make any sense, but I still couldn’t help what I was doing. And it just kept getting worse. I was afraid of driving because I didn’t want to accidentally hit someone and not notice it, which would result in my being charged with a hit-and-run and the complete ruin of my life. Again, I don’t know how you can “accidentally” hit another car or pedestrian and not notice, but it worried me.
If I thought I’d hit something (which was because I’d run over a pothole, very common occurrences in metro Detroit), I would circle around the block to see if a car had pulled over or if a cop had been called. I would plan my route so that I could minimize the number of times I had to change lanes because what if as I was looking over my shoulder I veered too far to the side or someone darted out in front of me? It took me twice as long as other people just to go down the street to get a Slurpee.
But perhaps my biggest obsession of all, one that started around the time I entered school and has stayed with me ever since: perfection.
I had always been a serious student and would panic over every exam and quiz, even in early elementary school. I was probably the only seven-year-old who cried over a 90% on a spelling test. Perfection was always a big deal for me, and I felt that if I wasn’t perfect, then I must be a failure. This continued through college and graduate school, with regular anxiety attacks. I remember one semester I was consistently running on only three to five hours of sleep a night and was either attending lectures or office hours, studying, or doing homework.
I could barely sleep because my mind was always racing about the course material and all the questions I had. I kept a notebook with me wherever I went so I could write down all the questions I had, most of which I already knew the answers but still wrote down “just in case.” I even took that notebook in the bathroom while I showered. I was so tense all the time that I became a hazard in my chemistry lab.
Labs are nerve wracking for most people, and rightfully so. They are not safe places, and all precautions need to be taken to ensure everyone’s safety. For me, though, taking every precaution meant not doing anything, including drying a test tube, unless the TA approved it. I was so anxious that my hands would shake, which caused me to squirt concentrated sodium hydroxide or hydrochloric acid everywhere EXCEPT into my freaking graduated cylinder!
My anxiety wreaked havoc on me, but as I got older, I faced a new demon: depression.
Many times as a kid, I thought that if my life were to continue as a series of compulsions with extreme anxiety, then life wasn’t worth living. But the first time I ever contemplated suicide seriously was probably around fifteen, which is when I first self-harmed. I took a razor to my leg and hacked away until I had deep bloody cuts all along the length of my shin. When my parents found out, they wanted to take me to a therapist, which I stupidly begged them not to do. I thought that by having to go to therapy I was some psycho freak. I promised I wouldn’t do it again, and I kept my word for the rest of the time I lived under their roof. But self harming became a bigger issue about ten years later.
The first time I ever felt despair so deep I thought I would never get out of it was when my grandmother died. I had lost one of my best friends and then lost one more when her sister, our second grandma, died four months later. I alternated between despair and uncontrollable rage, which was the bipolar rearing its ugly head. I don’t know that I ever fully recovered from their deaths, but I was told that it was probably what triggered the bipolar to make its appearance. While I was only nineteen when it happened, which is a bit young to start displaying signs of bipolar disorder, my doctor told me that it would have come out no matter what; their deaths just triggered it to come early.
This started a vicious cycle of anxiety, depression, rage, and random bursts of energy. As I was doing research, my compulsions came back in the form of checking my data over and over again out of fear of possibly publishing incorrect results. Any scientist worth her or his salt will rigorously check the accuracy of their data, but what I was doing was obsessing, not validating. I would have my data in one table and the experimentalist’s in another right next to each other and would go line by line to see if they matched…at least three times. I could see they matched but worried I had missed something or maybe that because I wanted them to match that my mind was playing tricks on me. I had to check three times and if I was distracted or thought I overlooked something, I had to start again.
Needless to say, I wasn’t making much progress.
The stress of graduate school and my illnesses, which at that point I still thought I would “get over,” became too much for me.
In August of 2012, I tried to commit suicide.
Imagine waking up to policemen standing over you in your apartment, waiting for you to make a coherent thought because you have more pills in you than a pharmacy and are higher than a kite. Then imagine having to drink charcoal to counteract all the drugs in your system.
Have you ever had to drink charcoal?! I thought I was going to vomit all over the sidewalk from drinking what tasted like Satan’s piss.
While there hadn’t been any internal damage, I was still a huge risk and was admitted to the mental health unit. Keep in mind that I was in Ithaca at this time; the hospital was small and didn’t really have an official psychiatric ward. There were no strip searches or locked cells or white scrubs in which we had to shuffle around. Yeah, they checked my belongings to make sure I didn’t have any sharp objects or shampoo with an alcohol ingredient. They had bed checks every thirty minutes while we slept. The doors to the unit were locked and we weren’t allowed outside without a chaperone and only if the attending psychiatrist approved it. We could only have visitors for an hour at a time, two hours a day. And yet that was the most relaxed I’d felt in a long time.
Most of the other patients were drug and alcohol addicts waiting to go to a rehab facility and some were like me: people with anxiety and depression trying to find the right medication. We could read books, listen to music, play ping pong, and watch movies. We attended group and individual therapy sessions that taught us coping mechanisms and how to give voice but not control to our fears. But mostly we just talked to each other and listened to each other’s stories.
There was no pressure to perform or to be the best; we all were there because we needed help. There was no judgment but there was a mutual understanding and a sense of camaraderie in our fight against our respective demons. Oddly enough, for the first time, I felt like a normal person.
Here we were, some of society’s misfits, all banding together to support each other through our difficulties and our adjustments to treatment. We had all hit rock bottom and looked death in the eye but had survived. We gave each other hope to keep going and make better lives for ourselves. We tried to make ourselves and each other see that we had a purpose in this sometimes tragic but still wonderful saga we call life.
I left after a week and was able to take off a semester to recover. And while I am so happy that I was unsuccessful in my suicide attempt, I hesitate to think what would have happened if the few people in whom I had confided hadn’t kept a close eye on me and called the campus police to check on me.
I suffered in silence for so long; in fact, even after I left the hospital, my road to recovery was anything but easy. I struggled with the medication I was taking, so much so that I decided to leave Cornell with a master’s degree instead of pursuing my doctorate. Because I was only able to find part-time work after I graduated, I didn’t have health insurance for four months, which meant I couldn’t go to therapy or be on medication. I resumed self-harming, which is still a problem even now although it has been less severe due to the medications. It wasn’t until four years after my suicide attempt when I was in an emotionally and verbally abusive situation that someone mentioned to me that I might be bipolar, something which was later confirmed by my therapist and psychiatrist.
As it turns out depression (called “major depressive disorder”) and bipolar disorder (formerly known as “manic depressive disorder”) are sometimes hard to distinguish from each other. For bipolar, there are two types; type I is characterized by depressive cycles with hypermanic episodes. This hypermania involves feelings of grandiosity, excessive indulgences, and/or the lack of the need for sleep for days on end, among many other symptoms. Some people who are type I bipolar may experience psychotic episodes.
Not to be snide, but I always found it funny when I was asked during psychiatric evaluations if I experienced hallucinations. How on earth would people know if they’re hallucinating if they already have trouble distinguishing the real from the imaginary? Fortunately, I am around enough people on a regular basis that if I were to start hallucinating, someone would catch it very quickly.
I am classified as type II bipolar, which means I have extensive depressive episodes with “hypomanic” episodes interspersed throughout. Hypomania is not as “intense” (for lack of a better word) as hypermania but still involves sudden energetic bursts that can result in rash decisions and lack of sleep, among other problems. In fact, my waves of obsessions and compulsions most likely occurred during manic episodes, which eventually die down and later return in another form.
Over the last twenty-four years, very few people have understood what I’ve experienced. They didn’t know why I couldn’t just make up my mind to be happy, why I couldn’t exercise “mind over matter.” I didn’t understand it either for a long time, until it was finally explained to me that these disorders are physical illnesses brought on by faulty neurotransmitters. How can I convince my mind to overcome my circumstances when it has been damaged by a neurological defect?
Why have I disclosed all this information to you? Because this is not something openly discussed. Most people know the signs and symptoms of heart disease, pneumonia, and the flu, all of which are common occurrences. But not many people understand or recognize the onset of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses, many of which affect millions.
There is still a stigma associated with mental illness, one that is preventing people from getting the help they desperately need to live fully-functional lives. Mental illnesses are physical illnesses. While they are not fully understood even in the medical community, they are real and the people who suffer them need compassion. They need to be heard and to feel as if they matter. Because they do.
Please, educate yourself on these illnesses; donate to research; lobby for more government funding; volunteer; be trained to work a suicide help line. Call the loved ones you know who suffer from these and assure them that no matter what, you will be there to help them. Don’t preach at them; don’t quote Bible verses at them; don’t tell them it’s a spiritual problem; don’t tell them how to feel. Just be kind. Be compassionate. Be understanding.
Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,
Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak