In a dark movie theater, I have scribbled, filling the back of a candy box (the only thing I had to write on) with ideas for what I believed was a brilliant “rock opera.” I have “flown” on the top of a Jeep, one hand holding the roll bar and the other arm stretched out, wing-like, as it barreled down the highway at seventy miles per hour. This is what mania, with psychotic features, looked like for me. And...there is another side of what I experienced with the mental health condition of bipolar 1 disorder.
As the alarm awakens me, my stomach clenches, nauseous from fear and dread.
I force myself out of bed. I make it to the kitchen. My body is half frozen and hunched over, feet shuffling. After fixing a bowl of oatmeal and eating half of it, I return to my bedroom and bury my body under the covers. My cocoon. The only place I feel safe.
The alarm kicks on again. A gut-punch of fear. The nightmare is there, waiting. Gazing at me once again. It’s five hours later. Time to eat lunch. No appetite. I am now one hundred and fifty pounds. A six-foot skeleton repeating itself in every reflection.
I sit in my car for several minutes. With everything I have, I open the door, walk across the parking lot, looking downward as I pass the onrush of students. Being in the world, among others, I am in constant “flight” reaction. Random jolts of adrenaline shocking my body. I stand in front of a class and halfway through a lesson a student asks, “Don’t you like teaching?” Another student: “Yeah, your voice is just monotone and you never smile.” I am crushed. What has become of me? A teacher of the year. A leader. Now, an alien to everyone around me. My students. My friends. My family. Myself, most of all.
I am back at home, lying beside my wife and sobbing uncontrollably. I can’t stop. My body shudders violently. I continue sobbing, the tears flowing from my closed eyes as the despair and utter hopelessness overcome me. Shame. Shame that I have come to this. I must have done something to deserve this. I am in the cave once again. Frozen from anxiety. Staring helplessly into the nothingness that is depression.
I’m sitting at my desk as the students leave for the dinner break at the night high school. I stare at the wall as the last few droplets of my spirit drain onto the floor. Time to leave. Time to die. I’m in my car, sobbing again. This time the tears begin to push me a tiny bit forward, instead of downward. At this moment, I KNOW if I don’t concentrate with everything I have and get to the emergency room, it will be over. The black pain will make its choice for me.
My wife met me there. My wife, who had taken care of me so often when I wasn’t able to do so. She had worked so hard to help our daughter, only nine years old, through the challenges we were going through. She began to get depressed after some time and received some therapy. It killed me that it affected her like that, especially at such a young age.
I spent six days in the psychiatric hospital and six weeks in an outpatient program. It helped to ease me back into wellness. Day by day. I don’t know how capable I was of hearing it then but I was told by more than one person that the healthiest thing to do is to show your child that you are doing your best to get better. It has been several years since the end of that depression and I know nothing could be truer. There are many parts to my wellness practices that I have created: spending quality time with my family, proper sleep (imperative for someone with my condition and mental health conditions in general), diet, exercise, meditation, therapy, medication, regular visits to my doctor, as well as attending a group. I love to work, write, read, hike, and watch movies, especially during family movie night. My wife has been extremely supportive over the years. She is the main person in my support system. She knows me extremely well and is able to see how intense symptoms sometimes affect me and how to communicate what she observes by encouraging me to be proactive in getting the support I need the most. This has really helped me to feel empowered versus feeling controlled. My daughter is also there as we often spend hours talking about many things, including various forms of art, literature, her love of sharks, and her fascination with psychology. I also keep in touch with those closest to me. I am very fortunate that most of them are practicing wellness for similar challenges. I’ve supported each of them throughout the decades as well. We call it “tag-teaming”! Over time, I have incorporated my wellness practices into a specific system known as a Wellness Recovery Action Plan or WRAP. While it is a written plan that I refer to so that I stay healthy on an everyday basis, it is also in place when my symptoms begin to get the better of me. Since I have been using it, challenging symptoms often don't last nearly as long or happen as often as they have in the past.
Mental health lapses happen, of course; it is part of recovery. I am very proud of the work I have done and continue to do to stay as well as possible. Everyone’s wellness looks different. Mine is about understanding what my health looks and feels like. Health comes from health. Hope comes from health. And resiliency comes from hope!
“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”