Bipolar, My Ass

Fingers trembling, I press the play button one more time. The Who's "Baba O'Riley" booms and I flail my arms in time with Pete Townshend's harmonious chords. I've been playing it over and over. I promise myself that this is the last time but as the instrumental spins up and around so do I. There's a large bowl half full of Chiclets from one of those wholesale sized bags, I swoop my hands in occasionally to feel the hundreds of candy coated squares clicking against my palms. Mostly I dump the pieces of gum straight into my mouth without regard for flavor, but around the sixth time Roger Daltrey screams: "They're all wasted!" I am meticulously picking out colors and matching them together to form delicious new sensations. Orange and white mixed is particularly tasty.

Caught up in my glee I don't catch the stereo before it begins the next song, if it were something like "Boris the Spider," I wouldn't mind. I'd skulk around the apartment with manic glee trying to deepen my voice to match Daltrey's. But it's not. It's "Bargain." A dandy little tune, but not quite what I'm after. I aim my finger at the player and the CD shuffles back. "Baba O'Riley" starts up again and I abandon the bowl of Chiclets in favor of twisting my body around like a gypsy. I jump. I lunge. I swirl.

After four days of this I stop. My throat burns from excess amounts of sugar-tainted saliva. My whole body aches from so much dancing. At one point I decided to scrub the kitchen, slicing my forefinger on the stovetop in the process. After mending the cut with a tourniquet of toilet paper, it seemed imperative that I bake a cake. I'd never baked a cake from scratch before and it was essential that I accomplish this domestic feat. I followed an easy recipe and it came out fine, just a little heavy. I dunked my first piece in a glass of milk and was satisfied. I threw out the rest of the cake and resumed my hard rock ballet.

Despite the fact that I was diagnosed bipolar when I was sixteen and despite the fact that by the time this episode occurred I'd taken myself off my medicine, I'd never related the two. I've gone on dancing rages before, usually lasting no more than a few hours. My inhibitions weaken under the influence of Aimee Mann, Miles Davis, or the Ramones and I find myself twisting about despite the fact that I am neither rhythmic nor graceful. But normally I don't indulge in such an extended binge of activity. During those four days a fantastic euphoria overcame me and I felt I could perpetuate it solely by chewing globs of gum and playing a little air guitar.

Clinical definition supports that this was not a manic episode. These are much longer, stretching themselves over at least two weeks. Manic episodes are punctuated by more dangerous behavior as well: careless promiscuity, excessive shopping, feelings of godliness and invincibility. My antics threatened nothing more than cavity-mottled molars or perhaps a disconnected shoulder from tossing off one too many windmills.

I've always doubted the value of my bipolar diagnosis. Time recently featured bipolar mood disorder on its cover. I glared at its glossy cover as I passed newsstands. My diagnosis was part of the start of a trend. Bipolar has become one of the more fashionable psychological diagnoses. A few years ago learning disorders like ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder were hot. Agoraphobia and narcissism are currently duking it out for the esteem of being the mental flaw du jour.

I do not contend that all psychiatry is bullshit despite my cynicism. I am acquainted with several people whose problems endanger them and those around them. My mother's friend had a child who would go missing for long periods of time, ratcheting up credit card debt and her mother's concern. A neighbor's daughter would fly off the handle every so often, beating her to the point where police had to be called; she was a sweet and thoughtful girl the days she wasn't bludgeoning her mother with her fists. In such extreme circumstances there is no choice but to seek professional help. But the difficulty with diagnosis in marginal cases such as my own is that the thin line between a psychological disorder and moody disposition blurs.

I was first brought to a therapist because of my grades. Freshman year of high school started out swell: made the volleyball team; voted class president; cast in the school play. But my grades were shifting downward and grade reports had the indecency to explain why: Some Homework Assignments Missing. My parents, concerned about me and my future resolved to see a therapist. ADD was still in vogue at the time, and it seemed like Ritalin or some other drug might be able to reverse my sudden academic laziness.

But my homework problems were a symptom of something larger and I knew it. Even in the days when report cards arrived with A's penciled in each slot, I had felt at a distance from the world. I left notes on my parents' pillows that read, "I'm sensitive and nobody understands me." During school I became excessively dizzy and retreated to the nurse's office to lie down. For group projects I'd create my own group even as others were waving at me to join theirs. Something inside hurt. A lot. Sometimes this hurt would become so unbearable that I would slip into bed early finding comfort only in imagining I could transport myself back in time to those moments when I was happy, only to wake each morning with the same dull ache in my head. Other times the pain scraped along in my veins. I spoke fast and unintelligibly. I became giddy. I chewed through entire packs of gum.

I attribute much of this to an allergy to adolescence. I wasn't so much stuck in the bell jar, but rather straining like a budding breast growing underneath skin that isn't ready to give. (If you are in possession of a 'Y' chromosome, perhaps this imagery doesn't work for you, maybe scar tissue forming over a particularly bad wound or the chapped skin of razor burn will suffice.) In other words, I felt itchy. The allergy became literal after my junior year of high school when my skin burst into an unexplained case of hives that lasted a solid week. I retreated from the world, hoping that if I tucked tightly enough into myself, the world wouldn't pull so tightly against me.

I locked the door to my room and tucked under my desk, sometimes nosing into Catcher in the Rye or my book of Greek myths, but mostly just breathing in and out trying to balance myself between the electric and the dull. The complete solitude that is necessary for such balance was impossible in high school. My parents expected me to join them for dinner, for discussion, for church. I locked the door of my room and pressed my cheek to the cold pane of glass hoping the iciness would wake me. It only numbed me further. I began to imagine that I could walk straight through my mirrored closet door. I deluded myself that I could slip through smoothly and never return. Maybe that's not a delusion. I don't know. I never tried it.

I tried to buoy myself with extracurriculars, figuring that keeping myself busy after school would help me forget the chafing feeling. I read the short descriptions of clubs and athletics in the school handbook and imagined a few to be salons of great thought and complexity. I joined the backstage crews of a few plays. I joined the speech team and wrote fluffy little oratories about nerdiness that played huge at debate tournaments. I joined the swim team.

And then I quit them all.

I wore mascara for the occasion of my first therapist's appointment. It felt important that I look nice, refined, dressed up like people flying on airplanes in the fifties. On days when I wear mascara I am guaranteed to cry. I don't wear make-up usually. I fidget too much, running my hand across my forehead or rubbing at my eyes, and the make-up tends to paint broad streaks of shimmering reds and grays and pinks across my knuckles. Mascara is even more troublesome. My eyelashes are long already, and the extra length the sticky tar provides makes them brush uncomfortably against the lenses of my glasses. But, still, every once in awhile I feel compelled to swipe the wand across my lashes. And on those days -- whether because of a sweet movie, and argument, a car crash, an anything -- I cry, the two coats snaking their predestined path down my cheeks like blackened veins.

The therapist's office was in the basement of a center for people with addictions that I didn't understand at the time. In my grade school years a couple of recovering addicts from the center had given a presentation as a sort of in your face anti-drug ad. The spoke about their personal struggles with various narcotics, their difficulties coping, how they still smoked cigarettes, and how some were on a regimen of methadone. I looked for some of these ex-druggies while walking through the complex, hoping to catch them sneaking hits or at least shoving a couple of cigarettes into their mouths, but there was nothing so glamorous dotting the landscape. In fact the only people we encountered were an acne-riddled boy and his mother with whom we shared the elevator to the basement. After they stepped off my mother whispered in my ear, "I wonder what his problem is."

My problem was Attention Deficit Disorder. Or Auditory Dyslexia. Or Perfectionism. Or Depression. Or Borderline Personality Disorder. Or any number of other fancy disorders that the four therapists I whose couches I sat and cried thick black mascara tears could imagine. I was hard to diagnose: quiet, non-combative, overly moral, with a propensity to cry whenever tossed into a psychologist's office. I don't remember any of the questions I was asked, but be assured the answer to each one was nothing more than a whimper.

Finally they settled it: Bipolar. A prescription followed. You will not believe me unless you have seen the pills yourself. Each Wellbutrin is purple, reeks like fish-oil and is imprinted in such a way that the design forms a tiny smiley face.

The "happy" pills scooped my brain out. One teacher remarked that I looked hollow; another warned that I looked like I was perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. She used her hand to demonstrate, perching it on the edge of her desk and letting it teeter there for a moment. I watched in a daze imagining what it would be like to crash head first into the industrial orange carpet of her classroom.

One time I wrote a suicide note. I intended it as fantasy for myself, imagining myself Dorothy Parker with ribbons fashionably adorning the bandages on my wrists. When a Russian exchange student found it peeking out of my locker, she took it to the Assistant Principal, who did not realize its entertainment value and promptly called my mother.

The label bipolar carried the same entertainment value, at first. It gave me an excuse for being so distracted, an excuse for being so moody, an excuse for failing. I read lists of famous people who suffered form the same disorder as me: Virginia Woolf, Jackson Pollack, Carrie Fisher. I finally understood the compulsion of left-handed people to name off magnificent southpaws. It was so thrilling to be able to say to myself, "I'm just like Princess Leia, everything's gonna be a-okay!"

My mom asserted that I should not feel bad about needing the "happy" pills for my brain -- other people used inhalers for asthma, insulin for diabetes, aspirin for headaches, why shouldn't I take something to heal my mind? And I agreed, for a time. But the thing is, it's not the same. If your body is sick, it's unfortunate but you still have your mind to rely on. You can trust your impulses, your emotions, your desires. If your mind is sick, you cannot trust yourself. Is this me or is this the illness? If I get euphoric am I manic? Is this love or just chemicals sloshing around? Am I really this sad, or are my dopamine levels lousy right now? Pills only heighten the confusion. I worried that I was shutting off parts of my personality simply because they weren't pretty. I resolved to be less pretty. Just before starting my first year of college, I ditched the anti-depressants.

Recently while rifling around in my dad's travel case for floss, I happened upon the prescription bottle he held on to, "Just in case." The labeling cracked against the orange plastic like an ancient artifact, the printing barely legible in the bathroom light. I twisted the cap off hoping to find one of my old smiling friends, but instead I found toothpicks. I imagine my father flushing the little guys down the toilet and them grinning all the way through the sewer system like the hosts of an educational video. I smiled at myself in the mirror, lip twitching upward in distaste, and thought, "Bipolar my ass." It was a triumphant moment, lit well by the bar of glowing light bulbs above the sink.

Under the harsher lighting of daylight, though, I start to wonder. At work I leaf through the DSM-IV-TR, the bible of diagnosing mental disorders. I find mine, Bipolar. I answer yes to all the questions. The case study could be me. There is even a subcategory of bipolar where the manic episodes are referred to as hypomania. Hypomanic episodes only last a few days and are much less severe than manic episodes. I recall the episode in which I became intoxicated on gum and the Who and blush. Floods of other moments that damn me to the label I'd though I'd shunted come crashing down in waves: days where I am glued to bed by an unseen force; days where I cannot moderate the chattering of my mouth; a panic attack that consumed me after fighting with my best friend about the quality of Moulin Rouge.

I almost resolve to return to a psychologist, to resume swallowing pills that smirk back. But when I leave work the sky is so blue that it shrieks at me. A sky that blue makes the whole world seem electric. I let the electricity of that blue infuse my face with a smile. I drop all thoughts of antidepressants and psychotherapy and the glamour of being ranked among the likes of Woolf, Pollack, and Fisher. Maybe I am bipolar. Maybe I'm not. All I know is that it doesn't really matter.

I slip in Who's Next. The opening chords of "Baba O'Riley" fill my body. I jump. I twist. I lunge. And I scavenge for a package of gum.

About the author:

April Bozada-Armstrong is plotting her next move in St. Louis, MO.