[Editorial note, from 2021-09-03: In hindsight, I now know that this was a misdiagnosis, predicated on a wild misunderstanding (on the part of the medical professionals involved) of the profile of child abuse related trauma and gender identity crises I was struggling with. While the diagnoses were wrong, the pain and confusion were real, and some of these questions and challenges still mess with me to this day. This is mostly unedited, save minor tweaks for privacy and a small removal of a mention of someone best not discussed.]
I have bipolar disorder.
I no longer have readily accessible records of what happened, but I do know that the month of August 2007 will always be burned into my awareness.
I was living, alone, in a dingy basement apartment that I'd done a terrible job of decorating (and maintaining). The refrigerator was probably the cheapest model sold by any store in a three state radius. The lights were awful early-generation LED bulbs that barely illuminated anything. I kept the curtain shut all the time and lived in the perpetual dark on a chaotic and massively unhealthy schedule... if you could even call it a schedule.
My job was all on the computer and my employer was based in [Editorial note: I'm redacing this to just "Europe" for a bit more privacy]. The many-hour time difference made it annoying to coordinate, and had a way of complicating my routine quite badly. Worse, I worked in a notoriously unhealthy industry, where obscene work weeks and deadline pressures were considered normal.
All in all, I had a fucked up time trying to sleep properly. I would pull many consecutive all-nighters without so much as resting my eyelids, then crash and just pass out for sometimes as long as three or four days after. I started researching sleep disorders in my tidbits of spare time.
I had a list of a few things I thought might be treatable conditions, but I was uninsured and (on American paper at least) totally unemployed, so getting actual treatment felt implausible. Instead, I started reading up on DIY "fixes" for sleep issues. Supplements, scheduling programs, lifestyle changes... nothing really grabbed me. Until I ran across polyphasic sleep.
There were two or three interesting accounts of people playing with polyphasic sleep and keeping proper, detailed, disciplined records of the results. I studied months or maybe even years of these people's data, and finally decided I wanted to try it.
The approach I tried was pretty simple: work for several hours (or whatever; be alive and operational I guess). Sleep for two or three hours, whatever felt like a good REM cycle. Plan the next chunk of time; if you have scheduled obligations or whatever, work around them as needed. Try not to go too long without a nap, and absolutely never let yourself nap more than a couple of hours at once.
The story was that the first few days were hell, and it took a week or two after that to adjust for the most part to the lifestyle, and then very rapidly the body would learn to rest in this cadence and you'd wind up feeling better than ever and with more awake time than Mere Mortals – so you could go be killer productive, or whatever.
I have no idea, over a decade later, how long I tried that shit. Maybe several months or so. But I do remember the summer of 2007.
My sleep never stabilized. If anything it became dramatically worse. My moods became volatile and extreme – cranky, depressed, bitter, lethargic at times... and then with no recognizable pattern, I'd be incredibly energetic, motivated, optimistic, productive, good at everything. Almost brilliant even.
The mood regulation issues closely followed my sleep problems. I started to worry, but in a low-key sort of way. Like denial. It just got worse. I remember waking up once, I don't even know what time but maybe it was dark out, and I was unshakably convinced that I had solved an incredibly difficult outstanding mathematical problem in theoretical physics. In my sleep. I was so confident in this discovery and the ease with which I could articulate it and prove it correct, that I just rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke up again, later – initially just as confident, but quickly confused and scared and ashamed to realize that I couldn't even remember which problem I thought I had solved.
There were incidents with vivid hallucinations, more grandiose delusions, weird and incredibly pronounced – but blisteringly temporary – changes in my personality and behavior. Pointing the car down the interstate onramp, pushing the gas all the way down, and just... not letting it off. Ending up frustrated that the poor consumer sedan's speedometer stopped being reliable past 120 MPH. I began to connect dots between my own personal experiences and what the medical literature described as mania.
The depression kept being a problem. I've struggled with suicidal thoughts since middle school, even occasionally got as far as making detailed plans and practicing various aspects of carrying out those plans. So for a while I didn't really even register that it was "unusual." You know... not showing up to work, unannounced, for a week... normal, right? Curling into a ball under your desk and pleading with any power that might hear you to just end your existence... pondering death and nonexistence for hours on end... writing down lists of ways you would improve the world by being dead... all normal. So normal it's totally unremarkable that I was doing that sort of shit basically every single day. Normal! Right?
Something snagged at my awareness and I finally started to suspect something was seriously wrong.
It all finally blew up one night that summer. In my dim, uncomfortable, poorly-furnished apartment, I lived through the single most terrifying experience I had ever had in my life. All I really remember is the end. It had become unavoidably clear to me that the evil aliens (or demons?) who lived in my refrigerator were insistent on making some kind of obscene racket all night. I argued with them, seethed quietly at them, and eventually began punching the refrigerator over and over in a vain effort to shut them up.
I stopped, after a while, only because my hands were bleeding and I couldn't stand the pain of hitting the fucking thing any more. The noise didn't even pause for a second. I collapsed onto the shitty, cheap linoleum, cradling my bleeding hands, and began to cry soundlessly. I was violently attacking a kitchen appliance to stop it from making a sound that only existed in my mind.
The worst of it hit, right there, on the floor. It was a visceral, unmistakable, vivid, physical sensation: the feeling that I was straight up losing my fucking mind. For what felt like forever, I stared directly into the horrific maw, the knowledge that I was going to go permanently insane on this stupid fucking linoleum floor and the last thing my mind would ever register would be the gut-wrenching snap as my human consciousness ruptured completely.
I fell asleep at some point, I assume at least. Most of that part of my life is incredibly hard to remember. That happens.
At some point soon after that, I reached out to my family, and asked for help.
Over the next few weeks I started getting diagnosed, and then treated. It took a while for me to find a doctor who wasn't a disgusting piece of shit and/or mind-bendingly incompetent, but either way, I started to find quiet and peace in my mind.
In the aftermath, I did a lot of reflection.
I finally connected the remaining dots between my sleep chaos, mood instability, and all the rest. I looked back on the previous few years in particular and was struck by a singularly disturbing pattern. It seemed, to me at the time, that feeling strong emotions was almost always a precursor to a bipolar episode.
I knew that wasn't quite right, on some level at least. I fought hard to get my medications reconfigured and even my diagnosis adjusted because I was starting to feel dead – like nothing actually happened to me anymore. I was dimly conscious of the world and somewhat interactive, but I had no thoughts, no feelings, no soul. I finally got that fixed (which, shockingly, entailed finding a new doctor) but some damage was done, somewhere. For many years after, I lived in constant suspicion of emotion.
The bipolar shit blended nicely with other artifacts of my life, in the sense that it made it really easy for me to just want to avoid feeling anything. Ever. And I had the tools to bury those feelings, stunt them, exterminate them entirely.
I became so convinced that feeling things was evil... I rated the effectiveness of medications based on how well they kept me numb. Around the beginning of 2018 I was working through the ten billionth medication change of my illustrious mental health career. I dragged it out for a while because I just reflexively assumed that the changes were bad. We lowered the dose of this pill, and a few days later I felt sad – case closed!
Somehow the lightbulb finally clicked on. I wasn't feeling meaningless, arbitrary, unreal emotions. I was actually feeling alive. For the first time in a decade I took a tentative step into the world of actually feeling things because I was fucking supposed to.
Even now, after a year of learning to feel and actually embracing it all... after a year of seeing my life open up and become unfathomably richer and happier and better... after so many mountains of evidence proving that this is how things should be... I continue to clean up the leftover land mines and debris of that particular disaster. I still have to dismantle the urges to suppress what I feel or think.
And I still live in a low-grade fear that maybe it will all come undone again... a wrong turn with the medication, or a really bad day, or whatever else. Am I happy? Do I really enjoy my life? Am I truly learning to appreciate who I am and be proud of myself?
Why did I laugh and smile so much today?
Am I allowed to like being alive?
Or am I just manic?