When I was eight years old, I would lie in bed at night and pray for a torrential thunderstorm that would knock out the power at my house. When that happened, I would leave my bedroom, the one with the adhesive glow-in-the-dark stars that speckled the ceiling, and I would huddle with my family of four in my parents’ bedroom. My mom and dad would light dozens of candles, and as I drifted off to sleep, the soft glow from the flames would wrap itself around me like a warm blanket. I would feel safe; that warmth was a comfort that wouldn’t flee at the first sign of something scary.
My mental illness is an entity that, before I knew what it was and who I was, spun me into its web as a fiber of distortion. I felt so alone and yet so at ease with the chaos, as it was all I had ever known. The lows were nearly unbearable, but I found comfort in them, as I knew there would be sunlight waiting on the other side. The highs, however, meant darkness lurked. It was a cyclical storm I fought with valiant courage, but one I could not change without help. I never let adults in, so those who tried to help me were young and ill-equipped. It swallowed me up and set me into a darkness that I would someday come to know as bipolar disorder. Marching deeper into oblivion, I became enveloped by a disease that controls you and can destroy you if you don’t learn how to take it back. As it gained momentum, it obliterated everything I wanted to love about myself, and I was drawn toward toxic relationships that only perpetuated the problem. Life became a constant struggle, and I sank to the very bottom of the ocean with my feet chained to the decks of a sinking ship I didn’t know I was on. I became destined by the nature of its force to be controlled, and sometimes drowned, by the disease.
Until I was diagnosed as bipolar at 22 years old, I walked through a distorted landscape that purported to be life, my every step controlled by a beast whose name I didn’t know. And what is most frightening—it never occurred to me that I was drifting further from the world I had once known. I experienced sharp highs and devastating lows at such high frequency, it seemed there was no in-between. At one moment, I would feel elated by the smallest things, and at the next, I would truly believe my life was crashing down on me. As I sank, I tried to grab hold of anything that might stop me—sports, risk behaviors, social events—but that only stalled the impending horrors. I never knew what brought me to such a place of despair, but suddenly I would find myself there.
Before I was diagnosed, the safest place I knew was the driver’s seat of my car, which cradled my back as each crisis worked its way from the inside out. The nylon was resilient to constant stress and absorbed the sounds of my sadness without judgment; dreams and secrets lay idle in the vents. When upset, I cut X marks into the faux gray leather with a razor, despite the understanding it always showed me. My bathroom floor was also no stranger to my struggles. I liked the way the cold tiles felt on my hands, which swelled up like it was July as I slapped my frustration into the floor. I knew if I turned the faucet to the right, I would reliably get cool water to splash on my face and erase the signs of another hour on the floor. Sometimes I rested beneath a sheet of bathwater and looked up at the obscured ceiling until the sting forced my eyes shut. It was not unlike the rest of my days spent walking with an empty sense of awareness, hoping if I boxed up my feelings they’d cease to exist.
I would come to blame my swollen eyes with big dark circles ringed beneath them on year-round allergies. And I would further massage my image through subterfuge: I would constantly text my friends self-deprecating jokes, playing to their laughter, all the while suppressing feelings that would burst to the surface at night—in the form of night terrors—as my brain unleashed physical violence upon my body.
Throughout college, I experienced intense pain, yet I was totally unaware of how this was affecting me. I became apathetic, compartmentalizing guilt and anxiety to the point that I was isolating myself from my surroundings. Defeat by mental illness is not romantic, despite how it’s positioned in popular television. It’s a slow, agonizing deterioration, which in my case would manifest in eight hours of sleeplessness and trudging to classes where I struggled to process what was being taught. My bipolarity taunted me without a moment’s relief: I watched passively as it blanketed my world.
Until, all in one moment, I told myself I’d had enough.
After I graduated, I couldn’t take it anymore. For days, I stayed plastered in what felt like a terminal state of paralysis; a disease controlled—and threatened to destroy—me. I was infiltrated by symptoms of other mental illnesses at this point; my bipolar now co-occurred with a severe eating disorder. I don’t know if it was the numbness, disinterest, or lack of remaining fight that had me convinced I was too weak to persevere; and this terrified me. It’s not just fear that prevents help-seeking; it can take time—sometimes decades—to comprehend the physical, emotional, and behavioral implications of a one-or-two-word diagnosis. Fortunately, I was among the lucky ones who finally realized recovery was possible. I reached out to a friend who talked about therapy frequently, and I made an appointment with her therapist. I was quickly diagnosed with bipolar disorder and an eating disorder. I found comfort in putting a name to such an excruciating experience; it meant I could finally learn how to combat my symptoms.
I never realized how severe my eating disorder had become; it crept up as I tried to regain the control bipolar took from me. Soon after finding my first therapist, I was sent to an eating disorder specialist. My vitals were taken, and I was told I’d die if I continued down the path I was on. I’d come to prioritize my rigid routine over preserving and nurturing my very existence, powerless to diseases that thwarted any rational conception I had of myself.
My struggles with eating manifested in ways that seemed bizarre on the outside. I ordered two Starbucks drinks just to have one sip of what I really wanted, and trashed the drink I viewed as “rule breaking.” That one sip would haunt me for days to follow. I also overexercised, and my knees soon suffered from the constant running. I ran through emotional anguish but soon found I couldn’t run 10 miles a day forever; I had to choose my body.
For the first time, I felt free. The inherent power in vulnerability, in facing the insecurities that flattened me, was suddenly a means to survival.
After years of work, I recently hit a milestone: 50 pounds gained since beginning treatment. It was scary, but I was proud. The pounds clinging to me like a foreign body I once wished to abandon are years’ worth of accomplishment; radical resistance to the greatest fear I know. What matters to me now is that the food on my plate tastes good, and that my heart still beats by the love that surrounds me.
As I became more comfortable with my diagnoses and my understanding of self, the news broke that Robin Williams had died by suicide. I decided to write a short Facebook post about the tragedy. It appeared to be a distant tribute to an amazing person but was truthfully a semiconscious expression of what I was secretly battling. The post revealed the receptive nature of people in my life when dialogues about suicide and mental illness arise. I felt safer with my own story and, over the next few weeks, shared a series of increasingly revealing posts about my own battles. For the first time, I felt free. The inherent power in vulnerability, in facing the insecurities that flattened me, was suddenly a means to survival.
I had 1,500 friends on Facebook and very little attachment to them. After a cautious first approach, I made an intense series of proclamations, well on my way to total transparency. I received a message from a friend of a friend, who had seen my writing. She told me how it inspired her and that someday she hoped to find strength to share her own story. Quickly amassing dozens of similar messages, I was captivated by the support and encouragement I saw. I was told my writing helped thwart pain and suicidal thoughts. I shared photos that were the epitome of “no filter” and branded myself as the antithesis of social media normalcy; an approach to visibility that makes me both a “threat” and deeply human at the same time. It displays one instance of what the media calls “mentally unsound,” because giving anything less than a smile can be poorly received after years of institutionalized bias. From a young age, we’re told strength is to never reveal vulnerability, with no place for tears and laughter.
Beneath it all, most of us are wired to act with compassion and empathy, even if these virtues get forgotten.
My therapist was pleased with my decision to speak out publicly but still felt I should go on medication. Growing up, no one spoke of psychiatric drugs and, in the absence of rational knowledge, I believed they were reserved for bad people; so at first, I adamantly resisted. I worried meds would steal both my depressive episodes and the few things I like about myself: my compassion and appreciation for the spaces of my world that still had light. Pill bottles sat on CVS shelves until it was apparent I wasn’t coming for them.
As I came down from the high of public advocacy, the lows set in again. I realized medication might be necessary and challenged my discomfort by trying a pill called Pristiq. In just weeks, I started to become a pleasant emulsion of positive experience and the wisdom inherent to struggle. When I saw the effects of my meds, I stopped apologizing. I could laugh again and it wasn’t fake. I conquered my list of “forbidden foods” and found that perhaps my worth was not contingent on my size or “discipline.” In time I felt equipped to disregard invasive thoughts that told me I was worthless. On July 10 of this year, I will celebrate what I call my “Pristiq-i-versary,” marking four years since I went on my SSNRIs. The decision sent me on an absolutely awe-inspiring trajectory toward survival—2014 was the year I “started living.”
We are programmed to think mental illness is only a can’t-get-off-the-couch affliction. I contended with that mindset my whole adolescence, avoiding school by clinging to the headboard of my bed. Who I am now is a product of years of training. I’ve worked to get myself out of bed when it feels like I’ve been filled with hot cement, and to write when my mind is on fire or barren of thought. Despite severe depressive episodes, I am a very “high-functioning” bipolar person. This is what my life looks like: Even with the help of medication, my “invisible illness” leads me to overcommit constantly and makes me jittery and forgetful; sometimes I appear to be just another overachiever on too much coffee. But in moments of high stress, an intense crash will surely follow. I can run 15 miles but struggle to focus 45 seconds of my attention on an urgent email. On those 15 miles, I will run to my audiobook because I can’t allow myself two “unplugged” hours. Busying myself is a solid defense mechanism for avoiding lows, so onward I go with failed attempts at leisure time. Grabbing a Pilot pen, I record everything I need to accomplish in the next 12 months to feel adequate. Naturally, I set myself up to fail. Being productive gives me a momentary high to ride until I crash or produce something else. When I am drained and come up short, I get down on myself and blame a lack of competence. Creativity is innate to some of the most tortured people; the late David Foster Wallace and Robin Williams erected timeless works from a fight they both shared.
At times, I’ve let the disease have its silence back. Over the course of a week, I walked 74 miles and it still wasn’t enough to release me from apathy’s grip. Sometimes I am so volatile that my ears ache at the sound of a pin drop; the friction of a cotton shirt is enough to make me quake. I jump if I’m tapped on the shoulder, and I wake up shaking. My candor has given me power of influence and little regret, but sometimes I still spend 30 minutes spiraling, piling reason upon reason that I’m a burden. Sometimes indifference—the evil byproduct of sadness—runs after me until I let it in.
I write about the sweet taste of stability often, but it’s only fair to reveal the full picture. It has taken me years to erect asylums that feel secure. I’ve written a road map for every circumstance—“how-to guides for avoiding isolation”—because I know where I go when things get hard. I’m armed with snacks, books, shoes, and music to conquer any mood, but some days reveal that nothing is infallible; not an orange bottle of pills, not me or my disaster plans. This, not just the highs, is what defines the sometimes-chaotic process of recovery. It is not a “quick fix,” and healing is accepting that things may never fully change. Rather than pushing back on that reality, we must chug forward and divorce comfort for courage.
For me, life has become a quest to understand pain and why it exists. I am constantly impressed by the human capacity to reshape pain; to make something beautiful out of lost time. Life is about the good, the bad, and even the in-between, because it reminds us how much more we can feel. Mental illness will never let you have immunity, but it will strengthen the system within you that fights back. I smiled through everything for two decades until I finally realized that if someone really loves you, they’d rather have you in a heaping mess than not have you at all. They’ll meet you at the door with eye drops if it’s what you need. You don’t owe it to anyone to be full on the outside if you’re empty on the inside.
Of course I worry about unraveling again, and I know my transparency about it brings solace to my fellow sufferers who fear they could freefall back into darkness. In some way, we unite as we confront trepidation together. Mental illness lives in each of our worlds, however close in proximity. It lives among troubled kids with dysfunctional families from ailing towns, just as it does among girls from Connecticut with privileged families. I wonder from time to time how I became twisted in its grip; why the flashing lights and unfamiliar faces, the cold sterile walls and monitors, the leather chairs, and gray skies.
The difference now is that I wouldn’t change it, for it has elevated me to a place I never knew existed.
Lindsay Wheeler ’14 is a writer and mental health advocate. She speaks at mental health conferences around the country—most recently the National Association of Mental Illness’s New York State Education Conference—and blogs at lswheeler.com, where she has attracted more than 20,000 readers.