When I woke on the morning of December 24, 2011, the sky was cloudy. I could tell this, not because I could see the sky, but because the light coming in through the metal grate over the window was a cold, grey shade. The window looked out on an enclosed courtyard covered by a large dome of honeycombed skylights. A tree stood in the courtyard and some benches.
I can see these things in my mind’s eye now as I write, but they were not what initially captured my attention. What I first noticed, as I raised my head, were the claw marks on the walls. Someone had dug their nails frantically into the drywall over and over, and perhaps had applied their teeth as well. The first question that came into my mind was not why am I in a child psych ward? I recognized that I was, but it didn’t matter in that moment. What I wanted to know, as I eyed the marks with horror, was whether or not I had been the one to make them. In my drugged haze and the scattered confusion of the still prominent mania, I couldn’t remember any of what had taken place.
My memory came back to me in bits and pieces as the mania diminished, but the first few days of my stay at that child psychiatric facility have remained a fuzzy blur to this day. I do remember being profoundly relieved to learn I had not made the marks on the wall. And what little else I remember is both cringe-worthy and amusing. I have a vague memory of being locked in a padded room on the unit–the one saved for unruly patients when they threw fits–not because I’d been violent but because, as a fellow patient later explained to me with great amusement, they hadn’t been able to get me to stop singing. I hope the nurses in Emergency had a similar sense of humour, because I sang Christmas carols at the top of my lungs for the majority of the nine hours that I spent waiting there, my exhausted mother at my side having long since given up the task of quieting me.
I don’t remember being told I had Bipolar Disorder. I must have been told at some point, because I remember sitting in a room with my parents as the doctor gently explained to them why they assumed I had the condition. Then the doctor took me aside into another room to discuss the matter with me. I have no memory of what he said, but I do distinctly remember asking him why he sounded like Darth Vader and feeling convinced he was breathing oddly just to see if I would react. I remember his laughter and his assurance that he simply had a cold. And I remember remaining convinced that he was lying to me.
Looking back at my level of paranoia during those first few days of treatment is quite comical.
(For an explanation of the symptoms/terminology I use in reference to bipolar disorder, check out my post on the subject)
My parents received my diagnosis with a certain amount of relief. Whatever was going on, they hadn’t lost me forever. It was treatable. And it wasn’t, as my mother had feared, schizophrenia. But none of us really knew what the diagnosis meant. It was close to a year before I began to really understand what I was dealing with. In those first few weeks, all I knew was that I had been through an incredible ordeal and my life would never be the same. If I had known at that point just how true the latter statement would prove to be, I’m not sure I would have survived it. But as humans, we are blessed with not knowing the future. It’s a greater mercy than any of us realize.
But how had I gotten to the extreme point of needing hospitalization in the first place?
To continue with the boat analogy from the homepage, my little boat had been sailing along without too many glitches for most of my childhood. As I grew into my teens, the waters grew rougher, but what teenage-hood isn’t rough at times? As the waves grew higher and the troughs between them grew deeper, I struggled to keep my little vessel from capsizing. I didn’t understand why the moods I was experiencing were so painfully intense, but I chalked it up to hormones. “Moody” and “teenager” go together like “peanut butter” and “honey.”
It was my horseback riding instructor, of all people, who rang the first alarm bell. I had been riding for about 6 years. My ability, once cemented at a slow but steady rate of improvement, had begun to fluctuate from skilled to utterly incompetent, right alongside my moods. It was infuriating and disheartening, and my horse was none too pleased with me either. My instructor was at her wit’s end. How was it possible for a student to excel at challenging manoeuvres one lesson, and fail miserably at even simple warm-up exercises the next? Having worked with horses for over 50 years, she had developed what I can only describe as a sixth sense. She could see what was going on inside me just by looking me in the eyes, and what she saw concerned her. She spoke to my dad about it.
“Have you ever considered that your daughter might have some sort of disability?”
My father was utterly taken aback. How could someone suggest such a thing? I was a high functioning, capable individual. There couldn’t be anything wrong with me.
Things continued along in this way for several years, a storm brewing secretly beneath the veneer of my everyday life. Then in December of 2011, a month shy of my 17th birthday, the storm broke. I had no way of knowing I was in dangerous waters. I didn’t feel normal, but I didn’t feel bad exactly. I began taking on more than I could handle in commitments and failed to feel stressed out by it. I began to feel I could accomplish anything I put my mind to, regardless of the challenge. I was invincible and life was my oyster. Those of us who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder recognize such feelings of grandiosity as a major warning sign. In type 1 bipolar, when you reach that point, there’s nowhere to go but up. And I kept going up— much, much too high.
My riding lessons began to turn into rodeos. My horse was highly sensitive and intelligent, and whatever it was he sensed going on in me, he was not happy about it. I was unable to get through a lesson without him trying to throw me. My guardian angel was definitely looking out for me because my horse employed nearly every trick in the equine book to get me off: from bucking and crow-hopping, to rearing and bolting. My riding instructor was floored. My horse and I had gone through a lot of ups and downs together in the preceding months, but he’d never behaved anything like this before. Something was wrong. But we didn’t know what.
That was when my ship finally crashed into some rocks.
My parents didn’t initially recognize that I had become delusional, but they were getting concerned by my increasingly erratic behavior and they kept me home. I knew something was wrong with me, and I had crying spells in which I sobbed out all the various things that had bothered me over the years. This alternated with ecstatic excitement over the belief that I was reaching a whole new level of existence. I had numerous bizarre insights into books and other things that my parents couldn’t make any sense of. I exclaimed “Oooh, I get it. I get it!” with alarming frequency. Finally, one evening, after telling my parents good night, going to bed, closing my eyes for several minutes, and then leaping out of bed and skipping back into their room declaring “Wow, I had such an amazing sleep!” with total sincerity, my parents realized I was no longer living in reality.
They rushed me to the nearest hospital, an hour away from our small town. By the time we arrived, I was conversing amiably with my guardian angel, convinced I was a prophet from God and that I had the cure for cancer. I was also at some level aware that my behavior was not what it should be, and decided it must be because I had a brain tumor. But, of course, I had the cure for cancer, so everything would be okay.
We spent the entire night in Emergency. I had gotten the idea into my head that the key to moving on into a higher level of existence was demonstrating that I was able to breathe correctly. I spent the night making repeated trips to the reception desk to earnestly inform the nurses there that “I can breathe!” and then returning confusedly to my bed after receiving their forced smiles and nods.
Morning arrived without me having slept a wink. My poor mother had spent the night keeping track of me while my father grabbed a bit of rest so as to be fit for driving the next day. We were sent to another hospital in a larger city, another hour away. A nine hour wait in emergency later (during which time I began to hallucinate and my delusions grew even more convoluted) I was finally admitted to the child psychiatric unit. After going for nearly 72 hours without sleeping, the cocktail of medications I was given kicked in and I slept for most of two days. December 25th found me still in the scattered, confused grip of mania, but my delusions and hallucinations had ceased and my parents were able to come and attempt to celebrate Christmas with me, bringing me a number of presents that would make my stay in the hospital more comfortable.
But the largest, most life altering present had already been delivered to me: I was Bipolar.