Greetings my Dandelions, and welcome back. I hope you’re enjoying my revival of these mental health posts. I had started them in February of 2017, and had made these grand plans to stick with it. Well, now, it’s 2018, and it’s time to keep it rolling.
Today’s topic is one my therapist asked me to do.
What bipolar disorder is like to me.
My therapist told me, he can observe it, understand it academically, and can learn all about it in seminars, but what is it like for me. For someone who actually lives with it?
In my first post in this series called “I Am Not Ashamed,” I talked about my diagnosis at age 13. I was scant on the details of what happened next.
This is what happened next.
I wish I could shout from the rooftops “Hooray! I’m cured!” but that’s not how bipolar disorder works. There is no cure. There’s only managing your symptoms and how you define your successes. (Admittedly, I learned that last bit from my therapist.)
In other words, it’s working with what you’ve got.
As the years went by from my horrific teen years, and one abusive relationship later, the meds got evened out, and things leveled off. I was in college, and things were going well.
Still, let’s back up and define “well.”
The anxiety attacks were still a thing, feelings of self-worth frequently came into question, depression was still prevalent, but there were also the bright, brilliant highs of mania. And mania is not necessarily a good thing. Well. It’s not a good thing at all really.
But I learned my mode of operation was called “rapid cycling.” Where I experience all of these things in a single day and even within hours of each other. It terrifies my mother actually, where I can be screaming with anger one moment and then cracking jokes five minutes later.
This is my normal. Others may consider it a curse. But honestly, I don’t know any different.
So, I graduated with my first degree in Graphic Design and decided I wanted to go off for my BFA in Sequential Art. I got accepted into the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, and I was pumped. This was the moment that all of the heartache and struggles would come together. This is when it would be all worth it.
When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to draw comics when I discovered I was quite proficient at it. But I always had the frame of mind, no matter how good you are, there’s someone better than you and you have to be better. I wish I could break myself of this line of thinking. It still comes up once in a while. Just this evening, I saw some beautiful comic pages, and joked about setting my tablet on fire. It was a joke. But that split-second feeling of doubt was there.
So off to SCAD I went.
Where I soon discovered I was way out of my depth.
It was the first time I was not only truly on my own, but also out-of-state where “Mommy and Daddy” couldn’t save me this time. I had to succeed or fail on my own merit. I had no choice but to make it work and make it work my way.
I also realized that this was the time I could reinvent myself. I was no longer the girl from the small town of Pensacola, Florida. For all my classmates knew, Pensacola could have been something tropical and exotic with palm trees and coconuts. It isn’t. We have a beach though. Sugar white sand and all.
My classmates didn’t have to know I had been in an abusive relationship that lasted 10 years, where in Pensacola, the chances of running into someone who knew was a guarantee.
And no one, no one, had to know how insecure I felt.
No one had to know I was sick.
Things were fantastic at first. I was making friends. I was for once, quite popular. I was a hard worker. I pushed myself. I turned down social engagements and parties for the sake of my assignments. I had to be the best. I had to be on top. I had to prove I had the right to be there just like everyone else.
But I refused to see it.
SCAD promised students upon enrollment we’d have a career upon graduation if not sooner. That might have been true in the years before, but it wasn’t for us. The economic bubble burst, and all creative companies went into an immediate hiring freeze until further notice. No one was getting a job anywhere. But we persisted. I persisted. It would all work out, as SCAD told us.
But in my collection of professors, I had one that went off the lip service of what SCAD was feeding us. He said the words I repeat to this day to anyone:
“Have a Plan B.”
We laughed at him. I laughed at him.
If the professors didn’t like you, they’d make sure you knew in excruciating detail. I had my self-worth torn to shreds many times in critiques and expected to just shut up and take it. And I did. And I dusted myself off, locked myself in my dorm, and just worked harder on eventually getting my professor’s approval that would never come.
But if I stuck with it, it would all work out.
I got angry. I told myself what the fuck does this professor know. I know I’m good. And I’d assemble my portfolio for reviews by the likes of Marvel and DC. But, as I waited in line for my number to be called, I had to excuse myself to the restroom and vomit from the anxiety. And then I had to carry on like everything was okay. Laugh, smile, explain my work, my ideal job, my artistic point of view all the while my mouth tasting like stomach acid.
That was until my senior year rolled around and I had a complete mental breakdown.
I couldn’t keep up anymore. I couldn’t keep up with the long hours and little reward. I couldn’t keep believing the empty promises that it would all work out. There was favoritism, school politics, and grooming students on how to undercut each other. If you were good, someone else was better. And you were never good enough.
Earlier that quarter, I had injured myself, and was given a bottle of Vicodin. I never took any of it when I was recovering from the injury. But it sat on my drafting table, and I was prepared to down the whole thing.
But. I did one thing right.
I told everyone I had the pills and what I intended to do. And in turn, my support system became an army going to war to keep me alive.
I flushed the pills, and I’m here today. I thank all of them for winning the war.
The thought of suicide scares me. Yet, I was a cutter as a child. But in that one moment, I was done. I was ready to go.
So, back to this “Have a Plan B.”
When I had moved back in with my parents, for the first year, all I could do was stare at walls and cry. I would be carted from doctor to doctor, often times still in my PJs or unbathed. My then new therapist who is now my current therapist told me to write. To just get my thoughts on paper. Just to let it out.
At least it occupied my time.
Something miraculous happened though. It was a moment so insignificant, but it changed everything for me. As I was vomiting my feelings onto the page, Word’s live wordcount kept adding up. In an hour, I had 1k in words. The fact that this was measurable. Quantifiable. And it was immediate.
In contrast, art is difficult. It takes days, weeks, or months to produce one piece. And even then, you feel like you’re going backwards in progress. Writing? I was in, out, and done. I made it a goal. I gave myself a deadline. I kept moving on. I taught myself work ethic and working with a deadline for four years until I got paid for my writing.
I never planned to be an author. Writing was never my Plan B. It was more like… my Plan Q.
I may have found something that brings me contentment, but I have to do it in my own way, and under my own steam. And even now, after all this time, I’ve learned to love doing art again.
Did the anxiety and depression ever go away? No. The feelings of self-worth? No. Lack in confidence? No. Manias? No.
This is my normal. This is not a bad thing. I just move though this world differently than everyone else. I feel nothing but joy when I create, the freedom of letting my mind go elsewhere. I’m pretty sure 99.9999% of the time, my mind never comes back from that elsewhere.
Am I where I want to be in life? I can’t answer that question. I never really thought that far. If by you mean a roof over my head, a bed, clothes, and food in my belly? Then that’s good enough for me.
How do I measure my success? I used to think of it in terms of material wealth, or popularity, or some other selfish thing. But really the answer is quite simple.