I’m sitting in the psych ward of a hospital near my apartment in Brooklyn wearing a yellow paper gown -- so see-through that my black panties are visible -- and those blue slip-proof hospital socks. I hug my knees into my chest and twitch nervously, waiting for the doctor to call me in to get assessed. Next to me is my boyfriend, Brian. It must be 4 o’clock in the morning.
In front of us, a man in his early 20s, handcuffed to a gurney, strapped in an NYPD straight jacket, flops around like a fish, screaming. There’s a flat-screen TV behind a thick layer of plastic above us playing reruns of an early ‘90s sitcom. The show’s laugh track is unsettling.
“I hate you, you’re disgusting,” I hiss at Brian. He stares at me with damp, sunken eyes.
“How could you do this to me?” I continue. “Do you know what will happen to me in there? I’ll come out worse. I hate you!”
"GET ME OUT OF THESE CUFFS!" the guy on the gurney cries.
"HAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHHA," goes the show's laughtrack.
“I love you,” he says calmly.
“I’ve never loved you,” I whisper. I glance at the nurse behind the secured barrier in the front of the room, making sure she can’t hear me. “I’m moving back to Chicago and I’m never seeing you again.”
Brian’s face tics, like he’s about to cry. “I love you,” he says again.
Minutes later, I feel the adrenaline wearing off. I rest my head on Brian’s shoulder. His sweatshirt is damp.
“Why are you wet?” I ask.
“You poured water over me,” he says.
I jerk up. “Wait, where are we? Why are we here?”
Brian sighs gently. He reaches his arm around my shoulder and squeezes.
“No touching!” the nurse yells behind her plastic barricade.
We’d only been together six months.
“You’ll Meet Him When You Least Expect It”
You know that saying, “You’ll meet him when you least expect it”? While it’s an exciting concept and all, what if when we “least expect it” are the times that we think we’re completely undesirable?
That’s how I felt when I met Brian in the beginning of last summer. I looked fine, physically. In my head, though, I thought I was horrible and disgusting. My skin was crawling, constantly. My mind raced and chattered -- not like I heard voices, but like my thoughts jumped around and didn’t make much sense.
The thought I heard most clearly? Kill yourself.
I had an idea of what was happening with me: For 10 years, I struggled with suicidal ideation, rapid mood swings, and erratic behavior. At 15, I’d slit my wrist so severely I had to get stitches and was involuntarily admitted to a treatment center for young adults. There, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
My parents dismissed it, convincing me that going on medication would alter my personality. They said I was dramatic, and that I needed to eat healthier and get more exercise.
Desperate to feel better, I started self-medicating with the drugs I had available to me: Marijuana and alcohol. Smoking pot kept my mood level (or so I thought), and alcohol numbed me out completely. (A nice break for a brain that doesn’t stop “chattering.”)
I worked manically throughout high school, and then college, consuming my trusted chemicals like prescribed medication. I got good grades, had lots of friends, and juggled multiple jobs and extracurricular activities.
From the outside, I passed as an outgoing, excitable workaholic. Really though, I felt miserable, like I was struggling just to survive. I thought about suicide daily.
After graduating college, I moved to NYC to work in magazines. Without all the activities I poured my nonstop energy into at university, my drinking escalated. My mood swings worsened. On top of that, a slew of circumstantial life changes -- my friend passing away, the magazine I worked for folding, a toxic romantic relationship -- altered my usual stressed-out self into a total head case.
I started binging and purging all my food and lost a bunch of weight. I blacked out from drinking every night, and slept with so many strangers, I stopped keeping count. I paced around my room in circles. Something like a scream vibrated in the back of my throat. My body felt electric. Death was looming.
Like many people who experience manic episodes -- which I had obviously been in the middle of -- I was hesitant to get help. I wrote incessantly, and my writing was going well.
But also like most manic episodes, that state of elation and intense creativity came to an abrupt halt. I overdosed on alcohol and prescription pills and landed in a psych ward.
The stay was short, but horrifying. When I was released, I felt humiliated and hollow. I hardly wanted to talk. I stayed in my room, smoked pot, watched Netflix, and binged and purged.
And one night, when a friend convinced me to get out of the apartment, I met Brian.
A Not-So-Normal Relationship Begins
I was instantly attracted to him: 6’ 2”, slightly shaggy, blonde hair, blue eyes, and the scruffiest, sexiest man face I’ve ever seen. We exchanged numbers that night, and went on our first date a week later.
After three dates, I decided to tell him what I was going through -- I had published a piece a few months earlier about self medicating mental illness with marijuana, so he was bound to find out anyway.
“I know,” Brian said after I made my confession on a bar patio in Brooklyn. “I read your article.”
I blushed, my whole face scalding, and thought I might throw up. It mentioned such ugly things -- my scar, my unpredictable moods.
“It made me like you more,” he said.
Shit, I thought. Another dude looking to save a fucked-up woman.
“I have ADHD,” he said. “I was diagnosed four years ago, went on medication, and then stopped taking it. It’s always been an issue. It makes me feel like a freak. When I read your article, I thought, ‘Maybe this person will understand me.’”
I released my pent-up breath, and threw my arms around him. I was so relieved. I had found a fellow freak!
The Summer of Insanity
My lingering depression eventually reared its ugly head: I was irritable, and always tired. My limbs felt heavy. My mind was slow.
I stopped writing completely. I loathed every part of myself. I could hardly look in the mirror.
Binge drinking is common in those with bipolar and ADHD, and Brian and I encouraged each other to have “just one more” accordingly. When I drank, my insecurities ignited a frenzied rage. I’d tell Brian that I didn’t even like him, and that he should just break up with me.
What I was really saying: “How could you love such a hideous thing?”
When I followed him around his apartment, wasted, spewing insults and vile, he’d tell me, “I know why you’re saying this. And I’m not going to leave you.”
After one particularly bad night, I woke up next to Brian all bleary-eyed with a hangover, and thought that I should end the relationship, sober (so that he’ll take me seriously), and save him from, um, me.
Waiting for him to stir, I went through the books on his nightstand and found one: "Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder."
He wants to understand me, I thought. I cried a little. And I began to trust him, just a bit.
Still, a few months later, I had another manic episode that landed me in a psych ward, again. This time, with Brian by my side, I wasn’t alone.
More intense treatment became a must after that particularly violent episode. It took a couple months (I made excuses, like a work deadline, but was honestly scared that medication would make me boring and less creative). With pressure from my therapist, Brian, and my best friend, I was convinced to enter a dual-diagnosis treatment center in Palm Springs, CA for a 30-day rehabilitation program.
Brian was elated, but I was scared and angry. On top of everything else I was dealing with, I was afraid my relationship with him wouldn’t survive. I felt abandoned and rejected.
Eventually, with mood stabilizers and a butt-load of therapy, I started feeling better. On the “outside” of my delusional state, I realized how messed up it was that thinking the urge to kill myself was just something I'd have to deal with for the rest of my life.
The last weekend of treatment was “family weekend,” full of super-intense group therapies. Because my parents had never taken my diagnosis seriously, I didn’t invite them. But Brian came. And because he did, our whole relationship changed. We learned how to set boundaries, and how to communicate.
It also proved that Brian didn’t want to get rid of me -- he wanted me to get help. He believed I was worthy of love and acceptance. And really, since we met, that’s all he ever wanted from me.
In rehab, they told us to avoid making any major changes for a full year after our treatment ended -- getting married, buying a house, or erm, MOVING ACROSS THE COUNTRY. But that's what Brian and I did, three months after I got back to NYC. We flew out together on our one-year anniversary.
I went off my medication about a month in for various reasons. (Far too many to explain here, but, yeah, BAD IDEA.) I got my medical marijuana card soon after, and went back to self-medicating. I felt fine, just boring and kind of dumb. I slept a lot.
For a million reasons, Brian and mine's relationship eventually started to unravel. We both worked from home, and were on top of each other constantly. I didn't have a car, and depended him for rides. Since I started freelancing and my first payments came in later than I anticipated, he also paid for most of our move-in expenses. There was this underlying resentment brewing.
We started fighting -- and it wasn't like those aforementioned fights, where I'd chase him around the apartment like a self-destructive monster. It was coming from both sides this time. And going off my meds certainly helped NOTHING.
"You can't control your emotions!" he yelled during one fight.
"UM... DUH!" I rolled my eyes and flipped my palms up into the air.
After some particularly gnarly fights, I decided to go see a psychiatrist and go back on medication. But it was as if, with those brawls, we had reached the point of no return. We both decided to go our separate ways.
With the breakup, and him moving out, and me getting a new roommate, and also new clients (which is why I feel comfortable writing about this now, when I've been avoiding the subject of my mental health since I was looking for a job) -- and also deciding I should distract myself with dating around, and going out to parties, and then running out of Klonopin, a medicine I take the curb mania -- I inevitably went completely manic. I stopped sleeping, stopped eating, and started, er, freaking the fuck out.
I knew I was under a particular period of stress, but I felt guilty asking my psychiatrist for more Klonopin. (I also gave some away to friends in NYC, thinking I wouldn't need so much. DO NOT DO.)
I also learned from my DBT doctor yesterday that Klonopin withdrawal can make certain people feel "really weird." And that's exactly what happened to me, earlier this week.
So what did I do? I texted Brian.
I sort of felt one step ahead of him during this whole particular freak-out. But as I laid in bed, concentrating on my breathing, writhing in pain, and waiting for my doctor to call me back and refill my prescription, I mourned the loss of my relationship with Brian. I missed having my caregiver.
My new roommate reassured me last night as we watched the most heartbreaking movie on Netflix ever (along with "Blue Valentine," I would highly NOT recommend this title if you're lovesick) that what I was feeling was normal post-breakup: the loneliness, the strike to my self-esteem, attempting to distract myself with work and guys who really don't give a shit.
As I popped another Klonopin, I thought, I need to get off this drug eventually. And I need to take care of myself, for once, and stop depending on Brian. I do miss him, though.
Talk to me on Twitter: @caitlinthornton