I had prepared a different talk for you, but then something happened this past Monday night. That talk was mainly a chronological telling of my own experiences with bipolar disorder from the age of about 14 until now. It was a linear narrative and illustrated a kind of eventual “success story”. That is to say, I was completely debilitated by bipolar disorder, anorexia, and bulimia nervosa up until as little as two years ago. Through the steadfast support of friends and family, a very good psychiatrist, the right combination of medication, and healthy lifestyle choices, I am now consistently content, professionally motivated and, dare I say it, quite often very happy.
On Monday night, however, I had a meltdown with my boyfriend, James, that made me realize my story must be adjusted if I am to illuminate my true experiences with the disorder, its impact on individuals close to me, and the ways in which the support of friends and family have been one of the most vital means of helping me to take control of the disease.
Before I tell this story, I’ll give you my brief personal history. An only child, I was born to older parents who are completely wonderful and completely eccentric. My mother is very clever at words and works in publishing; my father is very clever at numbers and is a Professor of Astrophysics. I always did well at school. Even though I was sensitive and prone to mood swings as a child and adolescent, I graduated top of my class in high school, was a member of the National Honors Society, editor of the yearbook, President of Amnesty International, blah, blah — you get it. In Fall, 2003, I entered the freshman class at Vassar College.
My bipolar disorder had been evolving throughout high school and I was becoming more prone to bouts of mania and depression. Yet because my outward scholastic performance was good, and I was sociable and had many friends, my increasingly irrational behavior was understandably put down to adolescent angst.
By the end of my sophomore year of college, however, there were weeks when I was sleeping as little as two hours a night, or sometimes not at all, obsessed with the idea of getting straight “As”, and losing great amounts of weight. I tumbled between intense manic highs and being swallowed by depressive lows.
Although I never experimented too widely with drugs, I found similar solace in anorectic restriction and bulimic purging. My health and mood disorder worsened during the next two years of college.
Somehow, however, through the support of wonderful friends and parents, and because I was scholastically obsessive, I graduated with honors in May, 2007. After graduation I moved back home and spent the next two turbulent years without purpose, nannying, waiting tables, bartending, dating a menagerie of men, and trying to distance myself from friends and family with whom I felt I could no longer relate.
In college I was in considerable denial about the severity of my disorders. Post-college, I made life choices to remain that way. Finally, because of the eating disorders, I became too physically ill to continue. Sick and scared I agreed to enter an intense outpatient treatment program in the Fall of 2008. Although my parents had wanted an intensive treatment plan for me in college, to be committed to it the choice had to be my own. This is when challenging and gradual upward change began to take place in my life.
Through treatment of my eating disorders, I was eventually forced to seriously address my bipolar disorder, and began slowly building a regiment of prescriptive medicines to help me control both the interconnected eating and mood disorders. This treatment provided a framework for my recovery, but it was the dedication of my parents and friends that provided the essential emotional foundation.
You see, living with bipolar disorder is often very lonely. In its worst phases I frequently felt completely detached from reality, seeing the world through a kind of Jessica monoscope. Although usually I am a compassionate person, when in a bipolar swing it is impossible to take into account the emotions or needs of others. During these episodes I am experiencing what can best be described as a completely dominating series of emotional explosions. Consequentially, something small can suddenly cause the rational mind and senses to go a kind of Pop! Pop! Pop! This surge is utterly overwhelming. A depressive low also consumes and debilitates, but feel less like flying sparks and more like a grinding numbness that makes you search for things to feel real and alive again: for some with bipolar disorder it is the sharp prick of a needle and the calming swell of a drug induced high, or long nights with liquor bottles. I sought the biting and strangely enlivening hunger of anorexia.
But let’s get back to Monday night. James and I had just decided to move in together, or rather, that I move in with him. We have radically different decorating styles. Mainly, he likes anything steel, straight, and black — blugh! And I like things that look like they haven’t been pulled off the Terminator. On Sunday, I went off to buy flowering pot plants to bring some life into my new living room, which we are now in debate as to how to jointly redecorate. I spent the evening arranging the plants around the room and went to bed satisfied that I had helped to enrich my boyfriend’s life with new and needed vibrant color. When I came home from work on Monday, the plants had been moved into tight clusters of three on the far corner of adjacent tables on either side of the room. Pop! Pop! Pop! I lost it.
I failed to see that in addition to moving the pot plants James had reorganized his bookcases to accommodate my books, had fixed the broken lamp, and had one of my favorite meals waiting on the stove.
Although clearly I am immeasurably better than I once was, on Monday I experienced the unreasonable and all-consuming swell of sudden, spiked, emotional deluge. I spun around the room, tossed down my bag, and said, “Frankly, I hate this! I can’t believe this! You just shoved all my plants in corners!” There was a brief pause and James tilted his head. “I put them closer to the windows so they could get more light, sweetheart,” he replied. I now felt close to tears and shrieked, “Do you even want me living here?!”
James did what James does best when I still sporadically have these emotional episodes, and what my parents, once they learned more about the disease, could do so well when these moments were far more frequent, lengthier, and more intense. He looked me in the eyes, did not overreact, and stayed present with me in the moment.
“Yes. I want you to live with me, very much so.” He spoke calmly, somehow willing to validate my unanticipated emotional reaction. “And we can always put the plants back.”
For numerous reasons—anxiety about living with him, fear of the relationship’s potential failure, the day’s fatigue—I blew my proverbial gasket. That sudden, familiar irrational ache, that isolation I used to feel so intensely took momentary hold. But most importantly, and this is why its hold was only temporary, there was someone sitting right next to me quietly and patiently waiting for me to gather myself whole again. Even though I was being absurd, James is almost always able to separate these brief bipolar episodes from who I am as a more complex, comprehensive individual. He does not make me feel I am my disease. And so I did, I could, moments later, return back to James, the room, and to rationale. I could see I was being silly.
He laughed tenderly and called me a “nutty bunny”, and most importantly, he did not judge me. He trusted that I would, and could, emotionally and cognizantly spring back to him. There is great and contagious strength in this love and conviction.
We did put the plants back and I apologized. “Yes, “ he said. “You overacted, now let’s have some dinner”.