By Lakey Goff Sanford
The Following is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, “Dollface: Memoir of a Bipolar Girl” coming September 2016
“I felt wise and cynical as all hell.”
-Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar-
Although I’ve told you some things, I haven’t told you everything. Did I romanticize the manic phases of Bipolar? Did I make it seem as though without mania there is no creativity? Did I give you a clear understanding that if you think you suffer from the mental illness of Bipolar or if you have already been diagnosed, it is your responsibility, not anyone else’s to get psychiatric help and to research the benefits and side affects of medication that is prescribed to you by your doctor?
It has been my experience that the maintenance of the symptoms of Bipolar is a full time job and one can never be too vigilant in monitoring the cyclical nature of this mental illness. With Bipolar you are never restored to your right mind, instead the symptoms are managed and there are occasional periods of stability. My pattern throughout the years has been a chemically imbalanced crisis caused by lowering my meds or getting off them completely, hospitalization, increased meds, stability and fewer symptoms of the illness, feeling better but creatively stifled then lowering my meds again in order to do creative work as an artist. Much to my dismay, the doctors have never told me that they had misdiagnosed me as Bipolar. Every few years I put in a request to retake the MMPI (a mood disorder assessment test).
If I have been felling well in my mind and stable in my life, I began to wonder if perhaps I was misdiagnosed and that my Bipolar behavior was solely a result of my early drug and alcohol abuse. The thought of the vigilance it takes to monitor the symptoms of this illness is exhausting. Blood being drawn every few months to check my lithium levels to make sure they are not toxic levels that could poison me. Understanding that if I were to live overseas (which I intend to do one day), I must find a way to get the proper medication or within a matter of 2 to 3 days I will begin to psychologically unravel, my thoughts spun into delusions.
The stigma of mental illness is real. Very few want to hear that you suffer from the illness of Bipolar. It is upsetting and uncomfortable to talk about. It is often misunderstood and at times people will treat you as if you have brought this illness upon yourself. Even in the rooms of recovery which are rooms of honesty and openness I have found it is best not to mention mental illness. It is my experience that the illness of Bipolar is to be treated separately from alcoholism and addiction. It is true that individuals suffering with Bipolar often use drugs and alcohol to self medicate the symptoms, but mental illness cannot be cured with the twelve steps. A Bipolar diagnosis requires medication.
Did I make it clear that if you are Bipolar, your best intentions will be misunderstood by society, your grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, friends and employees? Bipolar is an undesirable diagnosis that at some stage of the illness always leads to bad choices either through the reckless overconfidence of mania or the suicide attempts of depression. If they are very religious, the ones you love the most will out of ignorance believe that you are a sinful person with no morals and that you can make the symptoms disappear if only you repented and chose to follow God. Others choose to believe that your suicide attempts are nothing more than a cry for attention. If they are not properly educated on the illness of Bipolar they will not believe that what’s causing the bouts of despair and obsessive thoughts of dying is actually a real chemical imbalance caused by a lack of serotonin in the brain. Those you hold dearest might turn against you because in their perception you are taking all the attention. They may think that your mental illness is a farce and that you are a liar when you tell them you have a disease of the mind.
Despite the fragility of your relationships there is nothing more important than developing a strong, honest relationship with your psychiatrist so that you can be properly medicated. Do not lie to your psychiatrist about your symptoms; you are only putting yourself and others in harms way by being improperly treated. The mental illness of Bipolar is ruthless. Untreated, it will almost always eventually result in suicide. The lifelong balancing act is to get your meds high enough so that your symptoms are treated yet low enough so that you can still be creative and brilliant. Finding that balance is your job along with the guidance of your psychiatrist. No one else’s. Everyone will have an opinion about what medication you should take or how much. Do not listen to them. Learn to monitor your moods. Become an expert on what your triggers are.
The beauty of Bipolar for me has been epic night visions, heightened senses, strong intuition and the recognizing the interconnectedness of all things. In my break through manic phases I have created amazing pieces of art and writing. I have worked hard and persistently for days with a perpetually flowing fountain of ideas. I have found an inner confidence that pushed me to strive beyond the mediocre. Although the moments of brilliance are fleeting and dangerous with the inevitable down swing of depression, it has at times been an amazing creative experience. Before I was medicated I slept in the muddy ditches of cemeteries, alone at midnight with a belly full of opiates, tried to hurl myself from hotel windows, gashed my wrists and let others cut me into a bloody pulp, have had my stomach pumped with the death soot smear of charcoal, and repeat. Yet still I have lived. The angels have picked the worms off me and helped me throw up the pills. I have lived to tell you the story of Dollface so that you will know you do not suffer alone. Mental illness can be managed with the proper medication, psychotherapy and routine. Your brilliance will shine when you are stabilized and death will stop nipping at your heels. Your light might shine dim at first and you may have to work harder to access your creativity, but your relationships will flourish. Untreated bipolar leads only to ruin and despair.