Finding beauty in decay helped me love my inner demons.
(originally published on exposure.co.)
OFF THE DEEP END
I lost my mind on Canadian Independence Day — July 1, 2012.
I don’t blame Canada for what happened. This mental breakdown, my third, was a long time coming. I had been suffering from what doctors decided was “treatment-refractory depression” since I was about nine or ten; this just happened to be the particular day when everything came to a head.
As anyone suffering from mental illness knows, just living day to day is challenging. Battling a condition for which doctors could find no effective treatment was doubly so. Not only had I worked with over a dozen talk therapists and tried nearly every medication invented for my disease, I had been told my only real hope for recovery was to take a month off work to get electroconvulsive therapy. The weight of my hopelessness as well as a myriad of stresses in my personal and professional lives finally pulled me under.
I had seen this coming. I tried to stop it. I forced myself to go out with friends and participate in activities I used to enjoy. I threw karaoke parties, treated myself to brunch and fancy dinners for one, kept up my crocheting, and went through the motions of every other cargo-cult remedy for depression typically prescribed by mental health experts.
Nothing worked. I wanted to die.
Temporary relief unexpectedly arrived a few days later in the form of a trip to Centralia.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a ghost town, and conduct your visit with even the slightest modicum of reverence, your reaction should be gut-wrenching. These are places where people raised families, lived lives, and called home. No matter how jaded and numb I had become owing to my personal struggles, I was brought to earth by the empathy I had for these former residents. My own pain was sharp and constant but incorporeal. Centralia was tangible. As I walked through empty lots where families had been raised and grown-over asphalt that used to be a highway, the noise in my head quieted. For a moment, I was grounded by empathizing with a non-mental struggle.
GONE AND FORGOTTEN
The temporary relief from my Centralia visit didn’t last. The physical consequences of my insanity finally caught up with me in October. Four months of stress-induced anorexia had lead to drastic weight loss, ketosis, and ultimately a hypoglycemic seizure. Two days later, following an admonishment from my hospital nurse to “stop being so sad and eat,” and in defiance of my fragile condition, I took a flight to Sydney for work.
I didn’t stop being crazy, but the dramatic change in scenery and timezone made a world of difference (pun intended.) My appetite returned. I stopped crying to the point of dry-heaving. I was still heartbroken and suicidal, but I was fucking halfway across the world, on someone else’s dime. I still hated the person I had become and wanted to destroy her. But, despite having been in a dangerously bad place before I left, I couldn’t deny that being in the land of koalas and kangaroo steaks was an extraordinary opportunity. I had, albeit temporarily, escaped. My only fear was that upon return I would sink back into the tarpit of desolation upon my return.
I did. Shortly after my return to the states, I half heartedly attempted suicide via a bottle of pills, a bottle of wine, and a long soak in a bathtub. I felt failed by my doctors, my woefully inadequate “support system,” and my own inability to toe the line. I was desperate. I survived, and I decided to go back to the one thing that had worked— I got the fuck out of dodge.
I’ve always been conservative with my finances, so when I look in retrospect at what what I spent on plane tickets, I feel a strong sense of shame. Then I remind myself that these expenses may not have been insurance deductible, but I have no doubt that the money I spent on travel helped save my life. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if a weekend trip to Los Angeles could keep me from opening a vein, I was more than happy to pay the price. Some folks have lovers, relatives, or employers financing their trips; mine were directly funded under the auspices of off-label treatment for diagnostic code 296.89 (more on that later.)
RUN AWAY, RUN AWAY FROM THE PAIN
Though my jaunts around the world certainly hurt my wallet, there was an unexpected silver lining. My psychiatrist had prescribed me the antipsychotic medication Seroquel as a treatment for the chronic insomnia that we had both assumed was a result of jet-lag. The improvement in my mood was unprecedented. He is also a lover of travel, but my variety of frenetic tourism set off some alarms. Our eventual conclusion: I had not been suffering from depression after all. I have bipolar II disorder, a condition in which the sufferer experiences severe depressive episodes followed by bursts of energy and elevated mood. These “highs” are not as severe as the manic episodes associated with classic bipolar I disorder and are often mistaken for a recovery from depression. Because of this, bipolar II is often mistaken for major depressive disorder. Bipolar II brings a greater risk of suicidal thoughts than standard depression.
I felt vindicated by my new diagnosis. I wasn’t simply unlucky in drugs. I wasn’t someone who simply needed to “try harder” to make her therapists’ suggestions work. I didn’t just need to exercise or socialize more. It took twenty years, but I finally knew what my real damage was. Now I could take steps to fix it.
I was finally properly medicated and feeling great, but I still found comfort in getting away. City and country-hopping should have been enough, but I was invariably drawn to wreckage. Perhaps it’s not correct to say I relate to these relics, but I absolutely see something of myself in them. There is a strange allure in a road that’s been reclaimed by nature, a shack leaning against its own decay, a boat disintegrating back into the river. I’ve been trying hard to like myself despite my obvious defect. These seemed to be the embodiment of that effort.
I can never romanticize what I’ve been through. It was hell. It was sheer torture. But, I do find beauty in the fact that I nearly self-destructed and managed to come out the other end not only alive, but improved. I cannot guarantee that I will not one day backslide into the muck of my damaged mind. My hope is that I now have the appropriate safety vest to keep my head above water.
If not, there’s always another ghost town waiting.