Tw: suicide attempt, death, medication
Age ten was the onset of my depression and these thoughts faded into the background for several years. I had a new problem now—my attachment to being alive was weaker than most people’s. If you’ve never experienced depression, the following is the example I gave in a speech at my college about mental health awareness.
“The only part of you that feels alive is the fuzz on your teeth because you haven't brushed them in two weeks and swear there’s something crawling around in your mouth. You are the undead living, sentenced to suffer on Earth because not even the Devil wants to spend time with your sorry ass.”
Depression weighs you down. It alters your perception, replacing your dreams and goals with apathy. You don’t remember what it felt like to be happy, to have energy, to have motivation. You don’t think these things will ever return.
I tried to kill myself at ten years old. The memory is so hazy, so surreal, it almost feels like a dream. Me trying to fling myself out the window of our top floor apartment, my mother yanking me back. I can’t remember the moments before or the moments after, just this snapshot.
Things got better and I finished middle school, switching schools five times because stability was never a priority for my parents. I entered high school an ambitious, focused 13 year old. This didn’t last. When I was 14, my depression came back stronger than ever before. I couldn’t get out of bed and time altogether became meaningless to me. I stayed in this limbo for months, until my mother walked into my room one day and handed me the phone with a receptionist for a mental health clinic on it. The woman, “Alicia” asked me some general questions to gauge my state of mind and when I handed the phone back to my mom, Alicia told her she was sending an ambulance to my house because I was suicidal.
But ambulances are $$$, so my mom decided she’d drive me to the hospital, UCLA. My parents picked UCLA not because it was close to where we lived but because my grandmother, who has schizophrenia, had multiple hospitalizations here. My parents didn’t know too much about mental health care options so they took me to the one place they had some familiarity with, hoping I could even see the same doctor. This scared me shitless. I had lived with my grandma growing up and though I loved her, I internalized a lot of stigma about schizophrenia. And at the time, being my grandmother’s granddaughter was my worst fear. I didn’t want to be written off. I didn’t want to be labeled as crazy.
In the emergency room, I was placed not in a room, but in a chair in a hallway in between doors to various patients’ rooms. I now understand this was for someone to be able to keep eyes on me at all time. But in the moment it was nerve-wracking. I don’t remember where my parents were, but I was alone. Suddenly, the woman whose room I was sitting next to flatlined. All I could hear were the bloodcurdling screams of a younger woman, and doctors rushing in. I felt for the woman, for her sobbing daughter. I didn’t want my family to feel this way too. I didn’t want to die.
The doctors decided I didn’t have to be hospitalized. Instead I was sent to a children’s mental health agency by my house where I met with a therapist and psychiatrist regularly. I began to take medication. For the first time in a long time, I felt hope. I was so energized, I no longer felt the need for sleep at all. I had so many ideas, so much passion. I was bursting with excitement. Welcome to mania.
The treatment plan for bipolar disorder is different than for chronic depression. There are so many different types of medications from anti-psychotics to anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. If you are struggling with a mental illness, your doctor may prescribe you one medication or a combination, affectionately called a “cocktail” by many sufferers of mental illness. Medications react differently to different people. Someone may have a drastic recovery thanks to one medication that offers no benefit to another person. It’s a lot of trial and error. Since my doctors did not yet know I had bipolar disorder, they started me on a type of medication that can trigger mania in people with my condition.
Mania is the high to depression’s low. It’s like you’re in a Nascar race and the adrenaline is addicting. But when you look down, you realize you don’t have a steering wheel and crash. Symptoms can include lack of sleep, excessive energy, flight of ideas, feelings of grandeur, fast talking, and impulsivity. If you’ve been depressed for a while, the contrast can feel fun at first. But it is a dangerous position to be in. You aren’t thinking clearly and can make horrible decisions because in the moment all consequences seem inconsequential.
Luckily for me, my doctors realized right away what was happening. They added another medication to my daily regiment, and the mania stopped. And by having a clearer idea of what they were dealing with, they were able to develop a more effective treatment plan.
My mood was stabilized now, but I still was struggling with anxiety and OCD. I was in therapy for my anxiety, but no one knew I had OCD yet. At this point in my life, being around other people was a huge stressor. Small everyday things like going to the grocery store or getting the mail were all day obstacles for me. Tardiness was a huge trigger. If I was going to be late to something, my heart would beat so fast it felt like it was going to jump out my body. I would hyperventilate, cry, and shut down. These are panic attacks. Oftentimes people having their first panic attack assume it’s a heart attack. Even though I was having them frequently enough to know what was happening, the sensation was still scary. I stopped going to things if I felt like I would be late to them. I had a 7am class in 10th grade, and I would walk about three miles to school in the morning. Sometimes lateness was inevitable, but to avoid the panic attacks I just wouldn’t go to class. Other things caused panic attacks as well: restaurants, family functions, etc. I slowly stopped leaving the house except for school.
I had always been a strong student. I’d loved school, taken extra classes, done extracurriculars. But my safe place wasn’t safe anymore. So many of my triggers could be found at school, so school itself started triggering my panic attacks. I’d step foot onto campus every morning and run to the bathroom to throw up. I was missing a lot of school and my parents and teachers weren’t supportive in the way I needed. Once I returned from school once after a week-long absence and my teacher said, “Zinnia, good to have you back! We’d thought you might have killed yourself!” The whole class laughed at me and in that moment I knew I had to get out of there.
College was always a priority for me, but now my grades were atrocious. My attendance was even worse. Graduating high school no longer felt attainable. So I did my research. I found out that in the state of California, since there are so many child actors, there is a version of the GED available to people younger than 18. At 15, I took the CHSPE exam and was granted a high school diploma. My mother was not okay with this, but she came around. I wasn’t doing this to stop going to school, but to have a fresh start. I enrolled in community college at 15, online at first, and ended up graduating from UCLA. My social anxiety got so much better that I was even able to do a study abroad program to Cuba while in college. Stepping off that plane was a momentous occasion for me.
Bipolar disorder will always be a part of my life, but it’s no longer in charge of my life. I’ve been stable for so long, my treatment now is mostly based on maintaining that rather than responding to emergencies. The thought bubbles… they’re not so under control. But honestly writing this about my journey has given me the reassurance that I will conquer them too.
The past thirteen years have been a tumultuous journey, one that I've mostly kept silent for fear of making others uncomfortable or altering their opinion of me. But spending every second holding a mask of normalcy up to my face is the real burden. My arms are tired.