A Bipolar Diagnosis: A Life’s Mission Revealed
by Gabe Howard
My hospital stay felt somewhere between imprisonment and treatment. I was a twenty-six year old grown man. I owned my own home, had an excellent job, had money in the bank, had been married, and was a registered voter. I was an American citizen who had done absolutely nothing wrong. Yet, here I was, behind locked doors. It was (literally) illegal for me to leave. On the one hand, my adult brain was telling me this was wrong and I needed to escape. But, on the other hand, I needed help, and if this was the help I needed, so be it.
The next day, I showered and put on real clothes and resembled someone human. I was less confused than I had been, but still uncertain about everything. I had never been an overnight patient in a hospital before—let alone a psychiatric hospital—so everything was new to me.
I was approached by a group easily recognizable as doctors. There were four of them, and we sat down at one of the empty lunchroom tables. The oldest of the group introduced himself and let me know that he would be my psychiatrist for the next three days. He explained that I was in a teaching hospital, hence the entourage of psychiatric residents with him for observation. He was nice, calm, and he looked me in the eyes when he spoke. Then he asked me if I knew why I was here.
“I wanted to die,” I answered.
“Wanted to die?” he replied. “So you do not want to die any longer?”
I explained that I’d been confused and scared. I told him I didn’t fully understand what was happening both to me and around me. My plans to end my life were gone, but had been replaced with emptiness. I had more questions than answers and I didn’t know what to think. I knew I was in a hospital, so something was clearly wrong.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, I answered his many questions with brutal honestly. I told him about drug use, hiring prostitutes, drinking alcohol to excess, and all the one-night stands. I told him about waking up in strip clubs, bars, and other random places without explanation as to why I was there. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
Bipolar disorder. That’s what was wrong, the doctor told me.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the moment that would form the basis of my crusade to educate the public about mental illness. If these symptoms could go undetected by me, my friends, and my family, then what happened to me could happen to anyone. The illness is bad; the lack of education about it is shameful.
The doctor prescribed some medicine, took me off suicide watch, and said he would see me the next morning around the same time. I shook his hand but stayed seated and watched the group walk away. A few moments later, a nurse handed me a little white cup with pills in it and a cup of water. That was the only thing about my stay that television and movies got right. Pills did, in fact, come in little white cups. Nothing else about my stay in the psychiatric hospital resembled pop culture consensus in any way.
They didn’t even have a ping-pong table, which inexplicably still bothers me, fourteen years later.
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The previous night, after it was decided I would be staying at the hospital, I called my granny to let her know what was happening. I told her I was suicidal and was being admitted to the psychiatric ward. I could hear the fear in her voice and found it off-putting, since the staff and Lisa had been so positive about my decision. I had felt good about seeking help until I heard my granny say, “Don’t say anything. We will get you out of there.” I was confused and scared and started to explain why it was important for me to stay.
At the time, my grandmother’s working knowledge of mental illness and psychiatric wards was exactly what the average person would expect from a 65-year-old woman. I imagine she pictured all the pop culture representations of psychiatric hospitals as scary, depressing places with “zombie” patients wandering around in dirty grey hospital gowns.
Her lack of knowledge — but, more likely, her fear — led her to believe that her suicidal grandson would be better off at home alone than in a psychiatric ward.
I didn’t know what to do, so I handed the phone to Lisa. She told me, months later, that my grandmother begged her to get me out of there. Pleaded with her. Obviously, Lisa held strong and just continued to reassure this terrified woman, whom she had never met, that this was the best thing that could be happening.
I often think about how my story would have turned out, had my grandmother gotten her wish. She is my favorite person in the entire world. There is not a chance that my grandmother would ever do anything to intentionally hurt me. She would do anything to protect me. I can’t imagine a bond being stronger than ours.
But intentions don’t matter.
Lisa came to visit every day and we spoke on the phone often during my stay. Her visits meant the world to me. It was nice to have someone to talk to who made me feel normal. Even though I accepted that I was a person with a mental illness, I still had a lot of residual fear about the other patients. I limited my interactions with them to idle chatter about the weather.
At the conclusion of Lisa’s first visit, the staff unlocked the doors and I went to walk through them to escort her to the elevator. A security guard immediately held up his hand and let me know I wasn’t allowed off the ward. “I am just walking my friend over to the elevator,” I said to him. He said it didn’t matter, as a committed patient I was required to stay inside.
I said goodbye to Lisa right there and watched as the door locked shut behind her. I felt stripped of my manhood. I couldn’t even walk my girlfriend out.
Of course, the real problem isn’t the locked doors. As disheartening as it may be, those are necessary. No adult likes to be locked in against their will, even for their own good. At that time, I believed that the doors were shut to shame me, to lock me in, and to protect society from me.
The hospital understands that the doors are locked to control the environment, to protect us from self-harm and other effects of our illness. However, people with mental illness believe they are being locked up.
The truth is so simple and the misconception is so incredibly damaging.
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The next morning, I met with my doctor and explained that I wanted to leave. I felt better, I was no longer suicidal, I was bored, and I wanted to move on with my life, not stay locked inside a ward. He asked me to stay until mid-afternoon and take advantage of another group therapy session and to sign up for something active, like gym time or aerobics. I assumed this was in reference to my weight.
I agreed and he said I would be allowed to leave at three o’clock. A quick glance at a clock confirmed it was 7:30 a.m. Seven and a half hours to go and I would be free. I called Lisa and requested a ride home and she agreed. While on the phone, she informed me that she had to run some out of town errands the next morning and I would be going with her. I agreed, but I realized I had no choice in the matter. She wasn’t inviting me; she was telling me.
After an uneventful group meeting was lunch and after lunch was the gym time I’d signed up for. Four women and I were escorted for an hour of open gym time. Ever since I was in school, open gym has always meant just one thing: basketball.
We bounced balls and shot hoops and talked amongst ourselves. One of the women suggested that, since there were five of us, we should enter an intermural psychiatric hospital league. We laughed and someone said we would need a team name. Given how the Columbus Blue Jackets were my favorite hockey team I decided to offer a name honoring them: The Strait Jackets.
We all laughed and, less than two hours before I was leaving, I finally made a genuine human connection with other people. I realized how much I missed seeing other people happy, making other people happy, and being happy.
In my own misery, depression, and hopelessness, I had no ability whatsoever to summon any other emotion. Depression is cruel, relentless, and unforgiving. It makes me feel isolated, tired, hopeless, and scared. But its biggest weapon against me is that it makes me think it is the only emotion I will ever feel again. It makes me forget about all the other emotions. Depression settles in like a parasite and sucks the will to live out of you.
As I sat there, waiting for three o’clock to come, a group of people and a nurse walked through the doors. There was an older couple and a middle-aged couple. I learned that the middle-aged man in the group was the person being admitted, the middle-aged woman was his wife, and the older couple was the man’s parents. The man’s family looked worried and were asking questions of the intake nurse. They were looking around, confused, and gesturing at different things. The staff was answering questions and passing paperwork over the counter.
I focused on the man being admitted and we locked eyes for a moment. Not long at all but long enough to be noticeable. He looked sad, hopeless, and lost. More than anything, however, he looked scared.
For a brief moment, I felt like I was looking in a mirror. He looked like I felt three days before, when I first arrived.
I got up and walked back to my room where my stuff was sitting on the bed waiting for me to carry it out. I walked back out into the common area and saw the man sitting on the couch. His family was gone now and he was sitting there alone, obviously crying.
I did my best to make it past him without being noticed but he looked up at me and said, “How long have you been here?”
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I stopped and said, “I’m going home today.”
He was still looking up at me as I stood there and I realized I hadn’t answered his question. I wanted to get away from him so badly because he reminded me of my worst self. I wanted to forget that I was ever like him. At the same time, I was still terrified I’d end up back in the same dark place he currently was.
He was still waiting for my reply and all I could do was stare down at him and muster, “I don’t know, but I have to go see if my friend is here.”
Then I walked away as he sat there scared, crying, and hopeless. It would be the first time in my entire life I ever intentionally walked away from someone who was suffering.
As I walked into the main area of the hospital, I saw Lisa standing there, checking in. I walked over and gave her a giant hug. I was incredibly happy to see her. Whether that was because I was now free to go or because it was her is still unclear in my mind.
She went back to my room and gathered up my belongings while I signed the discharge paperwork, collected my prescriptions, and said goodbye to the staff. Lisa came back with my stuff and we stood there in front of the locked doors as the nurse pressed the button to unlock them.
I do not recall what date or month I was admitted to the hospital. It is an easy fact to check, but the exact date seems irrelevant. If memories could be physically seen, like a scar, my time there would have been a noticeable one. All I knew, for the moment, is that I was being allowed to walk through the doors and rejoin my life.
And so I did.
Over the next four years, I would marry Lisa, continued to struggle with bipolar disorder, lose my high paying job due to the stigma of a mental illness diagnosis, attend two assisted outpatient hospital programs, and then divorce Lisa.
Lisa and I are still friends, I talk to her every single day. I moved out on my own and rented my own little apartment I nicknamed my POD (Pretty Okay Domicile).
I took a job at a local mental health charity, running their walk fundraiser. To this day, my single year fundraising record holds. I met a beautiful woman I’m now married to and we bought a house on a farm. I’m a national speaker, award-winning writer, and I’ve travelled the country talking openly about living with mental illness.
Bipolar disorder is still a big factor in my life. I spend a little time every day managing it. I’m accomplished, successful, and proud of what I’m doing.
All of the above is surprising to me. But none of it surprises me as much as this: