A RESERVATION FOR BIPOLAR
WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE MY BRAIN’S PLUS-ONE.
I often wonder what it would be like to have breakfast with my brain. What we would talk about. What it would order. How it would be feeling that day.
I have so many questions to ask it. My brain seems to love to play little tricks on me, and it’s about time I know why. I deserve to know why it thinks what it thinks, why it changes it’s mind all the time. Why it causes me to have panic attacks where my hands and mouth seize.
I mean, brain… What the fuck is going on there?
I imagine it would take place in an old diner with classic black-and-white check vinyl flooring, booths with red leather seats, and waitresses wearing aprons. The air filled with the aroma of black pot coffee that has been sitting there all week, served lukewarm – causing you to cough and splutter as granules of coffee invade your mouth. I imagine a myriad of signed photos of C-grade celebrities adorn the walls, as if to give the establishment some notoriety. It seems a likely place for a rendezvous with my brain.
I imagine my brain ordering a croissant with extra butter and jam, becoming more and more agitated with every minute that passes while it waits for the food to arrive – suddenly deciding it no longer wants it out of spite, only to end up eating it anyway. I imagine watching in disgust as remnants of jam and the now melted butter drip down my brain’s hand and specks of food land on my face with each sentence it spits at me. Today my brain is melancholy – this is typically the case – but today is a particularly bad day.
I pass my brain a napkin as if to offer some consolation. In all honesty, it is out of disgust for my brain’s deplorable table manners. I want so desperately to ask it questions, to make sense of my senselessness, but I don’t. I never do, for my brain is melancholy and hungry for croissants.
It’s a strange concept to imagine your brain as a separate entity. To imagine the very organ responsible for thought creation to have thoughts separate from your own. I mean, I’m not super into croissants or jam or butter for that matter. I’m lactose intolerant, so there’s just no room for croissants in my life. I can’t stand bad table manners either, I would go so far as to describe them as a pet peeve of mine. It’s a feeling I have most days though, that my brain is operating on a different frequency to me. That it sometimes doesn’t belong to me, that I very rarely have any control over my thought process and subsequent reactions. I have had this feeling since I was 19 and received my Bipolar II disorder diagnosis. The day I sat in a strange doctor’s office and watched as the words drip out of his mouth like the butter down the hand of my brain. The day I became my bipolar’s plus-one to every feeling, every day and every breakfast.
To think, I felt like a fool for ever being in the doctor’s office in the first place. After the insanity that was my first manic episode, followed by a very quick descent into a severe depressive episode, I felt like I needed help. That day, however, sitting in the office of a stereotypical balding doctor with glasses and a kind face, that day I felt fine. This is common with mental illness, and especially bipolar, we tend to only seek help when things are particularly bad. So by the time your appointment rolls around, you’re often doing okay. People will suffer from bipolar symptoms for months, even years before asking for help. No one wants to think they have a mental health problem – plus we just don’t know enough about it.
It is such a fickle thing, like online shopping and seeing a piece of clothing on a model and loving it, only for it to arrive and look completely different on you. No two people are the same and no two mental illnesses present themselves exactly the same. There are similarities, sure. But the same, never. With no clear definition of the problem and no clear symptoms, it is hard for even the individual to put their finger on it. So instead, we toy with the idea that maybe it’s just a bad day, that maybe we are going insane. That maybe we are just broken or that maybe this is just life. That there is nothing wrong and that the ease of childhood was the greatest deception of all.
Bipolar is a particularly fun one. Although it can occur at any age, for most bipolar will appear in their late teens or early 20s. So childhood really was a big fat fucking joke for us. You are given a taste of the good life, with almost two decades of thinking rationally, trusting in your emotional response and having normal reactions. To make it worse, once your brain boards the bipolar rollercoaster that you can never get off, you have the added bonus of remembering what it was like before bipolar. Fun, huh?
I think it’s important for me to explain my first manic episode or what I like to describe as the catalyst for me seeking help and subsequently receiving a diagnosis. Now bear with me, you are about to take a little walk through my brain and I must admit, it’s a fucking shit show in here. I was 19-years-old, living in a small flat in Bondi, with an even smaller bedroom – if I were to stretch my arms out wide, they would both brush brickwork. I had a crappy boyfriend, a good job and was a relatively successful uni student. On this particular day, my coffee tasted amazing, the sun was warm on my skin and the sky was bluer than ever before. My heart was racing uncomfortably fast but this was something I put down to strong caffeine and this undeniable sense of excitement for what felt like a great day ahead. The entire day was spent in existential bliss, as if I was in perfect sync with the world and it was in perfect sync with me. On the bus on my way home from a full day of uni, my partner, who was rather an unthoughtful jerk at the best of times, called to say he was cooking dinner. I thought, ‘shit, could this day get any better?’ My heart rate hadn’t slowed down throughout the day, if anything, it had sped up. It was noticeable, but I was having too good a day to care. During a manic episode, you can experience this indescribable sense of elation however, it can often feel really uncomfortable. For most people, there are common ways of expressing happiness: smiling, laughing, jumping for joy. However, for someone experiencing mania, it is unachievable – like an itch you can’t scratch and fuck, do you try to scratch it anyway.
As I began my short walk from the bus stop home, I was so fascinated by the world occurring at eye level that I forgot to watch my feet. Before I knew it, I went ass over heels, elbows grazed, knees bruised but happiness still intact. I got up, dusted myself off and looked to see what had caused my fall. A bookshelf, a rather beautiful bookshelf, I decided. It was chuck out day in the Eastern Suburbs. All of my wonderful neighbours had left unwanted furniture on the street for the council to collect. Across the road, I noticed a bedside table with so much potential, in front of my house an old dining table, behind me a wooden chair, and at my feet, this very beautiful bookshelf. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with this sense of purpose, I had tripped over my true calling. I was to quit my journalism degree to follow my destiny as a furniture maker. My mind began to run wild and before I knew it, my very small room was now full, floor-to-ceiling with furniture from the street. I had carried each piece up six flights of stairs to my apartment which should have felt difficult, but it didn’t, nor could I feel the injuries I sustained in my fall. Wearing my favourite Misfits tee, I decided that it would be amazing to stencil the Misfits logo on the furniture. This could be how people recognised my furniture, my signature so to speak.
However, as fast as I had found this calling of mine, it was gone. My partner came home to find me on the balcony with a bandana tied around my face, a paper stencil in my left hand, a can of spray paint in my right, and what he described as a ‘hunk of junk’ bookshelf at my feet. With every spray, I would think to myself, ‘Damn, I am good at this, I am making magic. People are going to pay a fortune to own one of my pieces.’ Distracted by my ego, my stencil curled over and paint went everywhere. My dream, like a balloon, burst! I began the rapid descent into a severe depression. I no longer knew why the furniture was there, demanded my partner remove it and I went to bed where I remained for days. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe, I was so tired from everything and nothing at all. Living, I guess – tired of living. I felt nothing, like life had slowed down almost to a complete stop and I just existed in the most basic sense of the word.
What is bipolar like? What does it feel like? For me, bipolar is constant exhaustion, whether due to the over-excitement as happiness forces its way through the clutches of my rib cage in what feels like the greatest anxiety-driven ecstasy, or overwhelming darkness. Some days it feels like my brain is a piece of paper that has been scrunched between two hands. Unwavering confusion sets in, and my brain begins to make up scenarios in an attempt to explain the confusion away. On these days, I don’t know what I am doing here at all. Sometimes it feels like it is my sole responsibility to acknowledge and feel every hardship being endured by the 7,508,796,423 people currently feeling on this earth. Some days, it is brilliant creativity. I am able to see the beauty in the smallest facets of life, and other days, I don’t even notice it at all.
So, here I am today. I have been medicated, I have self-medicated, I have tried a holistic approach, I have tried no approach, I have tried to just run with my bipolar, I have tried to run away from it, and for a while, each of these worked but none of them were sustainable. Medication in itself is a battle, the side effects range from nausea, fainting and tremors to uncontrollable eye movement, loss of balance and the best one… a dry, itchy vagina. These are just a few on a long list of potential side effects, which is why many people suffering from bipolar go unmedicated for so long. The side effects don’t seem like a worthy compromise. With that said, after recently having my contraception removed and experiencing the return of my menstrual cycle, the hormonal changes in my body have led to my bipolar becoming unmanageable. The little control I had left is gone. The ups are more frequent and the lows last longer than ever before. After trying to deal with it in silence, today I begin my journey with a new medication, one that has had great results and minimal side effects (no dry vagina).
So, I sit down for breakfast with my brain. It orders the usual and is yet again feeling blue. I ask, ‘why are you blue?’ ‘It replies: ‘I don’t know’. It never knows, that is one of the most frustrating things about it. As the waitress pours my brain a cup of disgusting black coffee, I break the news to it. ‘Look, I am sorry to have to do this to you on a day when you are feeling blue,’ I begin, ‘but this just isn’t working between us anymore.’ My brain looks up in shock, ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’ A bold statement I know, but I can’t tiptoe around my brain’s feelings anymore.
‘We gave it 27 good years, 19 of which were amazing, but the last 8 have been really tough and we just don’t see eye-to-eye anymore.’ As tears begin to stream down my brain, I take this as a good opportunity to get up and walk away. I give my brain one last hug, bid it farewell and I leave that diner, headed towards what I hope will be a more stable future.