I have been on medication for about 10 years. I have been on the right medication for the last few years. The medication moderates the highs and lows of my bipolar disorder and brings them a bit closer to the baseline of a healthy person. For me, the easier part to manage is the mania. Mania is a state characterized by an extremely elevated mood and often risky and reckless behaviour. When I am manic I feel invincible. I also feel extremely productive; my mind races, I get a million thoughts per second and I want to take on every project in the world. My medication keeps that in check and stops the highs from soaring too high. The depression however, is harder to handle. When the depression hits, it does so hard and sinks me into a hole that is hard to crawl out of. The medication mitigates these symptoms somewhat but has never been able to manage the depression the way it dampens the mania.
When my lows are still so debilitating, I often wonder about the highs. I look back on the times I experienced mania or hypomania and when I felt like I owned the world. I rode an ATV around Mykonos once, my hair free in the wind and my iPod blaring as whitewashed and blue-trimmed towns blurred by. I turned a corner and found myself at the top of a cliff watching the horizon turn a soft orangey pink and the sun set into the deep turquoise of the Mediterranean. I stopped. I stood on my ATV, turning the music even louder. I could have jumped off the edge of that cliff. I wanted to breathe in the pinks and oranges and smoke out every bad thought I'd ever had with these soft bright colours. In that moment I was truly limitless, invulnerable. I laughed and reached up to the sky. I could do anything. I was everything I had ever wanted to be. I needed no one. “This isn’t real.” A small part of me knew it but I stared as if I would never have the chance to gaze upon a sunset again, as if I would never be this complete again.
When I felt that feeling, people saw it. They felt it. They enjoyed it. People used to tell me I was too young, too smart, too beautiful to be so sad. They refused to acknowledge the illness. “Be the outgoing, fun and bright girl we know and love,” they’d say, not recognizing the other side of the same coin. They loved to see me shine forgetting that a single spark can burn the whole city down. The medication now keeps the spark in check and sometimes I miss it like an old friend. Sometimes I get glimpses of it and I wonder if maybe that’s the real me.When the depression hits it’s hard not to crave the mania. I remember the little pill in the box marked Wednesday that I took this morning. I remember the chemical tethers pulling down on my highs and wonder what it would be like to forget it for a few days.
Before the medication, I understood most people’s lives to be a somewhat controlled oscillation between sadness and happiness. Both are to be expected and both are manageable. People experience sadness and happiness in a way that makes sense but these words felt meaningless to me. Living un-medicated with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, I lived on a greater scale, a spectrum of extremes. They were each an end of an always-swaying pendulum. Each end of the spectrum became the only thing I experienced, all I could possibly comprehend and all I remembered. Happiness made me feel like I would never know depression again, like I was no longer broken and as long as I chose to feel this way everything could stay perfect. That happiness was of a magnitude that was impossible not to crave but the pain and the sadness could shatter it in a moment and all of a sudden I was inviting death in again. All of a sudden there was no end to the darkness, no solution, and I forgot what it felt like to feel joy or even anything neutral. I did not think neutral was something I intrinsically understood. I just knew pain; these excruciatingly beautiful moments that felt like the world would never be this perfect again, and dull, aching, drowning darkness. The pain could not be endured without those moments of inescapable joy and that joy required me to give so wholly of myself that pain was inevitable. The highest highs and the lowest lows; yet they were so similar.
Sometimes I wonder who I am without those extremes. If one side of the pendulum is removed, am I the whole of who I am anymore?
I wonder about the moments I used to hold onto. The moments that made the depression worthwhile, if that’s possible. Now that the mania and hypomania are dampened, I sometimes wonder if a part of me is missing, if the “real” me that drew everyone in is missing. But I know the dangers of mania, I know it’s not real, I know it’s not healthy. I have to trust that true happiness can come, one not informed by a chemical imbalance, and I can find moments that are sustainable and healthy. I have to trust that people see me for the healthy truth, without the extremes, and are still compelled by who I am and what I have to say.