Crazy Like Me

“Everybody needs his memories.  They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”

–Saul Bellow

About three weeks ago, I was a minor celebrity about town.  I was the “feature” in the Sunday profile column of The Meadville Tribune that typically celebrates our small city’s successful entrepreneurs, cupcake mavens, beekeepers, quilters, and kindergarten teachers.  Initially, the reporter contacted me and said he’d heard some amazing things about me in the vein of successful-woman-about-town: 1. That I was (still) a Professor at Allegheny College while raising two children and writing my books; and, more compelling, 2. Did I really climb Mt. Olympus while nine months pregnant?

“I’m sorry to have to say,” I wrote back in my email, “but I think someone has overestimated my accomplishments.  I was a Professor at Allegheny, but I’ve left the College due to medical difficulties. And while I have climbed Mt. Olympus and did travel to Greece when I was nine months pregnant, I didn’t do both simultaneously.  I think my Ob/Gyn would have had me committed, much less my psychiatrist.  However, I would be willing to share my other story, which your readers might find interesting.  Maybe more so, though it is a different kind of adventure.  The reason I left teaching is because I was unable to find a way to recover from anorexia and find stability with my struggles from Bipolar Disorder.  So I did what was necessary for my health and well-being—not easy given that teaching was what I always wanted to do with my life, given that was basically my dream job—but rather than die while working, I needed to prioritize living.  I’ve found as I’ve been in recovery that part of what keeps me moving forward is to be a resource for others who are also struggling with mental illness and trying to get well and find balance so I am working against the shame of suffering from mental illness. Part of my mission is the blog that I write.  Let me know if you are interested.”

Well, he was interested, and I went public in my city in a BIG way, in a way I’ve never done before.  Not only was a detailed summary of my “story” published, but so was my picture—the prettiest mug shot I could come up with.  More than vanity, though.  There is a belief that someone who is seriously mentally ill can only “look” one way—unkempt, frazzled, tangled hair, stinking of piss and shit, shuffling down the street, muttering to herself.  That she, or he, is “other,” so far removed from anyone you could really know.  That she, or he, is either the person hanging around a dumpster, rocking back and forth in a corner, or institutionalized.  Surely, that’s what serious mental illness looks like.  And you wouldn’t have anything to do with someone like that, would you?  You wouldn’t let someone like that around your kids, would you?  You would never fall in love with someone like that, who had a label, a diagnosis like that, would you?

Here’s the truth.  Two months ago, I had to find a new psychiatrist because my current one was moving on to a new position.  He referred me to another psychiatrist in the area, someone with the right credentials, with the right depth and breadth of experience.  We spoke and he wanted to review my records before seeing me for my evaluative appointment.  So I had them sent.  And waited and waited and waited.  Finally, he called.

“Ms. Bakken,” he said.

“Yes?”

“I’ve had a chance to look through your records.  They’re quite extensive.”

I laughed nervously.  I’ve never looked through my records, could only imagine what the 20 or so hospitalizations, the 30+ Electroconvulsive Treatments, and the potential 3 different psychiatrists’ diagnoses might all add up to in the end.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Bakken, but I won’t be able to take you on as a patient.  Your mental illness is too severe for me to treat.  The range of severity is too extensive.  I hope you can understand.”

If one can nod dumbly into the phone, than that’s what I did.  In fact, idiotically, I reassured him.  “Of course.  I know how difficult I must be.  Don’t worry.  I’ll find someone else.”

It took ages to find someone else, but now I have and my “severe mental illness” doesn’t scare him off. Which is also to say, if, before now, I haven’t scared you off, don’t let this admission scare you away. Don’t let these words, uttered by someone in your life, or someone who could be in your life, scare you off.

Of course, there are moments—ten minutes, a few hours, a few days—when I do scare my husband and family and friends.  Usually, that’s when I’m not following my agreed upon plan that helps me stay stable and keeps anorexia, mania and the suicidal fangs of depression at bay.

Here’s the gift, and it’s not just my gift to you who might be struggling to get well and come across this blog and see that it’s possible not just to hang in there but to climb out—and to climb out each and every time, as pointless and exhausting as it might seem.  To climb out and breathe each time a bigger breath and say to everyone who loves you and who also fights for you, but especially to the doctor who believes you are too ill to help, “Fuck ill.  I am well.”

But the gift given back to me?  The more I am free with my story, the more I am helped in my adventure into love and wellness.  Two days after the article was published, I received a letter from a man who told me about his wife who had died six months earlier after a long bout with melanoma.  But his wife always talked about the time I came to visit her book club—how much that meant to her, how my book inspired her, how my talking to her and her friends was so generous and warm.  That even in the months preceding her death, she talked about me—that I made that much of an impact.  I would not have remembered this but for the article and the follow-up letter.

To be honest, because of the massive memory loss, the complete almost 10-year retrograde memory wipe-out from the Electroconvulsive treatments, I don’t remember that visit, and part of me feels desperately guilty about this.  But his letter is the gift of memory.  Because I parted with shame and fear, because I allowed myself to be seen in a small Sunday article as severely mentally ill, with the pretty, charming photograph of me juxtaposed beside it, I was given back a piece of my past that reminded me that I mattered, that in the years I normally consign to the dumpster because I was on my crazy rampage, years I just assume should truly be forgotten, there are these miraculous, salvageable moments.  A woman held on to my memories for me in her dying days.

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Ready To Run

On Saturday, Derby Day, I won first place in my age group (40-44) for a 5k running race.  And while nobody covered me in a glorious blanket of 564 roses, I was given a medal, an actual hang-around-your-neck medal, my first—my first for running, anyway–but perhaps my most meaningful as it was the first time back competing in a race since I had to bow out, most unceremoniously, five years ago because I was emaciated, suffered from irregular heart rhythms, and hypotension, all by products of anorexia.  But on Saturday, under clear blue skies, in crisp morning air, my legs prickled with goose bumps, breathing in and out, in and out, glad to be alive and there, I stood at the starting line with all the other runners ready to run.

Let me say that again.  Ready to run.  Not ready to win.  This is important and something that I am still learning in my recovering from all of IT’s manifestations—Anorexia, Bipolar Disorder, Alcoholism, Self-Injury.  Ignore the voice that says: Be Perfect.  Be the best.  Anything else is shit, is failure, is grounds for starvation/ruminative self-loathing/drinking to excess/cutting.  That’s how Anorexia works best.  Lose 10 pounds.  Now another 10.  Now another 10.  You are still too fat.  Still not good enough.  Still not the thinnest in the room, in the hospital.  Worthless if you are just mediocre, finishing fourth, or worse, always second.

I can turn anything into a competition—usually against myself since I no longer play team sports.  I time myself at little tasks—I have to unload the dishwasher before a round of commercials is over on TV. Ridiculous, I know, but when I hear the third commercial begin, my chest tightens, and I pick up my already frenetic pace.  I justify this by telling myself I’m making mundane chores interesting, but really, it’s compulsive.  Like shaving my legs in the shower—again, part of a time game—so, no shaving cream = precious seconds saved to come in under my five minute goal.  There’s the grocery store game where I’ll given myself x number of minutes to get in and out depending on how many items are on the list and whether the kids are hanging from the cart.  All of this is to say it is very hard for me to turn off the voice in my head that is always competing for The Woman Who Could Chug the Most Beers (Won that one in Jamaica on Spring Break one year), The Woman Who Had Fast-Track Admission to the Psych Ward (Well, almost, but everybody did know my name…), The Woman with The Most Scars on Her Arms (100+ but fading now so what does that mean when they’re gone?).

But I wasn’t thinking about winning at that starting line.  Instead, I was filled with gratitude.  How lucky I was, and am, to be connected again to my body which is healthy.  Unbelievably healthy because truly, I should be dead many, many times over.  I have tried to kill this body with deliberate means.  I have woken up in emergency rooms and in an intensive care unit rescued by strangers from my suicide attempts.  All of the alcohol my body has processed and recovered from (not to mention my brain).  All of the wounds my body has healed because that’s what it does when it is trying to recover from my best, competitive attempts to die.  All of the pounds lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and finally, hopefully for good, regained.  This body standing in shorts and a tank top and sneakers, ready to run because it was healthy.  A healthy body in the middle of a pack of what looked like other healthy bodies, other people ready to bolt into the wind and sunshine, ready to run the course.

I’ve won medals before, and trophies.  I’ve played sports my whole life, but with the attitude of DO OR DIE.  Competitive tennis from the age of five to eighteen, bruises purpled my shins because every time I flubbed a shot, really screwed one up, I’d whack myself in the shin with the tennis racquet.  No joy in the playing, because there was no playing—there was just me executing a perfect performance and when I failed, as I always did, I enacted penalties.

Ready to run.  I ran.  Without expectations.  Just do what you can do, I told myself over and over.  Of course, it was a race, so I wasn’t going to lollygag and keep vigil at the dead possum or chit chat with other runners.  I was there to run my best, which meant with all I could give, but which also meant without IT’s voice.  So when I crossed the finish line and saw that my time was faster that I imagined, because I’d been feeling a bit fatigued by the long hill, I was already elated.  And then when they posted the results and I saw my finish, and later still, when I received the medal, I knew what the medal was about: ready to run into my life and into hope.

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Bipolar Code Word

The other night, the kids and I were cuddled up on the couch watching “60 Minutes” and a segment came on about untreated schizophrenia and its links to most of the mass shootings in the past fifteen years.  In hindsight, I probably should have switched over to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” so we could watch babies get launched across the room from sling shots or poodles ride skateboards, but all three of us seemed transfixed by the expert psychiatrists’ testimonies on symptoms of schizophrenia and the history of the treatment of schizophrenia and how schizophrenia could be better treated.

To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about why my kids were so compelled by this segment until Sophia turned to me and asked, worriedly, “This isn’t the kind of mental illness that you have, is it, Mom?”

“Yeah,” Alexander said, “do you have this kind?” he kept glancing back and forth at the screen which shuffled pictures of the faces of recent shooters suspected of being mentally ill—D.C., Colorado, Arizona, Virginia.  Was he waiting to see if my face would pre-emptively appear?  His hand crept across my lap and found my hand.

“No, no, no,” I said.  “I have Bipolar Disorder, not Schizophrenia.  They’re very different from each other.”  Though not so different chromosomally.  Close cousins, really.  In fact, I’ve taken the same medications that Schizophrenics take.  But I don’t tell the kids this because I can see that they’re weighing the mental illness that they know their Mom!  Their Mom!!! has against the mental illness these mass shooters have and they want me to be as far and away different from them as possible.

“That’s right,” Sophia said.  “You have that one.  You have the mood swings one.”  She inched closer to me on the couch as if that would close the gap between what might be threatening about what was still unknown in my mental illness and what was known in her mom.  “Because,” she continued, “your mood swings can be really bad.  Sometimes you just get really angry at us for no reason.”

Alexander threw both his hands in the air.  “Yeah!  You do!  Like sometimes we’ll be sitting on the bed and you’ll just start yelling at us for sitting on the bed and we won’t be doing anything but sitting on the bed!”

I closed my eyes.  I might not have the voices of Schizophrenia, but I have the voices of punishment, of self-loathing, the voices that say: See?  This disease will ruin your relationship with your children.  It’s the wrecking ball, swinging through love, punching holes in walls, knocking out cross beams and support beams.

I opened my eyes and the kids were looking at me like I was crazy.

“I know!” Alexander said.  “Maybe when you start yelling, or before you start, you should just go to your room.”

“Yeah,” Sophia said.  “When you feel a mood coming on, so you don’t take it out on us, you can just go to your room.  And then it’ll be okay.”

I smiled at them.  They weren’t really afraid of me winding up on that television screen.  They weren’t even afraid of my having a mental illness, of my being Bipolar.  All they wanted was a tool to help me contain it.  So they could help me help myself.  So they could feel powerful instead of powerless.

“I have an idea,” I said.  “Sometimes it’s hard for me to always know when a mood is happening.  I’m not always able to spot it right away.  But you guys are experts.  So how about we have a code word for when you think I need to go to another room for a time out and I’ll go?”

Alexander smiled.  “But we won’t use it if you’re angry at us for being crazy and we need to stop being crazy and calm down.”

Sophia said, “Or like we need to stop fighting with each other and we’re not stopping.”

“Right,” I said.  “It’s for when I’m getting angry or a mood swing is happening that has no good reason and maybe it’s scaring you so you think I need a time out.  So all you have to say is ‘Go to Your Room.’ Okay?”

They both nodded and we shook on it.  Then Alexander gave a great sigh of relief and threw himself on me in a hug.  I hadn’t realized my mood swings had seemed so scary? overwhelming? engulfing?  My own mother has a big personality, and I was able, as a child, to build a pretty good moat.  I forget, sometimes, that my son, while not fragile, is more delicate—he’s like a butterfly or moth and his wings beating on the outside of his body for all to see and to be damaged.

And I forget that for my children, the wings they see beating outside my body are not the ragged wings of some storm battered butterfly, but the colossal wings of a Bipolar dragon, furiously flying into the heavens, then folding back for the dive down into the black well.  And just the day-to-day effort of keeping aloft?  Enough to make a mom tired and stupidly, unthinkingly angry.  Enough to know when it’s time to go to “Go to my room.”

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