This took multiple tries to post and I kept getting site hiccups. A bad sign? Maybe.
Is this going to be TMI? Too alienating? Too fucking long? Probably. But you know my pattern by now: if something scares me, in life or in fiction, I’m that much more determined to do it.
So I’m going to tell you today what “going crazy” feels like. There may be metaphors but no hyperbole, as honest as I can be.
Warning: It’ll be long and personal, maybe triggering? I welcome conversation but will be protective over the comments.
You know, of course, what bipolar disorder is, yes? In a nutshell, there are the two extremes–depression and mania–and bipolar disorder bounces between them.
Mania can involve any of the following: euphoria, racing thoughts, speaking rapidly, severe attention problems, engaging in risky behavior from spending large amounts of money to having casual sex with multiple partners, a sense of invincibility, impulsiveness, etc–you get the picture. Depression is feelings of hopelessness, lack of self-worth, profound sadness, apathy, lack of motivation, etc (you’re probably familiar with this). Not every episode presents with all symptoms. Bipolar disorder can vary from person to person; in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if this illness presents completely differently in every individual. It’s a tricky illness to treat, because anything given for depression can knock a person into mania, which is just as dangerous, so often something else has to be given to put a ceiling on any “good” feelings.
While a lot of people, even if they don’t suffer from the disorder, can understand those two things, there is another aspect to this: the mixed episode.
A mixed episode is basically the inbred bastard offspring from an unholy union between depression and mania. It is either mania with characteristics of depression, or depression with characteristics of mania. So “mixed”. And as much as bipolar varies from person to person, the elements of a mixed episode can get even more messy, and it’s something even medical professionals don’t entirely understand. (As such, what I describe here may be you, or it may not be you–YMMV, this speaks to my own experience.)
Last Saturday, it began as mania.
Now, I hadn’t slept well for a few days. This is my number one problem, because it weakens me mentally. There is a cycle anyone with mental illness can tell you about: when you’re following your schedule and sleeping consistently, you do well, but the better you feel, the less you think you have to continue engaging in these behaviors that keep you well. This is how people fall off the wagon. I manage my illness with cognitive therapy (more on that in a moment) which means remaining hyper-vigilant monitoring and assessing any and all thoughts and feelings as they come, so I can usually nip this in the bud.
But not this time.
So I wasn’t sleeping much, but I was feeling good, probably with hypomania (that’s the other thing–moods fall along a scale, so it’s not always I-want-to-kill-myself or I’m-queen-of-the-world, but a mood in between with varying severity). And as I wanted to get some work done, I drank a few cups of coffee Saturday morning. Which is the next issue here–caffeine can often mask early symptoms of mania for me. So I was primed for something bad to happen.
Now, was there actually a trigger? Well, yes and no.
This is the other thing I think only people with the disorder will understand: it’s not the trigger that matters, it’s the state of mind you’re already in. It can be anything. Something as minor as the cat knocking a plant over, or a dish breaking. What you brush off one day might make you homicidal another day. “Skyla is a terrible writer and I hated her book but I want to read the next one and, oh yeah, I’m going to look for a pirated version publicly because I’m an entitled bint, despite how easily it can be bought.” See, for a writer, that happens on days ending with a “y”. You grit your teeth, internally flip the bird, and move on.
But not if your brain is already a perfect storm of fubar chemistry. That minor annoyance becomes the focal point of everything.
With few exceptions, I don’t believe most people suddenly “snap”; I think there have to be a lot of things in place for a crazy episode to go down. Part of that is for the brain to become prime ground for crazy to breed, and the other part is one or more disturbance to latch onto, and then it’s All Aboard The Bipolar Express: Next Stop Insanityville.
Dysphoric mania is the technical term for this episode. It has the elements of a manic episode–high energy, impulsiveness, racing thoughts–but the bad feelings of depression.
To visualize how the next several hours went for me, picture a Jenga tower that’s already missing a few blocks and start pulling more out, removing pieces and stacking them on top at an exponential rate. Every thought is plucking a block out and making the whole tower less steady until the whole thing is teetering.
“Irritability” seems too mild a word to describe the hair-trigger rage hovering under your skin when this is going on. This isn’t a matter of being bitchy or snippy; this is being a breath away from all thought emptying from your head and then physically lashing out and causing someone harm. I will throw things, kick, break stuff, all in a fit of rage I don’t remember afterward.
Twined in there are the racing thoughts of mania. Everything in your brain is moving too quickly to hold on to, jumping from place to place; it’s disorienting and scary. (Did you read Sunrise from 9 Crimes or Lineage? Fragment that story even more and you’ll get it.) I found drafts for six different blog posts here that I’d started that evening–titles, and a few quick notes, but no actual posts because my thoughts on these topics weren’t coherent enough to form into sentences.
Add to that no focus whatsoever. I can’t just put on a silly movie or play a video game (with the latter, there is too great a risk of me breaking something expensive if I’m gaming; the minor annoyances of missing a jump or getting shot turn into blackout rage). I can’t write. I can’t read.
Simultaneously I was having panic attacks. Hyperventilating, crying, pacing, shaking, all while having Hulk-rage and unable to slow down. The more I realized something was wrong with me, the more panicked I got; the more panicked I got, the worse all the other symptoms became.
Both self-harm and violence towards others is an extreme risk in a mixed episode, but everyone is fine. I used a spray bottle of water as a buffer to keep the animals away from me because I literally couldn’t predict my own behavior. I also become extremely self-destructive (oh, let me tell you about the time years ago when I deleted all my writing files from my computer and destroyed the backup disc) when this happens. I hacked seven inches off of my hair because I felt like I had to destroy something. I wore an elastic band around my wrist and snapped it against my skin for about an hour straight, until the elastic broke. This isn’t “I don’t want to go on living” self-harm–it’s an entirely different thought process.
Despite complete and utter exhaustion, I couldn’t stop moving. I couldn’t sit for more than ninety seconds. I paced from room to room. My memory is particularly blurry–I retained only fragments, because I think everything was going so fast, nothing was imprinting on my memory. I remember talking, but I don’t know to whom or what precisely I was saying. And I was apartment-bound because it would be dangerous to head outside in my state of mind.
I retained just the barest thread of awareness from all my cognitive therapy work, which kept repeating, “You are not okay. Don’t do anything rash. Get off of the computer. You’re not okay.” It wasn’t enough to fix me, but that constant reminder pinging to the forefront of my mind prevents a lot of bad, impulsive decisions on my part.
I came very close to heading the ER, but I wasn’t sure if that was even a thing I could do (I’m told now that yes, it is, and they will handle a mental health crisis). I desperately wanted to call my mum to come over and watch me, but it was 2am and I knew she wasn’t equipped for it. I didn’t immediately know of any mental health crisis things you can contact in the middle of the night on a weekend.
Realistically, heading out at that hour and trying to get help was feasible, but I figured help would consist of trying to find the right drug to treat the mood (likely an antipsychotic) and heavy sedation. Well, sedation I can do at home. I took a high dose of melatonin to take the edge off, and that slowed me down enough to get in about two hours of fitful sleep. The following day, I picked up at OTC sleep-aid and have remained in a constant state of self-sedation for three days straight. After mania I tend to crash pretty hard and I’m also very susceptible to tipping into depression, so being drugged and groggy seemed the logical choice until I was sure the worst was past.
And now we come to why I’m even talking about this.
It’s fine, intellectually, to say “illness is illness” but in practice it’s a lot harder. You can call in sick to work because you have the flu, but a mental health crisis, even as a rarity, can mark you as something “different.” Something “other”. Unpredictable, possibly violent–it changes you in the minds of others. I can say, “I had to take three days off of work because I was sick in bed” but I can’t say, “I had to take three days off of work because my brain chemistry is fubar and I lost my fucking mind.” One will get you sympathy and well wishes; the other will guarantee you won’t be hired again.
Feeling this way is absolutely terrifying. Mixed states are extremely rare for me–like years in between them–and it is the closest I have every felt to losing my mind. Depression and mania, anxiety–I’m an old hat at all these things, retaining awareness and handling them fairly well. Dysphoric mania? The most frightening moment is not when you realize you’re losing your grip on reality, but when you know if it snowballs any further you will lose the last threads of self-awareness. When that’s gone, anything can happen, and you can become someone you don’t recognize
Crazy is very much an “other” sort of thing. It’s a label we use to designate people and things that we perceive as being distant from us. Unknowable. Although little by little people are picking at the stigma surrounding mental illness and opening up about how depression and anxiety affect lives, “crazy” illnesses–like a mixed episode, or schizophrenia or paranoia–are still very much separate. It scares people. It’s unpredictable and frightening, both to those around the person going through it and the sufferer his or herself. We throw the “crazy” label on people who say and do things that seem so foreign we can’t possibly understand.
And that’s what makes it worse. That’s why I can’t pick up the phone and call someone, or reach out and ask for help. Because I know no matter how much people care, this is a scary thing. This is associated with violence and horror stories. Looking at it from the inside, I know how scary it is; externally, I’m aware enough to know it looks like most depictions of crazy, and the thought of being seen that way terrifies me almost as much as the mood itself. This isn’t the Skyla people know–this isn’t the Skyla I know–and I know seeing me like this is not something people can handle (with one exception–you know who you are). I don’t want people to have to walk on eggshells around me, or treat me like I’m about to break, or give me That Look. I know I am a very high functioning bipolar person, I keep myself on a tight leash, and as such I’m able to control what people do and don’t see from me. This kind of episode would change that.
(This moment? From Homeland? That’s it, when you know you’re not okay, and someone’s giving you That Look.)
Crazy is not a manic-pixie-dream-girl quirk. It’s not something you can just “calm down” from. It’s not a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink, yeah, I know how it feels” sort of issue. It’s bigger, and darker, and scarier than most people realize.
But it happens a lot. It happens to people you know. It doesn’t make them bad, or evil, or criminal. It’s morally neutral; like you can’t control your immune system going out of whack, or cells multiplying into tumors, or a broken bone, you can’t control when the chemicals in your brain decide to clash.
I don’t have anything uplifting or hopeful or helpful to add to this.
I’m okay right now. I’m exhausted but my thinking is fairly clear and mood is stable. I’m going to make dinner and lie in bed with the cats some more.
I’m still recovering, and I had to just say fuck it to work and treat this episode like I would a physical illness–I’m going to be a bit behind in things, and if that means bill payments will be late or bounce or everyone fires me, so be it. I’m still on the lengthy waiting list for a psychiatrist referral, which I have been since the spring when I asked for one (so the first person who tells me “you need to get help”: YEAH I’M ALREADY ON IT AND MAYBE DON’T CONCERN-TROLL/ANTAGONIZE THE LOONY CHICK, M’KAY??).
But I get tired of seeing “crazy” as shorthand in books and TV shows for “I’m too lazy to come up with motivation for the villain”. I’m tired of “mental illness” being thrown around with whispered gasps every time some horrific crime occurs, like it is the only link in the chain that leads to violence. I’m tired of feeling like if people saw how “bad” my definition of “it’s bad” is, they’d start avoiding me. I’m tired of sweeping this under the proverbial rug. And while I don’t want you to see me going through this, I want you to know sometimes it happens to me and other people, and it doesn’t make us broken. We weather the storm and make it through to the other side. We don’t need pity or worry, just understanding.
And I know that if I’m tired of these things, if I feel how scary and isolating it is to start to lose it, other people do too. That someone out there is trying so hard to maintain a balanced state of mind, afraid of what people will think of them when they see how ugly it can get. That someone doesn’t want to ask for help because it means letting people see them in their most vulnerable state.
I can’t tell you what to do or make it better, but I can tell you that you’re not alone. And whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m in your corner.
(Comments are on but moderated and I’m not checking email and stuff right now, so it might be a few days before they show up–I love hearing from people, don’t take silence personally.)