Content warning: discussions of self-harm.
The lamp on my desk flickered and glowed, making the faint buzzing sound it always does when it’s getting too hot. It was my first year at U of T, at 9:00 pm on a Thursday. I was studying in my room in res and getting ready to go to sleep when suddenly I felt it: mania. Clear, euphoric, excited, and irresponsible mania.
So what do I do? Pop an antipsychotic and start doing my makeup. An hour later, I’m bouncing around in a crop-top outside, waiting for my coke-doing friend-of-friends to hang out with me.
A girl walking by asks me if I’m okay and I nod excitedly; oh boy, I am better than okay. But just when the high of my own mental illness is hitting its peak, the meds I took kick in and I start to feel sleepy.
Seroquel, an atypical anti-psych with the proposed slogan: “You can’t have delusions if you’re unconscious.” I end up asleep back in my room, and the next day, I’m no longer crazy.
I’m that Asian girl in your lecture, the one with the bad bio-gel nails and the Muji notebook, rummaging through her purse for a pen, and asking the prof thoughtless questions that were already answered on the syllabus.
I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder at the age of 18 the spring before I came to U of T. After seven months of my first depressive episode, in which I did little besides lie in bed all day, self-harm, and watch The Office over and over again, I was hit with the reward of mania.
At first I assumed that I was just feeling happier. “Finally,” I thought. After months of chronic emptiness that didn’t seem to get better, no matter how much fruit I ate, the sudden desire to get up and do things seemed like a blessing.
Yet, my happiness came back too strong, and 48 sleepless hours later I was baking box-mix cupcakes in my grandma’s apartment at 3 am.
Where depression was one self-hating thought a minute, mania was one hundred thoughts a second. All at the same time, they spin a web of ideas and beliefs that, to this day, made me think I had reached enlightenment.
Mania is a wave. It is the world glittering, the voices in your head. It is chaos, sunshine, strawberry sundaes, buying a cellphone on impulse, and climbing on the back of a truck in traffic. It’s kissing a stranger, trying to learn Mandarin, making a birdhouse out of popsicle sticks, getting angry, getting paranoid, scaring your friends, scaring your family, scaring the strangers on the bus, and scaring yourself.
That’s the other side of the coin, isn’t it? After months of depression, the wanting to die, the trying to die, and the shame and regret of all your manic actions, there’s the psych ward with its pale blue walls, single-ply toilet paper, puzzles with missing pieces, and G-rated DVD collections.
Each day, the same watery mashed potatoes served on plastic trays. The missed exams, the emails back and forth with Accessibility Services, the profs who say they’ve “accommodated you more than enough,” and the drop in GPA.
That was the winter of my illness: watching snow fall from a hospital rec room, and my mom bringing me assignments during visiting hours.
It’s a lonely feeling, being sick. Even being manic, there’s rarely someone who’s manic with you, who sees the world the way you do. The way people look at you hurts — with fear or confusion, or like you’re stupid, like a little kid.
But the good thing about mania is, in that moment, it doesn’t have to matter.
Sure, with meds and therapy, I can be relatively healthy 80 per cent of the time, working at a lab and highlighting a textbook that I’m planning to sell, and only depressed 15 per cent of the time. Oh boy, that shit sucks, but that last five per cent is that magical mania.
You want to know why I love it, even though it’s terrifying? Because when I’m up there, when I’m so high that I’m almost a god, everything seems so clearly stupid, like a bad joke.
I don’t care if I look crazy, or my eyes are big, or I’m talking too much, because nothing I do can embarrass me anymore. Because life is this silly, happy game that we get to play over and over, and because the rules are make-believe and we can do whatever we want. And then I put on my headphones and, goddamn it, the music sounds so good.
It’s like everything is a miracle. And yeah, sure, I’m afraid of myself, but I’m too happy to care. I’m afraid of myself but I’m not afraid of anything else; I’m invincible.
Despite all this, I wouldn’t choose to have bipolar disorder. I don’t think anyone would choose to have bad things happen to them. But we’re all dealt our cards in life, and I guess these are mine.
I wish I had answers, or that there was some moral to all of this, but there’s none. This is my life, and I’m learning to be okay with it.
To everyone with a mental illness reading this right now: you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault. There might be people who don’t understand, but there are lots who do, and who will help.
It’s Halloween season! Let’s buy costumes and get drunk. You can come over to my place and watch a bad movie, or we can lie on our backs in a park and look up at Toronto’s only visible star, and maybe even make a wish on an airplane cutting across the sky. You can show me photos of your dog on your phone.
So the next time you see that Asian girl with the bad bio-gel nails and the Muji notebook, make sure to say hi. She’d really like to be your friend.