I’m eating Cheerios for breakfast, and contemplating the small plastic pill box sitting in front of me. Seven days of psychotropic magic. Unlike my evening meds, the morning ones are small and easy to swallow. But the thought crosses my mind, as it so often does—why am I doing this, exactly?
After too many of them, the hospitalizations start to blur together. Sparse double bedrooms with doors that you’re not allowed to shut. Showers that turn themselves off every minute or so, so that you have to keep pushing a button to keep them going. Rules against having anything sharp, against shoelaces, against pens, against personal electronic devices such as cell phones or laptops. That last one makes life particularly challenging. One or two payphones for the unit, with stiff competition and time limits. A common area with a television which, except during groups, is on almost constantly. If you aren’t all that fond of television, it’s likely to drive you crazy. Crazier, I mean.
And of course, other patients, some in hospital scrubs and some in street clothes, often the same thing every day because quite frequently these hospital visits aren’t planned and you aren’t prepared for them with things like changes of clothing. Some of the patients are completely withdrawn. Some never stop talking. If you’re lucky, you might feel a connection to someone else, be able to talk to them, and that will make a big difference in the quality of your stay. Staff who range from perky to tired, some of whom seem completely fake, but some of whom genuinely care and will take the time to listen to you. Psychiatrists who strut by, easily identifiable because they are dressed in business clothing and carry loads of binders. They will see you for maybe 15 minutes a day, but they will be the ones who decide whether you get to leave.
And, above all, boredom. Groups you attend not because they are particularly helpful, but simply because there is really nothing else to do. Being chastised for staying in your room and reading, because sitting in a lounge and watching television with other patients is what is considered appropriately social. (Hiding too much in your room is a bad idea; the more you’re out and about, the more likely you are to get discharged.) Waiting impatiently for the single hour in the evening that you’re allowed visitors, which is far and away the highlight of the day. Your visitors think you oddly cheerful for someone in a psych ward. What they don’t realize is that you’re just practically giddy to see someone that you know.
The hospitalization thing is a routine that has become all too familiar to me in these last few years. But that’s a pattern I’m trying to break. It’s been over eight months since I was last hospitalized. For me, that’s a significant amount of time. I want it to be longer. I want it to be forever ago, to be looking back and saying, yeah, I had a few rough years there, but that’s over now. That’s all in the distant past. I want to be done with this rather turbulent chapter in my life. I am trying to balance the reality that there are no guarantees about the future and that I may need that level of help again at some point, with a determination to nonetheless do what I can to stay moving in the other direction.
And I am proud of these last eight months, which represent a lot of emotional work. Mental health is not an easy thing to maintain. The bipolar is always there, lurking, ready to draw me out of whatever stability I may have found. And I have to admit that there are ways in which it is enticing. There is much to be said for being at a middle place, not too high or low. It definitely makes for a calmer existence. Yet I kind of hate it. I miss the intensity that comes with a roller-coaster emotional life. It makes me want to stir things up. To play with fire, just a little. What I have to remind myself is how quickly that fire grows, and how much damage it can do.
So I am learning. Learning what it means to live in an un-depressed state. It scares me, honestly. I’ve spent most of my life depressed; it’s a familiar frame through which to see the world. I am used to living under a shadow of constant dread that I will not be able to take the next step forward, that I simply will not survive. My default is to plan an end to what has so often been a deeply painful existence. It’s a new thing to play with other possibilities. It’s a new thing to be serious about this whole life thing.
I want to be clear about something. I am only able to even contemplate this unfamiliar landscape of health because of a combination of meds and therapy. I have not pulled myself up by my bootstraps, or overcome despair with a positive attitude. I have worked, hard, on issues of mental health. But I could not—and cannot—do this on my own. In addition to meds and therapy, I have been incredibly lucky when it comes to the people in my life, both family and friends, who have been there when I have needed them, who have not freaked out or withdrawn in response to issues like these, who have offered nonjudgmental support.
My dissertation dealt with the narrative construction of identity, and I think a lot about the stories where I locate myself. I’ve never felt like I fit very well into the narratives of Mormonism. As a young woman, I wasn’t actually all that interested in planning my future wedding and coming up with qualities to look for in a future spouse, nor was I particularly enthused about the possibility of future motherhood, and the things I learned in church didn’t always seem all that relevant to the reality of my existence. I wasn’t sure that the church was in fact meant for people like me. This sense of feeling like I don’t fit has only intensified as I’ve gotten older, and haven’t followed a traditional life path. I’m single and childless—not to mention gay. And I’d like to say that I don’t care, but the reality is that sometimes church can be excruciating, with all the ways in which it communicates to me that I have failed at what really matters. I actually like my ward quite a bit, but the institutional messages are hard to escape.
One way I dealt with this over the years was to find refuge in educational achievement. Maybe I was a failure at church, but I could be a success at school. Through many years of grad school, I defined myself as an academic, and felt like I had a place there. I loved what I studied, and it was okay to be passionate about ideas. Nobody cared about my marital status, and asking hard questions about things was expected. I don’t want to overly romanticize academia, because there were also ways in which it made me question my worth and abilities, wonder whether I would ever be good enough. I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome. But it was nonetheless an important source of identity for me.
Then I finished my PhD, and wasn’t able to land a job even after several years on the market. I knew the statistics. I knew that there are way, way too many PhDs for the ever-shrinking number of existing jobs. But I felt like a failure. People, especially those outside of academia, would express bafflement that I considered myself a failure after having done something like completing a PhD, and I struggled to explain it to them. In an academic narrative, a doctorate isn’t an end in and of itself, but is supposed to be the beginning of something else. When it isn’t, having made it to that finish line isn’t actually that much consolation—at least, it wasn’t for me. Graduating, then, proved to be the catalyst for a crash. I felt like an utter failure in both of the worlds where I primarily located myself, in both academia and Mormonism. Looking back at the situation, it doesn’t surprise me that I fell apart.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about fifteen years ago. I am bipolar two, which means I get hypomanic rather than manic—hypomania being essentially a milder form of mania—and that I have more lows than highs. Even after all this time, and a fair amount of evidence, I have not entirely accepted this diagnosis. There is always that voice at the back of my head telling me that I am making the whole thing up, or that I need to just get over it. That’s one of the reasons why it’s challenging to take my medication. I’m not convinced that I need it. This is the case despite my having plenty of experience with what happens when I go off of it. I imagine that from an outside perspective it seems obvious that I just need to stay on it, but things are not so clear in my head. I have this fantasy that I’ll stop taking it and it will turn out that I’m just fine without it.
A lot of people close to me also deal with mental illness and have been on various meds. Sometimes they go off of them and manage without them. When that happens, I feel a twinge of guilt, of self-recrimination. Why can’t that be me, I wonder. I read articles about how Americans are being crazily over-medicated with psychotropic meds. And I feel bad for needing them. I wonder whether it’s a personality flaw of some kind. Even though both professionals and friends attempt to reassure me that in my case, I actually need them, that they’re treating a real illness, I still wonder. But then again, as I said earlier, I’m trying to stay out of the hospital—and not taking my meds is a quick way to sabotage that particular project.
I’m still struggling to locate myself. If I can’t live up to the expectations of the church or the academy, who am I? In the last few years, I feel like the narrative of mental illness has taken over my identity. I’m beginning to emerge from that, I think. I hope. I’m exploring unfamiliar territory. I’m back in school, but studying something drastically different. I’m not planning on an academic career anymore. It’s scary. I came out about a year and a half ago, and I’ve barely begun to process what that means for my life. That’s scary, too. I feel like I’m wandering without a map. My therapist reminds me that I don’t have to immediately figure out everything, that it’s okay to go slowly, to take things one step at a time. I try to believe that.
I would like to say that ultimately I can ground my identity in the fact that I am a child of God, that that’s something stable. And sometimes I do in fact feel that. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner wrote that only the love of God is able to unite all the disparate bits of a human life. I think about that when I think about the stories that constitute identity, and about the different and sometimes competing narratives that we both tell about ourselves and find ourselves in. The love of God is powerful and inclusive enough to embrace all of it, all of the fragments and contradictions. When it comes to religion, I have all kinds of questions and unorthodox beliefs, not to mention a lot of anger and frustration and feelings of alienation. But I do believe in God’s love, which has been a force in my life strong enough to challenge my toxic assumptions about the meaning of failure and success. It’s a love, I find, as stubborn as I am. I don’t feel that all the time, of course. But when I do, it makes a real difference.
Still, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this much uncertainty and disorientation about life, in so many areas, in so many ways. Much of the time, I feel like I’m in free fall. I don’t know where I’m going to land, and whether it’s going to be a crash. But here I am, still alive, and that means something. This story isn’t done yet. So I’m going to finish breakfast, take my meds, and see what comes next today.