I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder somewhere around the age of twenty one or twenty two. Those years are mostly a big blur.
There was a Help Wanted sign on the door of a mostly vegetarian restaurant. They served tofu and buffalo meat. I went in and told the owner that I really needed a job waitressing. She really needed a cook. Hers was about to walk out the door and she was desperate. Good thing for desperate. I barely ate food, let alone cooked it. Any money I had was for beer and cigarettes and rarely was there any left to eat. But, she asked me if I knew how to boil water, I said yes and she hired me. The guy I was replacing had about a week to train me and he taught me the basics. Lunch shift: scream, curse, and bang pots and pans until the waiters pick up the food. When the orders stop coming in go into the back, open the door and smoke a joint. Dinner shift: go back in and do it all over. Then clean up and get drunk.
I moved into a low rent rooming house behind the restaurant. This was convenient because I had a car but I abandoned it in a random person’s driveway. I had no money to pay for insurance and I was too depressed to drive. Right before I got the job my estranged mother hit a tree drunk driving. She was in a coma. They had to cut off two of her fingers due to loss of blood and several of her organs were damaged. We hadn’t talked in years. I hated her and she was dying.
Across the street from the rooming house was the Cadillac Hotel, also known as the the crack hotel. There was a bar on the first floor that I would stumble into for a 75 cent beer when I couldn’t afford a drink at the bars where the normal people went. I lived on pot, booze and cigarettes, and the occasional meal which I made in the kitchen of the restaurant, usually at two in the morning after leaving the bar. I was drunk, stoned and emotionally unstable but I somehow made it to work everyday. I had been stoned consistently since I was thirteen so I never saw being high as an issue at work. Heck, the boss hired me high. I had to be high to get out of bed and face the world.
A few years earlier, at eighteen, I was living in a room in the basement of my friend’s father’s house. My friend was away at college. But I wasn’t. I was waitressing at a coffee shop and living a miserable existence. Another friend of mine was still in high school. She would come by the house everyday on her lunch break and follow a daily routine: park the car, knock on the basement window to loosen the grip of my hibernation, let herself in, come down to the basement, turn on a Fiona Apple CD, light a candle and some incense, pack the bong, and kneel next to my bed. “hey, HEY, it’s 1pm, it’s time to wake up!” I don’t need to open my mouth. I am already screaming inside. Give me that bong before I rip your head off. I sit up, she feeds me the bong. Ok. That’s better. You can do this. You can get through this day.
Three years passed. It’s a different shitty rented room and another dead end job. Not much had changed. I may have been a mess but I was still alive. To me that meant I was doing ok. I thought I was keeping up appearances. One day, Pat, the woman that did the books at the restaurant told me that she had a friend that was a therapist at a local clinic. She thought I should talk to her. She could help me. I don’t know what made Pat think that I needed help. Perhaps it was letting one of the waitresses shave my head during a lull on the lunch shift. I went from Julia Roberts to Sinead O’Connor while microwaving veggie lasagna. Either that or Pat caught a whiff of my gin sweat perfume. I was in bad shape. I had no money and a major drug and alcohol problem; the problem being that I didn’t have enough money to get enough of it. Not to mention a pretty huge death wish. So I tried the clinic. It was a short walk from where I lived and it was a catholic charity so they worked out a deal where I paid little to nothing and sometimes they let me clean the bathrooms to pay for my sessions. The lady there was nice. She was plain. She dressed like a nun; crisply starched blouses, knee length skirts, and always a simple gold cross around her neck. But she never talked about God or tried to push anything religious on me. I chalked that up to her valuing her sanity. She just listened. I poured my heart out to her. Most sessions I just cried and she listened. I talked about my mother; how awful she was, how I hated everything about her and how I had become everything she was. I told her everything. I spilled on her my shame, the lies, and the memories and secrets that kept me in shambles. Other days I laughed nervously and rambled a mile a minute spewing out stories of my latest escapades. Dreams of joining the circus, the military, moving to NYC, moving anywhere, away from here, away from me. She was always patient, calm, and soft spoken, yet wise with her words. She was so kind. As a good therapist does, she rarely spoke of herself. She once told me that she was going away for the weekend. “Oh, with your family? Are you married?” I managed to take a second away from myself, after all this time, to ask her about herself. “No, honey, I’m a nun.”
Holy shit, she’s a nun. I definitely would not have told her all of that if I knew that she was a nun. But, I was already convinced, by that point, that if there was a God he hated me. So it didn’t make much of a difference. I needed her. Nun or not. She cared about me. That made what she said matter to me. I listened to her. She caught on quickly to my highs and lows. I felt them. I lived on the roller coaster. But I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t recognize the chaos. It was all I knew. But she saw it. She understood it and it worried her.
Shortly after I started seeing my therapist nun I was hospitalized for the first time. There were two more occasions in quick succession after that. I hadn’t anticipated when I woke up that morning that I would be ending my day in the psychiatric unit. But, I guess that is not something you usually plan for. I managed to keep my appointment with the nun that day. Usually, when the days were that bad I’d just skip it or call and cancel if I could manage to pick up the phone. It was one of those days. My entire being was drowned in the fear of impending doom. Nothing had happened in particular. This was just the way it was.
The need for the cause of my anguish found me weaving some pretty spectacular and devastating tales to explain my state of mind. This started from a very young age. I was lying to rationalize my depression long before I knew what lies or depression even were. “Not feeling well” at seven, turned into fake appendicitis at thirteen, and cancer into my twenties. Shortly after my mother had the car accident and was still in a coma I found myself on the bathroom floor of a bar, crying hysterically. A fellow came in asked if I was ok and when I opened my mouth “My mother’s dead” came out. The lies weren’t a cry for sympathy as much as a plea for an explanation. At first, I believed that if I could convince myself that this was the truth I’d be in less pain or maybe just understand the pain I was in. Eventually it became a fallback plan for explaining why I was a perpetual train wreck. Over the next several years my mother died three times and other family members eventually started getting killed off, as well. This really didn’t help my self esteem. As if I didn’t hate myself enough already. The sickening twist was my behavior between episodes. A few hours after wanting to jump off of a bridge I was still only a joint and a nap away from re-creation. I’d wake up ready to hit the mall and shop for clothes I didn’t need with money I didn’t have. Then I’d go audition to sing in a rock band or stop by the Army recruiters to talk about a future in the military.
When I showed up at my therapy appointment my nun looked immediately alarmed. I knew I looked bad. I felt bad. But seeing the way she looked at me when I walked into her office was like holding up a mirror. I saw myself the way she was seeing me and it was terrifying. She asked if I had been eating. I hadn’t. She asked if I had been sleeping. I hadn’t. She asked how the long the depression had being going on this time. It had been a couple weeks straight. Depression was a constant state, but it was the intermittent mania which kept me afloat. The delusion that everything was wonderful-happy-great-amazing held me over until the next period of hell. I always knew the manic moments scared the nun as much as the depression, but they didn’t scare me. She worried where my lack of self preservation would take me. But to me danger was fun. Even though those feelings weren’t centered in reality either, it was certainly better that waking up wishing I had a barrel in my mouth. There isn’t much to fear when you don’t care about being alive. Things that should have terrified me were a welcomed break from the terror inside my own mind. Nothing is more powerful or more painful than feeling dead in your skin. Anything is a break from that. But this time around there hadn’t been a reprieve. Most days when I walked in that way she could often talk me back into some sort of hopeful state, even if it only lasted for five minutes after I left. But, not this time. And she wasn’t going to let me leave like that.
By this point in my life, I may not have been able to trick Pat the book keeper, who referred me to my therapist, but I was usually able to con everyone else into thinking that I was fine, a brother among brothers. I had managed to score jobs I wasn’t qualified for, boyfriends I didn’t deserve, and other gifts that I had only proved worthy of due to my ability to flip the switch and give you what you needed to get me what I wanted. I could usually mitigate the nun’s worry by playing charades and carefully sliding around any questions that would prove how bad my lot was. If I was too depressed to do that then I just wouldn’t go. Which, probably, worried her even more. But on this day I went and I couldn’t hide. I didn’t have the energy. She wanted to take me to the hospital and I said ok, although I didn’t know why. The hospital was for sick people, not crazy fuck ups. I didn’t believe that there was anything wrong with me besides the fact that I was a terrible person destined to live in the retribution of my evil. But, at that moment I didn’t have it in me to fight. Unfortunately, what I hadn’t considered, at that moment, was that I wouldn’t be able to take any pot and there wouldn’t be bartender. How was I going to convince them that I was ok without that?
“Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” Groucho Marx
Featured Photo Photo taken by Dawn Endico on the Tafoni Trail at El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve, January 8, 2006.