Thursday, February 10, 2011

BEING BIPOLAR, Part 4: A Darklier Abyss

This is the fourth installment of an ongoing series exploring what it means to live with bipolar disorder. Reading the previous essays is recommended, but not absolutely required for understanding this one, which deals with depression associated with bipolar and how it differs from normal depression. But if you choose to take the time to read the other posts in this series, I for one would be grateful :-)

It took a very long time for me to go outside after Granny died.

It was the last Saturday in March of 2000. Our Boy Scout troop was camping for the weekend in some woods east of Reidsville. The winter that year had been harsh. Worse than anything we've had in recent seasons. After too many weeks snowed-in we were all ready for some fresh air and wide open space.

It was green. Very green. And so warm outside. All full of life. That is what I remember most from that day.

Just before I drove to the church that we would be meeting at and leaving from, the phone rang. It was my aunt. Telling me that my grandmother had fallen and an ambulance was coming to take her to the hospital. That's all that I would have known until we came back the following afternoon, had I not volunteered to make a quick trip into town to pick up some supplies that we discovered we needed (you can crack jokes about "Being prepared" if you like). And on the way back I stopped at the hospital to check on Granny's condition and was told that she had a severe heart attack and had to be taken to Moses Cone.

That's the main hospital in Greensboro. The one that you get transported to if Annie Penn in Reidsville isn't enough to help you.

I can't remember the drive back into the woods to our campsite. Well, not all of it. Not like I can remember most things. More than ten years later I still can't think of anything else but the green of the trees and the grass surrounding me on all sides as I drove to where we'd pitched our tents.

Green. Warmth. Life.

All wrong.

Would those memories have been less haunting if the next week transpired different? I don't know. I think, I knew then what was going to happen. And it made the world I saw around me all the more hostile and mocking.

Granny was the person in my life who I was closest to most of all. She was the personification of everything that I had come to know of what love and sweetness and Christ-like spirit was supposed to be. She was the focal point of our entire family.

Three days later, on March 28th, she passed away.

We had her funeral that Friday. I was one of the pallbearers: carrying the casket to the place of final rest. And there was green and warmth and life all around us at the cemetery...

...and it was my birthday.

And I could no longer stand the green and the warmth and the life.

After leaving Granny's house where our family had congregated after the funeral, I went home. And showered. And put on clothes that didn't have the scent of floral arrangements permeating them. And cried hard into my pillow. And wanted it all to just go away.

I think the number of times that I did manage to go outside between then and June could probably be numbered on both hands. It became genuinely painful to be outdoors. To even look outside...

...because wherever I saw life, I saw death waiting to happen. What rose and flourished would inevitably crumble and decay.

Before very long, I could not look a person in the face without seeing a rotting corpse staring back at me.

I knew this had to be wrong. But I did not know at the time that this was the beginning of my first severe bout with clinical depression.

I managed one trip to visit friends on campus at Elon a month after the funeral and by that point I was so messed-up that they took me to the nearby hospital to see if I could be helped. That turned into a trip in the dead of night to John Umstead Hospital all the way in Butner (on the outskirts of Raleigh) with me handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser "for protection". With my family not knowing where I was. Oh yeah, all of this because of a paperwork mistake at Alamance Regional...

It was the first time that I had been in a psychiatric hospital, but it wouldn't be the last. My five days at Umstead did nothing to make me feel better. The doctors – once they got around to seeing me – agreed that I had problems but nothing so desperate as to land me in their facility. If anything, being there worsened my depression. After Dad came to take me home from what I had come to call "the Mad Dog Ward" (first person to say where that name comes from without Google-ing for it can buy a candy bar and pretend I got it for them) I went into the house and showered and shaved and went into another room and made sure all the windows were covered so no sunlight could get in.

And that's where I stayed, for the most part, for the next month. In darkness. Away from light. Away from green and warmth and life. Because I couldn't stand it.

(It might give some of my two faithful readers a chuckle when I mention that while I was at Umstead I did what I could to keep myself together. F'rinstance, I drew a picture of the cartoon character The Tick, telling me "You're not going crazy. You're going SANE in a crazy world!" and taped that to the wall next to my bed as encouragement. Hey, whatever gets ya through the night, y'know?)

I am writing about this because I know what having severe clinical depression is like. I have been there and I would not wish my worst enemy to have to go through that. And I know that it can be overcome. Maybe not as soon as you would like, but... I did eventually come out of that seeing that even in the blackest depths of despair, God did have me in the cup of His hand. And He always had been holding me.

I see now in retrospect how He was working to bring me out of that and toward... something better. Because I didn't stay locked away inside forever. Before long a friend – a lady who I had only known from the Internet – told me of a job opportunity in Asheville and that she had a place to rent to me if I decided to take it.

And that is how I wound up a newspaper reporter for awhile in one of the most interesting cities that anyone can live in. God took me out of my "comfort zone" and into a place that, for the time I was there became one of the greatest periods of personal growth that I have ever enjoyed. That friend from the Internet became my landlady, and she and her sisters took me in and made me feel like family. My tiny apartment looked over the French Broad River on one side and had Mount Pisgah beyond my kitchen window on the other. I worked in what must have been one of the last of the old-school newspapers: the kind of place where the editor and publisher would be screaming profanities at each other in heated argument before going out the door together for lunch like preachers at a Sunday potluck.

And in the time that I was a reporter I wound up having... well, a lot of interesting things happen. Like, going on a ghost hunt (and maybe snapping a photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald's apparition... maybe). Being shot at. Covering a rally of witches and warlocks. Meeting Bill Cosby and hearing him crack a joke about me: I told him he was an inspiration for me to study to be a teacher. He looked at me and said "And here you are a reporter. I must not have been that big an inspiration for you, huh boy?!"

It was a great time.

It's funny though. I wouldn't wish what I had gone through with depression on anybody. But I would not take anything for my experience with depression. That kind of pain... prepared me. Made me stronger. It helped me to get to a place that I wouldn't have reached otherwise. And again, I have to thank God for that. Even though for much of that stretch of my life I couldn't see how He was with me.
God brought me through depression then. He even used it to make me a better person.
And just so, I know that He will bring me through bipolar depression now... and that He will make me all the more the Chris Knight that He needs me to be.

Bipolar, Depression, and Bipolar Depression

I had thought that Part 4 of this series would be covering a different subject pertaining to my experience and struggle with bipolar disorder. When I first began plotting this I came up with a rough outline going six or seven chapters out. And then like the previous installment, Part 3: "The Hell Curve", I was led away from my initial plans and instead strayed toward something else entirely.
So my original scheme is now thoroughly kaput! But that's okay. As I said in Part 3, this is something that I'm always going to be fighting against but also a condition that I'll forever be learning something new from. And as I ponder my illness further and further, it's only natural that I'll be sharing new observations and insights about my condition with you, Dear Reader.

Since posting Part 3 I began something a bit experimental with Being Bipolar: video supplements. And in the second and most recent of these I documented for the camera an episode of bipolar depression. That is what most led to the chapter you are reading this moment. Because I have had depression and I have had bipolar depression... and after this latest bout with the latter I felt it was time to address that.

Regular run-o'-the-mill clinical depression is as different from bipolar depression as Curious George is from King Kong. To a lot of people – maybe even most people – they are practically the same, with little to discern one from the other.

I am here to tell you otherwise, because I do know better. Having gone through both clinical depression and manic depression from bipolar, I possess more understanding of the qualities of each than I would have probably ever cared to have.

If you have time, go back to the first part of this installment and re-read the account of my first bout with depression. See if anything "jumps out" at you from it.

Go on, I'll wait for you.

Back already? You read awful fast!

Okay, let's continue...

A few things about that period of depression that I went through that you might have noticed. First of all: I did get better with enough time. I went to a psychiatrist once after I got out of the hospital and received a prescription for a medication to calm myself. That's it so far as drugs went. There was no counseling and nothing like the medication that I am currently taking for bipolar... because at the time it was the severe depression that was hitting me hardest.

I was able to work through the depression. By that I mean that as far down "in the valley" as I was, there was enough feeling and strength left to me that I could inch forward and before I knew it I was relocating to another city so that I could take a job that I really enjoyed doing. Was I still feeling depressed? Yes. It would be a long time before I could fully shake off the dread of being outside again... but I was able to go outdoors again in spite of that.

But here's what I'm hoping you might have caught from re-reading about my depression: when I was in the hospital, I kept up my sense of humor!

However dire (and ridiculous) my circumstance was, I was able to laugh at it instead of completely giving in to despair and hopelessness. The "Mad Dog Ward"? That was taken from a story arc in the Spider-Man comics. The drawing of The Tick that I did? And when I was asked during admittance who was President of the United States and without missing a beat I answered "Hillary Clinton"?

That was the real Chris Knight making light of his situation in spite of his depression! That is... what I do. It's something deep down in my nature that, when I'm in a place that I don't like, this near-primal instinct kicks in and won't let me stop until I've done one thing: gone back home. I first discovered that aspect of my character when I was 11 years old at this crappy summer church camp (it was nothing like it advertised itself to be). It was my first time away from home and I began feeling homesick. But I let that feeling overtake me for just a few hours before I chose to not let it destroy me. My resolve fired up. I decided this camp was not going to break me.

The night before we left, I was already packed. I slept in the clothes that I was going to wear on the bus for home. It's a custom that I still keep to this day whenever I'm about to escape from a place that I don't want to be anymore.

(We were promised a waterslide, darnnit! They didn't tell us that the waterslide had been broken for going on two years and counting!)

On my own, I can fare pretty well against clinical depression. It's still not something that I would want anyone to have to personally deal with. But it is far more manageable than I first realized.

However, bipolar depression, or manic depression, is a whole 'nother monster...

I could not have been joking and making light of so much if that had been bipolar depression that I was going through during that time of my life. And there would have been no chance of me "snapping out of it" on my own. Had that been bipolar depression, it would have to run its course or I would have to stave it off with more medication and counseling, or... I would have stood a great chance of taking my own life.

Thoughts of suicide never entered my mind during "normal" depression. Not even once. Did I feel like I wanted to die? Admittedly, yes. But that is not the same thing as actively considering killing myself in a bid to leave the pain behind.
Bipolar depression at its worst is an absence of pain as most people know it. It is also the absence of passion, of interest, of laughter, of... even indifference. Clinical depression is remarkable for the overwhelming sadness it fosters. Bipolar depression drains the mind of even that feeling.

The only thing you can feel from manic depression is how unendurable the emptiness is. It is existence without meaning. It is being here with no rationality or philosophy to cling to or that might explain the vacuous bubble that your flesh envelops by chance or malice of God.

Time becomes stretched and warped during manic depression. The bouts themselves can last days, or weeks, or even months. For every hour in bipolar-induced depression, it can feel like months or years.
I would lay on the bed or on a sofa, immobile. My mind debilitated and locked in a recursive loop of absent emotion. Nothing could faze me, nothing at all. There were times that the telephone would ring and I couldn't care enough to pick it up. It became a frustrating struggle just to get up enough motivation to go to the kitchen and find something to eat when I became hungry. As a result of that I inevitably came to lose considerable weight because of bipolar.

Trying to sleep is even something that is difficult to do. Maybe it's because dreaming becomes a thing so tantalizing and so maddeningly beyond reach of fulfillment, that the respite of a few hours sleep loses its appeal.

Manic depression takes a toll on the mind, on the body, and on everything and everyone you have in your life. All that you know becomes agony to endure, and invariably you become unendurable to those that love you. It's as if your very existence drains the mood and the energy from the ones closest to you. And then that becomes too great a burden to bear.

For me, one of the very worst things to happen because of bipolar was that its associated depression put the brakes on my brain's creative impulse. And... okay, I'm gonna try my best to explain this. Me, the "real me", was trapped inside my own mind and could want to be creative and productive. But my mind wouldn't budge. My mind became an immovable void that arrested my imagination, and stopped dead in its tracks my drive to produce a tangible product from that creativity.

I know: it sounds too much like the stereotypical "tortured artist". But think about it: for a person who deeply cherishes his ability to engage his imagination, his own mind revolting against him to the point that creativity becomes maddeningly out of reach is a cruel trick on the part of his neurobiology.

Bipolar depression... is life without life. It is an abominable dim shade of mere being. It is... hell. And I do know how and why it would drive a person to commit suicide. It's not an escape from the pain, because there is no "pain" in the routine sense to speak of. In a very sick and twisted way, the ability to feel pain sometimes becomes desirable for a person in the throes of manic depression. Because that would be something normal to cling hold to.

And so it is that too many people who suffer from manic depression, choose to leave it all behind them.

Once upon a time, I would have thought that those people were committing a grievous sin. But now, having gone through the same torment that wore them down to the end of their rope, I have sympathy and understanding. Suicide isn't the "coward's way out" that I had come to believe. These were people just like me and... yes, just like you. They didn't deserve that kind of pain any more than any of us would deserve it. They didn't choose to be afflicted by bipolar, or by any other kind of mental illness.

And the only reason why I'm writing these words today is because I was way more fortunate than I possibly deserve to be, in that I had friends and family, and doctors and counselors, and many others who did keep me from plunging too late into that darkness.

Ever Upward

I don't see myself contemplating suicide again, the one caveat being that affirming such depends on my bipolar disorder remaining as manageable as it is today. And I do intend to keep managing it. However, as my most recent video supplement demonstrated, I will never be completely rid of the depression that comes from bipolar.

But I also know that bipolar depression isn't reflective at all of the person I truly am. And there is great strength to be gained from that confidence.

I felt led to write this installment for several reasons. To help my readers discern between clinical depression and bipolar depression, obviously. But also: for anyone who may find this who is also going through manic depression...

Stay strong. This, too, shall pass.

I can say that because I have been where you are. At the bottom of the abyss, straining my eyes to see any glimpse of light and hope. Wondering if God was hearing me at all.

There is light. There is hope. And God is hearing you.

Don't give in to the emptiness. That isn't what you are, either. It's only the disease – something you didn't invite into your life – dragging you down. It can't and won't last forever.
Don't you dare believe that this is something to be ashamed of, or that you are "crazy" or "lazy" or anything else that others might have told you. They don't understand and they should be thankful that they don't have to understand. That's another reason why I'm writing this: so that those blessed to be free of bipolar might gain even a shred of wisdom about mental illness.

What can I offer up for advice, to those suffering from bipolar depression?

I'm going to write more about this in another chapter of Being Bipolar soon: one of the things that kept me from totally losing myself into the abyss is that if there is anything at all that you can keep an interest in, to grab hold of it and don't let go! In my own case this has been any number of things over the years, depending on what my mind could latch onto. Sometimes it was my love of all things Star Wars (oh man, that has gotta sound totally whacked: "Star Wars kept me from killing myself..." but in my case it's almost certainly true). During one point two years ago it was re-reading The Lord of the Rings. My own bipolar depression didn't become readily apparent until about 2003 or 2004 (though I now recognize episodes from much earlier in my life) and since then there have been numerous strategies that I have discovered which can keep me from falling down again. But one way or another they each have as the common factor grasping onto something – and it can be ludicrously simple, even – that you do take interest and enjoyment from, and use that as a safety handle until the depressive episode is over.

That doesn't mean that you should eschew real treatment like medication and counseling, though. And that also is going to be a topic for an upcoming Being Bipolar post: the responsibilities that come with having bipolar disorder (and there are plenty). And again: I'm not a professional physician or therapist. I'm just a guy with a blog, who happens to have bipolar. I can only talk about what I know.

But I do know that bipolar disorder and its associated depression does not mean that I can't have a productive, fulfilling life. I understand this condition better than I ever could have before, and that understanding just keeps getting deeper and more profound with each passing day.

It's like I said: God brought me through one depression. And He is going to bring me through this depression.

And if you have bipolar depression, I know He is going to bring you through it, too!


Kyle said...

This is the best post you've ever written Chris, IMO.

Anonymous said...

I second what Kyle said. This is pure Knight Shift/Chris Knight. Educational. Interesting. Heartbreaking. FUNNY!

Max in Raleigh

Marc said...

"I first discovered that aspect of my character when I was 11 years old at this crappy summer church camp (it was nothing like it advertised itself to be)"

Thats quite familiar. My mother forced me to go to summer camp every summer around that same age. I dont recall me age when she first started sending me (around 7 or 8 years old). But I do recall my last time was the summer when I was 12. Usually she sent me to one month of day camp and one month of sleepaway camp. I NEVER wanted to go. I wanted to spend the summer sleeping late in the mornings, watch the tv shows in the mornings and afternoons....the tv shows I usually missed during the weekdays because I was in school the other times of the year. I wanted to play with my friends in the neighborhood. But no. I wound up spending my summer vacations in camp (one of which advertised horseback riding. I never laid my eyes on a horse the entire time I was there).

Anonymous said...

bipolarjournalist said...