Well, not exactly in the way you might assume, though Nicki Minaj could probably turn me under the right circumstances. Oh who am I kidding, Nicki Minaj could definitely turn me under any circumstances.
No, what I mean is, I’m officially coming out as bipolar. I am bipolar. That’s a fact, that’s the way it is, it’s a part of who I am, and those close to me should know and understand that. I’m bipolar.
I’ve danced around it, joked about it, tried to water it down as merely a personality trait rather than an illness. I’ve fought tooth and nail for 27 years to deny it or “make it work for me.” I’ve tried literally everything I can think of to not have to truly admit it to myself and everyone else. But I’m done running.
The fact is, I am manic depressive and have been all my life. If I keep insisting it’s not really that serious, or that my gifts can eclipse my deficits, or that someday someone will snap their fingers and I will magically be normal, I’m going to end up dead.
This is not an exaggeration, thrown out haphazardly in a moment of desperation. In fact, right now I am enjoying a fairly rare day of normal, balanced mood. I feel fine. And so it is with a cool, rational distance from my feelings that I nevertheless know this fact to be true:
If I don’t deal with my illness, it will kill me.
I am finally beginning to accept that this disease isn’t just a phase, or a personality quirk, or simply a symptom of immaturity. No. This is a real disease of the brain that kills people.
The numbers are rather grim. Approximately:
- 20% of bipolar sufferers successfully commit suicide.
- 40% cannot work a day job and must live with and depend on their families for their entire lives.
- 20% manage to function/hold down menial jobs but never achieve their desired career or family goals.
- 20% achieve some form of remission and are able to live successful, high-functioning lives.
All of these categories have contained high achievers in politics, science, and the arts: Winston Churchill, Pat Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Neitzsche, Jack Kerouac, Robin Williams, and interestingly enough, my personal idol Maria Bamford. The list goes on and on.
The list also includes Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf, Amy Winehouse, and lots of other, well, dead people. The ones in five.
And so I think it’s understandable that I’ve resisted accepting membership into this dangerous if fascinating club. Also, it’s worth noting that not all bipolar people possess accompanying creative genius. In fact, the vast majority of them are just normal, unsexy crazy people with an illness that ruins their own and others’ lives.
…maybe I should’ve used “us,” there. Jury’s still out.
But trying to ignore or cope with bipolarity on one’s own is about as wise as DIY diabetes treatment. You can ignore that shit, but it ain’t going anywhere. It’s going to manifest somehow, and if you don’t have any control over how it manifests, you have no hope whatsoever of living a normal life.
And look, I’ll be honest, coming to that realization is fucking hard. It takes a long time. And when you get there, it is overwhelmingly sad. It is terrifying. More than anything, it is maddening.
My particular brand of bipolarity (and there are many) is rapid cycling and characterized by periods of mild depression followed by hypomania. Some docs would call this “cyclothymia,” (Darryl Hammond just wrote a great book about his own struggle with this iteration of the disease, btw), but it doesn’t really matter what label you slap on it. Basically, on the surface, I have a milder form of the disorder. When I’m hypomanic, I just present as charismatic, quick-witted, productive, and social. When I’m depressed, I just stay in bed and hide from the world for a couple days until I’m back on the upswing. I’ve hardly ever had full-blown mania with psychotic symptoms and delusions, and I’ve hardly ever had depression that was so bad I literally couldn’t move. But my disease could quickly worsen to those states if left untreated.
Now obviously, I’m glad I don’t typically have full-blown mania or major depression, but my version of the disease has dangers all its own; namely that I am much more prone to “mixed states,” which happen when the most insidious elements of mania and depression occur simultaneously. Think racing thoughts that suddenly go from optimistic and connective to dark and destructive. Mixed states are, perhaps not surprisingly, among the more creatively fertile periods for a bipolar sufferer. And this makes sense: all that friction is bound to create a spark. They’re also the most dangerous mood state, because it combines the impulsivity of mania with the hopelessness of depression. Winston Churchill elucidated the risks of this state when he talked about standing on the platform at a train station:
“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” – Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
And there’s the really dangerous spot for bipolar bears; that mixed state.
Anyway, the following is a description of how the cycle typically goes for me, and it goes fast. If this all sounds exhausting, it is. And in my case, it’s also greatly exacerbated by my hormonal fluctuations throughout the month, as well. I’m kinda of laughing to myself thinking about all the people in my life who will read this and think “yep, that’s her” or “Ooooh, so that’s what was going on…” Anyway, here’s a snapshot:
Let’s say on Monday my brain is depressive. My body feels like it has the flu; my muscles literally ache, I’m completely wiped of my energy, I sleep for 10 hours at a time with no problem, I don’t crave nicotine nearly as much, I crave food. My reflexes are slower. It’s all I can do to trudge through a day of work, and often I can’t. My mind is so foggy that I literally can’t focus on even the simplest tasks. I get teary and have to get up from my desk to hide in a bathroom stall and cry. I make up excuses for what is wrong (“I have a horrible headache,” “my grandma is sick,” “I just broke up with my boyfriend”) because I can’t explain what’s actually wrong, because I myself don’t understand what’s wrong. My bosses and coworkers believe me, because the rest of the time I’m so upbeat and productive that they’re willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. I go home from work completely drained. I almost get into car accidents because I’m so sleepy and unfocused. I forget the details of my daily life; when to pay bills, take my car for an oil change, get my teeth cleaned. I don’t answer the phone when my family and friends call because I want them to think I’m fine, and I know that in a few days, I will be fine. I’ll talk to them then so they won’t worry. I have writing projects I know I should work on, but I just stare at the blinking cursor on my lap top for fifteen minutes until I break down in sobs. I put the computer away, pull the covers over my head, and stay in bed and sleep until the next day of work.
And the next day at work is a little better. And the day after that I’m well-rested and feel basically normal. I can get things done at a normal pace. I’m keeping up again.
And then I start to feel better, and I’ve been all antisocial the past few days, so I really should get out, I think. I should be with people again; it’ll be good for me. Everyone’s wondering why I’ve been MIA. Maybe I’ll go perform a set somewhere tonight. Yeah. I’ll do that. Definitely.
And then I get a little restless at work. I don’t wanna do all this shit, I want to do fun stuff. I want to think of funny tweets. I want to work on my script. I want to talk to people. I want more coffee. I want another cigarette. I want to get the fuck out of here why can’t I get out of here UGH it feels like a prison I could be doing a million other things I bet I could finish that script tonight if I wanted to I have that new idea to make the plots intersect. I want more coffee. I want another cigarette. Ew, I don’t want the rest of this sandwich, my mouth is too dry.
I bust out of work at five on the dot like a freed slave. On the way home I call all of the people I’ve been ignoring and we talk and laugh and talk and hang up smiling. I’m chain smoking out my window, music turned up almost as loud as it’ll go. I’m singing along to rap lyrics I didn’t even know I knew while simultaneously writing an entirely new stand-up set in my head. I have to pull over to write down a joke or I’m sure I’ll lose it.
Here we go; this is me. I’m back. I’m riding the wave instead of drowning in it. I’m turned all the way up, firing on all cylinders, sharp as a diamond hatchet. There are five shades of meaning in every word someone utters, every roadside sign, every number that flashes on a clock or a phone or a computer, there are a million hidden associations and I’m seeing them all at once. I’m connecting all the dots that other people aren’t seeing.
But I know better than to say anything about this.
I get home, hop in the shower, do my hair and makeup meticulously, and head to the comedy club to do a set. I can’t get there fast enough. Fuck these red lights. Fuck this song, I’m changing the channel. Ugh, I hate this song, too. YES I love this song!! Goddamn it, that light was yellow for like 10 seconds! Go, lady!!!
After what seems like an eternity, I get to the club. I’m greeted by my friends who all light up when they see me. I want to talk to them, see how they’re doing, really listen to them the way no one else does. I’m listening with all five senses, cutting through the bullshit with ease, delivering insights that strike people like lightning. I am walking contagion, I’m bursting at the seams and other people want a piece. They unconsciously gravitate toward me like freezing travelers to a campfire; they don’t know why, but I do. They want to tap into my frequency for a second, they want to feel a little bit of that electric current coarse through their veins. They want to escape the crushing weight of normalcy for a moment, and I can give that to them. Yes, everyone likes this person, so this must be me. This is the REAL me. This is me at my best. Everyone wants to sit around this fire.
But no one wants to stick their hand in it.
And then I start to get restless. I’m looking to spar but no one else can keep up. I’m unbeatable, but untouchable, like a frenzied Super Mario high on an invincibility star dashing through obstacles like a human strobe light.
Everywhere I go, I want more, sooner, faster. I have so many ideas for books, scripts, inventions, websites, that I can’t possibly write them all down fast enough.
All the while, I know better than to say anything about this. I’m smart. Even in my current state, I retain keen self-awareness. I know what will set off alarms and what won’t. Apparently, I even know how to convince the psychiatric consultants of a major television network that I’m sane enough for reality television. And maybe that’s because part of me still believes it.
But here, now, I’m uncomfortable. There’s not enough stimulation, no one is playing in my league. I’ll have a beer. That’ll settle me down. I’ll still be sharp without all the irritability; I’ll be fun again. I’ll HAVE fun again. Just one beer and I’ll be back down on everyone else’s level. I’ll be able to connect again.
But it’s not enough, not tonight. I want another one. And then another one. My mind still won’t slow down, it’s still insatiable, it wants more. I’m still burning and I want to burn out. I’m still burning, the only difference is the fire has gone from orange to blue. I have to get out of here, I have to go be alone and write. I have to get it out on a page. It has to go somewhere, it can’t stay in here. There’s not enough room.
I smile and say my goodbyes and give hugs and get numbers. I have been enchanting as usual. Everyone will call tomorrow wanting to see me.
I go home and I sit with my laptop for hours on end. I have work tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except the immediacy of this need. I look up and 7 hours have gone by. It’s morning. I have to leave for work in an hour. I’m not even really sure what I’ve written; I’ll read it later. I have to get up and shower and go to work. If I can do that, I’m still normal and everything is okay.
I get to work and I should be exhausted, but I’m not. I’m productive and happy and alert. I want more coffee. I want another cigarette. No, I don’t want a bagel. Yes, I’ll go out with you, so-and-so from last night. I feel fine, why wouldn’t I? See? Everything’s okay. I went out and performed and got drunk and wrote for all that time, and I’m not even paying for it. I’m fine. I just function better than other people.
I go home from work and I go on my date and I come home and I can’t sleep that night, either. I get maybe two hours. Start to feel slap-happy and goofy as hell the day after that, and then that subsides by mid-afternoon and now I’m feeling worse. And by that evening, I feel a LOT worse, but I still can’t sleep. This is the most horrible part; the mixed state. One minute I’m giggling like a kid, the next I’m sobbing in the shower. I drink again, this time alone in my bed, and it transforms that urgent impulse from creative to destructive. Instead of picking up my laptop and writing, I consider picking up a gun and seeing what it would feel like in the back of my throat.
I know that’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s also true. And I say it with the intention of getting to a point when I never feel like that again.
Anyway, yeah, I think that. But I don’t do it, thank God. Some part of me knows it’ll pass. Not for long, but I’ll have at least a few days soon where I’m even-tempered again before the “black dog” (as Churchill termed it) returns. I can make it. There’s enough good in there.
And when I wake up the morning after, the noisy batch of devils has left me in my sleep, right on schedule. The destructive impulse is gone now, but so is everything else, including my last ounce of physical energy. My poor malnourished body feels like it has mono, and everything hurts, I can’t get out of bed, and the cycle starts all over again.
And folks, I’m ready to be done with this. I am terrified, I am embarrassed, I am frustrated, but I am resigned. There are people who beat this shit, or at least find a way to live independently with it, and I am going to be one of them. My insight, self-awareness, and sense of humor are huge advantages I have working in my favor, as is my family who has rallied around me in touching ways recently. So much unnecessary pain has been caused by all of us fighting this reality for far too long, and I think everyone believes brighter days are ahead for all of us. It’s not gonna happen overnight. I’m going back to Ohio. I will probably enter an inpatient facility for a while (which should be at least a little hilarious, if initially terrifying). I’m gonna shore up my strength, find new ways to cope, experiment with different meds. For once, I’m not gonna jump the gun. I’m gonna relax and take my time with all this. I have to get back to basics, and I’m sick, so no, I cannot do it on my own. That is perhaps the hardest part for me to accept.
And there’s a lot about this that is hard to accept. This is how I’ve been my entire life; I’ve never known anything else. Who the hell am I under here? Will anyone like that person? Who’s ever gonna marry “the bipolar girl?” What if I never feel that manic, inspired high ever again? What if I lose my quick wit and my charisma? Jesus, what if I’m never stable enough to have kids? Or, worst of all:
What if I can’t write anymore?
So I’m scared, yeah. I’m really, really scared. But it’s important to me to be open about all this because the taboo surrounding mental illness, and the painful stigma associated with it, is a huge part of what has prevented me and countless others from accepting a diagnosis and getting treatment. I’m very lucky to still be alive and I have every intention of staying that way. I am bipolar, yeah, but I’m also really talented and intelligent. So maybe my normal won’t ever look like everyone else’s normal, but it really doesn’t matter, as long as I can find a normal that works for me and makes me happy.
I have every intention of coming back out to Los Angeles, or chasing my big dreams wherever else they may lead. This isn’t the end for me, I’m just laying a new foundation to re-launch from.