The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, BrainStorm: From Brutality to Blessing on the Bipolar Spectrum.
Simple, everyday conceptual tasks that we take for granted are nearly impossible for me now. I’m submerged in depression. I remember one day it takes me three hours to unpack groceries. I can’t figure out where anything goes. I can’t concentrate, can’t remember what I am in the middle of doing, from shelving the cereal boxes to putting away the tomatoes.
Constant confusion, inability to sequence actions or do simple addition and subtraction. I can’t add more than a few numbers in a sequence. I forget my multiplication tables. Word recall is challenging. The disease is humbling. I would not be able to write this paragraph or any other paragraph, as it would be nearly impossible to recall words like, “humbling,” or “multiplication.” This inability makes me miserable, as I think of myself as a decent writer and I cannot write. It’s happened to me so many times before. After graduating with an MBA from the University of Massachusetts, I could not recall the term for a particular economic concept. This drove me crazy for days. What was it? I could picture the concept but not the words for it. (Later I remembered it: the law of economies of scale, how the cost of manufacturing an item gets cheaper as you make more of them.) I hated not being able to find words for concepts I had used for years with ease, this is what Bipolar II disorder feels like. A broken brain.
Shopping malls and supermarkets are impossible. There are too many choices and the inability to make decisions leaves me overwhelmed with nervous anxiety and shame. How long can I stand in an aisle trying to choose between peanut butters? The large or the small, the organic or the inorganic, the cheap or the higher priced, the locally produced or the one that’s less expensive but from out of state? These decisions paralyze me.
Getting dressed in the morning poses a similar challenge. Deciding what to wear makes my heart pound and my breath shorten with anxiety. What goes with what? How do you choose colors? If it’s cold enough to wear socks and there are none in my drawer I am at a loss. I stop doing laundry. It’s too overwhelming to go through the sequencing it takes to fold and sort and put away clothes. In the office and the bedroom and the kitchen things pile up. It’s too hard to remember where I put them, so it’s easier to have things in plain sight. But I hate the sight of this mess, the chaos makes me crazy, and I am embarrassed to invite anyone over into this scene.
I also cannot do dishes. It’s not that I don’t want to do dishes, I really can’t do them. I look at a pile in a sink, counters with crumbs and spilled ingredients, food that needs to be Tupper-wared and put away and I am completely overwhelmed. My brain doesn’t know where to start, how to sequence the task, and how to keep going. I stare a lot. I’m incapable of getting my kids dressed and fed and engaged.
I fear the kids will get lost in the life-sucking vortex of our home. So, we drive the forty miles round trip from our rural abode to spend the day with loving and tolerant friends in town. These trips away from the hearth drive my husband crazy. He needs unstructured time on our land to re-charge and feels exhausted by my demands to keep moving. But home is a dark, oxygen-starved cave for me, and I have to breathe to live.
I’m sure I’m not giving my kids the activities they need to thrive and compare myself ruthlessly to their friends’ mothers who provide gymnastics and piano and art classes. Just the thought of soccer overwhelms me. How do I find a team? Who do I call to sign them up? Where do I get uniforms and cleats and water bottles? And if I do buy these things, how do I keep the uniforms in a place I’ll remember them for the next practice? I won’t wash the socks and shirts because I’m afraid I won’t be able to find them in time for the game. Then I’ll be full of shame that my kids look dirtier than the others. To get there I’ll have to buckle them in, bring snacks and water, gas up the car, and find the field in time for practice.
I know I can’t do any of this, but I somehow try to do it anyway. The effort totally exhausts me. When we return to our garage, I leave all the gear and the kids in the car, go inside, and collapse on the couch. Someone else will have to unbuckle them and make supper. I am done.
When a doctor or therapist or friend calls to offer support, I answer the phone from the couch. I scribble a note to attempt to remember what I’ve agreed to. But by the time I get to my calendar downstairs, I can’t remember where I’ve put that piece of paper and I have no idea what I’ve committed to doing. I used to keep my calendar on Microsoft Outlook, but my computer is down and I don’t have the energy or focus to fix it. I’m back to a paper calendar that is never by the phone when I make an appointment. As a result, I miss commitments, I’m chronically late, or I forget a friend is coming over and I’m gone when they arrive.
I have always prided myself on reliability and punctuality and this sort of “flaky” behavior drives me crazy. I judge myself mercilessly for it as I am sure others do. And who could blame them.
I know. Grim, right? But I am here and I am thriving and it’s not an accident. This is what Bipolar II disorder feels like. I am here to offer testimony to anyone who is affected by Bipolar II, or who is close to someone who is. There is hope. There is help. check out my book coming out soon. I wrote it to save lives, end the stigma, reduce suffering. And so that if you’re suffering, you know that I know what it is like to live inside your brain. You are not alone.