Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bipolar One - Split in Two

For the past twelve years, I have thought of myself as a before and an after.

When I was nineteen, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I made a list of symptoms, describing my behaviors as if to prove that yes, something was wrong with me. I read them aloud to a psychiatrist, and her diagnosis was quick and clear: bipolar one. 

I am one of the lucky few who found the right medication right away. I've been taking the same stuff for twelve years, and I've had ups and downs, minor adjustments, but the maintenance of my illness has remained essentially the same. When I was drinking the medication was less effective - psych meds and alcohol should not mix! - but now that I'm sober I feel the full force of stabilization, of serenity. 

As I've progressed in those twelve years, I've pushed away the Alice who was before. I remembered my erratic moods, my impulsive behavior, the crawling shadows in my brain, and I felt both relief that I had changed and a fear of who I had been. The meds made me gain weight, and the weight became a symbol of this "after" Alice. I was cocooned in a physical manifestation of a rejection of my former self. 

Now, having lost all of the weight, I find myself closer to the before. I pull on clothes from 2005, 2001, and they fit - and I can't help but remember the way I felt when I was younger. I celebrate this body, feeling proud, elated, grateful; even so, I fear it. 

We live in our bodies. They have memories - they live through us.

In terms of my mental illness, I tend to go through three year cycles. Every three years I feel the ghost of mania - it feels like the lingering smell of smoke and stale beer, a whisper of music you heard when you were young - and it has less power over me, now, but I'm able to trace those cycles back to the year I was born. It has always been in me. And I'm due - I've been aware of it for months - and it comes in concert with my weight loss, my struggle with body dysmorphia, a burst of creativity, my father's death. All of the ingredients are there, bubbling away like the beef stew my dad made the last night I lived at home.

My illness is chronic, and despite the mercurial nature of bipolar disorder, it is predictable. I know its inner workings. I understand it, more and more as I get older.

It scares me, sometimes - not because I do anything frightening, but because I've so thoroughly judged the "before" Alice. Because I felt I had to reject her. Because maybe I convinced myself that there really was something wrong with me - diagnosis as condemnation.

I'm so open about my mental illness, and I speak and write about it with supposed compassion and acceptance. I want to be supportive of others, to share my stories in hopes that other people who struggle might feel comforted by the fact that they aren't alone. At the same time, I think I've been swayed by the judgments of mental illness which are both common and extraordinarily harmful. I've taken on a mantle of wrongness - my brain works differently, and that must make me a bad person. I can only hope to assimilate by denying my neurodivergence. 

I want to be like other people, I guess. I cower from the Alice before, casting her as the villain, the angry goddess, the wicked witch. And now that I have her body again, now that my three years are up, now that my dad is gone and I'm sorting through the memories of our relationship, I face her in the mirror and feel genuine fear.

I keep playing through the same memory of my father. It was a perfect Baltimore spring day, 2005, sharp and ripe with the smell of concrete and pear blossoms, and I invited my gaming group over for cookies and cocktails. We sat in the back garden, eating raw dough out of the bowl, drinking triple sec out of antique glassware, and my dad was playing jazz on the kitchen speakers. He was laying slate, stolen from a church renovation, in our little flower bed, and he asked my friends to shatter it into smaller pieces. He turned up the volume, and four teenage boys danced over the stone, totally ridiculous - and my dad was beaming, and I was a little drunk, and the spring air blew through me like a kiss, and I was thin and sweet and madness and joy. 

That's the before Alice. The scary one. The bad one. And nothing ever feels like that any more.

And maybe I want it to. Maybe I'm tired of hiding from myself. 

If there's a lesson to be learned, here, it must be that I have to accept my mental illness in a new way. I can't just think of myself as a before and an after - I have to merge the two selves and reject my fear. I wasn't a bad person - though I made some decidedly bad decisions - just because I was unmedicated. I wasn't bad because I was thin, because I had an eating disorder. There wasn't anything wrong with me - I'm ill, surely and forever, but I'm not a person to revile. 

I can't hate such an essential part of myself. I can't push my heart away.

Managing chronic illness can feel like a fight against your own body, your own brain. Some days are really good, and you can almost feel normal, and some days are really hard, and you know you are not. I'm never going to be normal - I hope I can turn that into a good thing. Because I want to remember.

I want to remember the afternoons in the back garden. I want to mourn my father while recalling the fragile beauty of Baltimore in spring. I want the tissue paper tenderness, the honey-ripe, the skirling dizziness, the smell of smoke and bruised pear blossoms. I want to lick the bowl and have it all. 

I want to be finished with the before and the after. 

I want to be Alice, now.



  1. Wow. Beautiful, poignant, sensitive and deeply introspective while also baring your heart and soul to others in the effort to both support and educate. Thank you for sharing the before and after and here's to becoming Alice, now.

  2. Thank you for your vulnerability and your strength.

  3. Brilliant writing; thank you for sharing your truth with us. It is indeed inspirational and hopeful and I am sure will help others as they struggle to become their "whole" self.