A Madness Memoir ~ Part One
I’ve just made a cup of coffee. It smells delicious - rich and comforting, spiced with a pinch of cinnamon, made creamy with almond milk. The cup is hot in my hands, steam warming my face, my perpetually cold nose tip. I am enjoying each and every sip - the scent, the taste, the experience. I feel happy. Buzzed. Mildly giddy, actually.
And then suddenly, for no apparent reason, I’m on the verge of tears. Correction - It would seem “the verge” was an optimistic assessment, for now those tears are rolling quite determinedly down my face. And all because I never thought a cup of coffee would ever be enjoyable again.
I re-read those words. And sigh. I hate this. Writing about depression is difficult. Not because the memory of it is too painful or distant to conjure up, but because when those words are staring back at you in plain ole’ black and white - the script of depression is painfully melodramatic.
“I never thought a cup of coffee would ever be enjoyable again” - Oh, you poor, overwrought white woman. Complaining about the lack of pleasure derived from your caffeinated beverage as people are tortured daily by the effects of wars and famines, racism and classism, misogyny and sexual abuse. I’m finding it difficult not to roll my eyes at my own words. So I will take a second here and own my privilege - I am luckier than most in many areas. But I have struggled in ways that will feel familiar to the millions of people that battle daily with serious mental health conditions. And, clumsy and melodramatic as it may seem, I will now soldier on with my attempt to describe the experience.
The point is not that I couldn’t enjoy a cup of coffee - the point is that I honestly believed and felt from deep within that I did not possess, and would never again possess, the ability to find enjoyment in anything at all. Getting out of bed at any point in the day was a momentous task. Feeding myself was an ongoing struggle. So the effort required to make coffee? To grind the beans, boil the water, plunge the french press, add the milk? To drink it down without deriving any sort of joy or satisfaction or energy? And then to know I’d have to wash the cup afterward? Depression renders life into a whole series of tasks that one really can’t be bothered to do.
Needless to say, I haven’t experienced the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee in several months, and I am feeling very grateful indeed for this one. Grateful that I am here, finally ready to tell you a story. This story begins with a disclosure.
On the evening of August 31, 2016 I was admitted into psychiatric care in the throes of a manic episode. I definitely didn’t see that one coming. I had absolutely no reason to. No history of mood swings or bipolar patterns, no reason to be afraid of feeling too happy, too excited, too energetic.
Hypomania is much easier to spot in hindsight. Some people around me had been getting slightly concerned in the week or so prior, but there was also a significant amount of denial happening. I had always been solid, responsible, dependable. And it’s difficult to adequately question someone who’s verging on mania - cause they’re always so damn certain, so sure of themselves. I really miss that part.
It remains a personal decision how to relate to madness. That doesn’t mean we need to romanticize mania or indulge psychosis. These are extreme, and potentially dangerous states. They deserve serious consideration. But the people experiencing these states are still people. People with inherent worth and value. People who are sometimes confused. Who may make poor decisions. People who need help. People who need the right kind of help.
We need your patience. Patience while we figure this out. While we figure ourselves out. While we examine both sides of the coin. While we delve into the deep unknown. You don’t need to understand exactly what’s happening, you need only witness it.
The human experience can encompass powerful altered states of consciousness. Many people explore these through the use of mind-altering substances or practices, perhaps entering deep meditative or trance-like states. These can reveal both exciting possibilities and intimidating threats. Threats made scarier if you didn’t intend to venture into this territory, if you accidentally fell in. This accidental exploration can still have value, however: Depression might enforce some much-needed rest and recuperation. Paranoia might be a message about abuse or trauma that needs to be addressed. Manic states can be an escape from oppression in order to discover deep personal truths. We’ve all experienced some variation of these states - Doesn’t falling in love feel like going crazy?
It remains a personal decision how to relate to madness. There are often complicated social factors at play, such as trauma and oppression, fear and judgement. Interpretations involving a person’s sensitivity or a spiritual experience must remain a valid means of understanding and integrating these events. We must honor the needs of each individual and let them guide their own paths towards recovery and wellness.
We deserve to be treated humanely. We deserve help, not humiliation and more trauma.
We deserve to write our own definition of normal.
Can madness not be like any other human challenge?
Can it not be viewed and experienced as an opportunity to grow and to transform and to learn and to see?
So why does the mental health system sometimes make a “diagnosis” feel like a life sentence? Why is the priority getting me on psychotropic medication, as opposed to exploring my experience? How am I supposed to integrate my history if I can’t focus, can’t think, can’t feel?
And how will I ever learn to understand this? To make meaning from it all?
Because that is what I desperately need - I need this to mean something.
The meaning handed to me by a psychiatrist is clear - your brain has an illness, a dysfunction of certain neurotransmitters. The events that occurred during your episode are not worth thinking about or remembering as they will only embarrass you. The best thing to do is to take your meds and try to get back to your ‘normal’ life as soon as possible. There’s nothing more you can do - talk therapy could never prevent psychosis... there’s been some promising studies about the use of Omega 3 fish oils - I suppose there's a chance that may be helpful.
Somehow, not surprisingly, this isn’t enough for me. Because mania wasn’t just haphazard insanity - there was a little of that, to be sure - but it was also the most rapid and exhilarating learning experience of my life.
Do you remember?
It was like a brilliant flash of lightning. It illuminated everything, let me see further than I ever thought possible. It was an instant opening, the most all-encompassing “aha!” moment. An instantaneous mass download of all of the information I could ever need, answers to all of the questions I never thought to ask. I saw connections everywhere, life existing in a state of perfect balance. A perpetually self-regulating and divine system, unimpeded by the muddling of ordinary humans. In fact, there were no ordinary humans - I saw the most amazing potential in every person I encountered. And the feeling of mania - pure ecstasy. Total exhilaration. Unbounded joy. Infinite energy and enthusiasm.
The absolute certainty that the world is a safe place, the safest of places. That we live within a universe conspiring to shower us with constant blessings. The certainty that I have a purpose, that you have a purpose ~ a brilliant purpose. That we are becoming exactly who we were born to be. That we have all of the gifts, all of the connections necessary to succeed. I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, exactly who I was - worthy, wise, wonderful, visionary. And I felt ready to help everyone else achieve that as well.
Ecstasy felt like a birthright. Like we were born to dance through life. Soaring felt so completely right - I had absolutely no desire to come down. It felt like the more I could let go - of my desire to control, of my attachment to outcomes, to material goods - the higher I could fly. I was leaving food for the birds outside my window, offering thanks to dead relatives, and giving all my jewelry away to my siblings.
I lit candles and burned sage, washed and purified - cleansing and clearing, lighter and lighter, higher and higher. It felt like I was peeling off layers, learning more and more with each level, insights coming to me as sudden jolts of understanding. Visceral, true insights into human nature, medicine, life itself. I rejoiced in dancing and movement and play and discovery. Coloring and writing and drawing. Making teas and herbal and homeopathic concoctions. I was ready to heal the whole damn world.
It was like a glimpse, a preview - a vision of the most beautiful and perfect possibility brought right into the here and now. But nothing lasts forever. And mania is the most unsustainable of all, despite how easily one could develop an attachment to it.
It’s hard for me to know what my come-down would have been like had things been different. Whether the ensuing depths of depression were caused by the height from which I came crashing down, or the experiences I endured on the way. At least the what-ifs that plagued me for half a year have finally faded away. It is what it is, it happened as it happened, I have survived.
I survived experiences I never could have expected.
Like being wrestled to the ground by armed men - police officers.
Like being held down, handcuffed, cheek digging painfully into a filthy rubber doormat.
Panting, struggling, biting and clawing.
Begging to no avail - my sister, my mother, my husband
A lifetime’s worth of champions - to please, please help me.
Desperate, screaming and crying - Please. Help. Me.
Bound wrists, bound ankles - painfully tight.
Lights in the ambulance, blinding bright.
To the emergency room, with ever-present four-point restraints.
The rough and unimpressed security guards and nurses.
An invisible doctor - never saw his face as he evaluated me from across the room, no need for personal interaction. No need to ask what was happening to me, he was busy informing my family that I was clearly a meth user.
Ignored, restrained, less than human - for hours and hours on end.
Tie her up, hold her down, muffle her screams, expose her hip, inject her.
With what? Who knows - it certainly wasn’t with consent - once, twice, maybe more.
Pain is controlled by the person with the power, the nurse bearing the needle and the command that “It doesn’t hurt that much.”
Eventually moved, down hallways, full of questions, no answers coming.
A cold grey cell, a mat on the floor.
Wrestled down, held down, clothing cut away - naked, vulnerable, impaired, powerless.
Collapse - sobbing, violated, and finally exhausted.
A night in solitary confinement.
The rough and rude awakening, clank of a meal tray, haze of medications, utter confusion.
Mouth so dry, tongue so thick, vision so blurred.
Slurring questions, no answers coming.
Confused, drugged, alone, afraid.
Power, pride, personality stripped away.
I’ve always been careful about what I put in my body. I was a picky eater as a child, and as an adult I buy organic, read labels, research the ethics of the products I ingest. I’ve taken for granted the right to decide what enters my body. Who touches my body. Unfortunately, psychiatry doesn’t concern itself with consent. As soon as you’re proven to be out of your mind, you’re not able to give consent about anything anyway. Involuntary admission. At least then they don’t make you wear the ID bracelet. Everyone already knows the craziest patients by name.
It’s quite the experience to be less than human. To ask a psychiatrist what kind of pills they are handing you, fully expecting an answer, and maybe even a stack of drug information printouts with the side-effects and dosage clearly listed. I definitely wasn’t expecting to have that security guard pointed out instead, to be told that if I wouldn’t choke down the cup full of mystery pills, and do it quickly, that large man would be making me. I wasn’t expecting to be told, “No, I didn’t” as I informed the male security guard roughly cutting me out of my clothes that he had, in fact, touched my breast.
I never expected that in my adult life, so many rules could appear without the slightest explanation or reason - don’t cross that red line on the floor, you can’t enter that room, you’re not allowed a toothbrush or even a set of clothing. I was once again a child, this time with authority figures who had no desire to elaborate, to help me to understand or to feel safe or validated.
I was 7 years old, being taken from the scene of a horrible car accident. The oddest sense of deja-vu, and then suddenly reliving it all over again. Instead of listening to the raving of the angry drunk driver, how odd that I was the one raving loudly inside an ambulance. I had forgotten how mortifying it was to have my pants cut away to reveal a broken leg, until I was fighting the guards cutting my shirt off. In stark contrast to being calmed by the gentle euphoria of morphine, I was rendered comatose by large doses of antipsychotics. But the underlying fear of the hospital, the drugs and needles; the sensation of terror and complete powerlessness - was all eerily familiar.
People experience much worse than this in the name of psychiatry. I have a friend who lost months worth of memories to electroshock treatments, lost a year of her life to inpatient care. For me, worse was the stigma and fear of mental illness - which caused me to lose connection to a whole community, to lose friends, to lose a mentor. And for endless months, I also lost myself.