It’s 2:30 AM on a Tuesday. I awake to my pain calling me, always wanting my constant attention. Then I reach for my medications as I have a thousand times before. I gulp two down with a sip of water. I grab my iPad, and hit “next” on the current You Tube Channel, which is supposed to be compiled of Dateline episodes. A 20/20 episode comes on. It’s about Robin Williams. I’ve successfully avoided watching this episode since his death. You see, not only was I a fan: I too have a secret like he did. I’m in pain.
I’m not talking about the physical pain that woke me up. I wish that was the extent of it. I’m talking about the mental anguish and darkness that has accompanied me along this journey as a person who became chronically ill.
From those who suffer from other illnesses that cause physical stress and pain, there is a ridiculously high percentage of that suffer from emotional turmoil. Whether this comes in the form of Clinical Depression, mood disorders like Bipolar I or II, or a general sense of overwhelming sadness that is classified under another title, it is a a weight most of us carry around like a ton of bricks on our shoulders. Suffering so much is exhausting. It is a vicious cycle. I have Chronic Pain and Cervical Dystonia, which includes painful muscle spasms in my neck, shoulders, and other areas of my body. When I experience pain that cannot be managed with my medications and other therapies, the light becomes dark. The pain intensifies and the darkest sky becomes more bleak. So bleak that I can’t see that stars.
For a while, I never saw the stars. I had just finished my undergraduate degree, was still living in San Francisco, and my health was in rapid decline despite all the specialists I saw and medications I took. I was severely under treated for my chronic pain and other conditions. I was diagnosed with Depression by a Therapist I saw a year or so previous to finishing school. I look back and think that I suffered so needlessly. How can a doctor simply not treat me and leave me to suffer? Did they not believe me? At the time, I was struggling to find work in my chosen field: Interior Design. I was deluded into thinking I could “suck it up” and work full time. I bounced from job to job. One of my jobs at the time essentially fired me due to my disabilities, while gossip ensued at another because I hadn’t received any breaks and had fainted. Being marginalized due to my health was one of the most traumatic experiences that I have ever gone through. I was extremely unstable. When I look back on this year, I can safely say I barely functioned. I lost a lot of weight. I slept too much, slept some more, and then not at all. I barely ate. My whole world was watching TV in silence. I remember that the situation became so dire that I would no longer leave my apartment for days at a time. My boyfriend would physically have to get me dressed and drag me out of the apartment with silent tears streaming down my face.
When I think about this year, I don’t remember much if not anything at all. I sometimes ask my boyfriend questions about that time. Mostly, I don’t want to know. An image that sticks out in my mind is sitting in the squeaky plaid grandma chair looking at the bent and dusty off-white blinds that are closed tight. It’s late afternoon and little light pours into the apartment on O’Farrell Street. The carpet is stained and we have a sofa that looks as if it doesn’t belong. Maybe I don’t belong here either. It’s a bleak existence in what is one of the most interesting and culturally diverse cities in the world. Thinking about that time makes me unequivocally sad. I choose to believe that I don’t remember much because it’s my mind’s way of protecting me.
When I learned of Robin Williams’ death and struggles, I immediately thought back to my time without the stars. I read about his private pain and struggle with depression and was transported back to that bleak existence. I thought about how much pain he must have been in. I thought about how much pain I too have been in. I thought about all the pain I am in still. I cried. I laughed. I had conversations with family and friends about why Robin Williams’ story was so close to our hearts. I asked if they understood Depression and the type of pain that drove Williams’ to end his life. The answer I got was that what he did was cowardly. He took the easy way out. It wasn’t fair to the rest of us. Didn’t he have a duty to keep making us laugh was the overwhelming thought portrayed by media.
You see, a few years ago I was diagnosed as having Bipolar II Disorder, which is a mood disorder defined by hypomanic or episodes where I’m “on”: speaking quickly, not sleeping many hours, being extremely productive, and having delusions of grandeur. On the other side, I have depressive episodes where I’m “off”: I sleep to avoid things, don’t eat, loose weight, and loose zest for life. Some artists hate being medicated and even try to put themselves in a hypomanic state because they find they are extremely creative, productive, and love the “high”. I, however, hate it. I want to be somewhere in the middle. I want to simply be “me”. I want to be calm without being depressed and exited without being hypomanic.
For some reason, I understood why Williams’ had taken his own life long before the reports about his additional health issues had come out. I didn’t judge him for what he had done. I didn’t glamorize it either. I simply felt such a strong connection to him. He was constantly “on” or “off”, much like I was when I was first diagnosed with my Bipolar II Disorder. He had lived much of his life in the Bay Area, and so had I. I had lived in San Francisco for 8 years-thats 8 out of my then 26 years on this earth. On a day to day basis, I put a smile on my face and use the healing power of laughter to cover up the pain. I pretended like everything is a-okay.
These days, I’m more likely to be honest about how I’m really doing. I exercise 3 to 5 times a week in an effort to live in the light. I eat very healthfully because I find that I function better with the right fuel my body needs. I drink a lot of water. I wholeheartedly attempt to get an adequate amount of sleep. I reach out to a mental health professional, one of my support groups, my boyfriend, a friend or write in my journal when I need to vent. I allow myself to feel however I am feeling. I ask for help. I read. I write. I take deep breaths. I visit my loved ones. I learn and try something new. I know when to take a break. When I’m tired, I lay down. I nap. I advocate for myself. I stretch. I do something nice for someone else. I relax. I am learning how not to suffer. I’m unlearning the pain. I stress less. I am mentally well.
Yes, I’m Bipolar II and I’m well. I see stars.
If you are having thoughts of Suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: 1-800-273-8255 or head to your nearest Emergency Room.
If you suspect you are suffering from a mental illness, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at NAMI.org, or call your health care provider.