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The Stranger Inside

September 25, 2013

It’s always been a source of wonder and amusement to me that during my frequent searches for an item I’ve misplaced, I always seem to find something else that brings back a memory or two. And, like many of the elderly folks at the nursing home where I work, I often get so lost in the new distraction that I completely forget what I was doing before.

It happened again this evening as I was going through some of my old essays and ran across a piece I barely even remember writing, called “The Stranger Within: Living With Mental Illness”. At the time, I’d just been diagnosed with bipolar and felt like I was literally living with a stranger. Psych had never been one of my favorite subjects in nursing school, and not only did I not have even a grade-schooler’s level of understanding, I was thunderstruck by the diagnosis.

Funny how there’s this yawning gap between merely suspecting a thing and hearing it confirmed by a medical professional with several impressive degrees on his office wall next to the framed print of Pluto (the dog, not the demoted planet). Then followed weeks and months of medication trials and changes; side effects triggered weight gain, spun my blood sugar out of control, and made me crazier than I already was.

I struggled at work. I developed suicidal ideation and thought the new bottle of Ativan I’d just refilled might be the way out, only I didn’t know how many pills it would take NOT to wake up in the ER with a tube up my nose. Only a few weeks later I was dancing on the moon and being so disruptive at work that I was sent home under strict orders not to return until the mania was under control. By that time, I was logging more hours on my psychiatrist’s sofa than my own.

In other words, I was a hot mess.

I’m not sure exactly why it was this particular med “cocktail” that made me snap out of it and life to settle into something resembling a rhythm, but these past weeks have brought the most stability I’ve had since the onset of this nightmare. Actually, they might be the most stable ever. Bipolar is nothing if not an optimist at times; there’s a sunny side to everything, and in my case, it’s the sheer amount of learning that’s taken place since February of 2012.

For one thing, the diagnosis itself solved a great number of mysteries: it explained why I’ve always felt like the odd man out, even when surrounded by friends and family. Why I experience moments of great truth and beauty, and then bouts of rage and black depression. Why I’m so creative at some times and utterly brain-dead at others. Why I’ve had to learn absolutely EVERYTHING the hard way.

There is also a certain peace in realizing that my difficulties in life aren’t all my fault, even though I know it’s up to me to choose how I’ll react to a given situation. This is not to say I’m happy about carrying this albatross around my neck for the rest of my days. But it’s for this reason that I’ve allowed myself to become something of a poster child for my kind of crazy: SOMEONE has got to help put an end to the stigma of mental illness. And who better than a person who lives with it by day and takes it to bed with her by night?

The fact that some are actually starting to listen to people like me gives me hope for the future….not only my own but that of millions of mentally ill Americans, too many of whom aren’t fortunate enough to have a team of family, friends, and professionals who won’t let them slip beneath the waves and drown.

I may not know when my next mood swing will strike, but I do know that with proper help, the stranger inside–a shadowy entity that exists within us all—will never again take control of my mind or my life. And if I never learn another thing from living with bipolar disorder, that alone is enough.

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