On a yucky gray, typical Pittsburgh afternoon, I drove down Halket Street towards Forbes Avenue and the Oxford Building where I was scheduled for an appointment. I had cried most of the way, and I called my sister and a friend for moral support. I needed it. The way became more depressing as I drove, and it wasn’t in my imagination. The sidewalk in front of the ancient apartments on the University-side of Halket Street had been torn up and was being relaid. Construction tape and netting intruded into the right lane of traffic, narrowing a road which was already inadequate to accommodate the amount of traffic that traveled to and fro on it. Patients from Magee Womens Hospital, employees of UPMC, and students from the University of Pittsburgh drifted in and out of traffic with little regard to the fact that cars usually win in one-on-one matchups with people. I longed to pull into a parking lot and turn around. I might have if they weren’t all under construction.
A year before, I had begun to consciously record when my moods hit and recognize how I controlled them. I was impressed with my abilities to manage myself, and I thought I could continue to do it alone. This spring, I caught myself self-medicating with alcohol. This summer away from home, I caught myself, despite all of my preventive measures, formulating a plan to poison myself on a sunny afternoon, having completely forgotten that my family existed. Two weeks later, I determined to put the experience on paper as a lesson to my children. Two weeks after my return home, I shared that story with a friend. Fourteen days later, I left a message asking for an appointment. One month after that, desperate because I was headed for one of those lows, I finally found a place that would take me.
Turning right on Forbes, I pulled into the left lane and passed perhaps the most run-down section of Forbes Avenue: an ancient Arby’s which seems perpetually filthy and a Marathon gas station which never seems to have any cars at the pumps. I waited for the pedestrians in the crosswalk before easing my car left onto McKee and then immediately right into the dingy garage underneath 3501 Forbes Avenue. I stopped the car in front of the valet station, and the valet held out his hand for the keys. I didn’t want to hand them over. I briefly considered crawling back into the car and reversing right out of there. I even pictured it in my mind and decided I’d probably break an axle on the drop from the curb to the street. Instead, I put the keys in the valet’s hand and climbed the ramp into the lobby of the building. Except for the fact that one elevator was under construction, the lobby showed signs of being hospitable. Anonymous waiting bystanders sat patiently on cushioned benches along the garage wall, and the sun streamed in through the windows fronting Forbes Avenue. I joined a small crowd clustered in front of the two working elevators. I hate being in elevators even one second longer than I have to, but when I climbed into the elevator that day and pressed the three, I almost wished it might get stuck on two.
My feet would have preferred to stay on the elevator, and it took force of will to push one in front of the other and toward the dingy gray door of the clinic. Unlike the spacious lobby, the third floor seemed to telescope with each turn leading to a narrower hallway of dead end. The white walls had long ago ceased to be white and now took on the earthy tone of handprints from years of unknown passersby. Reminding myself with effort to breathe slowly, I opened the door and went inside. The receptionist smiled at me and handed me paperwork. I turned to sit down in one of the padded metal chairs in the waiting room. Two women at separate ends of the room cried silently. The man at one end held his head between his knees. The woman across from me spoke animatedly to the empty chair next to her. My whole face tightened and the space behind my nose grew hot as if I might cry. Was this really necessary? Did I really need to go?
My chest seized up and my lips threatened not to work. The thought of confessing that I needed something more than willpower to fight the coming darkness terrified and angered me. Couldn’t I do anything I wanted? Wasn’t I capable of conquering all things with ambition (if you listened to some) and through Christ (if you listened to others)? Ah, but there’s the rub. Sometimes, conquering means doing it all yourself. Sometimes it means asking for help. I glanced at the people sitting there. If they could do this, surely I could too. But this train of logic certainty didn’t keep me from considering, if only for a moment, running out of the waiting room when they called my name.
A therapist in street clothes ushered me into a dark narrow room where he sat in a swiveling desk chair that didn’t have enough space to allow an entire rotation without hitting either the desk or the book case. Sitting in a chair that face the bookshelf (there wasn’t enough room to face the therapist), I forced myself to repeat my story for a man who didn’t completely look at me, didn’t speak, and whom I didn’t completely trust. To be honest, I felt more like I was repeating my story to David Burns’ Feeling Good and The Bhagavad-Gita As it Is. I grudgingly told about my six week cycles, their predictability, their strength, and my enormous frustration that I, who plan and control every aspect of my life to the degree that some friends call me a contingency-contingency planner, had to sit before a stranger and recount the aspects of my mood that I couldn’t control. I confessed that I had moments of hopelessness when I forgot everyone in my life and contemplated throwing it all away. I explained that I knew I was loved, but it wasn’t enough. Even as I admitted these faults, most of me wanted to turn around and succumb to the low moments rather than bring them out into the open. I never wanted to come here.
But I went anyway.
I went because the highs are so high that my family flees from me, because with their residual anxious edge they were threatening to take my drinking from social and relaxing in function to escape. I went because the lows are so low that I was afraid that someday I wouldn’t be able to find my way up again.
But more importantly, I went because I am more than the highs and the lows. Yes, I am the highs and the lows, too, but I refuse to let them eclipse the rest of me: the mother, the wife, the friend, the artist, the writer, the thinker, the very slow runner, the terrible parker, the loud but slightly off-key singer, the lover of laughter, and the addict of a good story. I went because I am more than bipolar and because I love that part that is more.
The medication began to help immediately, and that made me angry because it showed that I really couldn’t just control everything with sheer willpower. And it made me tired because I could suddenly deal with issues I hadn’t dealt with before. They were new. I wasn’t healed, cured, or without any symptom, but I could manage. I was better in the form that I was not as bad. Instead of ignoring my children, I could listen. And what I heard broke my heart.
“Mommy, don’t you have time to play today?”
“Mommy, don’t you think you worry about this a little two much?”
“Mommy, can I just have a hug?”
And now I could do those things. They exhaust me, but I do them. And I was astonished by the change. My family wants to be close to me! They ask for and enjoy my attention. My friends enjoy being with me. They have as much fun as I have. Maybe people have always been this way, but when my world was so filled with worry, when emotions had to be guarded against because they burn and threaten to sink me completely, I had never felt, never let myself feel, love and companionship before. There was always a barrier, always safety-glass.
But a few weeks after I began the medication, something began to change. Instead of knowing I was loved, I began to feel something—a strange tightening in my chest, a lift of the shoulders, a pricking in the corners of my eyes, a closing throat, a burning sensation high in my nose. At first these sensations didn’t make sense. Should I cry because the grass is green, too green, or the sky is blue, too, too blue? Gradually the feelings began to separate. Tears didn’t come all the time any more. But the lift of the shoulders happened more often, and when my niece blocked the door on my visit and cried, “No, Auntie Beth, stay!” I felt the warmth spread in my chest and a smile that started from the catch in my throat and not the prefrontal cortex of my brain spread across my lips.
I didn’t know I was loved; I felt I was loved. And I am committed to being that loved one, returning that affection. I am more than bipolar disorder; I am me.