My manic mind

My parents remember a  happy and well adjusted child,
but, as an adult, I have been riding the bipolar roller coaster

A bipolar life is one that involves an intimate relationship with medication.  (Video by Sarah Spisak. Click image to play.  )

Trigger warning: Some people may find this article upsetting ◊
By Gabriel Gauthier

IT WAS AN EVENING like any other in the hospital emergency room, when I walked up to the intake window and said, “I need help.”

The ER was a sterile wasteland. People sniffled and shifted in their seats, trying to ignore the others around them. Nurses slogged forward on their feet, overworked and exhausted.

That was August, 2018.

Now I’m out and living with bipolar disorder. This is not easy. For me, bipolar comes with challenges and hurdles that are impossible to get past.

But when I was a child, I was “a happy-go-lucky, smart kid,” says one of my mothers, Myshelle Bryant. (My father and two mothers are in a polyamorous relationship.)

At first, that was true. Most of elementary school was normal. Middle school is when things changed – I lacked confidence and bullies targeted me.

“You were the first one that started to seem to break down from that, and actually start to be depressed” childhood friend Sara Klem says. “You were the first one that I noticed out of everybody, because you were being bullied a bit, more covertly, like girls tend to do. But even out of the kids who were being physically bullied right to their face, constantly.

“Back then, it would be like a kid would be sad, then they would be over it, like that. But you were the first person I noticed out of everybody – even the people I can think of now that have mental health things – you were the first person I noticed. It might have been an effect of being so close.”

‘It hurts because you want
to help, but you can’t’

As the bullying got worse, so did the depression. I was frustrated by the lack of control in my life. One evening, when I was in Grade 7, I took a pair of scissors and pressed them as hard as possible into my thigh. It barely made more than a paper cut and probably hurt as much as one, but it was a form of control that I desired.

Soon, I graduated to a box cutter and moved from my thighs to my arms. Only a couple of my friends at the time knew.

“It hurts because you want to [help],” Klem says. “But you can’t, and you know you can’t take it away but you want to take it away. It’s like one wrong move you make could ruin someone’s life. I can’t ruin your life but I can’t let you lose your life.”

Cutting my thighs gave me a form of control. Click to de-blur; some may find image upsetting.  (Photo by Sarah Spisak)

Toward the end of Grade 9, I sought out help. One night, I pressed the box cutter to my thigh harder than I ever had. The thick red cut scared me.

A month or so after that cut, I went to one of my moms, showed her my scars and asked for help.

“I was upset at us for not noticing,” my birth mother, Tanya Gauthier, says . “Worried that we were doing something wrong. How can we help? What can we do? Did I do something wrong, because I had one drink when I was pregnant with you.

“Made me doubt, in a lot of ways, that I was a good parent.”

Therapy began with the help of my parents and a counsellor. I even went as far as changing schools. My parents dutifully kept an eye on me. But it didn’t work right away – and that is what I wanted. I wanted a magic fix.

Just as quickly as I had started therapy, I quit.

“It was very frustrating, because I did not think you gave it time to actually benefit you,” Bryant says. “I thought you shut down way too fast and did not give it the time that it deserved.”

It was hard on my parents, Gauthier says, because they didn’t know how to deal with me.

“I was unsure how far to push, to keep track, and how far to trust your word.”

Luckily, I was able to make it work. I put on a new persona at school, found a new identity and got better … ish. University loomed ahead of me. Most of my friends were scared for what would happen after they graduated; I couldn’t help but feel excited. It felt like a fresh start.

But it wasn’t that easy.

‘Anything that has stress becomes, in some ways,
a catastrophic event for you’

Post-secondary education made me fall off the bandwagon of mental well-being. With so many assignments, exams and papers – it was suffocating. I’ve always struggled with anxiety and perfectionism. At University that doubled.

“Stress has never been something that you have ever handled well, at all,” Bryant said. “Anything that has stress becomes, in some ways, a catastrophic event for you.”

It was a mild inconvenience in my first year. But in my second, it was a full-blown problem. In May 2017, my roommates dragged me in to see a doctor.

From the initial assessment, she concluded that I had an anxiety disorder as well as depression, and suggested therapy resources. She also started me on a low dose of an antidepressant – which was supposed to help me.

It didn’t.

My moods worsened and my emotions turned volatile. It was as if someone was flipping a switch on my brain and nerve endings. I went back to my doctor and asked her for more help. She referred me to a psychiatrist.

After a couple months of waiting, I got an appointment – Feb. 14, 2018, Valentine’s Day. I was a mess at the doctor’s office waiting for my name to be called, pacing up and down rows of chairs until the nurse asked me to sit down. Getting there a half-hour early obviously didn’t help. I was so nervous that, I thought for sure I had missed hearing my name.

Here I am (left) with my sisters. A typical, fun-loving kid with a dark cloud over her future.  (Photo courtesy Alissa Bremmer)

When the psychiatrist did call me, it felt like an anchor had been dropped in my stomach. I had a panic attack in his office as he was talking to me. Being a psychiatrist, he understood and encouraged me to take my time calming down. As we got into a pace of question-and-answer, I relaxed.

At the end of it, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest – but that I had “FREAK” stamped on my forehead.

He diagnosed me at the end of that session with Borderline Personality Disorder, Agoraphobia and either Bipolar II or Cyclothymia. A few months later – when my mood wasn’t stabilizing with a low dose of stabilizers – I was diagnosed as Bipolar II.

‘You’d be like so, so sad … And then, one day, you’d come in,
and you’d just be like, go-go-go-go-go-go’

There are three main types of this condition, on a spectrum of extreme to less extreme; Bipolar I, Bipolar II, and Cyclothymia.

Bipolar II is similar to Bipolar I in a lot of ways. Both are treated with a combination of therapy and medication, and both are lifelong illnesses. However, there is one major difference. Bipolar II people experience Hypomania instead of Mania. Which may sound like a small difference. In the grand scheme of things, it is not. Mania and hypomania are what bipolar people call the “highs.”  I experience hypomania instead of mania, ie. my ‘highs’ are not to the point that they represent a “marked impairment” according to DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition). I may get talkative, distracted and a little over-confident, but I don’t start thinking I can speak to God – or that I am God.

Klem recalls my switches clearly: “You’d be like so, so sad. So, so sad. So, so sad.

“And then, one day, you’d come in, and you’d just be like, go-go-go-go-go-go and this-this-and-this. And, ‘Can I have more math problems? Can I have more this? Can I have more that? Can I have more this?’ Smiling, on your iPod. Like, doing all these exciting things …

“And, then, a couple hours later, we’d come back from lunch, or come back from a class we didn’t have together, and you’d be upset again.”

I still experience depressive episodes, though. My friend, Molly Stogrin, describes them perfectly.

“When you’re down, it’s like you fell into quicksand and it’s almost impossible to pull you out of it because you just keep moving and the sand keeps pulling you down.”

After the first appointment, I saw my psychiatrist every month or two. We would fiddle with my medication every so often, and the quicksand started to loosen its hold on me. My emotions stabilized. My highs and lows grew less drastic. With more medication and therapy, things got better.

I began to feel normal.

But it all came crashing down one night in August, when my partner and I started to argue via text messaging. My old self-harming desires were stirring in my gut. But instead of cutting myself, I called Molly and went over to her place.

Then, the argument got worse, and I started to panic. The text messages became more and more angry, accusing me of being manipulative and harmful. Whether I am, I can’t say for sure, because I don’t remember enough and I’m biased. But it sounded as if we were heading for a break-up. I remember asking, point-blank, if that was the case.

The answer was, “Yes.”

‘I thought you were packing up your stuff
and then I look over, and you have a knife out’

It felt like someone had grabbed a knife and twisted it into my heart. Grabbing Molly, I sobbed into her. Everything was so painful. Even breathing. I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t just want control of the situation; I needed it to end. And there was only one way I knew how to do that.

Suicide.

I didn’t want to die. I never – ever – wanted to die. Not even as I did it. I just wanted relief and an escape. It was a bad decision but, at the time, it seemed like the best option.

Pushing myself away from my friend, I grabbed my bag and went through pocket after pocket looking for the penknife that I always kept on hand. I found it, opened it and was about to cut my arm open, when Molly stopped me.

“I thought you were packing up your stuff and then I look over, and you have a knife out and you’re about to cut your arm open,” she recalls. “Looking into your eyes, you were just so determined. You were looking at the knife, looking at your arm … And there is nothing else in the world.”

She grabbed my arm while another friend grabbed the knife. At the time, I was angry that they stopped me. In that moment, I was ready for the pain and whatever else was going to happen. I wasn’t afraid or nervous about what there was to come. If anything, I looked forward to it, almost in an excited way.

Looking back on it now, I can’t thank them enough for stopping me.

It took me a while to calm down after they took my knife away and hid it. I was still crying when I said I needed to go to the hospital.

I checked myself in without saying “suicide attempt,” because I didn’t really think it was an attempt at the time. I wasn’t trying to kill myself, I was trying to end the pain.

It didn’t click that they were the same thing.

My friends took me to the mental health ward and checked me in overnight. It is definitely an experience checking into one of those – invasive on levels that I hadn’t felt before.  Nurses go through your belongings before locking them up in a wooden locker in your room. Letting them do that without snatching my things back took all the self-control I had.

But, if that was what it took for them to help me, that was it. I needed to get better and I thought I was ready to let them help me get better.

Waking up the next day, I had second thoughts about staying in the hospital. I liked my freedom, and I still do, and the idea of not being able to control what I was doing bothered me. So I decided to wriggle my way out, and that was easy in a way it shouldn’t have been.

All I had to do to get out was give them
some well timed smiles, promises and nods

Because the phrase “suicide attempt,” wasn’t used, they weren’t legally required to keep me. All I had to do to get out was give them some well timed smiles, promises, and nods. I would be proud of myself if I didn’t know it was a terrible thing to be proud of.

The people in my life thought it was a bad idea. My parents and my friends disagreed with me leaving the hospital so soon, but could do nothing to force me back. So, I spent most nights at friends’ houses, sleeping on couches. Some nights were fine and it was more like a fun sleepover. Others ended with me crying myself to sleep.

But after August, my psychiatrist and doctor doubled down on the medication. I saw a therapist from Edmonton’s Crisis Team every week – until I could get another therapist.

I also came to accept that, while my ex-partner may think those things are true, I have my own truth and need to move on from it without letting it affect me.

Sometimes, looking back on it, I’m equally embarrassed and proud of myself. Most people might assume that I’m embarrassed about attempting to take my life, but I’m not – really. I’m more embarrassed that I wriggled my way out of the hospital when I should have been held for three days (the minimum number for a suicide attempt). I am proud of myself that I knew when and where to ask for help.

Am I better? Not by any means. I still struggle. There are times when I wrestle with suicidal thoughts,  and there are days where I can’t recognize if I’m happy or I’m hypomanic.

Over all, though, I think I’m working towards my normal. And that’s good. Because normal doesn’t have to mean mentally stable. Normal doesn’t have to mean perfectly healthy. Normal can just mean OK.

And I think I’m OK.

The Gauthiers, my large extended family, at the wedding of one of my sisters.  (Photo courtesy Natasha Haldane)

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