A Creative Mind, Body, and Voice Navigates Bipolar Disorder
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
My name is Casey Calhoun. I have struggled with bipolar disorder for twenty years. My story is the success of finding my voice amidst all the chaotic brain malfunction. I am sharing my story with everyone and anyone looking to find solace from the challenge of living with bipolar disorder.
My challenges all began with family drama when I was a senior in high school. My brother became ill, my father moved to the West Coast, my stepfather moved out, my friends (all older than me) went away to college, I experienced a breakup with my first love, and I endured the onset of osteopenia; a condition where the body loses bone mineral density, weakening bones. My foundation cracked. I tried to control my realm the best I could, forcing myself to work through the sadness—to share my inner world with my parents at a point where I simply got up the courage to say, “I think I’m losing my mind.” I knew I was quite literally losing my mind because I could no longer quell the out-of-control, scary thoughts that permeated it. I felt helpless, like a bruise to my psyche, my mind felt unsafe. I reached out to my stepfather. I believe in the human spirit and I clearly needed that belief. This was only the very beginning of a long, drawn out illness that left me catatonic, paralyzed with fear, disoriented, and delusional. My brain was overactive—imagination took off, and I was at the mercy of the frightful stages of psychosis.
During summer break, after returning home from a dance conservatory, I noticed strange sensations and energetic pathways and mental disturbance. At home, I could not seem to function without frequently descending into tears. I lost my mind and ended up in hospitals three times. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I had a lot of medication tweaking, against my wishes. I took a year off school, and severely limited dancing. Deep sadness in the form of tears was the first sign of depression, which soon developed into mania. I took the medications even though I didn’t feel like being compliant—I didn’t trust my therapist or my many doctors. I don’t know that I was paranoid so much as I felt no one knew my mind better than me, and I didn’t want to work with people who didn’t know me already because of the nature of my fragile mental state. I simply didn’t feel I could advocate for myself as well as I knew I needed to. After that year of being at home, after being on medications and being stable I was ready to try again and I returned to college.
After returning to the dance conservatory, I became utterly disturbed and psychotic; beyond anything I could come back from on my own. I walked around like I had myself in three parts: the adult voice which wasn’t developed yet, and the child voice which was overactive, and the voice of reason which subtly brought me to life again. I had no boundaries and thus everything going on inside of me was expressed externally. I was not suicidal—maybe I would have been if it weren’t for trying to please everyone and be strong in crisis—I was mad at the energy surrounding me everywhere. I was taking on everything around me (that kind of sensitivity drove me insane). I was yelling, all alone in my dorm room, for someone to “get the fuck away from me—get the fuck off me…get off my fucking back” when my roommate overheard from the next room. Terrified, she called her parents who called mine who came to get me. I didn’t realize how sick I was—I mean I did have a sense, but I didn’t have the objectivity to see and calm myself down…I couldn’t calm down—I was losing my mind and my grip on reality very, very fast. I was still on medications, but clearly they were not working. I left my whole childhood of happy memories behind and started to recreate my existence.
My spirit was singing high and mighty, and I was soaring in my head, but to be blunt I was experiencing mania of the highest degree. I wrote litanies of poems and blogs and such and I couldn’t stop nor could I trace my mind; everything was jumbled and awry. I never had so much confusion in my life about who I was, walking outside to talk to my little girl—an image and energy of a little girl that constantly needed my guidance. She transformed her age and comprehension depending on how I spoke to her. When I would take her to class, I’d imagine her in the corner of the room somewhere sitting, and I had to dance and keep her quiet and entertained—if she would cry I’d silently (or so I thought) tell her, through my dancing, that she was going to be just fine. I was whispering under my breath all the time. I would give her hugs. Like in the air that I would pretend was a self-hug often. I did a lot of pretending (or engaging with my images) and I wasn’t sure of reality. I was clueless about my identity and it was horrendously despairing and disorienting.
After my second hospital stay, and demanding to be independent, my parents put me on a therapeutic farm. I cried because I didn’t have the tools to sit with my thoughts; the words and sounds in my head had nothing to do with reality and my environment. My thoughts were so fast I couldn’t even hear them let alone keep up with them. All I had to go on was trial and error with my body; I put my mind and body into experimenting with my thoughts—the few I had—the ones that came to me and somehow threw me off. I would put my theories into action and test the limits of my mind. I would experiment by assigning different parts of my body to the structures around me; I could let go once I knew I was safe and, by safe, I mean in harmony with my surroundings. So I experimented with how things collided or interacted having chosen or assigned a particular body part to the image in my head.
For example, if I was seeing a forest of trees in my mind’s eye, I would imagine my limbs were tree branches and my torso was the trunk and the walls around were other trees. And so I may decide I was going to work through some anger—I would wonder how the bark around me was feeling the “wind” or if I was seeing blood on the tree that I could come up with a reason for why it was there—it’s very complicated—sometimes I measured time and space with my mind by choosing a constant and a variable and like a science experiment actually play with the options at hand. I became very good at tolerating pain and feeling out my surroundings and I grew to see images of Native Americans dancing and wide open spaces—and feeling like I was in a very difficult situation like someone trying to kill me—all the time, and also I couldn’t be around knives for this reason—they hung there in the air waiting to be used and that was way too much aggression for me to be around. It was incredibly distressing and lonely. It was as if my mind was a movie I couldn’t turn off and I didn’t know where the story was going.
I needed to come home again. One doctor led me to another who recommended a specific antipsychotic; the medication I take without question and with much gratitude now. In the hospital they titrated up to 600 mg. It took at least six months of day drooling, fainting, weakness, and fatigue… but it saved my life—saved my mind from despair and saved my heart a lot of unnecessary stress and emotional pain. I was feeling restful for the first time since I was fifteen years old. I was finally able to talk again with most people– at least my family anyway– I was still walking around in a daze, not really knowing what was going on socially. My voice felt foreign. Still overwhelmed with visions, I couldn’t follow conversational cues. While on the new drug, I attended an outpatient program for structure and community. I had taken the leap of faith with doctors and family. Trusting them in times of despair saved my life.
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In my affected states, I’d hear a random thought like, “Casey is dead” and every single word spoken brought on an image and vice versa—so I’d see myself dead, for instance, and I’d have to make myself survive somehow—and I’d freeze and then I’d try to become present to what was actually happening in my environment—but still seeing the images, I couldn’t put them down like putting down an object—I had to do something with the energy I was experiencing otherwise I’d feel like everything I ignored and didn’t really live through would culminate into horrible feelings of self-doubt and regret and lack of self-worth would all crop up strongly and vividly.
So drawing helped. I decided one day in my head I was going to manage the screaming girl inside who was so loud I couldn’t think or breathe or be present to my surroundings. So I crawled into my head where she was screaming for my attention and I told her she could paint what she saw—she could paint while I did my own maintenance and I watched her begin to express herself non-verbally and it inspired me to draw in reality; three to five drawings every day for a year. I realized I had a little bit of control over a seemingly awful situation—I really couldn’t think clearly with all that screaming—I encourage people in my position to brave these times where nothing seems to be working and all you have left is what images you have to work with—so that the screaming dies down a little—or you can manage it.
Animals were both my guides and my “ego destroyers (or decimators)” they would be up close—their eyes glancing into mine and any little shift or movement physically or mentally affected them—I could scare them off—or even piss them off, which I didn’t want to do… I saw elephants, whales, snakes, horses, and koala bears, and eagles, and people too. I also meditated on the image of a mountain where I could see the entire city from above and where I decided to make lightness from darkness by simply imagining the dark reveal the light through climbing up my body like a shadow and simply letting go of the force that wanted to remain dark. Darkness crept upwards threatening to swallow my existence whole and I couldn’t let it—this is where I had the image of everyone down below all little moving pieces of a larger scheme and I prayed for harmony and to be able to practice moving stones around like people which all had different interactions depending on their relationships to one another. It calmed my spirit and the image of myself as an eagle flew off the mountain, soared and set forth. Meditation—a success story, this time. Other times I felt like a demon lived inside of me, and I had to get it out and I’d crawl on the ground practically throwing it up. Trying to exhaust all possibilities of its stay. And I would have to match its ferocity in order to feel like I could actually give it up.
Journaling, engaging with people, dancing even on my own, reaching out to artists, and looking for teachers in everyone I met saved my life. I wanted to understand my own fears squelched by really watching and embodying others’ reactions to fear. I used people as mirrors so that, when I was afraid, I could watch how others responded to that fear inside of me. I danced all the time. I used it and my body for information as to what I was feeling and ways to re-engage with others. Dance was my way of pulling through darkness into the light. I used imagery all the time to ground myself through my body.
I continued to sing whilst sick—I’d even go when I was feeling anxious or so tired on meds I could barely function, I continued to learn songs and exercise my vocal chords. I sang with my dad consistently for seventeen years. It helped me to sing because it came so naturally—something I’d done my entire life, and gave me something to focus on—at least while I was onstage—I knew that I needed to feel healthy somewhere in my life, and singing with my father was that blessing.
I put myself through massage school. I kept dancing even when I couldn’t think straight and I was disoriented because I knew I loved to dance and though it was harrowing watching myself distort physically and mentally break down. I knew I needed to keep going. Now, I continue working at being happy; I take pride in my ability to adopt changes in myself and in relation to my loved ones.
I listen to my boyfriend’s words and stories to give him my undivided attention when I can manage to fight back the constant chatter of my mind. It’s a challenge, but it is important to me to truly be with others and not just in their presence but in their powerful beauty. I work at being in reality all the time, but feeling death come about in any situation; I’m tired of trying so hard. It takes effort to truly be present with others, but I take it in utmost seriousness because I’m tired of being alone and working on myself all the time. I want to experience the interconnection that two humans have the opportunity to enjoy and really selflessly and faithfully practice.
Mainly, I wanted to be alive, healthy, happy, and loved. These things brought me from the dark to the light. I stayed with a man who I didn’t truly love romantically because it was the ‘easiest’ thing to do…it was the hardest thing to do actually because I had to make believe that this man would bring me to health—even through lovelessness. I envisioned him on a boat rowing and that I was right behind him in search of land. I needed to believe I would return to health, and happiness, and being in love or not was superfluous and insignificant to that goal. I finally let go of that man once I found my way to health, and I let go of the images that I had clung to for dear life.
I’m finally feeling some peace in my life—on the right medication I can manage my illness—the images have mostly subsided, and the fears dissipated, and the sensitivity is more useful and familiar. I finally was able to put out my intention and I fell in love eight months ago—and yet I still need things. I need myself more than anything—I need to utilize my body and mind and heart and spirit to find my highest being. I am not completely healed from being sick as I was; I may never be. But having the strength to have gone through it; that life trusted me with a giant challenge gives me back everything I lost because it was always going to be this hard.
The doctors along the way and the medications have helped me tremendously by taking the edge off, and getting the hallucinations under control, but I can’t say it was easy even after the chemistry was balanced, to exist. It was a true struggle in every sense, and yet the struggle has given me my personality and my ability to have compassion for the struggling and the collapsed spirits out in the world. I am proud of my path, well lived and well deserved at this point—I’m happy much of the time, and I’m no longer afraid that I’m going crazy again or going to die from my panic attacks…it’s all a worthwhile ride and although there are regrets. Oddly, many of the regrets are not listening to and acting on my heart more—and I wish I had just been me without the intense self-judgment, but I did, and am doing, every day, my best.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman