Blessed with Bipolar

By Kerry Neville 10/17/17

I’m working on staying upright, not yielding to the dark, annihilating voice that wakes me at 4 a.m. trying to persuade me that I am empty and done and a failure.

A woman sitting on a road, looking at clouds and sky.
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

I'm alive and that’s a blessing. I have Bipolar Disorder.

I have often been an immense burden on my family and friends in times of deep suffering. Over five years, I was in and out of the psych ward and inpatient eating disorder treatment programs twenty times. Some might say I was locked up longer than I was free. My children sent me crayoned drawings and visited me in barren community rooms where they tried to get me to smile, tickling my side with their tiny fingers or kissing my cheek.

I have been on almost every medication—anti-depressants, antipsychotics, atypical antipsychotics—and none of them worked. I went through 25 rounds of electroconvulsive treatment (“electric shock”) that failed to diminish my empty, black depression, but did wipe out ten years of memories, some terrible (waking up in the ER, strapped down, after a deliberate overdose) and some cherished (my children singing, drawing, dancing, whispering to me, growing up and away inside all those years). A priest even performed an exorcism in my little locked room. How hopeless can you get to believe in the power of hokey pokey-demon-be-gone-claptrap?

Most days, I knew exactly how much of a burden I was on family and friends. My ex-husband once told me, “Your misery is exhausting.” Even my long-term therapist dropped me due to my suicidal instability. At the very end, my psychiatrist sat me down in a small, narrow office. Between us on the desk was my file, thick with charts and admissions and diagnoses and medication lists and my failures. “You are too extreme a case,” he said. “You are a hopeless case.”

He didn’t have to tell me this because I already believed in my hopelessness. My arms were covered in scars from decades of self-injury. I’d been trying to die in one way or another—jumping in a frozen lake, overdosing on alcohol and medications, swimming out to sea in the middle of the night, starving myself to the point of heart problems, having to be locked inside of a car while my ex-husband drove around Manhattan for two hours until I fell asleep because I was determined to jump off a bridge, any bridge. And passively: hoping to be slammed by a car, to skid off icy roads into trees, and researching how to poison myself via carbon monoxide and a hose and plastic bags over my head.

How could anyone love me like that? How could I ever love me like that?

Here’s how: These days, I prefer to think of Bipolar Disorder as a “condition” rather than an “illness” because (1) “illness” suggests ongoing dissipation, hollow-eyed, marginal stability; (2) “condition” suggests an achievable management of symptoms; (3) in my mind, anyway, “illness” summons pity and shame, and “condition” more an optimal, practiced functioning—like Crossfit and how it maintains and develops strength and balance. I’m working on staying upright, not yielding to the dark, annihilating voice that wakes me at 4 a.m. trying to persuade me that I am empty and done and a failure, and really, truly, Kerry, not interesting to anyone or loved by anyone; okay, your kids maybe but that’s genetically foreordained, and besides, you let them watch a lot of Dr. Who and buy them Burger King chocolate shakes.

But here’s the difference between having a condition and being actively ill. Seven years ago, I would have been drinking or cutting those dark thoughts away, would have been actively planning my exit, would have been unable to slow down for a walk with friends (or speed up, if running all out would help squash the voice), would have been once again locked in the quiet room at the psych hospital. I was admitted so many times, and for so long, that the staff knew me by name, and always looked at me with tender if pessimistic concern: I was the manic woman who walked thousands of laps around the halls, refused food and conversation, and prayed every night that I wouldn’t wake up because my kids and husband would be better off without a mad, mad momma.

Shame. The core emotion that ran my life, twisting thoughts and feelings in a Gordian knot. All the things I was losing because of this illness. My beloved job that helped me be who I was meant to be, which was helping students find their most authentic and intellectually ambitious selves. My now ex-husband never able to look at me in the same way again (how could he, after seeing me strapped down in the ICU, arms hacked up by the Devil of Depression?) My children lost trust in me because of my vacillations between silence and rage, and leaving them for one hospital after another. My friends and family tried to help in so many generous, selfless ways, but I turned my back on them in favor of the illness’s demands: drink, disappear, die.

All that’s almost seven years ago. And thanks (not really) to almost 25 rounds of ECT treatment, I can’t remember much of it. My hard drive wiped clean. Ten years of my recollected past, which creates identity after all, is gone—I have to ask other people about my life, about the places I don’t remember travelling to, the readings I’ve given, books I’ve read, awards received, and most devastating, what my children were like when they were little. Photos fill in the gaps, but the emotional resonance is often gone. And writing! The imagination relies on memory, drawing on existing knowledge and experience to create new ideas, new descriptions, new characters. I am wed to a thesaurus and a screen that is often blank, throbbing in disappointed frustration.

Most of what I recollect about my years of active illness are in my journals from that time. I reread entries every few months now in order to believe that I was as ill and out of control as people remember—that what was then “illness” is now just a “condition.” The only visceral indication I have about those years is a churning pit of dread that I carry with me, a ball python coiled in the gut that bites down when I get complacent. But now, I rely on my healthier, “conditioned voice”: Calm down, deep breath, think happy thoughts, and no, this isn’t the time to go off your Lithium. So much of what has happened since my last hospitalization seven years ago—divorce, my ex’s affair come to light, living on my own for the first time and half that time without my kids, a seemingly impossible job search—all of this could have sent me back down the rabbit hole. Because yes, mental illness was fuzzy and safe, despite the cut-up arms and overdoses and hospitalizations. Giving in to all the insane impulses meant I didn’t have to try to live anymore, didn’t have to love myself anymore—I could check out of myself. (It was why I loved the moment when I was going under on Propofol for ECT—a little death each time.)

But because of that forgetting, I also get to relearn how beautiful my children are, how supportive my friends and family are, how much I am loved, and how loving I am.

How could anyone love me like that?

My family and friends did, continuing to love me through all of the misery and pain. Not all of them, because I was a burden and difficult to love having no love to give back at the time, and that’s okay. We meet each other where we are in this life, with our best capacities for love and forgiveness and acceptance at that moment.

But I know this in certainty: I am a blessing. I have come out on the other side because I learned to hope again, to feel joy, to accept the necessary pain that leads to joy. I don’t have to die to be well. I will never, technically, be well: bipolar disorder is maintained but not cured. And the maintenance? Interrogating despair and knowing when I need to be reminded, over and over, by those who see and know me that it will pass. Falling into bliss and rolling around in its ecstasy but knowing when it might be mania, and stepping back. With the love and support of family and friends and my own kick-ass will to live, I am HERE, ALIVE, still have BIPOLAR DISORDER, but I am THRIVING.

I am a blessing, a benediction of grace and hope and impossible possibility. As are you.

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Kerry Neville was raised on Long Island, New York and now lives in Georgia where she teaches at Georgia College and State University. She is the author of two collections of short fiction, Remember to Forget Me and Necessary Lies, which received the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in various journals, including The Gettysburg ReviewEpoch, and TriQuarterly, and online in publications such as The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and The Fix. Follow Kerry on Twitter and LinkedIn.