[Trigger warning for the assorted symptoms and complications of bipolar II, including but not limited to suicidal ideation and mention of an eating disorder]
I’m a writer. Marketing, Web content, magazines, self-indulgent blog posts, the written word in the English language — I do it at my super-fulfilling office job, and then I go home and I do more of it. It keeps the lights on.
I also write fiction. Whether I’m any good at it is an open question, and I have a number of gentle rejections that seem to have their own opinion, but I enjoy it, and I have since I was big enough to hold a pencil. It’s the escape, the creation, the voices, seeing a world banging around in my head fed out onto the page. It’s the thing that I identify as uniquely mine more than any other trait. I more than enjoy it — I need it. It keeps my lights on.
I also have bipolar II (affectionately, “the crazazy”). This is a fairly recent thing; up until about five years ago, I was just a freak. I was a huge freak all through grade school, and I managed to pass as “quirky” when I got to college (although not the kind that would have gotten me a TV show or anything). It was after graduation that “broken” became an issue; outside of the padded playground of school, it was easier to make screwups that had lasting impact and weren’t easy to rectify. Employers and professional contacts were more demanding and far less forgiving of a hypomanic woman in a professional setting, new friends were less tolerant, and romantic relationships were well-nigh disastrous when any guy interested in the crazazy chick usually turned out to be a bucket of trouble himself.
The highs were like a constant, actual tingle beneath my skin, and all I could do was try to scratch it. Food. Sex. I would go shopping, and when I came home I would have no idea what was in my bags. I’d go out running because I literally was unable to sit still. I talked loud and fast, because there were so many thoughts in my head that were racing around in my head and had to get out one way or another. I was frustrated all the time, because those thoughts actually followed a perfect, sequential logic if people were just un-stupid enough to look, God, and I would have been glad to draw out an actual flow chart if it would have made them stop looking at me like I was crazy. A guy once told me “You are a weird girl” by way of pillow talk. It didn’t earn him a repeat performance, but he wasn’t wrong.
Along with the chaos, though, came an unbelievable level of focus and creativity. My brain during the day was chaos incarnate; turn off the sun and hand me a laptop, and it resolved itself into characters and narratives and pages and pages and pages and pages of plot. At a stretch, I could write from eleven at night to six in the morning, shower, dress, and get to work on time with nothing but a cup of coffee to keep me going. It was exhilarating. I once woke up slumped over my keyboard to find that I’d written three pages while more or less passed out. It was crappy writing, but it had made it onto the page unassisted, and at the time it didn’t occur to me how messed up that was.
But as bad as the highs were, the lows were even worse. The lows were sitting at home on the couch, staring into the middle distance, bingeing and purging, sobbing uncontrollably, crying at the office, staring down a handle of Stoli and pondering the line between drinking myself unconscious and drinking myself dead. It was that last one — wondering if anyone at work would notice if I didn’t come back from lunch and if anyone would find me before I died — that led me to call for help. I’m lucky; my insurance paid for a really great shrink, and when she read down a list of my symptoms and told me that there was a name and a treatment for what I was going through, that I wasn’t just a horrible, weak, worthless person, I was so relieved I cried. There wasn’t much I wouldn’t be willing to do to make it better, and it only took a little bit of time, a few drug combinations, and a few dosage adjustments to get me stable. Normal. (“Normal.”) When I was happy, I was normal-happy, and when I was sad, I was normal-sad. No racing thoughts, no all-night energy, no laser focus, no shaking legs, no harmful behaviors, no crying, no staring.
But no racing thoughts. No all-night energy. No laser focus. At bedtime, I got tired, not inspired, and I went off to bed. Nothing was banging on the inside of my head trying to get out. Ideas lined up obediently in my head, and the more interesting ones got bored and went home. My works in progress stopped progressing, because I didn’t have anything to feed into them anymore. The insuppressible urge to create was just gone.
It isn’t a side effect. (“Feeling a little bit fuzzy? Let’s tweak your dosage.”) It’s the effect. The whole point is to calm my spinning thoughts and get me to sleep nights like any “normal,” healthy person who’s never pulled an all-weeker or had cause to call a suicide hotline — and it’s worked. But to a small extent, it’s also replaced the stress of unchecked mental illness with the knowledge that something I love has gone away, possibly for good. After years of misery, I broke up with my muse, and even though I know she was bad news and I was terribly unhappy when I was with her, I can’t not miss her and long for the good things we had — because when it was good, it was fantastic. Knowing that I did the right thing in locking her out doesn’t make that feel better.
Right now, my hard drive is home to three novels, two novellas, and a screenplay, all basically untouched in the past three years. I recently revived one and have made marginal progress with it; it feels good to be able to write at all, but the writing is pretty bland, and being able to close my laptop and go to bed at a reasonable hour is disheartening. I don’t know how to write sane. Maybe it’s a skill to develop. Maybe it’s a lost cause.
I’m not about to go off my meds for the sake of regaining my muse. It’s something I’ve had to reassure The Boy about on a several occasions — that the thrill of that level of creativity isn’t worth everything else that would come along with it. He came along shortly after I’d gotten my psychopharmacological shit together, so he never saw how bad it really could be for me and how I would give anything to keep from going back there. What I’m feeling now isn’t a nostalgia for a dramatic and tumultuous past; it’s more the heaviness of lost love. I’m not going to cheat on my mental health with the crazazy. But you can’t blame me if, just once in a while, I look back on the good times and wish we could have remained friends.
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