By Sharon Broadway
When I was younger, my life was easy. It’s hard to think back on any time that was more than just a temporary upset. My life carried no long-term stress.
But once I reached legal adulthood, everything changed. My life has since been marked by memories of struggle and trauma. It’s not to say I can’t remember good times in the more recent years of my life. I’ve had a lot of joy and so much to be grateful for. However, I often feel that my childhood was an incubation period, perfectly regulating my temperature and health until I was introduced to the elements of real life.
That introduction took place when I was 18 years old, a senior in high school. When crying spells became frequent and inexplicable, my body became stiff with tension and my mind became riddled with paranoia.
I was seeing a therapist, but I couldn’t explain what was happening to me and neither could anyone else. I was obsessed with getting my work done at school. I often felt that if I could just finish my work, everything would be all right. However, my efforts were in vain as I no longer had the capacity to read or write coherently due to my overpowering anxiety.
I felt uncomfortable eating around others. In any setting, be it at the dinner table with my family or the cafeteria with friends, I couldn’t relax my body enough to eat anything. So I ate in secret while hiding in the empty arts room or in a bathroom stall at school. To me, what I was doing wasn’t normal. But I was no longer in touch with what “normal” even meant.
My dad and my stepdad started to cause me great anxiety. For no clear reason, I came to distrust them and felt paranoid about what they were doing and why.
There were several days when I left school sobbing and, no matter who asked me, I could not answer that one simple question, “What’s wrong?”
The peak of my illness was my psychotic break. I went to bed one night with incredible insomnia. I stayed awake the whole night, lying in my bed, staring at the darkness above me, and speaking to the voices in my head.
I truly believed that I was communicating to my friends, family and teachers through my mind. I was apologizing to them all for how I believed I had wronged them, for the difficulties I’d brought upon the family and for the homework I didn’t complete. They heard my apologies and accepted them. I imagined that my twin sister stood outside my door that night, and I apologized to her through my mind too. One by one they forgave me, my spirit lifted, and my body relaxed.
My alarm rang, I lifted myself out of bed and made my way to school. I was elated. I was enlightened. I was euphoric. Every class I entered, my teachers continued to converse with me through my mind. I detailed my past, my difficulties with school and my stresses at home. My math teacher was sympathetic and my Spanish teacher relayed her belief that God had touched me.
My friends thought I was acting weird and spacey, as it appeared to the outside viewer. When they asked if I was okay, I responded, “I feel great,” with such conviction that they were taken aback.
I carried on like that until the final period of the day when I approached my English teacher and told her that I was hypnotized. She brought me into the hallway and asked me what I was talking about. To me, it was quite logical. There had been a hypnotist show a week or so earlier and I had been a participant. Getting hypnotized had been a magical, even euphoric experience for me. Now, having spent this entire day feeling elated and the previous night and day confessing my wrongdoings and apologizing to others, I decided that I was hypnotized to tell the truth. I could not lie.
I remember my sister taking me out of class down to the nurse’s office as directed by my teacher. I told her some of my theories: that I was hypnotized and that I had spoken to her last night through my mind. With these theories, I could finally express myself in a way that made perfect sense to me. The problem was that they didn’t make sense to anyone else.
I woke up the next day to go to school. My mom told me that I wasn’t well and wouldn’t be going to school that day. I promptly disagreed. I was feeling better than ever. I reassured her saying, “I’m fine. I just need to go to school.” So I walked there, and in her car, she followed behind me.
At school, I was immediately called into the office, where my mom and dad were waiting to talk to me. I was sobbing to my teacher saying, “I just want to do my work. Why can’t I be in school?” I’ll never forget the looks on my parents’ faces as I cried to them in the school’s office. I confessed to them things I thought they might be mad at me for, like drinking, sneaking out and not doing my school work. I assumed their reactions of upset and sadness had to do with disappointment. Little did I know it had to do with watching their daughter’s sanity unravel at the seams.
The bell rang, and I insisted that I walk home by myself. But my mom followed me. She was there walking ten feet behind me as I told her she couldn’t come any closer. Looking back now, my mom was always behind me through all the highs and all the lows. Even in times when I couldn’t recognize it.
Upon my arrival home, I asked my sister point blank, “Do you think I’m crazy?” She avoided eye contact and responded with a quiet, “No.”
Shortly thereafter I went for a “walk” down the street in which I tried to run away. In his car, my dad caught up to me lying down on the sidewalk. He asked me what was wrong and I said I needed a hug. He hugged me. I pulled away and told him, “No, you need to hug me when the wind blows.” My dad cried. The police arrived.
My dad brought me home. I locked my door, threats were made, accusations were yelled, tears were shed. Finally, I was strapped into a gurney, packed up in an ambulance and shipped off to the hospital. It was scary. It was humiliating. It was raw.
I spent the next two weeks in outpatient care and the following two months in the McLean-Franciscan inpatient program.
Nothing in my life compares to my time in the hospital. It was like floating through reality in a dreamlike state. Like when you’re on a train, staring out of a window, lost in thought. Before you know it, you’ve passed miles of land and haven’t seen a single thing in front of you.
My theories were abundant and delusional: if you speak to me in my left ear you are telling the truth, in my right ear you must be lying to me. Any changes in the lights played a part in healing me. Who were these doctors to tell me that some tiny pills were helping me? Any progress I made must be a result of the magical sounds or lights. I could not tell you how. I could not tell you why. But I was sure of it. Everything I heard had double meaning, everything I saw had a dual significance and everything I experienced was part of my healing. I lived my life in an alternate reality for two and a half months.
For years after, I viewed those months as time cut from my life, thrown into an inaccessible abyss. A friend of mine explained it saying, “For your whole life you’ve been yourself, and then you changed and weren’t you, and now you’re back to being yourself again.”
That’s how I came to view it. It’s not that this part of my life does not count; it’s just that my bipolar is not me. It is a part of me, but it is not who I am.
This was my reality from a time in which I was ungrounded and out of touch with everyone else’s reality. You may wonder if after all this I’d like to return to my incubation period, when worries were few and far between. However, I would not. To never have lived the struggles I’ve endured would be to erase who I am today. And I love who I have become.
Sharon Broadway teaches elementary school and lives in California.
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