One day, I sank to the ground, looking for a reason to get up

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Bipolar disorder doesn't fit a definition, varies from person to person, and its experience is therefore ineffable to a degree. But here's a glimpse into the mind of one.

When bipolar disorder hits you, you might feel an inexplicable sense of emptiness, as if someone had injected anesthesia into your mind, and it had just one message to relay. “Stop living.”

The toughest thing about bipolar disorder is explaining it. Psychiatrists spew medical terms that make no sense to most people. The Internet is filled with contradictions. The best person to ask, perhaps, is someone suffering from the disorder. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to explain it even to themselves.

But let me try.

I was 18 when it first struck.

Life was at its perfect-est best. Cool parents, annoying-but-adorable siblings, good friends, great grades — I had it all.

That’s why, it made no sense when I woke up one winter afternoon feeling an inexplicable sense of emptiness, as if someone had injected anesthesia into my mind, and it had just one message to relay. “Stop living.”

It didn't ask me to kill myself. It just wanted to stop existing. It was asking me to disappear.

Three days later, I was back to my normal cheerful self. I brushed it off as PMS (though I remember wondering how it could have been PMS if my next period was more than 10 days away).

The second time was the same — three days of grey skies and a surprisingly sunny one on the fourth.

Whoever said that third time’s the charm certainly didn't have me in mind.

October 2005

The last two months had been terrific.

I was getting ready for college. I had a Sanskrit test that day. Easy-peasy, what with all the sandhi-viched lessons Amma had been taking for my brother and me during our post-school chanting sessions of Hanuman Chalisa and Vishnu Sahasranamam.

I had woken up late, and with a bad premonition. I tried to brush it off but I could feel something heavy settling on me.

After lunch, I said my good-byes, wore my sandals and reached out to open the door.

That’s when I froze.

I sat on the floor and remained there for what seemed like eternity, until my aunt came out to watch TV. She asked me why I was on the floor? Was I searching for something? When I didn't reply, she panicked and called out to my grandmother. The two of them tried to lift me up but my body refused to cooperate.

A few minutes later, I crawled under the bench in the living room and began sobbing uncontrollably. Soon, I had emptied out my tears. But I remained under the bench, curled up, looking at the floor.

Was I looking for something?

Maybe I was.

Maybe I was looking for a reason to get up.

 

I didn't originally intend to write this piece in the first person. I wanted to talk about bipolar disorder with a broader perspective. Except, I can’t. It wouldn't be fair to the others on the boat. Each sailor hath his own tale that, if ever, only he can truly share.

Bipolar disorder is not physical. It cannot be confined to a singular definition (no matter how broad the scope of that definition might be).

Ask a diabetes patient what his illness is like and he most likely will have an answer for you. Ask someone with bipolar disorder to explain what it is, you most likely will hear something like this, “Erm. I don’t know. It’s difficult to explain. I feel very low at times. Without reason. And sometimes, I feel insanely high — for no reason. But it’s not like...” Their voice usually trails out. Because they know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh, that’s normal. Even I feel depressed at times. No big deal.” Some of you will probably even say that in so many words and tap that person’s shoulder reassuringly, telling him or her that you understand.

No. You don’t. The people who understood what it is like are not the psychiatrists or the psychologists, they are the other people in the boat, the others who have bipolar disorder. And even they don’t understand it fully. Because it is different in every case.

The symptoms, triggers, and intensity are all different. They episodes manifest differently too. The only commonality perhaps is the helplessness you feel at now knowing why you’re behaving this way. Why you want to shut the door, curl up under the bed and never get out.

After that day, I stayed indoors for four months straight. I refused food and water. I didn't utter a single word in those four months. I refused to step out of the door. I’d lock myself into a room, opening the door only if the banging got too much. If there were guests visiting home, I’d lock myself in the bathroom.

I tried killing myself. Many times and in many ways. Just that I didn't know why I was doing it.

I tried to reason it out to myself. I tried thinking bad thoughts. I built myself up to be a monster with thoughts so wicked it would be better I died, so that the world would be a better place.

After many weeks of coaxing, Amma and Appa finally got me to visit the doctor. The waiting room felt like the set of a psycho thriller. Inside the doctor’s cabin was a large table. I sat opposite to him, an old man with a long beard and the most piercing eyes. He asked me what had happened. When I looked up to reply, I felt his eyes searing into my soul, reading my deepest, darkest thoughts. He knew it. He knew me for the monster I was.

I burst into tears and refused to talk for the rest of the session. He wrote out a prescription and a long list of tests I was supposed to take.

The next day, I pooped half a dozen pills. I had wires stuck in my head. I took psychoanalytic tests that would determine how crazy I was. A week later was hypnotheraphy. I entered a room, was given an injection and woke up later with no clue about what had transpired in those two hours.

The pills seemed to be working because after a few weeks I wasn't feeling too depressed. So, I stopped taking them. And the cycle resumed.

I could see the toll it was taking on my family. I ran away from home, thinking it might be for the best. A week later, I returned. Running away was not going to solve the situation.

When I got back, Appa made me promise that I wouldn't go off my medication.

I have largely kept my promise. The few times I accidentally missed taking my pills, the effect was immediate. The one time I intentionally went off them, it was catastrophic. I had my first manic attack. That’s the other end of bipolar disorder — mania. And that, we shall keep for a different day.

I’m better now. I take my medicines regularly and have managed to bring down the dosage a fair bit. Unlike what I have been told by many psychiatrists, I learnt recently that I CAN get off my medication completely if I remain episode-free for five continuous years. It has given me a reason to not just let it be.

It has given me the strength to fight this disorder.

When it first started, the doctors told me that I was suffering from bipolar disorder.

When things got slightly better, it was me struggling with bipolar disorder.

For the last few years, I have been telling myself, and everyone else, that I am living with bipolar disorder.

I met a lady doctor from NIMHANS recently. She heard my story out, and said, “Shilpa, you’re blessed with bipolar disorder. That’s what makes you so sensitive and caring. Just remember to take care of yourself first and all will be well.”

Those words have changed my entire perspective to bipolar disorder.

Now that I think of it, it isn't all that bad. The three friends I have in the same boat as mine are not just three of my most favorite people in the world, they are also three of the most beautiful human beings I know. They are smart and sensitive. They are not just happy people, they are people who consciously spread happiness. Not once have I heard them complain about their bipolar disorder.

Sometimes, they might not be their usual cheerful self. On days like those, don’t ask them what happened.

Just give them a hug.

That’s all.

 

(Do read Shilpa's earlier piece, which explores suicidal ideation, from this series on bipolar disorder and mental health)

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