I’m standing at the oversized glass window, overlooking the city of New Haven, and I’m trapped inside. Freedom, up until this point in my life, is something I’ve taken for granted. I don’t have my computer, I don’t have my phone, but I do have some coloring books and a plastic wrist band that says my name and birthdate. I don’t have a razor to shave my legs unless I’m being supervised and I cannot use my hair straightener. The only door to the outside has big, red, angry letters on it that state that anyone who exits this door without permission is considered AWOL. I’m fifteen years old and I’m locked in the adolescent psychiatric ward at Yale New Haven Hospital.
The weeks and months leading up to my stay at YPI were a blur. I was completely out of control and had no idea. I was misdiagnosed with depression sometime prior in my early teens, and that was a big mistake. They put me on antidepressants, which was an even bigger mistake. Because what nobody took the time to figure out back then was that I was Bipolar, textbook Bipolar, and how my team missed that is still a mystery to me and my family. Maybe it’s because I was a teenager and the mood swings were attributed to hormones. Maybe it’s because I was only spending an hour a week in therapy and as a young teen I was unable to communicate my feelings properly. Regardless, I was Bipolar and on antidepressants with no mood stabilizer. And that, if you didn’t know, is a recipe for disaster.
There’s a fine balancing act that has to be done when medicating a Bipolar individual. There has to be some kind of mood stabilizer or even an antipsychotic acting as a mood stabilizer on board in order to safely utilize antidepressants. Without a mood stabilizing medication, the antidepressants can almost work “too well”, taking someone so far out of depression that it swings them the other way into a full blown manic episode. And that, my friends, is exactly what happened to fifteen year old me on that brisk spring day during my sophomore year of high school.
I had what amounted to a psychotic break, totally disconnected from reality. I lost track of space and time. I no longer understood the difference between right and wrong. I couldn’t properly weigh consequences. I had no fear. Ultimately, I called myself out of school pretending to be my mother, and stole her car while she was away on a business trip. Ultimately, I got in a car accident and someone crashed into me, bringing my joyride and mental health high to an abrupt stop.
My parents were at a loss. They didn’t know what to do with me, but simply grounding me and screaming at me just didn’t seem like the right course of action, thankfully. I was already in therapy, and I was already medicated. I was presenting as delusional, detached, and my behavior was extremely risky.
I’ll never forget when they admitted me, and came to take my clothes and personal belongings. It was the first time I was ever admitted to the psych ward, but it wouldn’t be the last. Managing Bipolar I is like riding a bucking bull that you never know when someone is going to put a quarter in it and when it’s going to stop or start flailing you around. You’ve got to hold on as tight as you can, but sometimes, no matter how hard you hold on, you still get bucked off. And that’s okay. You find yourself on a high, the world in your hands, everything going great until suddenly everything is moving too fast and you can’t keep up and the world keeps spinning and you just need it to slow down. Then it all gets really slow. So slow that it might even be moving backwards. You’re moving backwards. The only place you’re going is nowhere.
Living with Bipolar I throughout my addiction has made a challenging situation even more difficult, but I wouldn’t change it. My mind is my best asset, my most defining characteristic, my best friend in this world. I take the good with the bad, the highs with the lows, because there is no other option.
A few years ago, the medication that saved my life from the day I got admitted to YPI, lithium, started to destroy my kidneys. A small percentage of people who take lithium develop Chronic Kidney Disease, and that’s what happened to me. It brought me back to that day in the psych ward, standing behind that glass window, looking out at the world. Do I want to be in it? Absolutely. So we try something new.
For the past few years, I’ve been juggling different medications trying to replace the lithium that I loved so dearly and that saved my life all those years ago. It’s been going surprisingly well, and I’ve been able to stay out of the hospital and haven’t had any major episodes despite the medication changes.
Taking good care of my mental health is freedom for me. When I don’t do that, I become a prisoner again. I may not be locked in the hospital, but I’m locked inside a place in my head that feels just as tight, just as constricted, and just as unpleasant. I’m standing behind that same glass window, looking out at the world that I’m not participating in. That’s why self care is so important, especially for those of us who have a substance use disorder on top of a mental health condition.
Today, on National Bipolar Awareness Day, I’m here to remind you that we exist.
We walk among you. We are your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Please be gentle with us and handle us with a little bit of care. While I may not be trapped behind that glass window today, it’s still there in a way. Society kind of represents that window where I can see the rest of the world out there, functioning, and I just desperately want to be a part of it but I don’t always know how or have the tools to participate in life the way I wish I could.
Standing at that glass window, I see my mom’s car park in the lot and I know I’m going home today. It’s Easter Sunday. I’m not religious, but I understand the symbolism. Rebirth, renewal, starting over. I walk out of the hospital into the crisp, spring air and feel the sun peeking out behind the clouds. I knew in that moment that I would be okay. And today, I’m okay. Just for today.
©Copyright 2019 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin