Chapter Three: At War with a Diagnosis

Written Fall 2010

I fought with all my might to prevent the vocabulary of mental illness from becoming second nature to me. I refused to accept that what I was experiencing was symptomatic of bipolar disorder. Depression, maybe, but bipolar disorder, most surely not. This diagnosis and the resulting requirement that I take medications fueled my anger more. Whether it was a lack of knowledge or maybe the accumulation of false knowledge about bipolar disorder (for I was never educated about it in school and only knew about it from popular culture), I intensely stigmatized it. People with bipolar disorder were ‘crazy’, and I was not. With each passing day, and with each pill consumed, I felt further and further away from being understood. I was increasingly more alone, trapped with my thoughts and feelings but fearful of articulating them to anyone lest they be used against me to further solidify my diagnosis. I might as well have been locked up in a padded cell and shackled, for that was exactly the way I felt.

I rarely took my medication, preferring to hide the pills in a jewelry case in my closet until I had a little stockpile, which I’d then hold under hot water, thoroughly enjoying the experience of watching the plastic capsules dissolve into a gelled mass in the palm of my hand before being washed away forever down the drain. To me, those pills represented defeat and a lack of control. I felt like I’d been forced to turn over my authority. These miniscule plastic casings full of white powder were silently putting themselves in place to run my show. I’d stand in my closet and look at them, angry that they were trying to take away whatever identity I had left and put in its place something false and artificial.

I was resolved to never take them as prescribed, but I didn’t have the courage to stand up to my psychiatrist express myself. It was as though an irrevocable decision had been made for me that was not up for discussion and never would be. Open conversation was out of the picture. Science had stepped in and given its answer, and who could refute science? I continued along in therapy making it seem as though I took the pills regularly. Although I’d always been someone with a guilt complex strong enough to break through a Fort Knox of psychological will, this deceit never made me feel guilty. If anything, I felt noble. These medications were the weapons of my enemy, and I had to do what it took to maintain my independence. I truly felt as though I was in a battle for my ‘self’.

Although I somehow managed to perform well in school and sports during my ninth grade year, that time period was one of tremendous internal unraveling. The last remnants of my psychological dam, which had been deteriorating for about a year, had now been ripped away by my surging emotions, which began to express themselves externally through self-destructive behaviors. I began to break rules I’d once told myself never to break, as I was meant to be a role model and example to my peers. Teachers and friends started to notice that something wasn’t right, and I stopped caring that I was no longer the put-together girl that I’d always worked to cultivate. I left behind my tomboyish ways, putting my baseball hats away and letting my hair grow long. I wore jewelry and makeup on weekends and started caring about whether or not I was noticed by boys. I left behind the girls I used to go on adventures with in the woods for girls who smoked cigarettes behind the tennis courts. I began to drink on weekends, making sure that I had access to alcohol at whatever party I went to. My reputation, along with my appearance, transformed. I was forced to meet with the guidance counselor at my school, who delivered the message that my teachers were wondering what had happened to the ‘old Laura’.

Although I came across as fun-loving to my new group of friends, I still felt the same feelings of anger, sadness, fear, guilt and shame underneath. If anything, they were magnifying. I’d unknowingly incorporated coping mechanisms– alcohol, in particular– that were undoubtedly fueling the fire. To me, however, they were what got me through. Getting to the weekends and to whatever plans my friends and I had come up with was the motivation that kept me going through my weeks. They were the only times I could forget about how unhappy and lost I felt, how utterly disoriented and destabilized I’d become in my own life, and for a few hours be carefree and lackadaisical. I’d discovered escapism.

None of these friends knew about my bipolar diagnosis, and I was able to temporarily forget, myself, that I was supposedly ‘sick’ and ‘in treatment’. I was still in a place where I could fully compartmentalize the notion of myself as mentally ill. It wasn’t what I was, and I was never going to let it be. The diagnosis remained in the utmost regions of my peripheral self. Though I was able to accept that I might be depressed, I couldn’t overcome the stigma of having bipolar disorder. I was not ‘crazy’. I washed the idea of it down the sink with the Depakote.

My self-destructive behaviors began to accumulate and intensify, as did the guilt and shame I felt around the situations I was getting myself into. A deep-down part of me knew that if I kept fumbling down this dangerous path I’d surely lose myself, and I had the wherewithal to make the decision to apply to boarding school. I believed that the only way I could save myself would be to strip away everything familiar around me and start afresh. Unlike their reaction to my wish to move to Maine a year earlier, my parents agreed that boarding school could be a good opportunity for me. I trudged through the rest of ninth grade knowing that there was light at the end of the tunnel. I had hope. I was going to leave my town, my school, my home, my psychiatrist, and my diagnosis behind and get a second chance at my life.