Wednesday, May 14, 2014

So Your Brain Wants You Dead -- A Personal Essay

It starts by feeling like you've done something horrible, something unthinkably awful -- like you've just told your mom you hopes she dies, and then she does. 

Professionals have trained me to assess this feeling with an objective evaluation, as if I'm an outside observer of my own brain. I'm supposed to ask myself, "What is the source of this feeling? Does it have a source? Is that source (or non-source) justified in provoking this feeling? Do I truly want to die, or is that just a primeval, fight-or-flight demon screaming between my eyes and vomiting fire into my chest?"

Sometimes this approach is effective. sometimes it fails. And when it fails, I hide. I hide in the bathroom of my office. I hide under the covers of my bed at home. I hide wherever witnesses are absent and my brain is omnipresent. I want someone to be there, but frankly, I don't trust many people to absurd that level of vulnerability gracefully. It's a lonely feeling.

That's when it's internal. 

Then there's the external. From a clinical perspective, you could call it "social". It usually happens when I'm around a boy I like, or when I'm around, say, the owners of Crest Financial Services. In particular, this happens when I'm  sitting a few feet from them in a small office listening to where the company is going, etc. and I am mentally preparing myself to offer up my suggestions - a new policy, or a marketing idea. 

I start to shake. Physically, visibly shake. I'm holding my notebook to my chest tightly to ensure my shaking would not be visible. As I listen to the successful men I look up to speak about net growth and projections, I can't move my face. If I try to smile or open my mouth, my lips start to quiver and my jaw shivers, as if I'm sitting naked in a meat locker.

Sitting in this room right now, I am a sudden loud noise away from screaming very loudly and fainting. 

And after each such encounter, as I sit in the break room attempting to insert a gluten-free sandwich into my numb mouth with wobbly hands attached to rubber arms, I can't help but ask myself: Is this, this learning and growing, is it the best thing for me right now, for someone with crippling social anxiety and bipolar disorder? 

So, you want work for a growing finance company...

When I first started at Crest as an underwriter a year ago, I overwhelmed my boyfriend at the time with all the insecurities that plagued me at my new job. He was supportive, but after hearing me express dread about nearly every aspect of the job I would start the next day, he wavered. 

"I think you have to ask yourself," he said, "is this the right job for you?"

That's a fair question. 

That will always be a fair question, because it's a very, very tough just for me times. Sometimes, being where I am, doing what I am doing, is a little like wearing a wool sweater, when you're allergic to wool. But, even when my mental illness is at its worst, I always want to feel useful. So much of the pain of mental illness derives from that feeling that you have nothing to offer anyone -- that with your illness, you're a burden to everyone around you. 

So, what is bipolar disorder? Here's the gist of it: Sometimes you're too high, sometimes you're too low -- and in either case , you could end up hurt or dead. But by even attempting to define bipolar disorder, I risk doing a disservice to anyone living with the disease. It is a very personal disease, and those diagnosed (about 3 percent of all people) have widely varying experiences. Bipolar disorder is not diagnosed lightly, and many of those diagnosed have suffered more than they could ever articulate. If you meet someone who's been touched by Bipolar disorder or any mental illness, just remember this: You're lucky they;re still there to meet you. 

I was diagnosed with social-anxiety disorder at the same time I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Think of bipolar as the main course and social anxiety as the Sriacha hot sauce distributed liberally throughout. Sometimes, all I can taste is the Sriacha. 

Thing is, this stuff doesn't go away. There is no cure. I can't pick myself up by the bootstraps. There will be days when I'm simply not the person that I want to be. While I don't want to make excuses for that, perhaps it would be fair to my co-workers if I at least gave them an explanation. On bad days, I could go home and bitterly stew over being misunderstood -- or I could at least have the assurance that I've allowed my coworkers (and really, all the people in my life) some chance to understand. Most people want to understand stuff anyways. So let me explain. 

So you've always been like this...

I was a stubborn, moody little brat when I was a kid. 

As a toddler, I was prone to bouts of extreme irritability. To vent my frustrations, I would often bite myself on my arms and legs, hard. I spent most of my early childhood with half moon-shaped bite marks all over my body. There was no reason for it, if you're wondering. I just didn't have the capacity to stop myself. 

By the time I was a teenager, a dark storm could had settled over my head. Most of the time, it was the usual angst you'd expect from a moody teenager. Other times, it was deeper than that. Quietly, I questioned the point of living. I saw no meaning in my day-to-day life, and it didn't seem like it was going to get better when I got older. As morbid as that sounds, most people probably would've witnessed a well-adjusted, socially adept young woman. I was an active participant in classes. I had people around me who called me a friend. I seemed to be "normal" 

But here's what's also true: I was in 2 abusive relationships, and I allowed myself to be used. I never had more than a few close friends at a time, and most of my friendships were lucky to last longer than a year. My younger siblings feared me and my irrational mood swings. For every great height, there was a great crash. Nothing was constant. I starting making a habit of mitigating my pain or bottling it up -- after all, I couldn't bite my arms anymore. 

So it's officially offensive to call you "crazy"...

When I first went to college, I suffered the worst depression of my life up to that point. I was constantly out of energy and everything I did seemed purposeless. Some might chalk it up to the freshman blues, but the feeling persisted for months -- and even into the summer. 

I went to my family doctor, who prescribed me Lexapro, a fairly common antidepressant. After about a month, I went back for a checkup. 

"How do you feel?" he asked. 
"About the same," I answered. 

So he doubled my dose. 

That worked for about a year and a half. I still had bouts of loneliness and despair, but they were muted. I thought persistent sadness was pretty normal. 

I felt most pain in those times after elation. When you get up high, you have to come back down, and I hated coming back down. So my solution was to stop getting up high. 

Most people in the self-discovery stages of bipolar disorder would probably try to stay high by engaging in increasingly risky behavior. Call it self-control, call it martyrdom, call it spending my college years in a sheltered home with my parents; my journey to conquering my bipolar is mostly landscaped with staying at home and avoiding the unpredictability of humans. 

So you hate everyone as much as you hate yourself...

A lot has happened to me since I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. There's been a lot pain -- some mental and emotional, some self-inflicted. I've tried to kill myself twice. I've been hospitalized, and I've been treated with electroshock therapy. Sometimes, people ask me to recount some of the more outrageous, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-esque details formative to me as a patient of mental illness. I;d love to talk about it too. I wish I could wear every horrific incident as a merit badge on a Boy Scout uniform. But I didn't write this piece to win you over with the shock-and-awe of my cranial diseases. If you knew and understood absolutely everything I've been through since I was diagnosed--since college, since high school, since I was a toddler-- there wouldn't be much to explain. Everyone want to be understood. Realizing that no one will ever fully understand what I had been through was one of the hardest -- and most important realizations -- I ever made. 

I made that realization at that desperate moment in life, at the tail-end of my most recent shock-and-awe era. I was living in my parents' basement, unemployed, unmotivated, 2 semesters away from being done with school, but no where near ready to go back to school and pissed off at humanity for not having a whole lot of sympathy for my invisible problems. After pushing my way through every episode of Battlestar Galactica, I had come to recognize that bitterness had gotten me no closer to a new life. 

I re-enrolled in school, transferred up to the University of Utah and got a job. My first ever, real life, grown up, big girl job. I was going to be working for a growing company, making more than minimum wage and doing what I thought I loved: analysis and customer service. 

I have now been here for a year, and I can honestly say the past year has been nothing as I would have expected, for 2 reasons. First, I never thought I would still be here. I had never had a job for longer than a few months, and who would have thought that me, of all people, would find that their first job was the job they loved?
Second, I found out that I really hate analysis and customer service. 

Few people at Crest know about my mental illness. No one knows the extent to which I am affected on a day-to-day basis. Of all the things I do, taking phone calls is the hardest, especially in terms of anxiety-inducing tasks. My first call was a simple, 3 minute phone call, but I only took 15 seconds of oxygen with me to work that day. Put more bluntly, I couldn't breathe. I had a panic attack in the middle of a call with a random stranger in some po-dunk town in Texas. Seeing as I had talked on the phone before, and that I knew the answers to the questions he asked, I thought it would be a cakewalk. What I failed to remember is that anxiety just kind of does whatever it wants to, whenever it wants, and there is no prevention mechanism for that. 

Bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder bring separate challenges to my job, but neither seems advantageous. 

Being bipolar, the biggest obstacle is perhaps more for my co-workers, who don't know which distinct variety of Meghan Carpenter they may be getting on any given day -- or hour. At one point during the day, I might be incredibly cheerful and energetic, holding conversations with people until no one is talking back. But maybe a few hours later, I may be quick to snap at everyone and paranoid about the intentions of my colleagues. Sometimes I become completely sapped of energy, and I conserve to the point of simply performing the minimal requirements of my job. 

While bipolar disorder feels like something that would affect the people around me more, anxiety disorder seems more like an internal nuisance. When I'm at the office, it can creep up into my limbs and try to trap my heart, and I have to get up and pace around to shake it off. 

So you think you know who I am...

Since I started working on this piece, many people have lauded me for having the courage to tell my story. I'm never good with compliments, but I am always appreciative regardless. Still, I have to admit that I don't feel courageous. I'm rather audaciously assuming that my life story will be interesting to everyone who reads it and that it is courageous enough to convince a panel of readers that I deserve what someone else won't receive. That doesn't sound like courage to me. 

But how about this for courage: How many people do you know for a fact fight mental illness at your workplace? If you're struggling to think of anyone, then you're either self-employed, or you live in a culture that still isn't totally comfortable acknowledging one of the more debilitating sets of ailments imaginable. Because here's the simple truth: There's next to no chance that you won't interact with someone touched by mental illness today. 

Think about that the next time you leave your house. Think about that when you go to the grocery store and someone gives you a dirty look in the cereal aisle. Think about all the times when you interact with another human being, and you're perplexed by someone's rudeness or despondence or uncomfortable elation. 

Understanding mental illness is not about saying the right things or having the most progressive, enlightened perspective informed by a cutting-edge blog. Understanding mental illness is about the most basic principle of human dignity: kindness. Be kind, assume nothing and know that the guy you sit next to at the office might be trying to decide whether to answer all of his e-mails or go cry in the bathroom. Your own brother or sister or mother or father could have self-inflicted scars that they're hiding, even from the people that would love them no matter what. Anyone you bump into on the street could have just conducted a failed suicide attempt -- an attempt they'll never tell anyone about. 

And a seemingly successful 19 year old mother, sitting in a room of successful businessmen, talking about something mundane, could have been very close to taking her own life a few years ago. 

My name's Meghan. It's nice to meet you.