I was sick this weekend. Not the sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching kind that afflicts so many commercial actors and NFL players. Not the had too much fun Friday night and spent the weekend mourning my liver and wishing I could cut my head off of my body because that would hurt less. Not the XX-hour flu that tries to determine if your stomach can be turned inside out and negates the need for sit-ups for the next month. This was more like herpes.
I don’t have herpes (except the cold sore kind). But I do have bipolar and I’ve used this analogy before. I’m viscerally averse to going into details of the darkness of bipolar because, well, I hate pity. I feel strongly about not using my disease as an excuse for poor behavior, whether it’s hurting someone’s feelings or fucking up a project or hating everyone in the world once I start driving. To ensure that I’m not dismissed (or assumed inferior) because I experience the symptoms of an illness no one can see or even comprehend, I don’t talk about the lows.
But after this weekend, I am going to tell you what it’s like in the dark. There are so many people silently suffering and there are too many people who have no idea what people with mental illnesses experience and therefore dismiss or assume them inferior. The ignorance and stigma are touching all parts of society, from poverty to gun violence to the penal system and still no one talks about the elephant in the room. And so, let’s get pachyderm.
When starlets are admitted to the hospital with exhaustion and it eventually turns out they are mentally ill, they aren’t really lying. Exhaustion is the first and most overwhelming symptom. Upon waking Saturday morning, I already felt the weight on my chest. Getting out of bed and into the recliner felt like a major accomplishment worthy of a medal or at least a certificate with quality paper and color printing. Despite sleeping 9 or 10 hours, I felt like I’d been awake all night. My eyes featured the expected bags and circles associated with fatigue or a date with Chris Brown. If someone had seen me in that state, they would have just cause to believe I was a zombie and should have alerted the authorities (AMC).
The exhaustion doesn’t leave; instead, it’s joined by its partner in misery, pain. Yes, physical pain is a symptom of bipolar (and depression). It’s similar to the dull ache of the flu (in fact, I took my temperature, thinking I had waited too long on my vaccination), but tighter. My body naturally curls into the security of the fetal position and my muscles twitch like they are shaking off a spider. Stretching has the effect of getting a freshly unrolled poster to lie flat. Whatever temporary relief results from my made-up version of yoga is as delicately held as a snap bracelet. I’m wearing layers not necessarily because I’m cold, but because it feels like extra protection against the cerebral demons.
As this was a particularly difficult episode, there was the sobbing – for no particular reason. Like a toddler past her naptime, the tears are merely the manifestation of the inevitable surrender. It comes from deep in my chest, tears that don’t start at the eyes but at the gut, and there is more heaving of shoulders than shedding of tears. Dumb & Dumber is on the television but it may as well be Schindler’s List. There is only one thing left to do: go to bed.
I have to take Valium to sleep on the best days (my insomnia goes back to childhood). An extra V for a deep sleep (my psychiatrist knows every detail of my pharmaceutical usage, so don’t worry about the extra 5 milligrams) is well worth it. I don’t drift off to sleep. I plunk into it like an anchor.
The epilogue: I felt a little better on Sunday but still not well enough to leave the house (besides an unavoidable trip to the grocery). By yesterday, I was in much better shape besides some spaciness that will linger until my Ritalin dosage is adjusted. I cancelled both appointments that I had on Saturday, both of which were good and fun appointments, not the dentist or car maintenance. But as I remind myself in the lows, this too shall pass.
This post will probably surprise some people – the people who generally just see the goofy, cheerful, vivacious Dale who is as essentially me as is this weekend’s Dale. It will really surprise the people who don’t know much about mental illness. To those people, let me add: while my bipolar is severe, I am about as stable and healthy as is possible. This weekend happening 1 to 3 times per year is the best-case scenario for a person with bipolar disorder. And I am a rare bird among the flock – most struggle far more intensely and far more often. I am one of the lucky ones.
Mental illness is a chronic disease. There’s no cure. It never goes away. There is no combination of medicine and therapy and stress avoidance that will eliminate weekends like this. I often say that bipolar isn’t necessarily fatal (although it can be – it has the highest suicide rate of any mental illness), it is terminal. You will have it until you die. Just like herpes.
More quick facts about bipolar can be found here if you’re interested.