Narrative by Heather Cook
Spring 1988. High school. Lunchtime. I remember what I was wearing that day -- a long white skirt dotted with red roses with crooked stems and a matching red sweater. While the outfit was a bit “mature,” my mom had kindly rushed out to buy me new clothes on her lunch hour the day prior. Beggars can’t be choosers.
So, why the rush, you ask? Over the course of three months, I had blossomed from a size eight into a 12, jumping over 10 as nimbly as Jack did the candlestick. The only thing frail about me at that point was my self-esteem.
Of course, it sounds like I was pregnant, but under no circumstances would I have traded a diploma for a diaper bag. (Though a stint on Teen Mom, had it existed, would have eliminated a need for college loans.) Rather, I had “issues.” At the age of 14, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Three years after came the bigger gun: bipolar disorder. I had just turned 17.
Whether it was a decision or an oversight, neither my parents nor psychiatrist sat me down to discuss the disease, and how it might affect my future. My own research, though persistent, was pointless. My book case stored a massive set of useless, faux-leather door-to-door salesman encyclopedias. The information superhighway didn’t exist back in the 1980s and the school library featured books about Paul Bunyan and Native American crafts.
Desperate for information, I remained hyper-vigilant, sitting quietly at the top of the stairs to listen to my parents’ conversations. Nothing much there. I lied about staying after school one day and took a bus to the library in a larger city. I found some information, but it was mostly scientific. There were no personal accounts of living with a mental illness, which I craved. Uninformed, I often had senseless nightmares, including one about polar bears fighting to the death, their snapping jaws sending ribbons of saliva flying everywhere.
What I was learning by the surrounding silence was to keep quiet. Rather than reach out for support from other family members, my parents circled the wagons. I don’t blame them; they, too, were bereft of reliable information. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was their closest frame of reference. So, I carried around a bookbag full of secrets, textbooks and of course, a massive can of Aqua Net. It was the 80s, after all – which brings me to my next point.
I was diagnosed at an uncommonly young age, particularly for the 80s. A psychiatrist (his name was Dr. Aspel – I’m sure you can guess my version) put me on Lithium, which was uncommon for children, and soon thereafter, Prozac, which had just been approved for adults in 1987, but was nowhere close for adolescents and kids. My parents blindly filled the prescriptions and put them on the sink. They never had to remind me to take them, even after I discovered, trial by fire, that Lithium would make me into the Pillsbury Doughgirl and push me down flights of stairs.
Given everything, though, the lack of reliable information had its perks. That my parents weren’t told that bipolar disorder is incurable and responsible for many bleak outcomes was the one time that ignorance was a blessing. I believe we all would have responded to the diagnosis quite differently. We may have expected failure and surrendered to the disease.
Whether we were experts or clueless didn’t change the day to day hell of being a high school student with a secret brain disorder. As a freshly-minted wackadoodle who spent two hours every morning creating a hair helmet worthy of Bon Jovi groupie-status (80s hair band groupie? Who me? ::lookingsidetoside::)I was also balancing my parents’ crapola marriage and Lifetime Movie Network separation, incessant bouts of chronic bronchitis and pneumonia that necessitated frequent hospitalizations and ceaseless antibiotics and steroids (which also contributed to the pudge), all while being a straight A student in private school hell bent on a good college. As the meds set in, I found it almost impossible to study. They were like little backstabbing friends; they promised if I stuck with them that I’d become popular and beautiful, but fed me cookies while I slept to get me fat.
Most of my human friends were living normal 80’s lives -- aerobicizing to the driving beat of “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” every Wednesday afternoon in the gym while I was getting my blood drawn to check for Lithium toxicity. Now that’s sacrifice.
On the day of the ugly flowered skirt, I was satisfying my Lithium-induced sugar cravings by mixing cake into chocolate pudding for a stunning cafeteria dessert. It was fresh cake Friday, and all of my friends stuck around for cake, so for once, I was part of the norm. By this time, I had been on Lithium for a few months, but the Prozac was new. Headaches zipped in and out with a weird sting that I now attribute to the strange elixir of psych meds and teenage hormones. I was a hot mess on stairs because I was so damn dizzy. I had started tripping over my feet, my book bag, people, everything.
”Walk much?” I heard that all of the time. Small comments and changes were making me paranoid and self-conscious. I was as delicate as Barry Manilow’s cheekbones. Other kids began to terrify me. I cried every morning on the way to school while my dad conducted business on his cell phone (which was the size of a brick). Kids who liked me before started to taunt me. I was truly the walking wounded, and high school assholes can sniff out weakness faster than Simon Cowell can put together a shitty boy band.
All of the pudding of the world couldn’t erase the fact that I had to get up in my granny-gear and cross both the cafeteria and the student center to make it to class. Most kids can relate to the fear of walking through the cafeteria, but the student center where the popular kids (jocks and their gfs) hung out was a particular treat. The jocks, mostly fifth year seniors, were usually sprawled out on the sofas with their long arms draped around the shoulders (headed toward the boob area) of their tee-hee’ing cheerleader girlfriends. A perfect set up for bullying.
I gripped my books and looked ahead, determined to get the hell out of that room. I remember feeling particularly vulnerable and transparent that day. Turns out that I was. Even my lacquered 80s hairdo couldn’t deflect a nasty example of teenage cruelty.
“Hey Heather!” The voice was loud and mocking. It was Derek, a “basketball player” who stood at 5’2 (the 2 attributable to his spiked hair) who had tried, unsuccessfully, to make out with me at a school dance six months prior.
"Heather Cook!” he yelled. “Tear off your skirt and show us all that FAT!”
The room went silent, then several students broke out laughing. The jocks hit the floor in one idiotic herd, holding their stomachs and howling in laughter. Their size 2 girlfriends twittered, even the one who had lip scabs from leaving the wax on too long on her secret mustache, a mistake which she tried to cover the day before by hiding behind her Trapper Keeper. I froze, humiliated.
As unsteady as a carny’s girlfriend who got to ride the Flying Bobs free for an entire week, I took to the stairs. After hitting (literally) the lockers, I grabbed all the wrong books and stumbled into AP History, the class with the 22 year old teacher who told us the slaves sang because they were happy they had jobs. I slid into my seat. And just like that, I rebounded. I took notes as if everything was normal. I felt better, even on the way to happy. Then, I’d remember what happened and think horrible thoughts. God, I was so scared.
Clearly, having bipolar disorder was taking its toll on my dignity, and the mood swings were increasingly difficult to control. I never made a slow descent from feeling OK into melancholy. A deeply depressive mood wasn’t, and still isn’t, progressive. It’s a fast fall from a skyscraper. I don’t have time to watch the windows go by and think oh shit, I don’t think this is going to turn out so great. It’s a BAM. A deafening thud. I have no idea when it will come. As fast as the freefall hits, it disappears. Within a couple of hours, I will talk without pause and feel pretty darn good. I can write again. Then, the elevator may stop at an OK in between. That’s the dream for a person with bipolar disorder: stability. It is so hard won. Losing that, whether it is for a moment, a few days, or two months, is devastating. I feel like it will never, ever come again.
Living with it is exhausting, scary and disruptive. Under these conditions, staying on any kind of task for work or school is a nightmare. Being broadsided by a depressive crash, the feelings themselves, and how ferociously they take hold, sucks, sure. But, it’s the corresponding behavior that ramps up the danger. If a person with bipolar disorder is unstable and untreated, he or she cannot make good decisions or choices. Also, with any type of mental disorder, there is high risk of addiction as people try to self-medicate. Overall, the risks of mental illness are exponential. At worst, the compulsive behavior and disorientation stemming from the disease lead to fatality, whether by suicide or accident.
That day in the student center was pivotal. First, my mother forced me to wear girdles every day until the end of the school year. More seriously, for years I, and my family, had tried to subtly hide my affliction – like sticking a wad of chewed-up bubblegum to the underside of a table at a restaurant. Someone, at some point, would discover the gum, maybe, but probably not. Its presence would likely be unknown for years. That has worked sometimes; other times the gum has fallen onto the floor, attached itself to someone’s shoe, and then spread in one germy mess throughout the restaurant like a long strip of toilet paper.
That day, the gum had fallen asunder. As I sat in AP History listening to my up and coming Fox News correspondent-teacher rant about the astronomical loss of a million U.S. soldiers during the Korean War (huh?), the story was running through the school. For the rest of the day, kids walked past me snorting and oinking.
Of course I wanted to jump into the trash chute and plummet to the basement in one stinky, dusty ball of humiliation. Of course I thought constantly about suicide and made my plans. Since early childhood I had tried many forms of self-harm, which ticked my parents off, so it was like shame upon shame. That particular dynamic did not bode well for my future, and is still therapy material. Although I have always worked hard to stabilize, and even as a kid stayed med-compliant, we keep one ear to the ground listening for the distant beat of bipolar hooves. At one point, my mother’s hope for me was that I’d never run naked around parking lots, jumping from car to car like a spider monkey. Not exactly med school, but none of us knew what to expect. Information about mental illness was limited to pamphlets in doctors’ offices – maybe, but they’d be concealed behind the front desk with the STD info. The state psychiatric facility was called the “looney bin” and rumored to be haunted with the spirits of crazies from decades past.
Mental illness was truly not discussed, certainly not in my town. We lived in a bedroom community of white houses, coniferous trees and crocus-lined streets. Summers were marked by the flicker of citronella candles and the distant croak of frogs. Weekends saw dads in boat shoes listening to Gordon Lightfoot and washing their cars in the driveway. I can still smell the buckets of warm, soapy water, and see the gleaming hoods of Cadillacs. All looked perfect, spit-shined, but what goes on behind closed doors is always anyone’s guess.
So what has kept me waddling through life? Something in me – just the smallest speck of will – has urged me to keep going. At first, I had no clue if I would get worse (which I absolutely did, for quite a while), or if I would be permanently institutionalized one day, an option that was actually discussed in my mid-20s. At the age of 25, I was booked for a six-week course of Electro-Convulsive Therapy, otherwise known as “shock therapy.” I backed out the day before the first treatment. No matter how much I struggled, no matter how many inpatient visits and medication changes I endured, I never let my illness drag me so fiercely by the nose that it took charge.
Am I ashamed of having BPD? No, but it has taken 30 years to get to this place. I have learned to accept that I have a disease that requires lifelong management. If I don’t accept that, I can’t stay well. Do I fear the reaction of others? A bit, but what a foolish reason to stay silent when so many are suffering. It’s an internal conflict – do I stay stuck up beneath the table, all hard, discolored and clandestine, or do I fall softly onto a Gucci loafer?
Clearly, suffering is at a premium. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has released these facts: An American dies by suicide every 12.95 minutes. Ninety-percent of those who die by suicide had a diagnosable psychiatric condition at the time of their death. Given such stats, I’d like to allow public access to the endless adventures of my bipolar life, its endless adventures and widely-applicable lessons about self-love, relationships, and persistence. I’m willing to bet my cat’s second litterbox that numerous people are looking for the stories I’m happy to tell.