Chapter Seven: Becoming Bipolar, Becoming Empowered

Written Spring 2011

A newfound acceptance of my bipolar diagnosis during the winter of my freshman year at Harvard filled me to the brim with a sense of rejuvenation. Within the first few weeks, I’d eased into a relationship with my new doctor and felt a comfortable rhythm and flow in our sessions. It quickly became my second nature to speak about my deepest, darkest secrets openly and easily to this other person, the gravity of what I was saying feeling less and less emotionally immediate to me and more and more like I was reading from a script about someone else’s life. I prided myself on my ability to maintain a calm, cool demeanor while discussing the things that pained me most, as though I were a scientist putting my psyche under a microscope for dissection.

I acclimated to life as an outpatient at McLean Hospital with ease, learning exactly how many minutes it took to get to the ‘T’ station from my dorm, how to gage the amount of time it would take the 73 bus to chug along its route to Belmont, and how fast I’d have to hoof it to get up the hill and to my doctor’s office on time. The hospital’s maze-like underground passageways had once loomed foreign and ominous in my mind—especially after seeing them in the film version of Girl, Interrupted on countless occasions—but in what felt like no time they became familiar and welcoming. If I happened to have free time on my hands, I’d wander the cement halls, the squeak of my sneakers on the shiny, glossed floors the only noise other than the occasional buzzing of a dying ceiling light, and I’d feel like I was at home.

I found solace in the knowledge that cures were being discovered behind the locked doors I came across at every turn, that the infamous monkey labs were helping the greater good and the medication trials I saw flyers for on every corkboard were all in the name of science. ‘Have you been diagnosed with bipolar disorder?’ ‘Are you currently depressed?’ ‘Do you have social anxiety?’ I would more often than not silently nod to myself, feeling more and more reassured that I was exactly where I was meant to be. The resolutions to these posters’ questions all lay in medication trials, most of which came with promises of cash reimbursements or free therapeutic treatments. Of course I was depressed. Of course I was anxious. And, yes, I had bipolar disorder. ‘Finally,’ I’d think, ‘I am going to be taken care of.’

After years of fighting the inevitable, I was ready to turn it over to the experts. A sense of belonging started to seep through me as I realized that I was becoming a part of this hospital and its history. I didn’t have to feel terminally unique anymore. I didn’t have to hide who I really was underneath my numerous façades. McLean Hospital understood me and offered me the promise of a solution. I embraced the idea of becoming a patient, of incorporating DSM language into my vocabulary, of talking about myself as having symptoms and needing treatment and living with a disease.

I no longer entertained the idea of fighting for my personal agency by washing dissolved pill capsules down the drain the way I had as a freshman in high school years before. This time around, the act of taking medications quickly became a completely ritualized process: the fingers on my right hand knew exactly how tightly to grasp the orange-brown bottles. My left palm became expert at putting just enough pressure on the top of the cap, my thumb holding it in place, as it was squeezed just right and the safety was released, next lodging the cap firmly in its protective nook while it gave a little twist to remove it from the bottle. My right hand knew how to ever-so-slightly tip the bottle over, holding it between my thumb and middle finger while giving it a few firm but gentle taps on top with my second finger, the pills perfectly slipping down the sides and landing in the cupped palm of my left hand, which also knew how to throw the pills straight to the back of my mouth just right so that I no longer needed a sip of water to guide them down my throat.

The dulled click of pills on plastic became as familiar a noise to me as the sound of my own breath. Feeling the weight of the bottles in my hand and giving them a good shake, my own pharmaceutical maracas, came to fill me with a new sense of ease; these inanimate objects were breathing life back into me with each dose I ingested, a feat I was sure I couldn’t do on my own. The sticky note on my mirror reminding me to ‘take meds’ became obsolete and was discarded. The physical act of pill consumption became completely automatic; I breathed, I ate, I drank, I took medications. No longer premeditated, no longer a decision to make or not to make, this robotic sequence of simple motions between my hands, fingers and mouth became an unconscious omnipresence in my daily life.

To those who had known me from the beginning of the school year, I quickly evolved that second semester into an entirely different person. I drastically cut away at my social life, feeling sure that being alone would keep me out of trouble. I made it my mission to attend classes regularly and to complete all my assignments. I found myself a regular at the last coffee-shop left in Harvard Square that still allowed smoking indoors. I’d sit on its second floor, mirrors coating the walls, my little round table piled high with hours’ and hours’ worth of empty coffee mugs, expired cigarette butts, and notes, in a zone of determination and focus. I was full of purpose, no longer floating adrift at sea amidst the wreckage of my past.

I was convinced that this burst of productivity was directly the result of being put on medication and of accepting my mental illness. I knew that I would undoubtedly have continued to flounder had I not made it to McLean Hospital. The medications were allowing me to feel stable. They were giving me the ability to focus, to have confidence in myself, to get on track. Although I’d catch myself wondering here and there how these tiny capsules had so much power, I’d quickly push the thought to the side, not wanting to play mind games with myself. Who was I to question their effectiveness? In those first few months, I came to believe with my entire heart that if I took whatever medications my doctor prescribed me and met with him regularly, my misery would be resolved. If I embraced being bipolar— if I became proud to be bipolar—I could surely have a fulfilling and rewarding life.