When I Am Bipolar

I hold the small red pill between my thumb and forefinger. It’s miniscule. Maybe a third the size of a breath mint.

I’ve already taken my antidepressant faithfully, as I always do. I habitually gulp down the rest of my pills but this one I take last, because it’s so small. There was the time it slid silently from my palm as I tossed the pills into my mouth and it was only the next day I realized I must have missed my dose.

You’re not supposed to skip a day when you’re on antipsychotics. But sometimes I want to.

It’s been 3 years since I lost my mind. Since it slipped easily towards escape, since salvation seemed like wide open spaces on the limitless acreage behind our home. When I imagined myself retrieving the key to the gun cabinet. When I fantasized about slipping unnoticed from my house, past the breakfast dishes and the vase of fresh flowers I’d just bought the day before sitting in a jar like hope. Past my sleeping husband who had kissed me goodnight and rubbed my back until my breathing went soft and rhythmic. There would be no chance my kids would find me. No one would have to clean anything up, there would be no messy blood stains or images that would haunt them. Hunters would find me, or hikers wandering the back trails. It would all be very simple and discreet.

I imagined everyone would be better off. I wouldn’t ache anymore with despair. But even as I entertained these thoughts, I knew they were the thick velvet imaginations of a mind gone dark, the curtains dragged closed.

I had seen the devastation a suicide attempt can leave. I had seen it in my mother’s eyes years ago when her gaze nervously traced the raised red scar that had turned into a grotesque palette of purples, yellows, and browns on my brother’s neck. I couldn’t forget that haunted look she carried whenever she looked at him.

I told my husband first, and then my mother. I called my doctor and then I prayed through the hollow that had become my soul. The words were empty on my lips but I said them anyway, and hoped to mean them again.

And later, I left my psychiatrist’s office with a face washed clean in tears and a stack of prescriptions.

But sometimes I hold the pill between my fingers and I imagine dropping it back into the bottle and twisting the lid back on tight.

It’s true that this year I have been more stable than ever before. Sometimes I even wonder if I am well and no longer need them. That was my mistake last time. Wishful thinking. After the first few months on new meds, the days became flatter, less vibrant, but also less lethal.

My husband didn’t come home to find me curled into the couch wailing. I didn’t throw things across the room in a rage and collapse on the floor. I didn’t yell and scream until my voice bled dry and faded into a shameful whisper whimpering that it hurt so much, so very much. I didn’t angrily grab the keys to the car charging into the night with the yells of my family behind me only to return hours later with bags from Walmart filled with cleaning supplies. I didn’t suspect that everyone was against me and judging me and talking about me behind my back. I didn’t devise grand plans and drag all the furniture out onto the lawn to strip and repaint it. I didn’t go on any shopping sprees for things I didn’t need or want. I didn’t sign up for a million things juggling them easily until the crash came and I found myself overwhelmed and unable to get out of bed.

I don’t miss those things.

But I do miss every nerve ending on high alert. I miss the words that used to traipse endlessly through my mind leaking easily onto pages, filling the gaps when I waited for my coffee to percolate or glanced out the window and caught sight of a sunset only to be flooded with a million metaphors for the way the sky melted together. I miss the abundance of words and the way notebooks would magically fill without any notice of my hand cramping. Every word felt inspired, holding the sparkling weight of firing synapses and neurotransmitters sloshing around like a cocktail awash with the drunken wobble and creativity of someone on a bender. I was drunk with passion. I miss the dazzle of the world and beauty everywhere. I miss the way the light looked in the morning, even after a night with no sleep. I miss the way strawberries tasted. I miss the meaning in everything, or being able to see it so clearly, like a secret world. I miss the bravado and the ferocity of wild dreams and untethered schemes.

I miss seeing the color orange as I once did. These days I go back and pull from my writing, my memories, and try to remember the world as I once experienced it. It’s more muted now. Calmer. There is less meaning in everything. The regularity of life has replaced the roller coaster. It feels more like a slow ferry ride, chugging steadily through thick and murky waters. There is a mundane element that I am learning to embrace, the ordinariness of chopping vegetables for stew. Walking the dog. Adding paper towels to the grocery list. The feel of my pillow beneath my head with no rambling thoughts to pull me from sleep and taunt me.

But there are sacrifices to surviving. I know this now. This disease costs you something whether you stay sick or you get well. Because who am I if I am not bipolar? What parts of my disease were a broken brain and what parts are me, the me I’ve always known?

When I look back pre-diagnosis, what parts were the fun Alia who danced with her arms flung out wide in the middle of a snowy parking lot as the sun rose? What parts were madness?

In those first months on my new medications, my brain wobbled unsteadily and my head ached, my eyes felt like they were replaying scenes a second too far behind. I would tilt my head and the world would slide lazily into place after it. I was dizzy and nauseous and cold. I gained even more weight. I cried when my pants wouldn’t button even though I had cut out sugar, and dairy, and grains and watched every mouthful suspiciously for the ways even the healthiest foods seemed to sabotage me. I forgot words and book plots and my hands shook when I tried to type. I hadn’t reached for my husband and was, in fact, surprised when he leaned over to kiss me and I realized I had no desire left. I hadn’t even realized it had gone. It was as if that womanly part of me that used to come alive under his touch had simply vanished as if it were never there to begin with. I started staying up late watching television in the living room and only going to sleep after he had long since started snoring. I pulled inward. I lost friendships. I didn’t know what to say anymore. I wasn’t sad so much as absent.

I couldn’t explain that I was both happy that I was getting better and also grieving all I had lost. 

I waited for my body to come back to me. I waited for my mind to feel familiar.

I wondered who I was now that the world was an even, if not unrecognizable, place.

I never knew how hard it was to grab hold of words and pull them to earth now that my mind felt insulated, swathed in fancy chemicals to keep the mania away.

Is my normal self boring? Is boring the greatest answer to those hollowed out prayers? After all the chaos, is boring its own salvation?

But still, even with the adjustments, I feel stupidly grateful that I am alive to struggle. That my kids get a mom who is there every day to help with algebra and read them stories and tell them to brush their teeth. That I can check the mail and buy ground beef and pay my electric bill. That I laugh at a funny rerun of The Office. That a weekend away with my husband reminds me of all we still have. That I am still a woman. 

I am relearning myself as ordinary. Just someone who takes her pills faithfully every night and sleeps a solid eight hours.

I am learning the rhythms of regularity without the cycles crashing down on me.

I put the bitter pill in my mouth and swallow it whole.

Originally posted on May 10, 2017.

Alia Joy
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