It’s been nearly three months since I began treatment for Bipolar Disorder. Three months. Which is …. a long time and also no time at all. Most people, even those who were remarkably supportive in the beginning, have pretty much gone silent in my life by now. And it’s not that I blame them. I don’t. I think that a general lack of understanding just makes them believe that I’d be “better” by now. That I’d take a couple pills, go to a few therapy sessions, and voila. All cured. Or maybe it’s not that at all, and it’s the fact that life just goes on. We’re all busy, we’re all involved in our own stuff. We all have our own problems. Truth be told, I think I’m a little jealous of those who’ve essentially stopped talking to me. I wish that I could live in the oblivion, if even temporarily, of not having to think about it. But I don’t get to take a break. Bipolar is a cheap polyester Christmas sweater, permanently woven into every fiber of my being.
But I’m still here, still working this all out, still finding my way through a mysterious world that is revealing more and more to me as I go.
About a week ago, I started getting sick. And then I got really sick… with something I’m pretty sure is the plague. Or at the very least, dysentery. So, so sick. Sickness of any sort, of any duration, tends to throw me completely off my game. My mind immediately bends toward what my therapist calls, “Catastrophic thinking.” I’ll never feel well again. I’ll never catch up on the housework. I’ll never be able to do anything fun again. I’ll lose all the momentum I’ve gained with exercise.
This time though, the thing that most plagued me was the fact that I missed a concert (and meet & greet) that I was, so, SO looking forward. The concert was A Great Big World and Matt Nathanson, two of my absolute all time favorites, but the part that I was looking forward to the most was meeting Chad and Ian from GBW, so that I could see them in person, and put a face with my “won’t stop running” story. (If you’re wondering what the heck that means, skim this post) I was looking forward to it so, so much. So much. The day of the concert, I woke up nauseous and light-headed, as I had for the last week. I prayed I’d rally though, and for a little while I did. I took a shower, got dressed, put on some makeup, started doing my hair…. and just the act of being up and about made me feel sicker and sicker as I went. In hindsight, I could have made it through the concert – probably – and just felt 0ff while I was there. But in the end, I couldn’t in good conscience risk having to leave early and ruining it for Tegan, (who’s eight at the time of this writing, rivals me as their biggest fan, and was looking forward to it every bit as much as I was) So I stayed home, sent her off on a Daddy/daughter date, and nursed both my sickness and my bitter disappointment, curled up in a ball on the couch.
The next day, Sunday, saw me sliding, or SLAMMING as the case may be, into a deep depression. The combination of being sick for a week; the forced and abrupt halt of the momentum I’d gathered with exercise, sleeping right, and faithfully taking my supplements; the house arrest; me being me; and the final nail of missing the concert just smashed me right into a Very Bad Place. I knew I was feeling better physically – not good by any stretch, but better – while mentally I was withering. Seeing this, Mike (mostly gently) made me get up, get out and go to the store with him. After that he (again, mostly gently) convinced me to go the arena football game with him and the kids. He would tell me later that what he was seeing in me scared him, and he didn’t want me to be alone. Which scared me too. Ordinarily I love Rattlers games, and look forward to going every week…. but yesterday, I didn’t want to be there. Didn’t want to be here. Didn’t want to be anywhere. But I made myself do it, and I put on my blinged-out Rattlers shirt and my Mardi Gras beads, took a bunch of ibuprofen for my headache, and steeled myself for the trip.
Now, a lot of people compare bipolar to a roller coaster. And I mean, sure, it’s an apt enough (if grossly overused) description. Ups, downs, twists, turns. Blah, blah, blah, blah.
Last night I realized that what it really is is a football game, one that starts before you even get there.
We usually take the light rail when we’re going to any sort of sporting event downtown. I hate the light rail. It’s crowded, it smells funny, and it always makes me nauseous. Which is apropos in its own right, but it’s not the way we traveled last night. Last night we drove in and parked in the parking garage.
And that’s where I first realized it, the moment I stepped out of the car.
The parking garage is the depression. It’s dark and spooky. It’s the depths of hell, or at the very least, it’s Satan’s armpit. It’s hot. It’s steamy. Like the light rail, it too smells funny. But not ha-ha funny. More like car exhaust and Mexican food farts and death. It’s dirty, but not regular dirty. There are stains on the floors (and the walls and in the corners and on all of civilization that managed to survive) that make you wonder if someone was recently murdered. The stairwell seemingly takes you up and up and up, but its oppression is so heavy, so stifling, that it makes you doubt if you’re ever going to see the light of day again.
Then suddenly you’re out, and there’s the burst of sun, so strong it takes your eyes a minute to adjust. You’re in the real world. Those are the days in between the mania and depression, the days when you get a feeling for what it must be like to be a “normal” person. They’re not particularly exciting, but they’re not particularly depressing either. You exist in a state of sort of homeostasis. A state of just being for a few minutes. It’s a nice place to visit, but it’s a very short walk to the stadium. Those days of normal are short lived. Soon you’re at your destination.
The stadium is the mania. There is just So. Much. Going. On. Your senses are all heightened, by sixty jillion percent. There are the people, and the sounds, and the smells, and the relentlessly constantly whirling, swirling energy. It’s exciting. It’s exhilarating. Unfortunately, what starts off as exciting and exhilarating eventually descends into overwhelming and scary. You look for a corner to hide in, but no such corner exists. The only option – if you can really call it that, since you have no other options – is to keep walking, right through the fray.
The food is the mania and the depression. Sometimes, those over priced, fast food, ball park chicken tenders are the most juicy, succulent morsels of food you could ever put in your mouth, better than any meal you’d choose to order at a 5 star restaurant. Other times, those very same chicken tenders taste like fried moist cardboard, sit like a rock in your stomach, and make you spend the rest of the game praying you’re not going to suddenly and violently have to vomit and have diarrhea.
I never know which one I’m going to get.
Your family and friends sitting beside you, they’re (and I kind of hesitate to say this, because I feel like it minimizes the huge role they actually play), but they’re the mood stabilizers. They’re the right diet. They’re regular exercise. They’re 8 hours of sleep. In other words, they don’t cure you. They don’t make the ups and downs go away. But they soften them. They make them less intense. They smooth out the edges. They remind you to breathe when you’re anxious. They hold your hand when you’re scared. They give you light on the journey, and they make you laugh along the way. Your friends and your family are the safe spot in the middle of the chaos around you.
The game itself is the actual work of reaching, and maintaining, wellness. It’s the therapy. It’s the day-to-day changes you make to control your illness instead of letting it control you. Of course you’re not actually watching the game… you’re playing, in every position. Sometimes you’re the quarter back, calling the plays. Sometimes you’re a receiver. Sometimes you’re on defense. And you’ve got a whole team of people ready to back you up. There’s a defined set of plays, but you have to be able to read what’s going on, and adjust and tweak as you go. You have to stay flexible, and think on your feet. (And just as a football game often – usually, always – veers off from its best laid plans, so do medication, therapy, and all other aspects related to treatment. You have to roll with it) Sometimes the game is exciting. It’s not just the touchdowns, but it’s the little moments – that are really big moments – along the way. The thrill of an interception. A sacked quarterback. A recovered fumble.
Sometimes it’s frustrating. The missed PAT. The tackles and fumbles and penalties… sometimes a lot of penalties. Sometimes there are fist fights (although if you’ve got good, classy teammates, they gently pull you away from the fight, use their bodies to block you from the heat, and make sure everyone stays safe). Sometimes there are injuries. Sometimes you need to call a time out. Sometimes the game makes you sublimely happy, but half the time it just pisses you right the heck off. Sometimes you’re down by 4 touchdowns, and you’re really discouraged and demoralized. You can hear the taunts from the crowd.
Sometimes there are cheers from the crowd too. Sometimes the stadium is just FILLED with cheers. Sometimes there’s an opening, and you manage to perfectly execute a really long pass, resulting in an epically beautiful touchdown. It’s those kind of plays that make the entire game worth it.
Win or lose, it is all So. Much. Work. At the end of the game you are spent, you are sweaty, and you are exhausted. But no matter the final score, you learned something. You gained something. You got better, and stronger, and more experienced. You took another step toward the Arena Bowl.
As for me, personally? I’m still in the first quarter. I have a lot of work ahead of me. I’m continually trying to find that balance of giving 100% without burning myself out before I even get to half-time.
And then, it’s over. That brief visit to the land of normalcy, then you’re once again in the pits of hell. AKA the parking garage. AKA depression.
On an endless loop, every day, forever.
And the thing is, just like me on Sunday night, you don’t necessarily choose to go the football game. But since you have to be there, you learn not to just make the most of it, but to embrace it. You learn to squeeze every bit of enjoyment out of every little moment that you can. You learn to appreciate the color and the joy and beauty that exist both in the middle of the game, and in the stillness between the plays.
You learn to grab that football game by its balls (see what I did there?), you hold on for all you’re worth, and you tell your teammates, and you tell the crowd, and you tell the WORLD:
“My game. My rules. And dammit, I’m gonna play to win.”