“Did you eat anything yet today?”
“Have you taken your medications?”
“How much sleep did you get last night?”
“How many glasses of water have you consumed?”
“Did you accomplish your personal goals?”
“Mood scale (1-10) currently?”
41.8437° N, 71.3802° W Providence, Rhode Island
I didn’t drive myself to Butler until my third day of Intensive Outpatient, and until that point, I had never driven myself to a hospital. It wasn’t a choice: most of my visits to hospitals were frantic, and I’d never been in a state to drive. If I’m bad enough to go to the Emergency Room, then I’m not well enough to get myself there.
Now the doctor had returned my license, which had been revoked for safety reasons, but I was nervous, and so was my mother, about me driving to the program alone for the first time. Thus far every morning, the second that she put the car in park behind the grand, red-brick building, I would emerge from the car just to run to the nearest bush to vomit the half granola bar and a quarter cup of milk out from my system.
My mom didn’t like seeing me that way, and in fact never had seen me that way until I had to take a medical leave from college in my junior year. I suppose we can chalk that up to my self-destructive acting skills.
So then, I was driving the 30 minutes to Butler’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Providence, Rhode Island, and I was nervous as hell. I hadn’t driven in weeks, and my anxiety over the destination was enough to send me over the edge. I hated the hospital and was tired of it. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to be a freak, a crazy person taking pills as the sun rises and sets. Being in this program was a sign that I was a little less than normal. I was tired of pretending, though, so I knew that I needed to find a way to get better. But at that point, I didn’t realize how big of a task that was going to be. Now I know that I am going to spend the rest of my life devoted to my mental health, but I’ll get to that later.
The desire to drive on to a better destination was strong, so I turned off the radio, which was playing some pop song I didn’t care about. I figured focusing solely on driving would help.
I DIDN’T WANT TO BE THERE ANYMORE. I DIDN’T WANT TO BE A FREAK, A CRAZY PERSON TAKING PILLS AS THE SUN RISES AND SETS. BEING IN THIS PROGRAM WAS A SIGN THAT I WAS A LITTLE LESS THAN NORMAL.
I took a sharp right turn down the winding road plagued with potholes, which had to be a metaphor of some kind, and made it to Lot C. I got out of my car and dry-heaved immediately. There was nothing to get rid of because I hadn’t been able to stomach even a sip of water that morning. I hadn’t taken my medication yet either because I was in the habit of waiting until someone forced me to take it, and without my mother’s supervision that day, I had some time before about a dozen other individuals took her place.
That was my life during that time. I behaved like a child so that I would be treated like one. No one ever said that to me, but that is how I felt. Constant supervision was getting to me, so being able to hit the road by myself felt immensely gratifying, despite the pain that it caused me. Being alone was a rarity those days, so I held on to every moment I could. Unfortunately, that was when the monsters would come out to play.
I sit listening to the various other members of my group ramble on about their lives. I learned a lot just by listening. I knew the questions by heart by my second day because we did check-ins continuously in small groups to track our progress hour-to-hour.
That’s the challenge of severe depression and other mental health disorders. At this level of care, it’s about making it through each moment of the day. It’s not a question of days or months but rather minute-to-minute. Nothing else matters but survival and making it to the next second. This dictates your every action, but the biggest fear is no action at all. That’s why we set these goals, hoping that it will help to do little things, like drink a cup of water, which at times can feel impossible. Those are the worst days.
I sometimes wonder how many days I’ve gone without water. Even now, I have to keep track and at times force myself to head to the kitchen and do the simplest human task there is.
IT’S ABOUT MAKING IT THROUGH EACH MOMENT OF THE DAY. IT’S NOT A QUESTION OF DAYS OR MONTHS BUT RATHER MINUTE-TO-MINUTE. NOTHING ELSE MATTERS BUT SURVIVAL AND MAKING IT TO THE NEXT SECOND.
When it’s my turn, my counselor hopes that my answers will be anything but a variation of “no,” but I rarely have anything else to say to her, especially in front of all of these other nut cases. The counselor is petite and older, but the type of older that leaves me uncertain of her actual age. She could be 45 or she could be 62, I don’t really know, but I do know that there was something about her that made me feel like I was in the presence of my grandma. By this, I mean that she’d bake cookies for you while lecturing on why saying “Jesus” out of turn is such a bad thing. It was the type of presence that made me tense, despite the warmth. I liked her, though I don’t know why because at that time I didn’t like anyone like her in my life. I was hostile about being in the program. I was tired of being observed every hour of the day. I wanted people to simply leave me alone.
I rarely smiled at Butler Hospital, but when I did, it was in her presence.
She was always relieved that I would rate my mood with a number higher than five, but she also understood that it’s because I knew what anything below five felt like and I saved those ratings for those low moments. Those moments were the days that got me stuck in the hospital in the first place. There were a lot of people like that in this program.
“I would like you to take a test for Bipolar Disorder this afternoon. It’s all set up,” my psychiatrist said without an ounce of hesitation. We sat, chairs facing each other, forcing conversation.
“Ok,” I responded.
“I’m going to start you on a new medication regime starting right now where we add a mood stabilizer, which is used for those exhibiting trends of Manic Depression.”
“Do you have any questions right now?”
I’m sure the conversation was a little more nuanced than that, but I remember very little about the time that I spent in the psychiatrist’s office. My feelings and memories were dulled by pills and anxiety. In my mind, I was a robot, trying to get away with being human.
She walked me down to the pharmacy in the psych ward holding tiny, magic pills for all of the crazies that walked these halls. I’m sure it was only stocked with anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, and the like. Xanax was prescribed to many people in this program if that helps to paint a clear picture of the energy. I went there once or twice a day. It was scary, not in a dark way, but in a happy fake way.
I couldn’t help but hesitate as the nurses handed me another set of colorful pills and a small glass of water. Today, I didn’t even want the water.
Everyone in the program was assigned to a doctor who would visit with you throughout the day privately to talk and try to stabilize you with medication. I talked to her a little, but I was upset that she was assigned as my doctor. She was a children’s psychiatrist, which I knew because I had to walk ten minutes to relocate to the children’s section of the psychiatric ward whenever she wanted to meet with me. I felt ridiculous as a twenty-year-old surrounded by toys, which she often suggested I take with me to help with my fidgeting. It was just another reminder of where I was in my life. The fidgeting was getting worse, but I wasn’t sure if I was getting better.
MY FEELINGS AND MEMORIES WERE DULLED BY PILLS AND ANXIETY. IN MY MIND, I WAS A ROBOT, TRYING TO GET AWAY WITH BEING HUMAN.
I talked to her a little; at least enough for her to come to the conclusion that I am Bipolar. I guess she was able to get to know me better than I realized. I took the test for Manic Depression on my second-to-last day at Butler Hospital. I didn’t know for sure until a month later.
Bipolar II, exhibiting trends of manic depression. Two hypomanic episodes lasting over three weeks each. Clear tendency towards depressive swings. Currently classified as severely depressed, but stable. Making progress but requires weekly care from both a psychiatrist and a therapist. In her parents’ care. Follow-up is unnecessary.
I was free, but I didn’t know that the rest of my life I would be shackled down by this diagnosis of Bipolar II. The good is that I have a choice in how strong those chains really are. I also can control how strong I am as well.
44°50′27″N 67°0′56″W Lubec, ME
Within days of completing full-time hospital care, I wanted to hit the road. It was a frantic desire, a side effect of the disease and the medication. I needed to see something different and new, and I had the time. In fact, I had nothing but time. I was in the middle of the spring semester of what should have been my junior year at Saint Michael’s College had my life worked out the way that I planned. My plans for life fell apart as I did, but I now know that is what change is.
I realized after leaving that I wouldn’t have survived if I had stayed.
I didn’t have a job and wasn’t really doing anything anymore, and this was true for the first time in my life. I had time to be by myself without the pressures of reality. The only reality that I had to face was my mental health. It was strange at first, and I was fortunate to have that luxury. It forced me to focus on myself for a bit and taught me how to make self-care a priority in my life.
As much as I wanted to hit the road for a big cross-country adventure, this was not an option: the pain of the previous few months was still fresh. Still, I knew I needed to do something, anything, as I felt that I was losing my mind while stuck in my parents’ home with seemingly nothing to do. My parents and I settled on waiting a few weeks to see how things went and then we would discuss a small road trip. I played the game, waiting, on my best behavior, and after the time had passed and I had proved that I was doing much better, they agreed that I could visit Christine.
I WILL SPEND HOURS, BETTER USED FOR ALMOST ANYTHING ELSE, RESEARCHING NEW LOCATIONS TO EXPLORE. THESE PLACES BECOME EVERYTHING TO ME, AND WHEN I AM MANIC, I AM NOT SATISFIED UNTIL I DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
Christine was a close friend, my first friend from Saint Michael’s College. We met before starting college when we backpacked through some of Vermont’s finest trails during the Wilderness Orientation Weekend. When we first met, I didn’t realize how big of a role she would play in my life, serving as roommate, confidante, and sister. She was and still is one of my greatest friends.
It was through both of us struggling more than we ever imagined that we realized how important we each are to each other and that we have similar paths. One of these paths was taking time off from college during the same semester. We both decided that we needed to take a medical leave and it was during this time off that we did some major self-discovery. We were fortunate enough to do some of the fun, and not so fun, stuff together.
West Quoddy Head is marked by a lighthouse known simply as the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. I needed to see that lighthouse. I had a car, and I could do this.
I had read in an old National Geographic about a small town in Maine that intrigued me from the start, and the hypomanic side of me couldn’t get over it. Lubec, ME, is the easternmost point in the continental United States. This means that it is the first place in the United States to see the sunrise. This was incredibly interesting to me. I had become obsessed with this place and wanted to be the first to greet the morning sun at least once in my life. I had to drive, and I wanted to do it now.
I love places where I have never been, and I will obsess over these places for days and weeks at a time. I will spend hours, better used for almost anything else, researching new locations to explore. These places become everything to me, and when I am manic, I am not satisfied until I do something about it.
This leads to sleepless nights where I can’t turn off my brain repeating sentences, phrases, or even paragraphs that I have read about these places. I repeat them like the robot that I am sometimes, hoping that maybe it will all become a reality if I obsess over it long enough.
I wanted to see Lubec, and I wouldn’t stop thinking about it until I was in Maine.
Christine understood this desire within me. Christine was the perfect partner in crime for my crazy urges to travel, see new things, and spend money I barely have. She tells me often that she learned spontaneity through me and I appreciate that more than she will ever know. She always made me feel good about the things that I struggled with the most.
WHEN I’M HYPOMANIC, I FEEL COMPLETELY DETACHED FROM SOME OF MY SENSES. IT’S ALMOST AS IF PARTS OF ME NEED ENERGY TO OPERATE AT SUCH AN EXTREME LEVEL THAT THEY STEAL FROM OTHER PARTS OF ME.
I told my parents I would be staying at Christine’s house in Westford, MA, for a night. I knew myself enough not to make the trip to Maine alone, so I went to her home to pick her up. I knew that a lot could happen if I had seven hours on the road to think by myself, not to mention, seven more hours for the return trip. The concerns from the doctors and my parents were rational, and I needed to be a little responsible. There had to have been a reason that they took my car and license from me. There had to be a reason that I had been under supervision for months at this point. I needed not to be alone.
We drove through the night with me doing most of the talking and Christine doing most of the listening. It was often this way: one person listening while the other rambles on about whatever comes to mind.
Hypomania leads to a lot of talking because at times it seems to be the only way to think. As someone who diagnosed with Bipolar II, the primary identifier is hypomanic episodes. These are less extreme than the manic phases of Bipolar I. The differences are quite major as hypomania is much more manageable and involves less risky behaviors. It often appears simply like high energy. I could have had two cups of coffee instead of one and seem a little chatty to the naked eye. The problem is that this is a sustained energy that can last weeks because chemicals inside are all out of whack. Then, when I don’t feel stable, I make reckless decisions that inhibit my health even more, such as not taking my meds. It can be a vicious cycle but also leaves me hopeful that smarter decisions can have better effects on my mental health. As simple as that seems, it has proven to be more of a process to figure out than I would have hoped.
Since my brain doesn’t operate at that hypomanic pace normally, most times I can’t keep up with my words. They tend to flow together, and suddenly I have to stop because I can’t remember where I am or what I am doing. It’s like an information overload, and it can be scary, feeling like it fries my brain. “What was I talking about?” is a common phrase when I get this way. Or, it can be more extreme. There is an entire spectrum of mania, and there are a lot of experiences that I have yet to encounter in this world.
Sometimes, I’m firing on all cylinders. Everything can be perfect when I’m hypomanic, but that’s what is so overwhelming about hypomania. It feels good, so I have a hard time working against it, but nothing truly good ever comes of the time spent in a hypomanic episode. I might clean the entire house in an hour, but nothing is in the right place. I can’t remember where I put my toothbrush, and then I find it in the freezer. It’s like being drunk. It might be fun at first, but it sure as hell isn’t good for you. This is something that I’ve heard from many people who experience, or work with people who experience manic-depressive episodes. Tonight, things were okay; I just had a lot to think about.
I smoked one cigarette each hour to keep myself occupied, hoping that I would stop obsessing so much.
As the darkness of the night took over, we realized this journey was pointless and driven by nothing but desire to see a new place. Well, Christine realized this, I merely agreed with her. This was when I realized how important place is to me. I feel secure in some environments and unsteady in others; learning how to read these changes and reacting in appropriate ways has become a coping mechanism when I am in an insecure place, internally or externally. Meditating on the goodness of a place that I know or have imagined makes me feel a sense of security.
We arrived in Lubec with little to no gas and no one to be seen. The last hour had been nerve-wracking as the gas gauge continued to approach empty. We parked at a gas station just to be safe to sleep for a few hours; although it seemed that the second that we decided to sleep, we realized how much we had to talk about. Or, maybe that was just true for me. Finally, we set an alarm for 4:30 AM, which would give us plenty of time to fill up the gas tank and make it to the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse before the sunrise, but not nearly enough time to get some rest.
MEDITATING ON THE GOODNESS OF A PLACE THAT I KNOW OR HAVE IMAGINED MAKES ME FEEL A SENSE OF SECURITY.
The unpaved road leading to the lighthouse was lined with dirty, brown snow and for some reason, I was reminded that it’s winter in northern Maine, and we could have died sleeping in the car.
“Was it cold last night?”
“Extremely! But I didn’t want to say anything.”
When I’m hypomanic, I feel completely detached from some of my senses. It’s almost as if parts of me need energy to operate at such an extreme level that they steal from other parts of me. When I’m hypomanic, I might not realize that it’s dangerously cold. Fortunately, it was a mild winter night comparatively, and we weren’t resting without heat for very long.
We park the car as the first signs of light begin to peak over the horizon. The timing is ideal as the sun starts to emerge over the Canadian coast on the other side of the water. The small town that was previously blanketed in darkness is now coming to light. The West Quoddy Head Lighthouse stands tall with perfect red and white spiral stripes, vivid against the gentle morning glow that is growing with intensity as each second passes. Frosty waves bang up against the rock-lined coast, and we allow the mist being carried through the wind to graze our cheeks. It certainly is cold.
The sunrise happens quickly, and when we feel that the day has officially started, we explore the area. We follow a few paths leading to cliffs that we decide to abandon as the icy trails become too much. We really aren’t prepared for this journey.
For the first time, I am quiet and notice that everything around me is quiet too. An hour passes, or maybe less before we decide just to turn around and do the drive home again.
There were very few times at Butler that I decided to talk without being addressed directly. We had times throughout the day when we worked with specialists one-on-one, and I was forced to talk during those meetings. But in group, which was the majority of the day, I stayed silent. I preferred it that way, and I felt safer keeping my thoughts to myself. I would spend time writing in my journal and reading when we had free time. I didn’t have much to say to anyone there.
THIS MADE FOR AN INTERESTING MIX WHERE ANXIOUS AMY WOULD START HAVING A PANIC ATTACK AS ANGRY ALAN IS RANTING ABOUT ROAD RAGE. IT WAS SIMPLY A MIX OF PEOPLE CONSTANTLY TRIGGERING EACH OTHER, SO I KEPT QUIET.
From time to time my group members would start a conversation over the Sip N’ Dip coffee I was drinking or what book I was reading today. I would be nice enough, but I didn’t feel like myself. The good thing was everyone pretty much understood that everyone else had a lot going on. No one was offended if you would just say “hi” and go back to reading or writing. I could hide away as much as I wanted.
The day at Butler was primarily spent in small groups with roughly a dozen other individuals who were there for whatever reason. I spent my time piecing together their lives instead of focusing on my own. I wrote stories about others and tried to come up with all of the reasons why people said and did things. To this day, it is still one of my favorite things to do. Most people fell into one of three groups: the angry, the depressed, and the anxious. This made for an interesting mix where Anxious Amy would start having a panic attack as Angry Alan is ranting about road rage. It was simply a mix of people constantly triggering each other, so I kept quiet.
It was easier keeping my thoughts to myself, and that was something that I was accustomed to. I’d rather just listen most of the time anyway.
It wasn’t until Sensory Skills Class where I felt called to speak on my own. I was playing with a small toy, something that we had discussed in the class and that my psychiatrist was super into me using when something happened. I raised my hand. It was more shocking to me than it was for the rest of the class, although I could see that they were surprised. As my hand shot into the sky, I started to feel everyone looking at me. The room seemed to go silent and I, of course, forgot what I was going to say.
“Never mind.” I blushed as everyone waited for me to say something.
I could have said anything at that point. It was a simple group focused on how different sensations can affect our mood. I could have said anything, but I didn’t.
34°51′36″N 111°47′21″W Sedona, Arizona
I never really knew my mom until we went to Arizona together. That’s not to say that I didn’t know much about her, but it was on this journey that I was able to connect with her for the first time in my life. I was able to be honest, and she was as well. I’m not sure if she really knows that.
There was no acting in Arizona.
“Well, why don’t we take a trip to Arizona together? We can go to the Grand Canyon and wherever else you would like, within reason.”
“Yes. I want you to see the Grand Canyon, and I want to do it with you.”
That was one of the first times that I cried in front of my mom, outside of the infant and toddler stages. I had recently told her about my obsession with Arizona and the Grand Canyon, and how I had spent weeks, or even months, thinking about this place that I needed desperately. Arizona is how I mark my first hypomanic episode: not the trip itself but the months leading up to it. My first hypomanic episode was consumed with thoughts of traveling west, leading to me even getting in the car to drive there from Saint Michael's College in Northern Vermont, every night for three weeks straight. I never made it far, but I still tried again and again to go west. I hated that I wanted something that at the time felt so unattainable. Now my mom was making it possible for me to be in the place that I needed to be.
I spent the rest of my weeks until the trip reading and planning. I was beyond excited to see this journey come to fruition. We would fly from Providence to Phoenix, where we would pick up a rental car to drive from Phoenix to Sedona, and to the Grand Canyon. It was a full tour of the state, driving north to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and back down again.
WE STOPPED FOR NATURE APPRECIATION MOMENTS REGULARLY AND AVOIDED BEING RUN OVER BY ADVENTURERS FAR MORE ADVANCED... I WAS A FEW PACES AHEAD OF MY MOTHER WHEN I WAS OVERWHELMED WITH THOSE FAMILIAR FEELINGS OF DEPRESSION.
We arrived in Phoenix late in the evening and picked up the rental car. After a night in a cheesy motel, we were on the road to Sedona.
Sedona, Arizona is known for red sandstone formations that surround the small town. One of the larger attractions, Cathedral Rock, can be reached either by a five-mile hike from the nearest post or on a Pink Jeep tour.
I knew from the start that I had to see Cathedral Rock, and I had to make it there without the embarrassing help of a pink vehicle, whether my mom liked it or not. She was surprisingly on board. We walked along the desert trails moving through natural wildlife that I had never seen before, mostly in the form of cacti. I was in love.
We walked and talked about simple things. We stopped for nature appreciation moments regularly and avoided being run over by adventurers far more advanced, biking quickly through the twists and turns. I was a few paces ahead of my mother when I was overwhelmed with those familiar feelings of depression.
I hated myself and everything around me, and this feeling was becoming more and more crushing as I was surrounded by the one thing that I had pursued for months. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t. If I couldn’t be happy in the one place that I was so enchanted by, then how could I ever be happy? I started to cry, relieved that I was a few paces ahead of my mom so that she couldn’t see. But then, I just turned around.
Tears streamed down my face as my mom looked at me with a mirrored sadness.
“I just can’t do this anymore. I hate my life, and I hate myself and the entire world is crashing down around me, and there is nothing that I can do about it. I’m upset, and I don’t want to be upset. We are in the most beautiful place in the world, and all I want to do is sleep. I hate this, and I hate everything, and I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry for feeling sad even though you are in a happy place. You are allowed to feel things that don’t make sense, Kristen,” my mom said calmly with tears in her eyes as well.
The rest of the conversation was another blur as we decided to sit on a large flat rock, perfectly positioned next to a small stream. A rare sighting of water in the desert. This had to be another metaphor.
We talked for an hour or so, and I just ranted. I left everything on that rock, feelings that I hadn’t been able to describe to my mom up until that point, feelings that I didn’t understand myself. It could have been nonsense, but it felt good, to be honest. I took a loose piece of red sandstone with me from that resting place as a reminder that I am not alone, and that is a good thing.
“YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE SORRY FOR FEELING SAD EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE IN A HAPPY PLACE. YOU ARE ALLOWED TO FEEL THINGS THAT DON’T MAKE SENSE, KRISTEN...”
I hated that I felt sadness even when the circumstance didn’t call for that, and my mom tried to teach me to love that about myself. I’m still working on it, but self-love can take time.
Later that afternoon, I took a nap. I slept away my sadness as I had done many times before. I closed the curtains, and for a little while, I allowed myself to be sad. I didn’t hate myself for anything at that moment.
“I talked to Lydia at the front desk, and I know the perfect place for the sunset. We don’t even have to leave the car if you don’t want to!”
My mom smiled, and I smiled, and we left for the airport overlook to watch the sun set over the red and orange rocks, accentuating their vibrancy and leaving me wondering if I would ever be normal.
As I sit in my apartment and drink my glass of water, I laugh that I can do it with such ease. I am not crying as I force the eight ounces down my throat just to say that I did something to make sure that I am surviving. I’m just drinking water because I like myself and water is good for you. It’s also delicious. It seems so simple, but when the monsters come out to play, it’s not the easiest thing to do.
The monsters want to you silence yourself and live in fear. They want you to be afraid of being yourself, and this leads to hiding. The monsters make a young girl hide in fear of judgment and cower when she raises her hand in a group that is simply there to support her. The monster was me, and it made me afraid of myself, afraid to think, and afraid to just be.
This monster is a metaphor, just like potholes in the road to a psych ward, or water running through the desert in a tiny stream. They represent things that are hard to understand, so we paint pretty pictures with our words and with our thoughts, and sometimes they are good and sometimes they are bad. Sometimes water represents life, and sometimes it represents death. Today, it represents life, and I will hold onto that feeling for as long as I can. But if it ever comes to be a sign of darkness, which I’m sure it will again eventually, I’ll be carrying a flashlight, and I won’t be afraid to say, “Help.”