I recently had an epiphany of sorts. Walking into a restaurant to join a group of acquaintances, I choked back tears. This night was different, as were these tears. These folks, who work with my husband, are wonderful, interesting, fun people who have been so kind to me over the years. But for so long I could not break free from my own world to join theirs.
I am bipolar.
There. I said it.
This illness, which in my case includes some schizoaffective tendencies, has been my jailer my whole life. I've escaped a few times, always to be caught up into it again. There are times when strangers invade my world and call me terrible names, ridiculing and mocking me. They threaten me and accuse me. Sometimes the strangers morph into someone I love and try to trick me into thinking that person does not love me and thinks I am a loser. The eerie sounds of a static-y old radio broadcasts are embedded in my brain and torment me when I try to sleep. I have seen and had conversations with the Virgin Mary — an arrogant claim, I agree, for why would I be singled out to have these sacred encounters? But yes, in my mind, they happened.
Most of my episodes have been depressive and can last for years. From the time I am able to remember, I have been overwhelmed by the world. Crowded rooms, noisy conversations, bright lights, busy schedules, stressful conditions render me helpless. As a child I would rock on my rocking horse or rocking chair for hours as a way of escaping the world. I would cover my ears, hide behind my mother, refuse to speak. I was timid and shy, not wanting to call attention to myself. There are many times when even the smallest of situations, like getting out of bed, are too much for me.
My manic episodes, in which the schizoaffective symptoms also appear, are shorter but no less devastating. I am suddenly on a high and convinced that I can accomplish great feats. This may not sound like a bad state of being, but the grandiosity becomes delusional to the point where one can hurt oneself or, worse, cause others great turmoil. For instance, I have no less than six book projects I am working on. For the past 30 years. I can't get them finished because my mind won't stop thinking of more important projects, like declaring myself a savior of mankind. During my manic episodes I have been reckless in many aspects of my life — to the point where I have ruined friendships, strained my marriage, scared my daughter and confused my family.
Some of us lash out at others, especially the ones we love the most. Others, like me, abuse, blame and torment ourselves. We self-flagellate as if we were a medieval saint. We are sorry, imagining that everything is our fault. We can't imagine anyone wanting to be near us, which in turn causes us to be unreachable. We cry a lot and abruptly run away from situations or people we are uncomfortable with. We are not just in a hole struggling to get out. We are in an impossibly small underground cavern that's rapidly filling with water.
This is why the epiphany I had when I walked into the restaurant is so important. I am encouraged that the treatment I have been receiving all these years allows me to stabilize for longer periods of time, and it gives me hope that someday I can be freed from it. After years of trial and error in finding the right combination of medications, they now appear to be working together. I feel like I can breathe. I know from experience that my meds can stop working and this respite could end, but I will enjoy this time, my family and these friends. For just now, if I cry it will be for all the right reasons, a needed hug, a sentimental song, an unexpected smile. It will be for love.
Kim Flinchbaugh is a former librarian and freelance writer who lives in Palm Harbor.