Writing Away the Stigma: ‘You can be so quirky’
Nine people shared stories of their mental illness in Pittsburgh in May as part of a Creative Nonfiction Magazine project to fight the shame and embarrassment that often accompany the illness, which is estimated to affect one in five Americans each year. The Tribune-Review printed excerpts from some of the essays May 31 and has published full versions of six of them online.
“What exactly happened that brought you here today?” Dr. Vaswani asked from his large leather recliner, peering down at my mother and me swaying on our fraying wicker seats. Behind him was a wall-sized photograph of the Taj Mahal; plastered on the right hand corner next to a poorly pixelated column was a picture of a yellow rubber ducky. I would’ve sworn I was hallucinating. It was the strangest backdrop for a psychiatrist’s office, but my mother saw it too and was equally confused. Dr. Vaswani was the answer to our prayers; the primary prayer being an answer to the question, “why is Rachel crazy?” and the secondary prayer was that he could give us the cure. And even though I was hating every minute of this visit, sitting there riddled with self-loathing, embarrassment, and shame, I was glad the doctor had asked that question because I wanted to know, too. I had done a lot of crazy things, especially since turning 17. Which was the one that tipped my parents concern? Was it the secret long walks I felt compelled to take in the middle of the night? The crooked cuts that appeared on my legs, so many now that they were difficult to hide? The fact I smoked weed once in awhile, sipped vodka occasionally, or took someone else’s prescription pill? Maybe it was my clandestine and bizarre attraction to Princess Diana, which had developed for unknown reasons? I crossed my fingers hoping I would not have to explain that last one.
“She thought she was on a TV show,” sighed my mom.
I will never forget that face. That look of worry and love all jumbled together too complexly that I could never distill one from the other ever again. The day I realized my mom would forever love me with worry in her eyes was the day I realized my TV show was officially going off the air.
Okay, so I launched my own TV show. No big deal. I grew up in a household that adored female talk show hosts. From Rosie O’Donnell, to Oprah Winfrey, to Ellen DeGeneres in later years. These strong, smart women had overcome adversity — they were pioneers of feminism on television, they were engaging and entertaining, they made people laugh and they were role models to all of us. It didn’t take a genius to realize that this was a path worth pursuing. Luckily, I was a genius so I decided to make it happen. I would start small but eventually change lives on prime time television.
“Dad, what kinds of peas are these?” I asked my father one night at dinner during a live taping.
“I don’t know. Green! I thought you liked peas?”
“I do but I need to know the brand.”
“Why do you need to know the brand?”
“Because if I don’t know, how will everyone else!?”
Uh oh. In that moment the “Rach, you can be so quirky” look I had grown accustomed to seeing on my parents’ faces was replaced with furrowed brows and pensive stares. I had only wanted to rave about the peas for my dedicated audience so they could buy the exact same kind and reap all the same nutritional benefits that I was consuming at the Kallem family dinner. But when I said it all out loud I realized that it sounded crazy. I sounded crazy. It had made so much sense before and I believed it with all my heart. Having a studio audience made me feel real and purposeful in a way I had never felt before. It finally felt like I fit. After being haunted for months by the unsettling feeling that people might be watching me, the enraptured fans tuning in now were my welcomed guests. But with a thunderous roar reverberating in my head, so loud it drowned out the audience’s applause, my completely-real-to-me architectured world came crashing down with the realization that I must be crazy. I was crazy, stupid, and shatteringly devastated. I hoped no one would take serious notice of this cognitive transgression and in utter disgrace I put the writers on hiatus and dug my slightly rusted scissors out of my dresser drawer, fully aware that I was back to collecting cuts and raiding medicine cabinets. Unfortunately my parents noticed and since I was nowhere near as mesmeric as Oprah, I never met a casting agent or an interested executive; instead I met with Dr. Vaswani, the man who would be my psychiatrist. At our visit he told me I had bipolar 1 disorder and needed to take medication for the foreseeable future.
You’ve got to be rubber ducking kidding me. Not only was I an insecure, overweight teenager and a failed aspiring talk show personality, but now I was also certifiably insane. A long ongoing list of my erratic behaviors was filed in my psychiatrist’s office and all I wanted was to be normal like everyone else. The worst part of it all though was that I’ve always hated peas with a passion.
If you want to grossly simplify it, bipolar disorder is all about alternating moods. Except these moods, or emotional states, are extremely heightened versions of the feelings most of us experience every day. My cycling emotional states were classified as hypomania (the fun Rachel who I think everyone adores), mania (the high-energy, do-it-all Rachel who doesn’t notice the quizzical looks), psychosis (the Rachel who is torn apart by terror that no one else can see or understand), and depression (the Rachel who can’t bear it any longer).
Dr. Vaswani prescribed a long list of pills that promised to take away the ache and help me manage my symptoms, but the combination of capsules and tablets left my brain feeling damp and foggy. My thoughts became too thick to think and, worst of all, my hypomania and mania, who had made me feel so light, sparkly, and TV-worthy, all but disappeared under the weight of these mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. Losing hypomania and mania felt like losing the best parts of myself. I figured I was miserable either way, so why should I forfeit the one thing that made me happy? Holding firm with this rationale I flushed my medications down the toilet and resolved to make things better on my own. I had willpower and discipline, I could do it. [I extend my sincerest apologies to the highly mellowed out fish I inadvertently sedated in the Chesapeake Bay.]
Despite my parents’ concerns, after graduating from high school I attended college about two hours away from home, which is where I first tasted how sweet life could be with minimal adult supervision. In my newfound collegiate freedom, Mania truly shined. She became the beacon of light in the Sisyphean cycling of my illness. Mania blessed me with electric emotions, erotic ideas, and brilliant behaviors, which while they may have been clinically considered symptoms of my sickness, were divinely exalting for me. She gave me the confidence, and carelessness to channel the diva I always hoped I was and emboldened me to do whatever I wanted. Why not? I was marvelous, sublime, and lust-worthy. The Psychosis and Depression always loomed, so I enjoyed the Mania while I could. Thankfully, college made that pretty doable seeing as I could easily schedule my daily agenda around my Mania. Her never-ending energy and outright refusal to recognize that the real world has consequences enabled me to stay up all night, eat next to nothing, bask in the glittering glow of my own perfection, and for as long as I could I harnessed my Mania to keep myself in motion. Something definitely felt off, but my parents cautiously accepted that I must be “okay.” My grades were good, I saw my therapist and psychiatrist regularly, and I called home every week. But were things “okay”? No. Leading this double life, a crazy party girl masquerading as a sane model citizen, placed so much pressure on my brain that, unbeknownst to me, I began to splinter.
My drug of choice was particularly potent and highly volatile. It comes highly individualized, tailored to meet the exact needs of each addict. It speaks to you so personally and reads you so accurately that it is nearly impossible to turn down. I liken the special effects of my personal batch to exuberant fireworks whizzing and popping in my skull. When I’m submerged in its aura everything is electric and I am a beautiful, unpredictable livewire. How can I possibly say no to this feeling? Especially considering I get it for free. I cook up this magnetic high in my own cranial chemistry set and thus it is beyond easy to slip into this shameless, hazardous addiction. I willingly take the euphoria, the invincibility, and the immortality that leaves me feeling completely divine. At 17 when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder my Hypomania was alluring and intoxicating. However, in the whirlwind that was college, my Hypomania rocketed from a somewhat manageable blissful state to full blown Mania. Mania brought miraculous feelings, sensations, realizations, and abilities that I never knew I had. Mania and I truly made for a stunning pair. I think somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew she would eventually kill me, but oh what a majestic, spectacular death it would be.
I once spent 72 hours, the weekend before midterms my junior year of college, researching the most notorious serial killers in the history of the United States. Taken at face value someone reading about the gruesome crimes of John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Aileen Wuornos, is morbid and macabre but many people share a psychological fascination of infamous mass murderers. And most college students succumb to the sweet siren song of procrastination. However, after hours of intensive nonstop research, Googling related horror stories, surfing sinister Wikipedia pages, and watching chilling YouTube videos, I became incredibly paranoid, fearing for my life, and I didn’t sleep much for almost two weeks. I was so stricken with anxiety and tormented by the seemingly very real fear that someone was trying to poison me that I only ate packaged food for two months. But a college student living on cheap, packaged food seems kinda normal, right? I could feel the rusted corners of my brain turn to clotted dust but I thought from the outside looking in I was a convincing college student. I could keep this up.
The summer before my senior year of college I intellectualized my ingenious investment strategy of funneling my parent provided allowance into the George Foreman Grill market. No one in their right mind needs eight George Foreman Grills, but I was just pretending to be “ right,” so it seemed like a brilliant way to “spend money, to make money.” The logic was certifiably sound, at least to me. Will George Foreman Grills ever be recognized as legitimate currency? Hell, no. Do George Foreman Grills depreciate in value over time? Hell, yes. They’re just novelty infomercial gadgets. But when I purchased all eight, I honestly felt like I was planning wisely for my future. It took almost six years to pawn off all of those grills but I was 20, had my dad’s credit, and while it was ill advised and kooky, no one was hurt. Not even my credit score. It seemed sane-ish.
But it is terrifying to lose yourself to an illness that courts you one minute and buries you the next. The times I’ve been admitted to the hospital my psychosis was controlling me like a rattled puppet and I saw scrapes and scars on everyone and in every mirror and my eyes felt devilishly unfamiliar. I was frantic and terrified because nothing was real. And then suddenly in the very next moment everything was too real and it was really bad. People were trying to poison me and trick me into killing myself. I couldn’t see them and no one else could either but I just KNEW they were tucked behind every corner, dodging behind every shadow when I whipped my head around. I thought about God and Jesus and Princess Diana and how my teeth had betrayed me with their hidden microphones carved into yellowing enamel and their speakers glued to the under belly of my tongue. And it was just hard to think straight and steady a thought long enough to make sense of it before it whizzed away and sparked, lighting a tiny fire in the corner of my mind that eventually raged and roared and left my head engulfed in wildfire. My brain was a bonfire. I was psychotic and all alone, abandoned in an inpatient unit. Where was my intoxicating Mania now?
This is my bipolar disorder.
* * *
“I love you.” The first time he said it we had only been dating three months. Visiting my parents’ home, canoodling in my childhood bed, propped on his elbow, his eyes cast on my face he said, “maybe it’s too soon to say this but, I love you.” My old bedroom built into the second floor of a typical suburban house has periwinkle wallpaper and glow-in-the-dark neon stars plastered erratically across four walls and the ceiling. That night the room was radiating soft neon light like always but I was tucked in bed with a warm body that was keeping my cold self, safe and cozy. I beamed and told him I loved him too as I traced my fingers across the faint scar decorating his lower lip. He slipped playing Power Ranger tag when he was 10. It took me some time to share the stories behind my scars, but when I did he listened patiently, held me close, and loved me wholeheartedly. We fell in love madly and deeply, as 20-year-olds do, and drunk on trust I told him everything about myself, my disease, and the dark feelings that festered in my stomach. The honesty and openness was liberating and the fact he accepted me made me rethink how I felt about my self. Spencer helped me transform shame and silence into love and understanding. We went to different universities in different states but we spoke on the phone every night. I was a fourth year in college and I hadn’t taken my medication in years. Orange prescription bottles lined the circumference of my bedroom floor, still stuffed with pills and topped off with cotton. I had to keep refilling my medications because if I didn’t my parents would know I was going off the sanity grid.
Three months after our camp out in my childhood bedroom he said, “I can help you, Rach but you have to want this. You need to make this decision.” Spencer’s voice was eager yet supportive over the phone. I clutched my old Nokia that was crammed into a slightly too-small white plastic case dotted with cherries, and my confidence faltered for a second. My left hand was filled with the magic number of pills that promised to bring me back into myself, but I wasn’t sure who that Rachel would be. Part of me was convinced I wouldn’t love her and no one else would either. Back to a body marred with immeasurable flaws and inexcusable fatness. Reunited with a tattered heart destined for loneliness and a malfunctioning brain that would make anyone embarrassed. All of this stuffed inside the sullen frame of an insecure teenager who was desperate to be normal. At that moment I wasn’t sure who the real me would be, but I knew Bipolar and my dear friend Mania were no replacement for a real relationship. They are not human. I knew for certain I loved him more than I loved Mania. But I didn’t think I loved myself enough.
Mania, with her effervescent sparkles, her complete lack of doubt, her polished charm and tantalizing charisma, helped me discover a body so beautiful that it deserved to love and be loved without apologizing or second guessing. Mania gifted me with treasured feelings of unparalleled excellence, cosmic importance, and incomparable brilliance. With her I wasn’t normal, I was extraordinary. But I was a danger to myself. The sobering truth I had successfully denied since I was 17 soon became harder and harder to ignore, especially after stints in the psych unit. While my Mania felt magical, opulent, and worthwhile, it had a deadly expiration date. Mania was deliciously otherworldly up until I was catapulted into the terrifying atmosphere of Psychosis only to be viciously plunged into the murky depths of Depression. Mania made me feel electrically alive but at the risk of hospitalization or even death. Was it worth it? Was I worth it?
I fingered the chalky pills in my palm that the FDA pledged would patch me up, but I had never given a chance before. These pills would end my love affair with Mania, snuffing out her hypnotic open-all-night neon light. I wanted to fall in love with the boy on the other end of the phone who wasn’t my savior but who could quite possibly be my soul mate. I whispered to myself a soft and scared “you can do this.” For the first time in my life I decided I had to try and love myself without Mania’s candlelight vigil. And before I could change my mind, with one swift movement, I popped six pills in my mouth and drowned them with a glass of water. They left an unpleasant aftertaste on my tongue. I pressed my cell phone against my cheek and stated, “I can do this.” I was really going to try this time.
* * *
I haven’t seen the inside of a psychiatric ward since I was 22 because I refuse to let mental illness become my life. Yes, my life is much more “boring” now but that’s because when it comes to managing a mental illness the everyday details are far from exciting or sensational. My self-care may look like trivial routines, monotonous habits, and meticulous patterns woven into every day life, but this gritty hard work is the lifeblood of taking your life back.
I don’t want to be sick.
Hypomania, Mania, Psychosis, and Depression are all parts of the same serious illness that tells you, you are worthless. Parts that antagonize your anxiety, prey on the darkest fears tucked in your heart, and escalate your deterioration until Princess Diana is the only guardian angel you understand. I can’t have Mania in isolation, it is a package deal, which is why bipolar disorder is not a divine gift, it is an illness.
And I am not a diagnosis.
I finally understand that I have a mental illness, and I will always have it. And while that isn’t “ok” it is my reality and I accept it. But that doesn’t mean I only exist as a bipolar person. On the contrary, this is my life and I don’t let bipolar disorder make my decisions anymore. I love the strong woman who lives at the center of each episode, who never leaves because she knows it gets better. I love the empowered woman who responsibly owns her mental illness so it begins to disrupt her life less and less.
I love myself.
I’m better when I’m not sick.
I am carving out a future that is defined on my own terms based on the decisions I make every day. My future is bumpy yet bright.
Even without my George Foreman Grill fortune.
Rachel Kallem Whitman, 31, lives in Morningside. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.