Category Archives: Default

Chapter Eight: Forget Happiness… I’ve Got Control

Written Spring 2011

At no moment in my childhood– whether in those weekday hours after school spent exploring the woods with my dog, or on the early Sunday mornings in winter when I champed at the bit to get to center ice, anticipating the sight of my condensed breath in the air as I lined up for the puck drop, or on those countless Friday night sleepovers with best friends in which we’d play sardines, eat too much candy, and wreak typical, innocent havoc—would it have seemed conceivable to me that one day I’d grow up to be a young woman with a mental illness.

But there I was, in the early stages of college, dragging myself desperately out of my teenage years, searching for and needing an answer to my personal struggles. In the first of what was always said would be the ‘best years of my life’, freshman year in college had drained me emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. I had been beaten down, mostly by my own hand, into an inchoate mass of feelings, thoughts, and core values that no longer made any sense together and that had left me on the verge of a complete breakdown of self. But with an answer, a dazzling ‘Truth’ that I had now come to believe had been there all along but that I’d stubbornly, proudly refused to acknowledge— that I, Laura Delano, had bipolar disorder—I had finally started to put together the pieces of my chaotic life.

Incorporating this one word, ‘bipolar’, into my vocabulary of self suddenly allowed me to feel like I could become whole again. It was as though all the entropic chaos– the constant confusion and frustration and desperation that I’d lost the meaning of my life somewhere along this tumultuous path and that things would never again make sense– was calmed, neutralized, and defused. The dust began to settle, and I believed it would be for good. By feeling the solution this diagnosis provided sweep through me, filling every empty hole of my being with an answer, I suddenly had the confidence to go on. It would take an entire reconfiguration of my beliefs about normality, about acceptability, strength and weakness, and pride, but I knew that it was vital to my existence that I take on such an endeavor. I was bipolar whether I liked it or not, and what I did with this knowledge was now entirely in my hands. I could let it break me down even further, rendering me powerless, helpless, and stagnant, or I could embrace it, shape my concept of self around it, and refuse to surrender to the social stigma I saw, and maybe even felt a bit of, in the environment around me. I chose the latter.

I now saw that my life had been ripped apart by this insidious disease, the shreds of sanity lying at my feet, and I began to live my life with one goal in mind, oriented not towards happiness, serenity, or contentment, but towards control. I became determined to regain everything I’d lost throughout my years of personal collapse and decline resulting from this mental illness. I chose this goal because it was tangible, visible, and measurable– I could see my progress with my grade on a paper, my weight on a scale, the length of my run along the Charles River. And unlike happiness, an intangible sensation whose origins seemed indefinable to me, control was black-and-white, promised me results, and made me feel like I was finally achieving purpose in my life. Controlling the ramifications of my disease made me feel worthy.

As the months went by, I reduced my life to its bare essentials, which, in my mind, included my studies, my psychotherapy and medications, my exercise, and my restrictive diet. I shut out friends and substances almost entirely from my life, with the exception of a sporadic and usually intense binge during which I’d spend an entire weekend or vacation actively socializing and thus confusing friends who hadn’t seen me for ages, only to retreat back into my hole without a word of explanation. With each of these reappearances from isolation, I’d show up changed, my body significantly more thin and my personality significantly more hollow, as the months went on.

I had come to firmly believe that having friends, these once-essential facets of my life, were now unnecessary for and even destructive to my newfound purpose. If I didn’t use all of my reserves to strive for control, I’d collapse again, and I couldn’t risk such a consequence. I was no longer fighting a diagnosis; I was now fighting the disease. Relationships with others simply became too exhausting and complicated for me. The emotional bonds I’d thrived on in high school to keep me feeling grounded and alive had transformed into superfluous baggage that needed to be discarded. I had become my own version of an ascetic, determined to reduce my life only to the components that were connected to physical and intellectual performance. I was convinced that I’d left behind my escapism and had now connected with my true inner self, though I was still unsure of what that was. Becoming bipolar gave me the direction and purpose that I was sure I’d lost during years of refusing the diagnosis.

As time wore on and I moved through sophomore year of college, happiness became a distant memory, and with each day that passed, I forgot about it a little bit more until it became a nonentity in my daily thoughts. It had receded into the dark horizon of my mind, glimmers of it fading until they were indistinguishable, and finally, completely extinguished. The child that I’d been, that girl who’d been able to experience excitement and passion for life, became separate from me. I no longer related to her, remembered her as myself, or even thought fondly of her anymore. I was a different person. Happiness wasn’t in the cards for me, and that was OK. My life didn’t need happiness in order to have purpose. I was stoic, brave, and proud to be suffering daily with this disease.

I began to see happiness as an indulgence for the emotionally greedy that I no longer had a desire for. The thought of even acting like I was in a good mood, let alone actually being in one, made me squirm and twitch with discomfort. I convinced myself that being in such a state meant being ‘fake’; experiencing happiness was unnatural to my being and therefore wholly unacceptable to my personal integrity. A subtle and perverse sense of arrogance that I, as this emotional martyr, was stronger than ‘normal’ (mentally healthy) individuals because I’d been dealt the bipolar card and all its resulting adversity began to stain my perspective on the humanity that seemed to so vibrantly circulate around me. I became perpetually ‘separate from’ everything external to me, convinced that all those mentally healthy people did not have the capacity to understand me because they didn’t have a DSM diagnosis. I began to envision a barrier keeping me from the rest of the world, the only people who had the capacity to permeate its walls logically being others who suffered with mental illness.

Initially, as my doctor and I spent most of our sessions attempting to flesh out the cause of these existential issues, my medication regimen of an antidepressant, an on-and-off antipsychotic, and sleep medicine remained pretty uncomplicated. As time went on, however, dosages began to increase, and by spring of my sophomore year, an antinarcoleptic was added, as I began to have trouble staying awake during the day. My inability to fall asleep at night because of racing thoughts, however, required that I take a sleep medicine seven days a week, and at a dosage that was doubled what it had started out as. My antidepressant dosage had tripled by the spring, as well. I continued to take my antipsychotic sporadically, on an ‘as needed’ basis. By the end of my sophomore year, I had left the antipsychotic behind and was being medicated for depressive symptoms, narcolepsy, and insomnia.

The figurative tightrope of medication, the length of which I’d now fully accepted as being life-long, had been swaying ever so slightly since beginning my treatment, with slight wobbles here and there. However, a storm had moved in, seemingly out of nowhere, and I was to begin my fight for balance amidst the oscillations that had begun to progress in intensity by those spring months of my sophomore year. ‘Side-effects’, ‘counter-balancing’, ‘evening out’, ‘adjusting’, ‘fixing’, and most often, ‘increasing’—these words were starting to infiltrate the conversations with my doctor about the status of my med regimen. I was assured that increased dosages would mean increased effectiveness. I assumed, therefore, that decreasing dosages would mean decreased effectiveness. Who was I to question medicine? I’d think to myself. He’s a doctor. He went to Ivy League schools. He is backed by objective science. I reminded myself that I was at a hospital that was considered to be the elder statesman of psychiatry. I tried to convince myself that the insomnia at night and the lethargy during the day were caused by my racing thoughts and depression, respectively, brought on by being bipolar. They started to feel more and more normal to me, and I stopped thinking of them as side effects. They simply became who I was. With this willed ignorance, I simply bought a bigger bag to hold my pill bottles, and continued on.

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.

Chapter Six: A Disease of Dis-Ease, and New Hope for a Cure

Written Winter/Spring 2011

On the day I arrived as a freshman at Harvard in the fall of 2001, I dropped my belongings in my dorm room, said goodbye to my family, and realized, once alone, that I had no idea where I was. I spent that first night on campus wandering around Harvard Yard in a zombie-like daze, like I’d just woken up from years of sleep. Of course, I knew where I was literally, but psychologically and emotionally I was completely lost. I’d applied to Harvard without any consideration of what my feelings were about it. I had believed it was what I was supposed to do, what I’d trained and studied and disciplined myself over the years for; whether or not I felt in my heart that it was the place for me was irrelevant. I knew how lucky and privileged I was to be at such a highly esteemed institution, but immediately sensed that something wasn’t right. I was filled with dis-ease, with a fundamental sense that I wasn’t meant to be there. I felt more disoriented than I’d ever been in my life.

I spent that fall semester spiraling further and further downward into a vortex of self-destruction and darkness. By this point, I had no question in my mind that I was seriously unwell, for I was constantly harming myself physically, psychologically, and spiritually. I was sure that the major depression I was experiencing was biological in nature, and I’d come to the belief that this mental illness was the sole cause of all of my struggles. To me, alcohol and drugs were my only stabilizing forces, and escapism became my central focus. My class attendance was poor, I was constantly sidelined from my varsity sport by injuries, and I was going out until the wee hours of the morning most nights of the week. I was floundering and knew it, but did nothing to pull myself together. By mid-fall, I’d surrendered myself to my mental illness, convinced that I’d never be normal and that it was impossible for me to ever have happiness or inner peace. They just weren’t in the cards for me, as my disease was physical, like diabetes or cancer, and out of my control. Each and every fiber of my being had become completely resigned to a life of chronic mental instability. It became the only thing I held to be true in my world of uncertainty and confusion.

After a winter vacation laden with substance-induced trouble and complete mental turmoil, I reached a tipping point. Something needed to change if I was to avoid complete and utter self-destruction. One night, I had what felt like a true awakening. It dawned on me that there was one valid answer, which had waited silently and patiently for me throughout the downward spiral of my teenage years. I needed to get myself into psychiatric treatment, and fast. How had I been so stubborn for so many years? How had I not come to this realization sooner? There was so much that could have been avoided, so many rock bottoms that I never needed to have hit.

I returned to school in January with a referral to a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in nearby Belmont and a new lease on life. A few days later, I got off the 73 bus, asked directions to the hospital, and found myself five minutes later standing before a tremendous wooded hill behind a brick guardhouse and aged iron gates. I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism as I trekked up the steep incline, pulling myself out of the trenches of my 18-year old life and into what I was sure would be a shiny, new world. The winding road emerged a quarter of a mile or so later onto what hit me as an idyllic scene. Rolling snow-covered fields guided my eyes upwards towards the crest of the hill, where several buildings, each in its own architectural style, looked down on me. I knew that, for almost 200 years, this institution had been at the forefront of mental health treatment, that most of the most groundbreaking discoveries in the field had taken place on this campus, and that thousands upon thousands of patients had come before me to be saved. The place had its own heartbeat; it seemed a pulsating, living being of mythic strength in my mind. I felt awed and humbled by the scene before me, excited, even, for the first time in as long as I could remember, and filled with a feeling I’d thought I’d forgotten– hope.

I left my first session with my new psychiatrist and called my father immediately, tears of joy streaming down my face. “I have good news,” I said. “Dad, he’s figured out the problem. Everything’s going to be OK. I’m going to get well.” Floodgates of relief were released; I could hear it in my dad’s voice just as I could feel it in myself. This doctor had told me things about myself I’d never put together before and informed me of the symptoms that had been there for years upon years that I’d pushed to the wayside and never let myself become aware of. He told me who I was in a way that felt more concrete than I’d ever conceptualized before. It was as though he could read my mind, as though I didn’t need to explain anything to him because he knew already what I was going to say. I had bipolar disorder. I’d had it all along, from the get-go. That psychiatrist from ninth grade had been right all along; I just hadn’t been ready to hear it yet. There was an answer. Twice weekly therapy and medications would right my ship. I was not a lost cause.

I couldn’t stop crying, as though years and years of tears had been gathering just underneath my surface, waiting for me to wake up, open my eyes, and see the truth that had always been there. I felt reborn. I felt alive. I let myself go as I walked back down that same hill towards the bus stop, a spring in my step and a grin from ear to ear, both of which were foreign strangers to me just an hour earlier.

Clarity washed over me like a soothing tide as this psychiatrist’s game-plan for me sunk in. Medications were my only answer. Those pills that I fought against years ago, that I once saw as enemies and captors of my free will, were actually my saviors. They were what could fix me; they were my only option. They were the white knights of science, the rational and logical resolutions to my completely irrational and illogical life. I was convinced that now I’d really found the missing piece to my puzzle. I was sure this time that I’d discovered myself.

Chapter Five: Filling the Void

Written Winter 2010

When I returned to boarding school in the fall of my junior year, I brought with me not just duffel bags of clothes, athletic equipment, and sheets and towels, but also an eating disorder. Up until a few weeks before school was set to begin, I’d never had a comprehension of what a calorie was, or of whether I was heavy or thin; body image simply wasn’t in my realm of self-perception. I’d never had issues with weight as a kid, nor had I ever had an emotional relationship with food. I ate when I was hungry, stopped when I was full, and thought nothing more of it. The entire world of rules and regulations—calorie-counting, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, numbers and measurements— had never infested my mind. My sense of self was completely unattached to the size and shape of my body.

Things changed, however, when I returned from a long trip near the end of the summer and was made aware that I’d gained some weight. With the flip of a switch, I suddenly became hyper-aware of my physical presence, and it became the central focus of my life. Almost instantaneously, I’d become convinced that my bodily appearance was a direct reflection of who I was, of my entire identity. I thought I’d discovered the missing piece of my puzzle. Finally, a tangible way to define myself! I no longer needed to ruminate in the far recesses of my mind, trapped amidst abstract and invisible thoughts and feelings, to sort out my ‘self’. I could use my body as a tool to sculpt my identity. Logically, the smaller and more compact I became, the more successful and worthy I could feel.

In the first few months of the school year, I dropped almost thirty pounds. The sicker I became physically, the more secure in myself I was convinced I felt. I was taken to an endocrinologist, who informed me that my body was behaving as though it were going through menopause, and that I’d need to go on hormone supplements immediately. When I got back to school, I put the pills aside and never thought of them again. I finally felt like I had a true purpose, and I wasn’t going to let a doctor tell me otherwise.

As my eating disorder took on full force, so did my academic perfectionism. My diligence in schoolwork was completely obsessive in nature. I’d essentially become a reincarnate of the girl I’d attempted to run away from a year earlier—the girl who defined herself by external measures like appearance, grades, and performance. I’d taken a few steps towards living in the middle of the road my sophomore year and decided it wasn’t for me. Being average—being normal—filled me with a feeling so unbelievably intolerable that I swung myself as far out to the edge as I possibly could. For it was only on the edges, only at the utmost extremes, where I felt I had any semblance of self. A pendulum at rest in the middle, to me, meant failure; equilibrium meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough.

Whatever illusions I had in my mind about being able to stay indefinitely on the side of restriction and rules were soon shattered when my emotions began to break through my once meticulously maintained and disciplined exterior. In my attempts to repress physical hunger, I’d given birth to an emotional hunger that was insatiable. I was constantly searching, grasping for an amorphous, indefinable thing that I couldn’t wrap my mind around but that embodied everything I wasn’t. It no longer seemed possible to sit with myself without turning to things outside of me to change how I felt. From food (by this point I’d begun to swing between phases of restriction and over-eating), to relationships, to alcohol and drugs, I was evolving into a self-medicating machine, constantly in a state of altering myself through external means. The only sources that never entered my mind as options at this point were psychiatric medications.

By senior year, I’d created an internal void that seemed to never be filled. Pleasure began to recede into the distance, and I was left feeling either entirely empty or filled to the brim by profound sadness. I felt like I was going through the motions of life without actually living, like I was sitting in the passenger seat of someone else’s car, moving towards a destination I wasn’t sure of. Miraculously, as I’d been able to do during my ninth grade year, I continued to do well academically and athletically, though I was emotionally disconnected from my accomplishments and felt as though I was going to a job every day. I continued to go on adventures with friends, though less often, but the moments of bliss and contentment that I’d felt my sophomore year were few and far between. I found myself feeling connected to others only when conversing about nihilistic frustrations with existence. These moments were often fueled by illicit substances, which allowed me to temporarily feel a warm fullness, comfort, and a sense that all could be right with the world.

I spent most evenings in bed early, having finished all my homework well before curfew, writing poetry fueled mostly by loneliness. I wrote about feeling like I was in a detached bubble, watching the rest of the world go on around me without feeling like a part of it. I wrote about yearning for something I wasn’t sure of, wanting desperately to be somewhere I wasn’t, feeling numb and cold and unsure of how to feel alive. I read Sylvia Plath. I listened to Radiohead. I raged against myself and against the world.

Up until this point, I’d mostly forgotten the language of mental illness I’d begun to learn before going away to boarding school. I now found myself needing an answer, an explanation, or a reason for everything I was going through. I began to think of myself not just as depressed, but as officially having a diagnosis of major depression. The kettle I’d put on the back burner, left to simmer for two years when I left my psychiatric diagnosis and medications behind in Greenwich, had started to boil again, pushing its way steadily towards the front of my mind once more. I had come to a point where I gained a sort of comfort in the belief that I fit into a category—bipolar disorder was still out of the question in my mind, however—and having major depression allowed me to feel like I belonged somewhere. Maybe I was sick of feeling alone, maybe I was confused, or maybe I yearned for an identity. Whatever it was, it was strong enough that I embraced the diagnosis of major depression with open arms, feeling like I’d come home to myself and could release some of the burden I’d been carrying on my shoulders.

Though I remained off of medications and out of regular therapy, I had taken a significant step closer towards the realm of the DSM. I had chosen to make sense of the experiences I was having as being ‘symptoms’ of a disease—the increasing isolation, the ruminative thoughts, the lack of self worth, the self-destructive behaviors—and suddenly I felt like I understood myself better. I had begun to coat myself in the paint of psychiatric language, suffocating the raw, pure experience of adolescent angst, both painful and numbing beyond belief but fundamentally human, beneath the first of what was to be many layers of pathologization.

I had thrown myself into a tidal wave of distortion that was to wash away any vestige of an unlabeled or un-medicalized identity and leave behind an entirely warped concept of self. I would arrive for my first year at Harvard that fall as an eighteen-year old girl unsure of anything about herself save that she had a serious case of major depression, still holding out from psychiatric medications but reaching a point of desperation.