After I Destroyed Myself: Fast and Furious with Bipolar Disorder and Addiction
“I knew myself only after I destroyed myself and only in the process of fixing myself did I know who I really was.” – Sade Andria Zabala
When I sit down to write, I load my pen, point it at my page, and blow its brains out. The moment I was born I asked for pen and paper. I’d seen things. I had a story to tell. If telling the truth were martial arts, I’d be a black belt. I’d rather deal with the consequences of being honest than the consequences of being dishonest. I’m not an expert on mental health, addiction, or suicide. I’m a survivor.
Falling feels like flying until you hit bottom – so does writing.
My parents didn’t raise an eyebrow when an elementary school teacher phoned to let them know I’d spent the first two weeks of recess in silence, kicking rocks in a corner on the playground. They never questioned why, as a high school student, I’d have to have a toke and a swig before plunging into my seat next to the other “gifted” kids in advanced English Lit. In many ways, I’m still an awkward second grader, and I’m still the good kid in the bad crowd and the bad kid in the good crowd.
My diagnosis came not long after my accident but I’ll get to that in a bit. Nearing the end of my twentieth year, the outside of my body celebrated the arrival of my twenty first, but my insides were certain I would never see my twenty second. The accident happened fast, in slow motion. Driving in the rain at midnight, my foot became lead and I blacked out as it hit the floor of my Honda. Alive, I couldn’t tell if the impact was the end or the beginning. That my skull wasn’t shattered should have meant I’d become smarter. That I did not lose my eye should have meant I’d see clearer
I walked out of a hospital with a few broken bones, a concussion, and a great conversation starter – two hundred and twenty stitches where doctors put together what was left of my head. Years later, I’d accept the scar as an expensive tattoo and a reminder that nothing is ever as bad as it could be. “It gives you character,” people said to cheer me up. The prescriptions I was given for pain may as well have been Beyoncé’s new album because I collected them at the pharmacy window like I was accepting a lifetime achievement award for being the world’s biggest asshole. The pills made my eyelids fall down and gave me what I’d always wanted – the ability, and permission, to feel nothing.
I carried no passengers in my Honda that night. I did not hit another vehicle and no one else was hurt. It was years before I told anyone that the car crash was not an accident. I drove my car into the concrete and steel wall that guarded my apartment complex because I wanted to die more than I wanted to live.
I was told that one sign of a traumatic brain injury is that the person may not realize a brain injury has occurred. Maybe my brain injury kick started my mental illness. Maybe my mental illness caused my brain injury. Maybe I’ll never know and maybe it doesn’t matter.
I questioned my survival. I declared war on my existence. I wanted the life out of me like it was Rosemary’s baby. I cried for no other reason than I was who I am. I signed up for acting classes, just so I could be somebody else, but I locked myself in my room and couldn’t even act like I cared. In darkness or light, sleep and sense escaped me. I spent days screaming at the top of my lungs and nights wishing I could take back every word I had ever said.
My life had become a bloody crime scene. I made attempts to leave the house but when I did leave, I never got farther than the closest barstool. I watched people forget who they were, become who they hoped they’d never be, and leave behind who they knew they could have been.
Somehow I managed to keep my darkness under lock and key until one day I decided to swallow the key and turn the power off for good. After shattered relationships, oppressive depression, substance abuse, strange and irresponsible sex, fist fights, (that I mostly lost) , hospitalizations, bankruptcy, an arrest, failed attempts at rehabilitation and an overdose, I was rejected, evicted, and devoid of all hope.
I secured my noose, dipped my feet in concrete, loaded my shotgun, grabbed my toaster, headed for the Pacific, and jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge. (In actuality, I swallowed one hundred pills, washed them down with a gallon of vodka and sat on the couch.) I should have known I wouldn’t fit in a coffin since I never fit in anywhere else.
I woke up in another overcrowded hospital and this time I was sure I was dead but no one wanted to tell me. I was conscious for just long enough to know I hadn’t made it to heaven. I felt like a fly that had been swatted. Tubes poked in and out of everywhere and obnoxious hospital machines beeped and buzzed. I had one fleeting thought, “Fuck, the third time will be the charm.”
Someone had another plan for me. I was stuffed into a van and dropped off on an unfamiliar doorstep. Only half-conscious, every second could have been a week or a day and when I finally came to, I was strapped to the steel frame that held together a decomposing mattress. The purpose of the brutal restraints became clear. I was in an institution way worse than any you’ve seen on television, and the only person by my bedside was the nurse whose job was to make sure patients were stripped of their shoe laces upon delivery.
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My first few days were composed of silence and screaming. I could only smell bodily fluids and the disinfectant used to cover them up. The conversation is what kept me going. I traded stories with patients who I knew would remain in this place long after I was branded a madman and released into population.
One week in, my outlook began to change. I started to look forward to visits from doctors and nurses who were more determined to save my life than I ever was. For my own good, they stood above me making sure my medications made it down my throat. I no longer felt like a prisoner in an American Horror Story episode where the only locks on doors were on the outside.
Even as I felt better, I was still convinced I was a lost cause, but someone begged to differ. His scraggly beard hid his face and he looked like a sideways mosquito in a white coat. He convinced me he was a doctor, not a patient, when he shook my trembling hand and became the first person who looked me in my eyes in months. I answered his questions suspiciously and then all at once my tendencies gave way to my diagnosis. It was comforting to know that even though I might be crazy, I’m not unique.
Bipolar disorder is a motherfucker. I can’t think of a softer, gentler way to put it. One moment I’m pitch black and the next moment I explode like the light in the dark. The nights that I sleep, I wake up wondering if I’m not myself or if I’m more myself than ever. When I’m up, or manic, I’m a legend. The MVP of the universe. When I’m down, I’m a tightly wound guitar string ready to snap no matter the softness of the strum.
On the best day, bipolar disorder is like I’m on an airplane and there is turbulence. At its worst, I’m on the same airplane, there is turbulence, the plane crashes, I realize I’m the only survivor – and I can’t feel my legs. After one particularly violent tumble down the rabbit hole in rehab, the nurse checking boxes on my intake paperwork recommended I write in a journal to kick off my psychiatric vacation. Here’s what I showed her on Monday:
“I convinced the chubby nurse that I was fine. Then, I put my fist through a mirror and told her I wished it were her face. But I really wish my face was the mirror so no one would ever have to look at me. It’s 4am in my head. The moon rules at 4am because even the sun needs to rest. It’s the time when the night owls have given up hunting and the early birds haven’t even considered the worm. For most people, 4am means silence. For me it’s turmoil. World War III is happening ad nauseam behind my eyebrows. So far I’ve lost four pounds, one from my head and three from my heart. This thing that’s pounding in my chest – I want it to stop. Please perform a lobotomy and be sure that nothing is left behind. If I’m no longer around to feel the pain, does it still hurt just as bad?
I’m falling apart one little piece at a time. There is no peace left. I’m afraid. Take my life or you are a killer. Take my place and it’s me who’s committed the crime. Throw me in prison and lock me in chains. Super Max would be a vacation, there’s only the Hole in my brain. They said this can be my do-over. I don’t want a do-over. I want a never even happened.
People love to tell me, “Casey, I never had any idea.” I just never stayed in one place long enough for anyone to notice. I became the master of the Irish goodbye, except that with every goodbye, there was the chance there would never be another one.
In the opening line of the essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus tells us: “there is only one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Mental health aside, deciding whether or not life is worth living will always be the fundamental question of human existence.
I’m not “bipolar” the same way a person is not “cancer” or “diabetes.” Bipolar disorder is a disease; and it’s deadly. Half of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide. Ten percent will succeed. With the help of doctors, exercise, medication, therapy, and writing, I haven’t been one of them. Recovery is my oxygen so I breathe deeply, but sometimes still, I forget to inhale. When I wage war on myself, my family and friends are the first ones on the battlefield. The times I get nothing right, I write. My brother once told me that if I don’t tell my story, eventually, it will tell me.
The most important thing about this essay is that I wrote it. I admit this is not the unabridged story. My mental health treatment is never a quick drop by the doctor’s office or like choosing between acetominophen and ibuprofen when I have a headache. Finding the right “mix” of therapies and medications has taken years and figuring out what works has taken a whole lot of figuring out what doesn’t work. My meds help me sleep regularly and I have more control over my moods and behavior than ever. At times, I become compulsively obsessive not to be impulsive but it’s much better than the alternatives. I no longer hurl oranges at the wall, or at my girlfriend, when I want a glass of orange juice. She keeps my psychiatrist on speed dial because I’m the last person to find out when I lose my way. I know how much she cares when she tells me once a week that she’s going to leave my ass but, first makes sure she has my pills laid out for the week.
I can fill a thousand pages with stories like these. Thankfully, I can fill two thousand pages with stories about recovery and hope. Sometimes my recovery isn’t pretty, but I’m happy to be around to experience it. Nowadays, when I smile, the skin around my eyes crinkles. That’s how you know a smile is genuine: crinkly eyes.