Originally Published in Free Fall Magazine, July 2020, shorlisted for Free Fall Prose and Poetry Contest 2019
I do the waltz with my psychiatrist every two weeks.
On the days leading up to my appointment, I leave crumbs of foreplay through cryptic emails, written in the fog of light, psychotic episodes.
“Nauseous for days. Migraines so strong they ride with the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Help me.”
“We will get through this,” she says,the master cryptographer, her furrowed brows manifesting in my mind through telepathy, “we will get to the bottom of this.”
My psychiatrist’s voice is so familiar to me that I can hear it through the digital, British accent all flared up. She is younger than me, which says more about my mental capacity than I’d like to admit. She is the Goddess of mental disorders and traumatic pasts – can you really be one though, if you haven’t lived it? You say “we”, like you’re invested in this as much as I am. You say “we” as if you are there with me in the restless pits of agonizing anxiety, foaming deep, deep inside the jaws of my stomach clenched so tight I can no longer breathe – depression so thick I can’t see through the concrete it has developed in between the folds of my skin – saran wrapping me into paralysis – I am held captive by its throes and temptations and yet you say “we,” as if we walk this road together.
She may bestow upon me a sick note. She may not. Depends on the face of the moon.
On the day of the appointment, her receptionist calls me only to tell me that the appointment is now either thirty minutes later or earlier than what we agreed on. It won’t matter anyway because when I get there, it takes her another forty-five minutes to see me, time which I spend twitching my leg and using up all the wi-fi capacity to look for online courses so I can trick myself into progressing my dead-end career so I could have a salary that will make me happy enough to not come back to this waiting room full of white, middle-aged blonde wives in yoga costumes taking too much Xanax and Clonozepam.
I want to tell her: it’s been hell. The last two weeks. I don’t think I’m getting any better. Is this what it feels like to get better?
After I Google everything that I want to master (yes, I can take an MBA while working a full-time job and freelancing online at night – what is sleep?), I walk the death march to her office, my heart pounding. The smell of cheap incense and the sound of trickling water can be heard as I ascend the stairs, tricking me into a lull of serenity and peace before I go through thirty minute platitudes with prescription pads as climax.
The first thing she does is kill me with embarrassment and shame as she goes through the cryptic emails I send at night because my mania doesn’t sleep. I know she won’t admit it but she’s totally regretting giving me her email address.
We do the dance:
“You said in your email you don’t want me to form you,” she says.
“Yes. Please don’t form me.”
“Why would I form you?” an eyebrow raised, deep suspicion behind her eyeglasses.
“No reason,” I lie, darting my eyes to the left.
“Are you having suicidal thoughts?”
“I SAID NO REASON!”
The truth is, my psychiatrist, as beautiful and naive as she is, is in on this game with me. It’s been six years since I’ve been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I and I don’t know what I’ve done with it except dance through a cacophony of doctor and therapist appointments with only various prescription bottles to mark the success of the event. They line the dresser in my bedroom like a parade. On good days I take them religiously and keep them in my pocket. On most days, I throw them away.
My psychiatrist knows this. I know this. She’s doing the best that she can, and the best that she can do is throw drugs at me to prevent me from getting the “other” drugs from the streets — the eternal battle: Clonazepam versus heroin, Adderall versus cocaine.
Bipolar is funny because some days you can’t even muster the strength to wake up – it’s like pouring ice-cold water in every cell of your body to put them into motion – wake up! Wake the fuck up! As long as Bipolar, your master, doesn’t want it to happen, it won’t – no matter how hard you fight. The bed swallows you and holds you hostage until its claws decide to let you loose.
And then the next day you’re on a one-way VIA rail train to butt-fuck nowhere to score this strange new research chemical drug that you’re convinced will cure you of your madness.
Mania is a fickle mistress; it is the burst of energy I need to survive my day to day. It keeps me employed, keeps me social. When I’m manic, parties become so easy; I just sit back and she does the talking for me. My creativity flows out of me in a deluge of half-finished stories and beginnings to novels that never end. A sprinkle of uncontrollable brilliance that keeps me painting and writing until the early morning. My fiance sleeps while I write, read, paint and repeat. When he wakes, I show him what I’ve created, and he says he’s proud of me.
But one step over the edge and I lose all control. The mask slips and she completely takes over me. I start forgetting. I don’t remember what I did last night, the week before – I start to miss days until days become months I can’t recall no matter how hard I try to piece it together, gaps in my memory I have no control over. My relationships end with that look on their face that I have come to know so well. I can pinpoint the exact second that look takes over – that moment of sudden, dawning realization that even after x amount of time, there is a side of me that up until that moment, they have not seen. One that is unforgivable – as if all of who I was up until then was just pretence. And inside, I’m fuming. An insurmountable amount of rage tripled by my manic heart and a voice screaming inside me – I told you, I told you this is who I am, you JUST didn’t listen.
One time, I asked my psychiatrist, “How can we seek new relationships without feeling like we’re scamming them? Do I just say, hey, before we get to know each other, you should know that I’m crazy, insane, neurotic? How much time is an acceptable amount of time where admitting that you’re insane isn’t a social faux pas anymore? For every person that you meet, if I don’t say I’m insane, does that mean I’m lying?”
She said, “You’re doing the best that you can, every day of your life. That’s all you can do.”
That seems like a lie.
I can’t exactly tell that to the person/friend/lover I pounced on because I couldn’t control my rage, because I hadn’t slept for a month, because I woke up standing in the middle of my job not knowing who I was, or where I had been for the past couple of hours. Seems like, to any other person outside looking in, seems like I’m not trying at all.
I still have not been able to develop the language I need when people tell me the things we did that I can’t remember. People I don’t know come up to me like we’re old friends except I don’t know what name I gave them, or when we met.
How do I tell my psychiatrist this? Her, the perfect blonde wearing the biggest diamond ring I’ve ever seen, who came from Johannesburg and moved here to establish her own clinic and practice all before the age of 30. I’m 31 and I’ve done nothing – except have an ever-expanding list of dead-end jobs I end up quitting one way or another that it’s starting to become Bukowskian. How do you tell a person who has never known grief, or loss, how badly you want to stop mourning the parts of yourself that have been forgotten and murdered by your madness?
Doctor, here’s what you can’t know. You can’t know how to survive on cans of tuna and rice for months on end so you can feed your cat, to decidedly spend the last $10 in your bank account for a glass of beer at O’Malleys – to spend the next two hours hiking your skirt and swaying steadily on an elbow to look drunker than you are, so you can convince the guy next to you to pay for the rest of your drinks and possibly share that 8ball – and maybe if you’re lucky, convince him to text his contact at 3 am to get a balloon – to regain consciousness at a park bench, ice-cold and freezing, the kind of freeze you feel deep in your bones, your entire skin blue, accompanied by that sinking feeling – no, you don’t remember anything from last night, and oh god, did you even want to. To gather newspapers on the streets like they were treasures found, because you figure you can disappear under them at night and stop existing, on top of a sewer grate that emits sweet heat you spent hours looking for and ended up staying on for a deep, gratifying comfort that only lasted 45 minutes – until a pimply, acne-scarred 21-year-old with sunken eyes and baggy security guard clothes on – asked you hesitatingly, c-can you leave? Is it okay if you leave? I’m gonna ask you to leave.
To be let go of jobs with the manager sitting you down and saying, “Look, it’s clear to everyone here that you are too–sick–to continue working,” knowing that she wanted to say sad, but couldn’t say it, in case you complain to HR, and because they have no understanding just how much sadness is affecting your life. To go from job to job like a ticking time bomb, knowing how much you perform highly at the beginning, in the end, you will struggle, and you will not be able to sustain, no matter how simple the job is.
To have the remnants of trauma carved on your face, accelerating time and aging you faster by the second. To have an Uber driver say you looked 45, while he was 32 and seeing the unmistakable look of pity on his face when you tell him that you’re 31. Do you understand? Do you know what it’s like to have someone be ashamed for you? Like the lines of worry and despair whittled on your face is something you have to apologize for.
It’s painful, you know. This forced acceptance you urge yourself to make so that you can swallow the memories of becoming another person, of the things you did while you were sick, of your unforgivable sins. You have to fight to breathe. It doesn’t come naturally for you. Each inhale is repentance for your sins; you have to forgive yourself enough to allow the thought that even you, after everything, still deserve to breathe. Most days, you don’t believe that’s true.
How do you forgive yourself for becoming the person you didn’t know you could become when pushed to the line of desperation? How do you forgive yourself for crossing lines you told yourself as a kid you would never cross? How do you forgive yourself knowing the things you did, and the things that happened to you, will always be inside you like a permanent scar that grows and evolves and stains your skin like black tar invading clear water?
At CAMH, my second home, I spend most of my time walking other patients down Spadina Avenue, especially those who weren’t allowed to walk by themselves, or those who were just afraid. I learn about their lives, and listen to the story of how they ended up here with me. It’s funny – there’s a strange, little known phenomenon that happens at the women’s trauma ward of CAMH: we all get formed at some point in the year, always around the same time. So when we come back, it’s a homecoming. It’s a reunion of the wretched and their tragedies.
One beautiful girl whose sole mission in life is to look like Mariah Carey, and spends hours upon hours in front of the computer looking at her pictures, once told me that she had long accepted she would never be married. I asked why.
She looked at me, and as if breaking some terrible news to a child for the first time, said, “I think you’ll find – people like us – we’re never going to have normal relationships. People will either pretend to understand, or won’t even try. Sooner or later, they’ll get tired.” Then, as if it was an afterthought, continued with forced optimism – “But maybe you’ll get lucky – maybe you’ll find someone normal, and they’ll still get it… you know?”
Accepting your diagnosis is accepting the terror that your mind can betray you, any minute, any second. That every day you are in control is a race against time – build as much as you can now so that you don’t lose everything when it happens. It’s all about timing. And damage control.
But most of the time, it feels like my life is an old, beaten book I am desperately clinging to with furiously clenched fists.
I know the story — it’s so familiar to me, but it’s written in a language I no longer understand.