Bipolar, Lithium, Suicide and The Lost Years of My Life

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By Jason Hill

You enter college full-time and work in a bank for thirty-five to forty hours per week. You impose an exacting regimen on yourself, and people say you’re the most disciplined person they know. You write tons of newspaper editorials and make around $1,000 from your writing in one year. You maintain an A+ average, graduate magna cum laude and take off a year to write a novel. You’re ruthless with yourself when the rejections come in. For every rejection you receive, you send out thirty more submissions. You decide to get an agent. That proves just as difficult as finding a publisher. You snag one after 250 rejections.

Graduate school is tough, but in your third week you’ve already decided on a dissertation topic. You identify the month and date of your graduation in five years time.

It all comes through as you planned. You graduate four and a half years later with a Ph.D in philosophy. It hasn’t all been easy. You’ve sometimes been weighted down by mood swings. You’ve fallen in love, fallen out of love, and left your partner for another person. But your creativity has never left you. You write your dissertation in little over a year, and you get a good teaching position.

Reality is there for you to shape it.

You write and publish your first book with a good publisher in nineteen months. You read like a book addict. You are always writing. Ideas compete among themselves and all come crashing in your head, leaving you in a state of heightened bliss—your hand cannot keep pace with the speed at which your thoughts and ideas are targeting and then shattering you. You feel like a god.

You give numerous talks in Europe and the United States and you feel more at home in your adopted country.

Things are illuminated. Then, life comes crashing down.

You collapse in your bath tub and doctors say it’s anxiety. But you sense it’s more than that. During the next couple of years you carry a constant Death Baby inside of you, one that dreams of and yearns for death. It feels like you’re being eaten from the inside by this creature. But still, you write. Poetry comes flowing out of you like mineral water from hidden rocks. You’ll spend the next couple of years revising each poem for a minimum of two years. Death Baby grows and you feed him little pills that satisfy him for a while. For one year it feels like you are drowning, but the poems just come pouring out. In spite of it all, you teach, think and write and finish a new book.

Suicide seems like a good thing to think about. Suicide is calming. You empty a bottle of pills in your hand one night and look at them for an hour. You contemplate them like little religious icons. Religious icons, though, belong on a shelf. You put them back in the bottle and line them up with your other bottled icons. They make a shrine you neurotically fetishize.

Suicide seems like a real possibility. You begin to think about it constantly. The pain is unbearable. You think: how to do it? One day to ease the pain you take a lot of pills. At 2a.m you still can’t sleep. You feed yourself more Xanax tablets. Beginning from the morning you end up having taken twelve tablets by 2:30 a.m. You slip in and out of consciousness and then something shifts. You enter the dark hour, a period where it feels like you’re slipping over to the other side. You don some clothes and somehow walk to the hospital. You are interred in the psychiatric ward for four days. Bedlam is not glamorous. You wonder which way is home.

Life is still on your side.

Bipolar is the most lethal of all mental illnesses. It accounts for more suicides than the other illnesses and can catapult a person into the stratospheres of euphoria and then down into the darkest doldrums of depression and despair. When in the hypomanic phase one can feel powerful, be extremely creative. You hear this as a diagnosis is rattled off to you. It makes sense, you think. And you begin to feel comforted. You are prescribed Seroquel and Abilify and you begin to move once again in the world. The poems keep coming, the sequel to your first book progresses and you feel elation. Depression comes but it does not last for very long. Then you begin to sink, deep, deep. You’re drowning and you can’t breathe and the vortex keeps swirling. When you get out, you spend a few months staggering through life, often pacing the floors like a caged jaguar with too much energy.

Life is tired. Life becomes suspended. Life needs a break—from You!

Lithium Carbonate—a salt—is used to treat, among other things, bipolar disorder. You are hopeful. You feel relieved; finally something to quiet the Death Baby. Then it starts. The world becomes flat. You feel flat. You cannot feel. You are numb. Your confidence is now erased from your soul. You cannot write. Words just won’t come. Verbal creativity—once a constitutive feature of your identity—is gone. You stare at the screen; there are no words to fill even a quarter of it. In one year there have been no new poems, although, thank God, you got one published in a good literary journal. All inspiration has gone; the vision behind the work is a blur, like the streaked makeup of an aging harridan. You are a harridan. Making love becomes a chore. The libido is a strange capacity you used to have but can’t remember what it feels like. You cannot read. Dullness descends like some presage of gloom every time you attempt to tackle a book. Your life was built around reading. That life is gone. Your hand shakes constantly—the tremors—the Lithiumians call it. Your face breaks out in acne and your back pushes out the assaults of this determined drug. You wait for the Second Coming, and it never comes.

Months pass and you begin to feel a shift. Your friend tells you to start blogging and you balk at the idea. Blogs are for people who contaminate language. He persists and tells you to try Open Salon. You begin and are hooked. Your creativity is improving. You begin to write; even a short story about your father’s mental illness. You take a trip to teach a few seminars and ideas came pouring out—but just a few. You return and go to a conference and ideas come pouring out—a bit more. You return to your book. Now that’s a miracle right there! You walk to the bookstore and buy a few books. In one sitting you read eighty-seven pages. You begin to read The New Yorker cover to cover. Reading is a joy once more.

It is October. It’s sunny and unbelievably warm for New York. You take a walk and feel your heart pounding; but it is not from anxiety. It is from excitement. There has been a restoration. You skip along happily. You begin to wonder if it’s legal to skip and to be happy. You walk aimlessly entering a space that needs no name and no validation. You re-enter life not as it ought to be, but as it is and always has been—waiting for you. Patiently. Lovingly. You think: I shall rise. I simply have to rise!

This is my story.

And this is my life.