In the fall of my senior year in high school I decided to check myself into an in-patient ward at a mental hospital. The previous Christmas I left boarding school suffering from a severe depressive episode. I tried more than twenty medications in those first six months. I had a pill to wake me up and one to put me to sleep. I had one to stop the crying and I had one to stop the headaches. And I had a dousey for when I couldn’t breath, when the panic and the paranoia really took hold. Unfortunately none of them worked. Because I am actually Bipolar. And nothing makes you crazier than crazy pills for something you don’t have. By the fall I had hit rock bottom, and I checked myself into a hospital to detox, get a baseline of my illness and hopefully move forward.
A few days before I went on to the ward, I went to my teachers and attempted to explain the situation. I had an English teacher who was fresh out of college. She looked kind of like a baby deer. She was like a blond Bambi. I told her I was going into a mental institution for an undetermined amount of time and asked if I could have some homework to keep me occupied. She told me to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, just like the rest of the class. And even in my drugged stupor I laughed. It might have been the first time I had laughed since Christmas. The insensitivity of the request was dumbfounding. The irony of it crashed through the fog I had been living in.
The general plot of Cuckoo’s Nest: Set in a mental hospital in the early 1960’s, a new inmate joins a cast of various crazies. He causes havoc with the strict head nurse, challenging her at every turn. He orchestrates a break-out (complete with a fishing trip and hookers) and eventually receives a lobotomy for bad behavior. It is a comment on human nature, the mental health system, power politics and the ultimate question, is he faking it? So you see I had to laugh, or I would have cried. But the book spoke to me on a level I never expected. It didn’t make me sad to read about illness when I was ill, it made me feel less alone. It made me look around the cement walls of my institution and think, “yeah hookers really would brighten things up a bit.”
So that was the beginning. Fast forward to tonight. Eight years later, almost to week. In that time there have been boys and a university degree and about thirty pounds gained and lost. Friends have come and gone, so have jobs and medications and doctors. Tomorrow I have a job interview, and tonight I was watching videos of how to use Excel on YouTube to prepare. And something snapped. I was distraught. Because really, who isn’t when they are trying to learn Excel on a deadline? I was upset because I don’t want the job I am interviewing for. I feel adrift and in that moment I felt profoundly alone.
So I went for a walk. As I left my downtown apartment, I passed a woman who has been wandering around my neighborhood for about five days. She has all her worldly possessions with her, about five ratty suitcases worth of stuff. She looks about sixty and she looks lost. A few nights ago I called the non-emergency police line in an attempt to get her some help. But she was still on the bench, surrounded by suitcases the next morning. And I deeply identified with how lost she appears to be. And as I passed her for the fourth time today my paranoia built. And as I walked up Yonge Street just after dark, weaving through crowds of happy shoppers and neon lights, it built some more. I thought there is something wrong with me, these people know I’m not normal, why are they looking at me, why are they not?
So naturally, I decided sugar was a good idea. I bought a very large, very expensive ice cream bar. Remember that pesky thirty pounds that comes and goes? Can you say, eating your feelings? By the time I finished the ice cream I was paranoid and lonely and a bit jumpy from the all the chocolate. But somewhere in the sane part of my brain, I recognized that I was not the craziest person out on Yonge Street tonight, not by a long shot. And as I passed the adult cinema and then the strip club, I decided it was time to get my cardigan-wearing ass home.
The walk home is a blur, except for one girl. In all the people I passed tonight, she stands out. Because on her t-shirt it said
One Flew East
One Flew West
And so tonight, I remembered Bambi. And I decided to write down my belief that sometimes, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
So here it goes. I am inviting anyone who cares to read along to join me in my attempt to laugh my way through mental illness. Bring on the crazy.