Where are you right now?
I’m standing propped against the edge of my bed, where I have been for most of the day. Across from me sits a friend: she doesn’t break eye contact. Her forehead shrinks as her eyebrows raise, her face displaying a grave concern. She tells me my pupils are larger than normal and scattering frantically, failing to rest on a single focal point. Failing to find peace.
My speech is even faster than its usual ticker-tape pace, and its fluidity is compounded by muddled phrasing, no common thread. I alternate between gripping the frame of the bed behind me and raising my hands together in front of my chest, bending and squeezing my middle three fingers on my left hand until they turn white. These are the observable behaviors.
Hey, say something. Where are you right now?
It’s the sound of a train. It’s the sound of a train or the pulsing of energy. The pulsing of energy or this constant aching whir, high-pitched and relentless. I describe all of this to my friend over the span of several minutes, that I’m not quite sure what thought is, and I stop every sentence or two to close my eyes and attempt to slow down.
I am here, but I am not here.
The necessary context is: This is the transition point. It is medically referred to as a mixed episode. In a mixed episode one experiences the intense highs and lows of mania and depression either in rapid sequence or all at once.
This was all at once.
It came following a three-week period in which I felt intensely energized and easily able to push aside the intense depressive thoughts that dominated me for most of the summer following my first year. Most importantly, and as nearly every symptom list would begin with, I had engaged in behaviors that I was not able to justify to myself after the fact.
I was not diagnosed with bipolar disorder officially until just after my sophomore year at Columbia.
I’m seated in a small room situated in the rear of an Upper East Side apartment building. One wall is lined with medical dictionaries and tomes on clinical psychology. The other, diplomas. A singular, small wooden clock sits on the table next to the leather chair opposite mine, carefully clicking away, making real the passing time.
Soon enough, a man occupies the chair. He surveys me with an inquisitive, scrunched-up expression. Eventually, he asks questions.
Do you often feel that your mood is beyond your control?
When your mood is beyond your control, do you find your thoughts racing?
Do you remain in intense mood states for long periods of time?
When you drink, do you feel you can stop drinking?
Do you oscillate between mood states?
Do you engage in behaviors you cannot understand later on?
Prior to that, I had been diagnosed and treated for the typical branches of depression, none of which took into account the full scope of the situation.
Before the diagnosis, I tried to rationalize these bouts of extreme behavior. Three-month depressive episodes in which I would isolate myself from any close friends or romantic partners were explained away with “I watched four movies by Charlie Kaufman in one week and it really just stuck with me.”
“I’m just feeling a little untethered right now. Just, a little adrift.” All of the same ilk: melancholy, prefaced with the word ‘just’ in an attempt to lessen the severity.
It was all impossible, but went unquestioned because no one held a working vocabulary for a nuanced mental illness. No one, myself included, understood the worst aspects of what the disorder brings to the table.
Above all else is the uncertainty. The grotesque beauty of bipolar disorder comes in its ability to scrape away at the core elements of stability in a person’s life. And as one experiences the alternating truths that come with both depression and mania—all human connection is false, or everyone is good for me—they begin to lose confidence in their ability to determine what is real.
Hey, stay with me. Are you here right now?
In August of 2017, the start of my sophomore year, I was wildly happy. After a first year of college in which I struggled to find a comfortable home within the Columbia community, I felt as though I had returned to campus with a fresh perspective.
Over the course of the first six weeks of that sophomore year, I found myself constantly surrounded by other people, many of whom I didn’t especially know. I drank excessively with increasing frequency—sometimes four or five days a week. At one point, the bartender at 1020 started giving me free drinks because I was “a regular.” I committed to high-commitment clubs and activities I had no authentic interest in and I stopped feeling the need to sleep. Fatigue echoed in the back of my mind but I always shirked it off with a persistent pulse of pure energy.
The first weekend of October, though, I stumbled. I woke up on Sunday feeling distinctly disoriented and consumed by an all-body ache among the worst in my life.
Struggling to rise out of bed, I eventually sat up, my legs hanging over the edge. They felt hollow from dehydration. I wanted nothing more than to get dressed, get water and food, and rest. Only very suddenly the concept of going outside felt dangerous and I found myself unable to parse the blinds, let alone leave the room.
I didn’t start hallucinating until around midday. In my memory, it remains blurry and uncertain. I left my room only once, for a brief jaunt across Broadway for the bare minimum of food, during which I felt distinctly suspicious of every passerby. They all seemed to be staring at me with dystopian intensity.
The hallucinations were slight—the sound of quiet chatter from a distance—but alienating. I did not know what was real.
Several days later I was told the phrase “manic episode” for the first time by a psychologist.
Several days after that, I was not wildly happy. I was told, in more nuanced words than this, that my happiness had been false, the result of divergent brain chemicals.
Like that, the scraping begins to yield great effect. Any joy is viewed through a circumspect lens. I am perpetually tense at the feeling of contentment, weighing the prospect that it might blossom into something obscene.
Likewise, relationships fall apart, as the alternative persona fades and you return back to your own body.
The morning after my hallucinogenic Sunday I asked a new friend—one who had encouraged me to rush and ultimately pledge his fraternity—if we could talk. He met me outside my dorm. I appeared, eyes sunken with grease-laden hair jutting out in every direction, and said all I could muster. I can’t really do this anymore.
In short, it is a kind of accelerated rebirth.
The awareness that came with the label “bipolar” was at first reassuring. It allowed for me to process and anticipate these great changes.
Only it brought just that: awareness. I became much more cognizant of the mental and physical shifts between moods as I studied them further.
That made for the hardest part, a year of reckoning where I knew full well what was happening and when it was coming. But I had no power over it.
My great struggle in writing this is trying to articulate the hopelessness that comes with feeling as though you are at the mercy of your mind. That you can feel capable and collected, only to have that taken away at any moment. More so than that, that it can be taken by an entity you cannot identify. There is no explicit driving force. It simply goes and remains gone.
As a second-semester sophomore, I organized my schedule in order to maximize free time. I felt that if I had every class on just two days, and gave myself five days worth of open time, I might be able to rejuvenate myself creatively, take the time to pursue those passions Columbia’s pressure had stifled.
For a time, it worked. I checked out a personal syllabus of books from Butler, assembled them in my room, began writing. I did so in conjunction with attending class and completing work on time. I had grown. But my mountain peak gave way to avalanche and soon enough the books remained unread, classes, unattended, and in the name of what? An “intense depressive episode.”
I have ruined relationships with friends (the manic mind does little to filter speech), strained my connection to my family (in a depressive state one thinks little about communication), performed lackluster in class (feeling too aggressively energized to sit still long enough to read), and all for something intangible, beyond full comprehension.
At its worst, I felt a bone-deep fatigue that cannot be resolved with sleep. It’s the fatigue that comes from the constant push and pull of shifting mood. It’s the fatigue from having dealt with something for years, continuing to struggle with it, and being told that it’s lifelong. The fatigue from never knowing that what you have will last.
I don’t realize it’s the end of a manic episode until later, but here is where it starts: I wake up in an unknown bed on the second floor of a friend’s home. I am seventeen years old. Outside it is still pitch black. My eyes lazily roll open. My breath is shallow. I question whether or not I can stand. My surroundings—typical adolescent fare: a high pile of stacked DVDs, Philadelphia Phillies memorabilia—swirl together in a wave. I feel deathly nauseous.
I bend and fold my way out of the bed, tumbling forward and landing on my side. My legs burn as though the marrow had been extracted with an ice cream scoop. I wince. I continue to wince, with each pregnant step down the foyer steps. The silence radiating through the house leads me to believe I am the only one awake. I reach the base of the stairs, stumble out the open sliding glass door leading into the backyard, and collapse onto a green lawn chair. The house is situated on a hill overlooking a golf course. For a moment, it is beautiful.
The swelling of the head and the pain reverberating proves too much. My heart feels like it’s going to stop. I need water, but walking back in to the kitchen would likely kill me.
Six hours earlier, I took a picture of myself, face swollen—a stranger—and privately captioned it: “I have a serious drug problem.”
I throw my head back in the chair, reach into my pocket, open the Altoids container, avoid the six other mini plastic bags, and take two Klonopin out of pure habit. I breathe.
Two weeks later, with the emotional drop complete, I enter into an intensive outpatient rehabilitation program. They ask me to describe the past nine months, the escalating use. I can’t. They ask me to describe why I did any of it. I can’t. I say I lacked stimulus, that I needed something to feed off my “creative energy.”
That, of course, was not the truth.
Late into my first year, a friend told me that being me seemed exhausting. It always seemed like I was experiencing things intensely, they said.
I had dropped out of almost all engagements, slept roughly two hours a day for a week and a half, and had lost twenty pounds.
In that moment, I felt seen. In the act of balancing extremes, performance becomes second nature. You present a veneer of routine and normalcy to mask any erratic behavior.
The simple act of recognizing those difficulties—the intensity—made me feel as though my efforts were validated—that the overwhelming mental energy to remain rooted in the present was real. I hoped that it might settle over time. I hoped that I might be able to operate without intensity.
In a sense, I can. Proper medication and sustained effort provide more stability, if nothing else. But it’s impossible to entirely prevent the fluctuations in mood. Always, still, I find myself questioning moments of goodness. In prolonged conversations with a dear friend, in celebrating an anniversary in a relationship.
Is this real?
Am I here right now? Or will I wake tomorrow, disoriented and in pain, completely unsure of why any of this has happened?
I am sixteen years old and attending a creative writing summer camp in rural Ohio. Everyone speaks in long, laborious sentences trying desperately to talk the way they imagine the beats talked. We write upwards of ten or so poems a day. One five-minute assignment is to write a piece describing the part of your identity that most people do not see.
My bedroom in Philadelphia was always next to the treeline. Every morning, I woke up to the sound of birds chirping. My response piece was three stanzas. In the first, the birds crafted harmonies, in tune with the wind and the trees. In the second, they sang stagnant, monotone solos. In the third, the poetic “I” wondered whether or not the sound of the birds was really beautiful.
Enjoy leafing through our 9th issue.