I got through it for two reasons. First, my boyfriend visited me each day, so I stayed connected to my real life. Second, I asked for some paper and a marker. (They would not let patients have pens, because we might use them to hurt ourselves.) When I was scared or angry, I wrote that down, and because I had a place to express my emotions, I was able to stay calm enough to get myself home within 48 hours.
“The only reason we’re letting her out so early,” one doctor told my mother, “is that she has a very good support system.” This was true. I seemed to get more phone calls than most patients. I was one of only two people to be visited by a partner, and he came both days. My mother called more than once, and she took my calls. I had been taken to the psych ward by a friend.
And this was important for me to remember, because in the wake of the diagnosis, all of those caring, loving people drove me right back out of my mind again. For a while, all of them were convinced that every emotion I had, and everything I did, was somehow related to my illness. One of the symptoms of hypomania (the small upswings that were responsible for my weeks of productivity) is “irritability,” so if I got irritated, I was clearly manic. If I was sad, I was “depressed.” If I stayed up late to work because I liked the quiet, that was “sleeplessness.” Everyone agreed that I had probably gotten sick because I worked too much, so if I pushed myself, my mother would declare that I was doing “exactly what put [me] in the hospital.”
“I’m doing what got me the health insurance that was the only reason I could go to the hospital,” I snapped, once. By this point, being told to be quiet, never get irritated, work less, and sleep all the time had started to feel very Yellow Wallpaper. And yet, all of this was good for me. If you are sick in a way that disturbs your thought patterns, you need to have people you can trust to keep track of how you’re thinking.
This is scary, because it means opening up to at least a few people about your illness. One of the things that disability activists often protest, which had never bothered me before, is how often people use “crazy” to mean “bad.” This can send the message that having a mental illness means you are bad, and that it’s therefore a shameful secret you have to keep. Which is the opposite of healthy. I’d never noticed it until I was recovering, at which point “crazy” seemed to be everywhere. And at first, it did hurt. If “crazy” could be used to write off a woman who’s upset even when she has no history of illness, it could definitely be used to write off a woman who’d spent two days in the hospital. But I still use it myself, and here’s why: if you’re rowdy and funny at a party, you’re so “crazy.” If someone is nasty and passive-aggressive, that drives you “crazy.” If you go over to that person’s house and place a bag of flaming dog poop on their doorstep, you’re acting “crazy.” (Also, don’t.) But if you have to go to the hospital because people think you might die, then you’re ill. Ill people are not to be dismissed, mocked, or insulted by being called crazy, THAT is an insensitive misuse of the word. And anyone who makes fun of someone for being ill is an asshole, and what assholes think fundamentally does not matter. That’s why you’re reading a magazine called Rookie, and not WhatSomeAssholesThink.com.
And it is really, really important to remember that. Because if you are diagnosed with a mental illness, even something as relatively common as depression, you will probably have to live with that diagnosis for a long time. It will change you. Before my diagnosis, I couldn’t use a birth control pill, because I could never remember to take the pills on time. Now I have to be a very organized person who takes her medications as if her life depends on it, which it does. Before this, anything and everything was a good reason to put off sleep. Now I monitor how many hours of sleep I get per night, to make sure that I’m not getting sick. And before this, I was someone who didn’t have to worry what people might think if I told them how my brain worked. Now I do worry. I knew depression was dangerous, but it was common enough that mentioning it wouldn’t freak people out. Bipolar disorder has a much more formal, intense ring to it. I have to worry about employers, friends, and, potentially, future dates. Because of this article, you’ll always be able to Google me and find out that I have this sickness. You’ll know how bad it got.
And I’m telling you anyway. Because here’s the part of the story that matters: once I got the diagnosis, got the pills, and got in touch with a therapist I really liked, I woke up in the morning. And I was happy, genuinely happy, for the first time in a very long time. That’s what matters about my nervous breakdown—or yours, or anyone’s. When I got the help I needed, I was able to recover.
And I’m lucky. I know that. That’s why I say that having my breakdown and going to the hospital was the “easy part.” Everyone I spoke to after the fact who had any experience at all with serious illness told me that dealing with the diagnosis would be a lifelong project: there would be more doctors, different medicines, and the long, hard work of taking care of myself. Plenty of people have received diagnoses, struggled with them for years, and still died from their illnesses. But plenty of other people never receive a diagnosis, or the care they need to get better. They spend their lives trying to move forward, knowing something is wrong and blaming themselves for falling apart—or being blamed by the people who love them. No matter how scary it was to be hospitalized and diagnosed with a mental illness, it was also a blessing. Because it gave me what I needed to get well. ♦