Mental Illness, In Hindsight
By Nicole Cater
I was diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder at the age of 35. But as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20 and I think we can all agree that this is true. But when you have an illness that affects your everyday behavior and begins in late adolescence/early adulthood a trip down memory lane can be quite disconcerting. It is an experience that is both enlightening and frightful.
When I was in high school, I worked hard at school and kept a part-time job. I won’t claim I was a model teen. I doubt there is such a thing. But my grades were always good and I was a dependable and valued employee for my two successive after-school jobs. I did buy my fair share of teenage paraphernalia, but I also saved a significant portion of my pay. I graduated with honors and applied to one college with no back-ups and was accepted. My test scores were far above average. I won a scholarship and a grant. I had plenty of money for regular college expenses, but also secured a job in my college town. To put it mildly, my prospects and potential seemed limitless.
In my first semester at college, I was a raging success. I never fit in very well with the majority of my peers in high school, but in college I felt no need to wear masks to fit in. I fell in with a wonderful group of people who refused to be categorized as well and strong bonds were formed. I attended parties with friends for the first time in my life. I felt no need to drink or smoke and I can honestly say that decision was completely respected by my friends. I was conscious enough to know that I was going to be my own person and didn’t care if others didn’t like it. This wasn’t high school. Nonconformity was the law of the land. I finished the semester with good grades and was proud of myself. I even lost the freshman 15.
But something changed that winter. It came creeping in, so quietly and slowly, barely noticeable at first. My roommate left and I opted to keep my room single and so began the war with sleep that has continued to haunt me to this day. I would stay up all night, barely making it through my dreaded eight-to-noon class schedule. I would skip lunch, sleep for a few hours and grab dinner before heading off to my night classes. Lack of sleep made it hard to get to classes, and I began skipping many. I couldn’t even grasp the simplest concepts of Chemistry and Statistics, let alone the more complicated equations. My grades were the first evidence of my downward spiral.
A hole I wasn’t even aware of had begun growing inside me. I went out every Friday and Saturday night with my friends to crazy frat parties. I got drunk for the first time, decided it wasn’t so bad, and made it part of the party routine. I had frequent dalliance with men, telling myself I was looking for a relationship, knowing all the while these boys were nothing but dead ends mixed with physical pleasure.
My friends brought cars back after winter break, and suddenly we were not limited to our small college town. Frequent shopping trips were made in the Chicago suburbs. I worshipped at the altar of Visa and MasterCard, throwing clothes, shoes, and trinkets into the widening hole. And I didn’t just buy for myself; I loved to give gifts as well. Shortly after spring break my parents began divorce proceedings. Another good friend left. The hole grew deeper. Alcohol, men and clothes were thrown into it with reckless abandon. I added cigarettes to smokescreen the hole. I could only sleep for a few hours during the day, hugging a pillow pretending it was a boyfriend that I didn’t have.
When the semester ended, it was just short of a disaster. I failed Chemistry, Statistics and psychology, but did manage to scrape good grades out of my English and Communications classes. I was an AP student again. But where in high school this meant advanced placement, in college it was the much more ominous academic probation.
Things at home were not good. My parents couldn’t speak to each other and my brother was in a rage. I did get a car out of the deal. It allowed me to maintain my status as a stellar employee when I returned to my high-school job. That was about the only good thing about that summer.
My best college friend and her boyfriend had not just broken up, the relationship had imploded. The fact that I had chosen a room right next door to his since she would be living at her sorority was going to make things difficult. I fell into a relationship with an ex-boyfriend. It was a dead-end romance, especially considering he was living with another woman. But there was that hole, it needed to filled, and a girl can always hope. Although I did eventually stop because I became ashamed of my own behavior. The only thing that went right that summer was my ability to pass a math summer course.
Although I didn’t know what it was, it was becoming obvious to me that something was very wrong. I begged my mom to let me stay home. I didn’t want to go back. I cried and begged. Things were so out of control. I didn’t know if I could handle it. More importantly, I knew I didn’t want to handle it. Although I’ve never felt comfortable talking about emotions, preferring to bottle them up, that summer I felt as if I could do nothing but cry. My parents didn’t understand what had happened to their studious, hard working, dedicated daughter. They chalked it up to cold feet and pushed me to go back. It would be better; I just needed to try harder. Come August, my dad packed up the van and delivered me to my penthouse prison.
The semester began with a major blow to my already fragile emotional state. I participated in formal Rush, hoping to pledge my friend’s sorority, or at least a good sorority. Disaster struck when I wasn’t accepted to any house, including my friend’s due to one misheard statement that caused her to blackball me. When the house you want rejects you, it hurts. When six houses reject you, it’s devastating.
After a booze-soaked pity weekend, I tried to throw myself into my studies. I also got a plum job at Lowe’s. But the part-time hours ran late and with sleep continuing to be a figment of my imagination, my grades began suffering. It was the one and only thing I couldn’t afford. To make matters worse, I was advised that the fastest way for me to get off academic probation was to repeat (and pass) the classes I failed. Being on academic probation, taking classes you already couldn’t pass and working late hours is akin to walking a high wire with no net in high heels.
Add in the stress of my parents’ divorce, which was becoming just short of messy, and hauling my ass to class, any class, seemed nearly impossible. Statistics, as all math classes, was a near daily disaster. I had absolutely no comprehension of Chemistry. The Chemistry lab seemed to be designed to simulate all the horrors you would face in hell. And I must point out that throwing a ridiculously clumsy person into a room full of chemicals in glass containers is just a bad idea all around. The lecture portion of Chemistry seemed to be taught in mathematical Sanskrit. My literature Professor had the worst taste in reading material.
From the outside looking in, it would seem the simple and effective answer would be to quit my job. But quitting would mean giving up my only source of income. Unlike the previous year, I hadn’t saved a dime. I also had mounting credit card debt. In those days, every time you applied for a credit card, you received free cookies, pop, t-shirts and even CDs. At 19, I had four credit cards that I was hiding from my parents. I was paying the bare minimum payments. And low and behold, I did manage to meet a decent guy and start dating. So money that was not used to keep the credit cards coming was funneled into dates. His work program wages were no match for above minimum wage job accompanied by frequent raises as I excelled, earning the coveted position of Lumber Cashier/Delivery Scheduler/Project Estimator. And I liked low key dates such as bowling or the cheap on-campus theater. But I craved the exciting, and expensive, dates in the suburbs like upscale restaurants and go-carting. I wanted to go to concerts in Chicago, eat at fancy restaurants... and this pastimes required new outfits. I loved to buy presents for my sweetie. I began to covet the wares at higher-end shops. And If I didn’t have the cash, the credit cards where within constant reach.
And I loved my sweetie, a very nice guy who named me “Precious”. But it wasn’t enough. In November an amazingly handsome man I worked with began flirting with me. Every statement out of his mouth was a beautiful compliment. I soon found out pretty much all the other employees were aware of his hopeless crush on me. I was the last to know. He was romantic in a way that I doubted my boyfriend could ever be. He would pick blooms off the plants in the greenhouse and sneak them to me. He would serenade me if we found ourselves alone in the break room. He was wooing me in an extremely old-fashioned, romantic way. He knew I had a boyfriend, but he asked if he treated me the way I deserved. Did he know what a lucky man he was? And faced with these questions, I realized that no, my boyfriend was not treating me the way I wanted to be treated. After six months, his strongest declaration of feelings was to speak of how fond he was of me. This was a heart-wounding statement after spending nearly all our free time together. I wanted to be passionately wanted. And that was precisely what this man offered. He made the hole feel smaller. And so I went on a clandestine date. Was it love right away? No, I can’t say it was. But it was a glimpse of something more, something that could be, and something that I wanted. And that’s when the bomb was dropped. Why couldn’t I have said I was interested earlier? He had recently accepted a transfer. And because bad judgment regarding men seemed to be a strong suit for me, I decided to do something that I promised myself I would never do. I had a brief affair, because I couldn’t bear to have him leave without consummating our passion. To this day, it is one of the most shameful things I’ve done. But it was the first time I felt completely and totally desired. But he was moving across the state, and I stayed with my boyfriend, mostly because even though he didn’t appear all that passionate about me, at least he was there.
So the beginning of my sophomore year became even more of a disaster than my freshman year. In a semester where I should have been fighting tooth and nail for grades, classes were the last thing on my mind. I was addicted to shopping. I needed to fill the hole inside me, with mediocre like, passionate lust, material possession, pretending I was living the good life.
Sleep was an afterthought, and it was becoming increasing clear that I could actually perform decently without it. I passed one class that semester, a Sociology course. And the sole reason I passed was due to two amazing papers. One I wrote myself. One I borrowed form a student who had previously taken the class and changed enough to make my own. I absolutely don’t condone cheating, but desperate situations make people do desperate things. I aced both papers. Ironically, the one I had borrowed had only earned the original author a B.
I went home knowing what was going to happen. Academic probation only lasts one semester. I was going to fail out of school. As I struggled to tell my parents the last thing they wanted to hear, I threw up numerous times from the emotion. Who was this young woman? Surely this was not their daughter! Not the student with so much potential, so much promise. As much as I knew I had disappointed them, I also secretly hoped that I could finally come home now. I didn’t know what it was, but I did know something was wrong. It wasn’t that I was acting so differently than so many other college students. It’s that I was acting so differently from myself. There were absolutely no warning signs that I would self-destruct on such a spectacular scale. Put simply, I was not the person I was just a year and a half before. Something had changed for the worse, and no one, least of all me, could figure out if there even was a route back.
Once again, despite my pleas to stay home, to give the smaller, and cheaper, community college a try, I was rebuffed. An appointment was made with my Dean and I traveled to school during the deserted winter break to appeal my expulsion. I put on my best dress clothes and waited for my appointment. As the Dean went over my records from the last year and a half, and compared them to my stellar high-school career, she had one question… why? I told her my parents were in the process of divorcing and my life was in upheaval. As I begged for a second chance, I cried, not because I was scared she would refuse, but out of fear that she would reinstate me. She did, holding me to two conditions. I had to bring my grades up so high that I wouldn’t be on academic probation. And I had to go to a counselor. I agreed to both conditions.
As I look back with my perfect vision, this would be the beginning of mental health professionals failing me. I clearly had several of the most obvious symptoms of Bipolar Disorder. These are substance abuse (usually used to self medicate), in my case alcohol, trouble finishing tasks when problems did not previously exist, out of control spending, promiscuity, insomnia, racing thoughts and speech, unexplainable irritability, poor judgment and aggression. Dealing with external stress can often worsen these symptoms. Instead of seeing any of these symptoms, or even a diagnosable problem in general, he recommended being assertive with my parents, keeping track of my menstrual cycle in case I had PMS, stop socializing and following a bedtime routine to help me get to sleep. Perhaps two decades ago, the warning signs were not so clear. But it hurts to know that someone who is trained to look for these problems dismissed me as if I was the author of my own doom. My problems were my own fault. That they were continuing was a sign that I was too lazy to work hard at fixing them. It took me another 10 years before I would even consider seeing another therapist. After all, they would just tell me I was weak and unwilling to help myself. This was my first experience with professional help and instead of actually receiving help I was told that I was a failure and as long as my problems continued, it would be because I was failing to fix them.
I could go on, but it would be a very repetitive story. My point is, now that I know what I have, what the symptoms are, I am empowered. And my empowerment allows me to gaze into my own history to pinpoint when the illness first manifested. For 17 years I repeated a cycle of failure that I laid on my own doorstep.
If it’s true that you can’t begin to fix a problem until you know the nature of it, the reverse is also true: that you are the problem that can’t be fixed. It’s a hard feeling to live with. As I sit idly by and watch those I love the most succeed and fulfill their dreams, I could only blame myself. If only I had known I wasn’t lazy, that I could do everything right and that might still be wrong. If only I had known sooner that my brain works differently. Seventeen years of my life I spent feeling like a failure, incapable of making anything work. Finding out that you are a square peg in a world that only provides round holes is, at first, depressing. But then it is freeing. Because you realize that you are not a failure, you are not wrong. Those holes are not for you, and as such, you, and you only are free to create your own hole. And that is a beautiful thing. Because the round pegs only get to pick a pre-existing hole. Your handcrafted hole will always be better, more exciting and more rewarding. Because it is yours and yours alone. We don’t have to suffer because of our differences. We can rejoice that those differences allow us to escape conventional classification and be who we are. Which is perfect!
To difference, of any kind, that frees us from the drudgery of normality!
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This is our new Wicked Short Stories page with submissions from various Authors. Please look for bio-snippets about the Author at the bottom of the various pieces. Enjoy!