The memories are there in bits and pieces. The squeak of a metal chair on the tile floor. The rough hand towels in the sterile bathroom. The scent of bleach on the white sheets. My senses were both dulled and heightened at the same time- if that’s even possible. The inner workings of my mind ticking away, but at a slower pace than usual. Must be the medication, the new stuff, they have me on, I surmise. My five senses, the ones that really matter, take in each input sharper than ever before. Maybe it’s the lack of input that makes what is there so viable. Maybe it’s the shape of things on the backdrop of nothingness that makes them clearer. Maybe I’m losing my mind. That’s why I’m here, after all, right?
I know the year- it’s 2000. I know the location- it’s Austin, Texas. I’m in the hospital, a mental hospital. I don’t fully recall what brought me here, but something went wrong enough that I am on the adult floor with many others. We whisper in the shadows, our transgressions. We cry in groups in front of the nun. We sigh when Jell-O is the only offering at snack time. Collectively, we represent the full spectrum of mental disorders and illnesses. Individually, we are lost souls looking for a way through the darkness.
I’m haunted by my roommate’s heavy snoring. The emergency light in the bathroom flickers off and on while the heater kicks into gear. Despite medication to relax and get me to sleep, I’m wide awake. The bed is only slightly uncomfortable and I already asked for extra blankets. They’re the thin, woven ones you can get really cheap at any home goods store. Curling up, I try to think clearly about why I’m here. I know the depression is the main reason. It was bad this time. Bad enough that I was going to take things further than I had before- bad enough to want to end it all. Sucked into a pit of heavy, black sludge without a way out. The pain hit to the core of my being, relentless. There wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. There wasn’t anything but darkness.
Here we are in February, I muse. It’s been less than two months since I got married to a high school friend. I’m almost twenty-five years old. I have a good job. I try to be a good wife, daughter, sister and friend. But, I’m failing at all of these. The chemicals in my brain are off- wonky for some reason. I want to blame genes, and maybe I can do just that. Whatever the reason, as I flip to my other side in bed, I’m locked up tight. My roommate’s snoring deepens. There will be no sleep tonight. This is ridiculous. I need to sleep. Slowly stretching, I get out of bed and go to the door. The hallway is empty, the light green walls bathed sickly sweet in the overhead lights. I pad to the nurses’ station, the tread on my hospital-issued socks sticking with each shuffled step.
The station is lit up. The clock reads 1:15am in bright red, digital. The nurse behind the desk doesn’t look amused to see me. I stumble on my words, something about not being able to sleep, can I get something to help out, that type of thing. I try not to sound desperate, but I am getting that way. My file is found, looked at. I’m offered only one thing- benedryl. I’m slightly irritated, but grateful, as well. I’ll take anything at this point. Anything to take my mind and shut it off, let my body rest. The nurse gets the pill, I take it. Quick, painless. Absently, I plod back to the room and resume listening to the noise of the body in the bed next to mine. Sleep comes slowly, but it does arrive.
It’s seemingly way too early for what happens next- a nurse wheels a electronic station next to my bed to take vitals and blood. They didn’t do this when I arrived yesterday, the blood work. I’m not sure why. I stretch my left arm out and only slightly wince as the needle hits the skin. Little tubes fill with type A+ blood. Something I remember from science class in elementary school. The dark reddish-purple liquid mesmerizes me as it sloshes into the containers. And then, like that, the invasion is over. I’m told that breakfast is in a half hour and I should really get up. The nurse turns to my roommate and proceeds to take her vitals, no blood. I wonder how long she’s been here. Stirring, she throws her arm out for the blood pressure cuff as I sit up. Feet dangling from the bed, still in the nasty grey hospital-issued socks, I think about taking a shower. I didn’t bring toiletries yesterday. No idea what is provided. So I ask the nurse. She guides me to ask at the station for the essentials. So I stand and move to do just that.
The hallway at this time of day is slowly moving. I need to get my supplies, and now that I know who has them, I walk with a purpose. The nurses’ station is bustling. It doesn’t appear to be medication time, but there are many people, professional and locked-in, milling about. I wait my turn, not making eye contact with anyone. I’m not usually all that shy, but this morning the last thing I want to be involved in is a conversation. My turn arrives. I ask for supplies, towels, a toothbrush. All my needs are granted in the name of travel-sized bottles. Grabbing with gratitude, I say my thanks and head back to the room.
Upon arrival, I discover my roommate has already claimed the bathroom and is showering. With nothing to do but wait, I read the labels on my soap, shampoo and conditioner bottles. This takes all of three minutes. I should have thought to bring a book. There weren’t any magazines when I was in the main area the night before. There has got to be something to read, something to help time pass in this place. I resolve to find what that might be, and to find it sooner than later. More time passes, then the noise from the bathroom stops. My turn to wash the off-kilter feeling from little sleep in a strange place.
Breakfast is in the main room. I count twelve of us, and the age range is impressive. There are little groups here and there, but everyone seems content to just eat silently. This is, of course, after a group prayer that I refused to participate in, if only in my mind. The food isn’t terrible, which is a nice surprise. I’ve been a vegetarian for a few years now, but the bacon smells amazing. Allergic to the melons in the fruit dish, the pineapple, eggs and toast fill me up. There’s a constant line at the coffee machine. Though I don’t drink coffee, I’m intrigued. Orange juice is enough for me, at least for now. We finish eating after about twenty minutes, tops.
The clip-clop of heels comes from behind me and heads turn, looking up. I follow. There’s a woman with a clipboard. Her face is impassive, with heavy makeup and a strict hair bun at the base of her neck. Her business suit is navy pinstripe, very professional. There’s something I instinctively distrust about her. Something haughty, something “above” in attitude. She announces that the first group is meeting in ten minutes and we’re all expected to join. Heads nod in agreement. I find myself nodding, as well, though I have come to hate groups after only going to one last night. I’ll try again, though. I know I need it, we need it. We have to get better.
The group is one on healing- quite an obvious topic, if you ask me. We all need healing, and I’m hoping we all want it, as well. I know I do. I try to focus on each participant’s story, the pauses, the cursing, the tears. At last, it’s my turn. I’m hesitant. My issues seem so minor compared to the stories I’ve just witnessed. Sure, I can start with my parents’ divorce as the start of things going badly for me, but is that really enough? My mother abandoning my little sisters and I? High school as a chore without the normal antics of being a teenager? I feel small, pithy. I can’t compete with the tragedy that has been shared. The losses.
Ms. Kim, the leader of this group, encourages me to speak. I take a deep breath and begin to slowly unravel from the end, the yesterday, to the beginning. This approach quickly doesn’t make sense, and I’m forced to regroup my thoughts, start over. And, with a gentle nod from a few friendly faces, I start.
My parents never fought. Ever. They had the perfect marriage with three daughters, myself the oldest. We did sports as a family, softball as siblings, church as a group. I took piano and flute lessons, excelled in school, made everyone proud. Not long after celebrating eighteen years of marriage, my sisters and I were pulled aside by a friend’s mom after church on Sunday, and instructed to go have lunch at her house. And so we went. It was a little unusual, but it was all three of us so it seemed fine. After all, they lived half a block behind the church, so my parents were nearby.
The lunch drug on, the afternoon drug on. At some point we ended back at our house, the new one recently built in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs of Houston. It was there that something felt dreadfully wrong. I was only thirteen, but I knew, I felt, life was about to change. My parents announced to the three of us girls that they were getting divorced, and that Dad was moving out. I got up, with as much conviction as possible, and announced that I had laundry to attend to. I left the room as my dad began packing to leave.
I don’t remember a whole lot right after that. We did, though, have to pack all of our non-essential belongings into one shipping container each, for storage. My angel figurine collection, stuffed animals, and books were packed up. Assured we would have these things later, we spent a rather short amount of time downsizing or lives.
Dad moved into a small apartment and the four of us, Mom and her girls, moved nearly across the street in a small two bedroom apartment. All three of us girls shared one room, and Mom acted like we were on some sort of adventure. It was crowded, and black slugs would show up in the closet every afternoon, like clockwork. We were trying to manage, to remain as normal as possible. The hardest, at the time, adjustment, was going from being pretty well off financially to needing assistance for things like school lunches. I started using my babysitting money to buy my own tampons, less I waste income that seemed ever-shrinking. It was during this time, I found out many years later, that my mom tried to overdose. I remember thinking, This was your idea, you started it! It was so unfair, how she made my dad out to be this horrible man that we barely saw. I hated visiting him, even though in retrospect, I can see how hard it was for him, too.
During this time we moved often- when I looked back, I can see that Mom had trouble keeping a job and we were probably out-running leases. One time I went to camp and came home to a new place that she moved us into. I remember sharing a room with my sister, who had moved our two daybeds into the middle of the room, backs together. It was the stupidest-looking room design I had ever seen. I was a bitch about it, I recognize that now. There was little comfort in not knowing how long we’d be living somewhere, where we’d end up. My littlest sister went to seven different elementary schools during this time. Seven.
One Friday night, my mom finished cleaning up the little kitchen of the daybed apartment and sat at the table, wanting to talk to me. She spoke of having a hard time right now and needing help. I didn’t fully understand what she was talking about. She said she was going to go to a hospital for the weekend to get help- the three of us girls would be split up with three different families for awhile. My dad’s name never came up in this discussion. Not fully understanding the true nature or magnitude of what was going on, I encouraged her to get the help she needed, reassuring that everything would be fine.
And, it was fine, for awhile. The weekend trip to the mental hospital, though, turned into a three month-long stay. I was living with an awesome family that I used to babysit for, now I had my own room and four little brothers! My littlest sister was living across the street with a sweet couple. Life had a rhythm, a consistency to it. Then the world went to shit.
Part of what kept my life in order was being involved with theatre and German in high school. I had applied for a scholarship to study in Germany for the following school year and was really excited about it. The thought of living overseas excited me to no end. To live in one place for an entire year! It seemed a novel idea.
I don’t remember what day of the week it was, maybe a Friday. I know I was in Geometry class at the time. A student aide came into class with a note for me to report to the office. My gut feeling, my first thought, was that my mom had killed herself. I was sick with worry. Rushing to the office, I ended up in a small room with my very-much alive mother and two unknown adults at her side. She was very animated, excited to see me. I was reserved. The last time I had seen her like this was, well, never. It worried me. She was going on about how I deal with stress, making myself sick, which was true. I did have a history of internalizing stress and it usually manifested into stomach issues. Nothing worth really noting, though. Then she brought up the Germany trip that I hadn’t even won yet. She talked about how I was going to win the trip, go over there and get so stressed that I would be too sick and have to be sent home. It was better, she felt, for me to get professional help now, so that I could deal with the stress when it came. All this logic made sense to me. It was my mom, after all, and she was worried enough about me to get out of the hospital and see me. I expressed worry about giving up a babysitting job that evening, but it was dismissed. The two other adults were from the mental hospital and the four of us walked out of there without telling anyone. I thought I was going to get some therapy or something along those lines. I was wrong.
Sitting alone in a small room off the lobby of the hospital, I strained to hear the conversation on the other side of the door. I caught the words “72 hour confinement” and realized I was in deep shit. The tears started immediately, the sobbing soon after. I was trapped, locked in a room without any way to get out, by one of the few adults I trusted. I didn’t see my mom after that, but was given a pair of “I Love You” socks, from her. I had nothing but my backpack and one phone call allowed. I called my sister, begging her to pack my clothes, urging her not to cry. I was so scared.
I take in a huge breath and look up. More time has passed than anticipated, and I look to Ms. Kim to see if I should continue. She shakes her head softly, then dismisses the group. Everyone quietly files out of the room, but I’m too shaken up to move. I feel vulnerable and terrified at the same time. Just saying the past aloud has done something to my emotions. What was initially thought of as something small is looking a little larger now. Maybe my depression did start back as a teenager. Maybe I’ve been trying to hold my life together since then and it’s not working anymore. Maybe recognizing this will lead to hope, forgiveness. I slowly rise and make it back to my room, only to curl up in a ball on the bed, gently sobbing.
One week later-
My new psychiatrist is model-thin, blonde and genuinely stunning. Her office is bright and cheerful, a place one could easily feel relaxed in. Looking over my file from the hospital, she announces that she’ll up my anti-depressant and is treating me solely for major depression. This is fine with me. I need the medication. I need to resume life, my life, functioning. The crying has to stop. The pit in my stomach needs to fill with something- hope, maybe? I’ll just take the increased dose and be on my way, I think. Therapy is recommended, but I silently pass. I’ve been in therapy off and on since I was five years old and have no desire to start up again. Another session or two explaining why I’m so messed up doesn’t appeal to me. Getting to the root of the problem does appeal, but I’m too exhausted to go down that road right now. So I take the prescription and promise to see the new doctor in the next few weeks.
Something’s wrong. I’ve been on the upped antidepressant level for several weeks and am a new person. I have energy to spare. I don’t cry anymore. I’m painting again, writing short stories, cleaning my house. I’m excited to get up in the morning after going to bed late the night before. What is happening to me? This is all good, all good progress. There’s something in the back of my head, though, that tells me it’s all temporary. That it’ll be a crash-and-burn situation, sooner than later. And this scares me. My marriage is holding together alright and work is manageable. Everything seems to be hyper-real, from colors and sounds to the lightest touch of fabric on my body. My psychiatrist is happy with my progress. Maybe the higher dose was all I really needed. She doesn’t question the progress but, rather, revels in it. But I have my doubts. In a move that’s completely out of my personality, I seek a second opinion to the situation.
The next “new” psychiatrist is a middle-aged, semi-grumpy white man. His office is cluttered and he really likes Diet Coke. We talk and I am so openly honest about my behavior since the hospital that I’m surprising myself. He pauses several times, as if he’s debating on broaching a new subject with me. He pauses again. I start to get nervous. Softly, though, in an effort to not terrorize me, he begins describing my new-to-me symptoms that have surfaced since the hospital. The ones that keep me up at night with a crystal-clean floorboard and sanitized kitchen. He speaks of something called “mania” and I start to realize that he’s describing my life, my current state. My words rush out in agreement. Yes, I am manic. That’s what this is. It’s a state of being so amped up that I can hardly stand it. It’s not bad, but it is terrifying. He then mentions depression. Then says the word that altered my world fifteen years ago: bipolar. I am bipolar.
I feel weak in an instant. Depression is one thing, but what little I know about bipolar is something altogether different- it’s a mental illness. It’s okay to be depressed, lots of people are. Bipolar is crazy. I fight internally with this notion but my gut tells me the doctor is right. Like little puzzle pieces clicking into place, the picture becomes clear. I’m desperate for a solution. To make my crazy mind hold still for just a minute and return to something that’s not an extreme of sad or happy. I want to gain ground. So, I listen. I listen to the ins and outs, the basics of what bipolar means. He explains it- it’s as if there’s a gauge for one’s emotions, to know when to be happy, sad. My gauge is broken. It’s that simple, yet that bafflingly complex. To treat bipolar with antidepressants alone is to force the mind into a tailspin of mania, which was what was happening with Model Barbie Doctor. I needed to get on mood stabilizers, as well as a lower antidepressant. I needed to get lots of sleep, avoid caffeine. Get my exercise habits in gear. Take care of myself. Go to therapy. Worry less. Maintain.
Leaving the office I resolve to make this work. I will take my medications with a renewed valor. I will stop drinking soda with caffeine, even cut out chocolate. I will find exercise that I can keep at. I will seek a therapist. I will do this. I have to.
And so I do, I become a model patient. I read articles on the illness, struggle through highs and lows of different cocktails of medications, try to maintain a level of normalcy. But life suffers. My marriage, my close friendships, my working relationships suffer. I become consumed with the need to fix myself, to be open about the struggles, to look outward for support. Quickly, I learn, however, that this isn’t going to be easy. There’s an underlying fear of the topic of mental illness, which brings a strong sense of shame, hurt. I become impossible to be around, so much so that I shut myself down into my own little hurt world. I fend off friends, family and my husband. They don’t understand, they don’t seem to want to understand, so I take myself out of the equation. I hide. Work, home, work, home is my mantra. I sleep a lot. I worry, but then start to feel numb. Like none of it matters, really. I’m not depressed like before, but just skating on the edge of losing it all. It’s terrifying.
Time passes, I pass into time. My marriage is strained, my work is suffering. After feeling like I was being pushed out of my job for being open about my illness, I leave. I then offer up divorce to my husband, and he takes it. I’m both shocked and relieved. With nothing holding me to Austin, I move up north to live and regroup with my parents and youngest sister. I am now nearly thirty and feel like a failure.
Depression creeps into my bones as I reacclimate to being at home with family. Thankfully, my parents had each been through divorce and they don’t judge me like I’m judging myself. We are our own worst critics, right? I look for work, needing stability. In the three months it takes to secure a job, I’m already pining for Austin. The snow and darkness of the north doesn’t help. I miss sunshine. I miss the few friends I had. I miss my doctor and therapist. I feel like I’m missing myself, most of all. By the time I secure a good job, I’m already planning on returning to Texas. I stick it out in the darkness for another six months before I drive, alone, down to the Lone Star State. Staying with a friend and her young daughter, I attempt to rebuild a new life.