Crossing Borders to Confront my Bipolar Disorder

Crossing Borders to Confront my Bipolar Disorder


Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

They say living in New York can make or break you. My two-and-a-half-year stint in the East Village was like living with osteoporosis. It broke every fragile bone in my body, down to the little piggy that went all the way home. I arrived in January, 2019, off a high from my time in Tel Aviv. As a Canadian abroad, I worked as an editor for two Israeli regional magazines, a music journalist for the Jerusalem Post, and a content writer for a Hebrew language course. In the Middle East, my bones were rich in calcium. I was invincible.

As I arrived in The Big Apple, the euphoria quickly faded, turning my previous adventures into a distant memory as I navigated the littered Alphabet City streets. I fought for freelance work, firing off pitches to publications at cafés along Avenue A, then migrating to Avenue B to scan Linked-In for openings. Every rejection email felt like a punch to an already sensitive gut. Each failed job interview, a left hook, knocking me to the ground. Somehow, during this time, I managed to keep getting up for more rounds of torture as I revisited these cafés on the daily, filling my punch cards as proof of existence, proof of determination. Signs of life, though dimming.

I attributed my low mood to the constant dismissal, convinced that I did not have a strong enough backbone for the world’s writing mecca. In Israel, I was a big fish in a small pond. But here, realizing that I was plankton made me feel inconsequential. Already contemplating my place on the planet, I began to wonder what would happen if I merely disappeared forever. My mental health waned and waned. The guilt of destroying my family kept me from trying to kill myself initially; however, I had a hunch that that feeling could only last so long.

I tread lightly above the surface, playing pool with my roommate, reconnecting with old friends, taking a personal essay writing class at the New School, and visiting my cousins uptown. But these were temporary fixes. An ace bandage to nurse a wounded soul when what I needed was a hard cast.

Trudging along the slush-paved sidewalks became emotionally unbearable. The trips to cafés slowed to a standstill, my punch cards left whole. Getting to Trader Joe’s around the corner felt impossible. The pharmacy next door, a feat. After an endless winter in the confines of my room, what originally felt like harmless apathy was replaced by suicidal thoughts. At first, they were exactly that, thoughts. But then, struck by excruciating insomnia, left alone to my dark mind with nobody to talk to, I traded in Instagram doom scrolling for research on what quantity of over-the-counter drugs could end my life. I willed myself out of bed to purchase supplies to end my life and a bottle of liquor to wash it down.

The result: a one-way express ticket to Mt. Sinai hospital after drunkenly raising a red flag with my friend back home who called 911. They found me passed out next to a trio of empty bottles. I don’t remember much from the ICU. Flash images of delirium, an out of body experience, a very uncomfortable catheter, and some muscle atrophy. As I came to, I was committed to the psych floor where I would find out that the invincibility cloak back in Tel Aviv was, in fact, the beginnings of mania. That I had what the handsome doctor called “bipolar disorder.” Already exhibiting clear signs of mania, I had trouble reacting logically to this new information. It fueled my fire, igniting my creative juices, launching me into fervent reading on the topic alongside filling notebooks as I charted my past behaviour over the almost three decades, trying to piece together the genesis of this illness.

Some say a near-death experience leads to a new lease on life. My life flashed before my eyes at twenty-seven and it triggered more than that, it triggered my next manic episode. And just like that, my bones had been recalcified.

For two straight weeks, I paced up and down the poorly lit, narrow hallway of the psych ward like a cartoon character; my depressed Charlie Brown persona had been replaced by an ecstatic Snoopy. I couldn’t sit for mealtimes, let alone eat. I fed off social and creative energy; there was no need for mystery mush under pale green plastic domes. My mind went a thousand kilometers a minute and speech followed suit. It didn’t matter who understood me because I had a macaroni yellow golf pencil and paper to turn racing thoughts into words. Suddenly, I was transported back to my office in Israel, where I was given license to write as many articles as I could. I took that to heart, being told by my boss to “Slow down!” and urged by my co-editor to “Take a lunch break.”

As the mania slowly dwindled with the help of medication, I was able to reflect on my life and resonate with this diagnosis further. I thought about the highs: of spending twelve-hour days in the practice rooms in my music college without eating, drinking, or using the restroom; I dwelled on my forty-kilometer bike rides in Tel Aviv with zero water in one-hundred-degree heat, followed by an hour of Bikram yoga, and the ability to head straight out to an all-night party afterward. I thought about the lows, too: getting tendonitis from too much repetitive piano practice and curling up in a ball in those same practice rooms in the dark for hours on end; “accidentally” taking too much Tylenol on my semester abroad in Scotland and running away from the ER when the nurses slipped away to summon psychiatric help; yelling at my mom for giving birth to me at the end of a very gray day trip to Salzburg on my European travels. And the list went on…and on…and on. It almost became comforting at a certain point. Like everything suddenly made sense instead of being some foreign entity.

After accepting this new diagnosis, I wore my “bipolar” badge with pride: I quickly read memoirs about mental illness, dog-earing the pages that felt relevant (every page), and alerted my friends over the janky landline hanging in the hallway (who were not the least bit surprised. My best friends even responded by saying that they thought I already knew I had bipolar disorder and was getting help). I felt so free, despite being locked up in a windowless room with zero privacy and gym mats for doors. My life was just beginning, now that I could grasp it. I could write a memoir, or go back into music journalism, or create the next great editing app, or even run the world. I was invincible. I thought I was superhuman, which would later be tested and negated through self-harm while depressed or biking accidents resulting in concussions that I would not tend to because I was riding a high and barely noticed my symptoms.

I was released too early, with a prescription I’d never fill. I could tackle things on my own terms. I relied on mood disorder support groups to feel less alone, learning that I wasn’t as idiosyncratic as I once thought. There was an entire community of people struggling with the same issues, all in their own way, but with commonalities, nonetheless. I got a Peanuts tattoo to symbolize my two selves: one manic, one depressed. Impulsive behaviour was a symptom of mania, including tattoos, piercings, and sexual promiscuity. Despite my efforts, like any good drug, the comedown was inevitable.


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That initial hospitalization was the first of many. I became a regular at Mt. Sinai psychiatric unit uptown. The staff knew me by name, the music therapist let me play piano in the locked music room, and I became known as the girl who read whole novels in a day, while racing up and down the slightly wider ward hallway, this time adorned with peculiar paintings, like Munch’s “The Scream.” I filled notebooks with incoherent scribbles that unlocked the secrets to the universe, but are no more than a road map of my mania on that particular day.

The ups and downs grew more intense upon each discharge. I was stuck on Kingda Ka, unable to get off. My instability was infectious. I unintentionally hurt those around me by oversharing or disappearing off the face of the planet, depending on my mood. Friends slowly dwindled as a result. My paranoia that everyone was talking about me behind my back became too much to handle, so I’d often revert to isolating instead. Until I was under the impression my roommates had planted a video camera in my bedroom, and my living space became equally unsafe. I migrated to the local pub for comfort, which conjured up a whole host of new problems, including alcohol dependence.

As Covid reared its ugly head, I somehow completed an online Graduate’s course in Publishing, held onto a job at a co-working space for writers, and despite the cyclical suicidal ideation with intent, the stubborn five-year-old who insisted she could do everything herself refused to call it quits.

Until September, 2021. I was coming off a month-long manic bender—rife with sex, drugs, rock and roll. I’d hit up the tavern at four, double fisting drinks until closing, then follow a stranger back to their place for a “night cap.” After watching the sunrise by the East River with that night’s beau, I’d head to work. I hadn’t slept in over a week, maybe more.

I ended up spending two weeks in yet another psychiatric institute, detoxing, and came out to the same problems in the same twisted world as before, feeling no better about my wellbeing, with no intention of sticking to my sedating medication regimen. I thought a visit home would help me press the reset button as it had in the past. The minute I touched the tarmac, I knew there’d be no return ticket. This little piggy had gone all the way home and there was no going back. Not to the instability that fought me at every subway station. The tracks too became tempting to avoid.

While it was hard to say goodbye to the “fun” of flying high in the polluted New York sky, Montreal—the city I had avoided for a decade—turned out to be the best thing to happen to me since I could remember (and my memory was pretty hazy from electroconvulsive therapy).

After a shocking adjustment period, the quiet of suburbia proved the perfect platform to seek respite and recharge my Eveready battery. For the first time since my diagnosis, I accepted the help of antipsychotics and mood stabilizers. The Canadian healthcare system was vastly different from what I knew in the States. I was able to express my concerns and describe my symptoms without judgment or the fear of being locked up, and this enabled the psychiatrist to find the right medications for me, in a trial-and-error period. Meds no longer felt forced upon me. The doctor even made it clear that treatment was a choice, my choice. So, I was willing to try whatever she had to offer, knowing I could always switch things up if it caused dissociation like the Lithium did, or utter exhaustion, like the Seroquel. Pills were no longer an admittance to failure, rather a crutch for a broken leg. I spent my twenties chasing a fabricated high, but as I turned thirty, I learned that feeling 150% wasn’t necessary to lead a long, contented existence.

Somewhat stabilized, I took on a role at my family’s business. First, something simple: customer service. A few hours a week. Eventually, part-time. And months later, a promotion to inside sales, fulltime. It was something I never thought I’d be able to handle with my bipolar disorder. A major part of why I was able to succeed in the workplace was due to the fact that I was working for my parents. I was able to gradually ease into a full time position, at my own pace, with my own intentions. This was something I could never do in New York, where the fast pace mentality had me diving head first into an empty, concrete filled pool, with a guarantee for failure before making it off the diving board. My brother also works for the family business, and he made it his duty to include me in customer trainings and reassure me on my French language skills (since I had lived away for so long). My grandmother, who passed away recently, wanted to know all about my time at the company that once belonged to her husband, and she took pride in my being there, which, in turn, made me feel proud.

Not only did my family support me workwise, they were there for me to lean on when I needed to unplug and binge a Netflix show, or more importantly, talk about my paranoid thoughts instead of bottling them up and feeling isolated by my mental machinations. My mom was able to remind me that I didn’t need to turn off my phone while talking to her, that nobody was listening in, despite my beliefs. My brother got me into Lego as I needed a mindless pastime to break from the ruminations. I joined a gym and began training three times a week and lost the thirty pounds I had put on mostly due to the atypical antipsychotic I had been put on in the States, which came with a bold “WILL INCREASE APPETITE AND CAUSE WEIGHT GAIN” warning. I even convinced my dad to start up at the same gym so we can spot each other now. I spent as many lunchtimes as I could sharing homemade pistachio biscotti with my grandmother, who loved to watch videos of me lifting weights. I counted my deadlifts in “Beverly’s.” My Grandma Bevy weighed one-hundred pounds wet, so I would show her how I could lift two Beverly’s at once. She loved that. I also retaught myself how to cook, do laundry, and make my bed. The seemingly trivial, yet necessary tasks to function in everyday life—something I had not done in a few years.

It has been exactly one year since I left my seemingly inescapable past for a promising future. I’ve learned that life doesn’t have to be unmanageable simply because I have a diagnosis. I do not have to constantly be on the run on two sprained ankles. Montreal is no longer a layover. I’m looking at apartments close to home. All of the breaks and bruises I had to overcome back in New York have made me stronger. More apt to take the world on my shoulders. And that is exactly what I plan to do.

If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, in the United States, at 988. In Canada, you may call 1.833.456.4566, or text 45645 from 4pm-12am.


EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman

Jennifer Greenberg is a peripatetic, Montreal-born writer and editor, who has written about her experiences abroad for the past decade. Most recently, her articles have focused on her mental health. Formerly an editor for Time Out Israel and Atmosphere Magazine, she has written for such publications as The Forward, The Jerusalem Post, and The Canadian Jewish News. Jennifer views her neurodivergence as an artistic blessing and channels her creative energy into sharing personal essays about her bipolar disorder in order to connect with others and spread awareness about overcoming mental health struggles.