You Just Can’t Talk to Crazy People: Bipolar, Depressed, Recovering
by Jane Collins
I had been mildly depressed for years, maybe for decades. Then the bank foreclosed on our farm because we couldn’t pay the mortgage. My husband and I and our three small children had to move into town to live with my mother-in-law.
My mother-in-law was a devout Baptist. I was Jewish, but I found comfort in the community of her church, and I loved the pastor, the most humble spiritual leader I have ever met. I began to tell myself that my depression was the devil inside me, and faith in God would root it out. Night after night, the battle between Good and Evil played itself out in my imagination. I became convinced that baptism would wash away not only my sins but my misery.
In a matter of a few weeks, I went from being blue all the time to feeling a kind of exaltation I had never experienced before. Everyone saw the change in me. My friends were worried, which I did not understand. I felt they should be happy for me. The chapel was a place where people often got possessed by the Spirit, yelling and screaming during the service, speaking in tongues, so the congregation took my jittery, talkative behavior in stride. A relative noticed me taking her cat for a walk, bushwhacking my way through brambles to follow the animal, and told me, approvingly, that she had seen me “walking with God.”
The pastor agreed to baptize me, even though he noticed how manic I was. He suggested to me, privately, that I “try to slow down.” That was excellent advice I could not follow. I couldn’t sleep for excitement. Late one night, I played with our dog outside in the yard, even though I am highly allergic to animals and normally would not touch him. I did not have an asthma attack, and I did not break out in a rash, which I took as proof that I was in a state of grace.
The kids were disturbed by the changes in my behavior, not to mention their living circumstances. My older son, then seven, told me that if they sent me to prison, he would go with me. I tried to reassure him but I understood why he felt like I was heading for some institution or other. My youngest, two and a half years old, pointed a chubby finger at me before I left for the baptism and said solemnly, “Yell real loud, and then work.”
On the Sunday of my baptism, I was high as a kite. I walked to the church barefoot, wearing a long embroidered Arab dress I’d bought second-hand in Jerusalem many years before. In the church basement, I changed into a white robe used by the church for these ceremonies. Pastor Bobby pinched my nose gently and dunked me backwards under the warm water of the baptismal font. When he lifted me back up, I did yell, just as my son had instructed me. The congregation laughed with pleasure.
I thought that now that I had been born again, I would settle down into my new Christian life. But the excitement wouldn’t go away. I still couldn’t sleep. Torrents of thoughts rushed through my mind, and I couldn’t talk fast enough to express them. My vision changed; the world seemed sharper and more vivid than usual, but sometimes it flashed and glittered and rippled. One morning, I found my little son on his knees by his bed, crying his heart out. I didn’t have to wonder why. I called the local hospital and asked to be admitted.
When the intake counselor asked my name, I told him “Jesus Number Six Million and One.” This was a kind of joke, though I didn’t expect him to get it. I was referring to the number of my people said to have been killed in the Holocaust, plus me. I never thought I was Jesus, but I did think that I had been crucified by depression, and maybe Jesus would help me get down off the cross.
The hospital psychiatrist told me I had bipolar disorder, presenting with acute mania, and I should think of myself as having a chemical imbalance. That made sense to me, since I had so recently bounced from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. I spent the next three weeks in the locked psychiatric ward. I was extremely lucky to have been admitted in that particular time and place. The ward was brand new, clean, and comfortable, and my window overlooked the park. But the best part was my fellow patients. Some of them were struggling out of depression and barely able to move, some were in another kind of crisis, but they were all nice people, and some of them were not only intelligent but wise. There was one other Jesus-type and a John the Baptist. Satan showed up one night, with two cops guarding his room while he raged and snarled, but they took him away in the morning. It was a good ward.
The doctor put me on a mood stabilizer. At first the world continued to sparkle and shake. Once, I got frustrated with a night nurse who ignored my presence outside her glassed-in station, and banged my wrist against the edge of her glass partition. Instantly, three large attendants appeared and laid me down on my bed, attaching leather straps to my wrists and ankles. They gave me a shot that they said would put me out for hours, although I knew my body would fight it so I told them it wouldn’t work. Sure enough, I was conscious again in twenty minutes.
The doctors weren’t much help beyond putting me on the mood stabilizer, which might have saved my life. At least I felt like, the way my heart was racing, I was headed for a heart attack or stroke. My psychiatrist became so annoyed with my theological nonsense that he abruptly stalked out of one session, exclaiming, “You just can’t talk to crazy people.” I sent him a note later, in which I informed him that I could talk to crazy people, so that was his problem, not mine.
Therapy did happen sometimes in the common room, though it rarely involved hospital staff. When the other patients were calm enough to talk, they were full of insights and very kind. Sometimes we’d be talking, and the television which was always on seemed to comment on our conversation. There was a particular shrewd humor that characterized the Voice on the Television. Once, after a man screamed at one of the nastier nurses and got hauled off to his room, the TV said, “His anger is part of his charm.”
One woman spent hours every day walking on the black and white checkerboard tiles in the hallway. She never spoke. But one day she pulled at my arm and silently insisted that I walk with her. As we took slow, deliberate steps together, it helped both of us return to the normal pace of life: she was speeding up, and I was slowing down. She was the most effective therapist I ever had.
I tried not to panic about feeling so weird. What if I stayed that way, and couldn’t return to my kids? I think it actually helped that I had tripped on LSD, mescaline, and several other psychedelic drugs more than a decade earlier. Those experiences taught me what it felt like to be out of my normal mind, and that the altered state could be temporary. When I felt too frightened by the mania, I reminded myself that I was tripping. The chemical was just something my body had made, not a pill I had taken.
As the mania began to subside, I needed something to do besides flip through the magazines in the common room. I was still much too twitchy to read. I had been an environmental activist, so I fell back on first principles and began a sort of ad hoc recycling system. There were always extra paper cups and napkins and plastic tableware that got thrown away after our meals. I began to collect them, keeping neat stacks in my room. Once I heard one nurse tell another, “Oh, go ask Jane, she probably has some.”
Everything changed when I got out of the hospital. Nobody wanted the situation to go on as it had been, so I went up North to stay with my parents. My husband packed up all our stuff, and he and the kids joined me several weeks later. He soon found a job and an apartment. Meanwhile, I saw an old psychiatrist my mother knew. After we talked a few times, he told me the mania was probably a one-time thing caused by my situation, and took me off the lithium.
The medication made me feel as though my emotional body was wrapped up tightly, swaddled, or smothered. My emotions couldn’t move, which I guess is the point. The world wasn’t flashing anymore, but it seemed terribly gray and flat. I didn’t feel much at all when I was on the drug, and I was very glad to get off it. But I wouldn’t recommend that anybody stop taking meds without a doctor’s advice and supervision. Going cold turkey was especially dangerous, and I was fortunate not to suffer serious side-effects. I suspect the doctor was willing to stop the medication because I had only been on it for six weeks, and he was careful to check in with me to make sure that neither the mania nor serious depression had come back.
Since that episode, I have had some severe depressions but not so dire I had to be hospitalized. What gets me through is remembering that depression makes everything seem much worse than it really is – and that eventually, it will pass. I get a little manic sometimes, though I try to fight its allure and calm myself down, and sleeping is still not one of my talents. I think being bipolar means that the usual ups and downs of life just affect me more than they do most people.
What works for me is exercise and meditation. These practices help me keep my balance, when my insides are slipping too far to one side or the other. They’re like ballast on a ship, keeping it stable in a storm. Walking has remained a big part of my self-healing. So has the wisdom of my friends. I get out in nature whenever I can; and I garden, when weather permits. Music helps too, especially when I can take part in making it.
I have come to see mental health and illness as part of a continuum. I think everybody is crazy sometimes, and nobody is crazy all the time. I also think our culture’s no-holds-barred style of capitalism is so cruel that it drives many people crazy, especially some of the most serious and sensitive. And I guess being born again really did give me a second chance at life, though I’m not a Christian anymore. People can break, it’s true. But we’re not things made of glass or plastic. As long as we live, we can heal.