How do you learn to live with the difficult truths of your life? The ones you can’t just step over and leave behind?
Confirmation of my Bipolar 1 diagnosis was one of those truths for me. For several years after my first episodes of illness, we didn’t know whether we were dealing with Postnatal Psychosis or Bipolar Disorder. In my mind one was transient, the other a life sentence. Each time I’d press my psychiatrist for a definitive diagnosis he’d say:
‘We’ll have to wait three to five years to see if you have another episode.’
This answer frustrated me immensely. I wanted to put the whole experience of being mentally ill behind me.
When my second baby was six weeks old I got my answer. My sanity drowned in psychosis and mania again. With my memory and concentration in shreds, I used brightly coloured post it notes stuck all over my hospital room to remind me of random things.
The state of my room mirrored the inside of my head. A chaotic, technicolour blur. Each day my psychiatrist stood in the doorway to my room surveying the mess as he assessed me. One morning I looked up at him and asked:
‘Postnatal Psychosis or Bipolar?’
He didn’t hesitate:
‘Bipolar. Definitely Bipolar.’
The room spun. The words ‘I will never get better.’ flashed in front of me.
I did get better eventually. And with the bettering came the bargaining:
‘If I don’t have any more babies, I won’t get sick again.’
And then I got sick again, without a baby. I felt as though the universe had reneged on our bargain. Of course, there was no bargain. I got sick again and again, and I had a choice to make: Find a degree of acceptance or let my anger and resentment at being landed with this illness poison even the times when the illness wasn’t symptomatic.
Acceptance has taken years. At times I have wished I could exchange this illness for one with sharper borders. I’ve learnt to give myself a tantrum allowance. I get to have one every now and then, but any more is just a waste of precious energy.
Even amid acceptance there are jagged points I could get snagged on. There’s the medications, mouthfuls of them twice a day. There’s the loss of employment every time I get sick, because I am unable to say when I will be well again. There’s never knowing when I’ll get sick. I’ve learnt this illness has no respect for birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, or eagerly anticipated trips to Paris.
I tend towards cynicism, so the idea of gratitude, particularly if it’s hash tagged and accompanied by an image of angelic looking children or a green smoothie, stimulates my gag reflex. But I do occasionally practice it to counter those jagged points:
My medication keeps me stable and we can afford it. I’ve regained work every time I’ve lost it, and we don’t depend on my wage for survival. Paris isn’t going anywhere. And as for the unpredictable nature of the illness: Everyone’s life is unpredictable.
In the sick times it still makes no sense. When I am in the thick of mania, and my thoughts race and crash into each other, like toddlers in dodgem cars. When psychosis takes hold, and all sense departs to make room for horror. Or when I can barely drag the breath into my lungs during rebound depression, I can’t find meaning in any of that.
But the well times are different. Because the sick times make so little sense, the well times now make more. I don’t take being home with my family for granted. I celebrate life when I am well because I can, not because of the date. I nourish, weed and appreciate the garden of my life when I’m healthy, so that when I drop off the edge in sickness, I know it won’t die.
I am reluctant to lean too heavily on the ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.’ cliché, because during adversity I often feel like giving the opportunity for growth that accompanies said adversity the finger. However, once the acute crisis passes I do find comfort in the last lines of The Holy Longing, one of my favourite poems by Goethe:
‘…And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.’
No one else can do our work for us. Only we can make sense of our difficult truths. We have to live our own pain, and find our own peace, in our own time. And ultimately, it’s up to us to decide when a good tantrum is justified and when we’ve had one too many.
My First Time – for more on the first time I got sick.
Decisions – making the decision to have a second baby after psychotic and depressive episodes following the first baby. Includes a favourite Rainer Maria Rilke quote.
Telling People -why I am open about my mental illness