“You’ll probably need to be on medication for the rest of your life.”
It had been 10 years since my first psychiatrist uttered those words. To him, I’m sure, it was just a perfunctory part of his job. I’m certain he forgot the words before he said them, but I’ve been holding them like prophecy for over a decade. I bet he rattled it off the way he would remind his wife to pick up milk: “You’ll probably need to pick up milk ... ” for the rest of your life.
I was never sure what part held me the most. I suppose it depended on what end of my brain I was living in. When I was hypomanic and on the up part of the Ferris wheel: “You’ll probably need medication ... ” When I was in the darker, colder part of my brain, “ ... for the rest of your life” felt like a sentence without parole—this idea that I could go on feeding myself pills morning and night … for the rest of my life.
The phrase echoes when I stare at the bottles on my dresser. I line them up in a row like soldiers ready for a war. I am faithful to this holy communion of pills and water and pills and water. But morning sometimes comes before sleep has properly taken hold, so even after a decade, it can be easy to shrug off or “forget.”
Some days, I stare at the bottles and think, I want to be normal today. Not someone who needs pills and what feels like the perfect position of the moon and stars to avoid drowning inside myself. It was usually then that I did feel normal—by “normal,” I mean not like a broken glass with missing pieces spread across a bedroom floor.
I got out of bed, got dressed and put on makeup because I had somewhere to go and people who expected me there. I would sit with them at lunch or in meetings emulating their normal. The way she swung her leg, one shoe dangling from her toes. The way he tapped his glass when he was deep in thought. The way that one nodded and murmured and pretended to be listening but was playing “Candy Crush” on his iPad. These movements were choreographed, beautiful. They were nonchalant.
They were not the rapid trembling of legs or hands shaking so violently that they couldn’t hold a glass. They were not gripped with anxiety or distracted. They were not words shooting out of a mouth before the brain could connect. They were not impulsive. Their movements were purposeful. Direct. They were normal. And when I saw these normal people walking around with full brains and no medications, I wanted to be like them. One day I saw the bottles looking at me, arrogantly waiting for me to pick one up and swallow “for the rest of your life.” I wanted to say no, but I knew the alternative would leave damage not easily fixed.
To be honest, I didn’t mind hypomania; I had energy and got a lot of work done, but I also stayed awake for days, my thoughts training with Usain Bolt. The constant pressure of words and actions would become too much after a few days, and it was torture. There was no escape from it. It took me back to Brooklyn, N.Y., all those years ago, sitting on the floor, just rocking back and forth and counting down from 5,000. This was right on the heels of a diagnosis—when this thing finally had a name. Before that, I was just a girl who didn’t sleep sometimes and cried too much other times.
So when I finally got that diagnosis—rapid-cycle, mixed-episode bipolar II disorder—I was relieved to finally have a name and a reason. But I believed that I could be cured. That I could take the pills for a month, maybe two, and I would be healed and free to practice “normal” despite the life sentence handed to me by my doctor.
The few times I’ve attempted brought about the cavern: the place where my brain told me that I was worthless and the world was better off without me. There was a hurricane of tears that made crying into nothingness. Twice, it invited five days of cold, lonely hospital rooms and pain so deep that it seemed to go through my body, ricochet off the walls and land in my stomach again. It felt like being forced to walk barefoot on jagged shards of myself. It was nameless and persistent, and I hated it more than anything in the world. So I have been (more or less) faithful to the medications and the doctors and the activities that sculpted me into something healthy and more than merely functional.
There isn’t a strict-enough diet or long-enough hours spent downward-facing Jesus to make me test it out again.
I know what works for me—what has saved my life countless times and allows me this “normal” I’ve fashioned for myself. And for me, that means making a ritual of taking these pills that line my dresser like soldiers ready for a war that I’ve given myself no choice but to fight.
For the rest of my life.