What is it like to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder?

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Another Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A true story of what it is like to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is about waking up in the hospital after being diagnosed and finding home and acceptance in the people I met.

Around 1% of us will develop bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression.

People with bipolar experience both episodes of severe depression, and episodes of mania – overwhelming joy, excitement or happiness, huge energy, a reduced need for sleep, and reduced inhibitions.

People's experience of bipolar disorder is uniquely personal. No two people have exactly the same experience. 

I stood staring in the foggy mirror, running my right hand through my thin, brittle hair, touching my left collarbone that stuck out like a small shelf. The blue hospital gown hung loose on my emaciated frame. My blue eyes looked hollow. How did I get here? I heard a gentle knock before the door opened. "Miss Larsen, the doctor will see you now," a stocky male nurse said as he walked in. He reminded me of a mini-Hulk as I looked at his chiseled arms.

I looked down at my blue no-slip socks and tried to tie the gown tighter. "Is there any way I can have my sweatpants?" 

Mr. Stocky Nurse shook his head at me, "No, ma'am, there are no strings allowed in here. Until we contact your family, you have to wear the robe." I wasn't following him. 

"Why can't I have string?" He shook his head, and I watched his eyes move towards my wrists. "Oh….oh," I stuttered out. I forgot about my scars. I forgot about trying to hang myself. 

I followed Mr. Stocky Nurse down a hallway illuminated with fluorescent lights that kept flickering overhead. It smelled like the inside of an old piece of Tupperware stained by spaghetti. Oddly, it comforted me as a vision of my petite mama smiling and brushing back her hair behind her ears as she poured the sauce in. A disinterested nurse at the front desk with short, black, curly hair looked up at me briefly, smiled, and returned to her paperwork. We walked past the front desk, and a couple of men were watching T.V. This elderly man with long, stringy gray hair screamed, "He stole her. He stole her!" while rocking back and forth.

 "No one stole anything from you, old man," the redhead answered him back. It didn't persuade Mr. Stringy Gray Hair as he kept screaming, and a nurse came and took him down another hallway. The redhead winked at me as I walked by; his moss-green eyes captivated me. His eyes said, "I see you." Mr. Stocky Nurse Man gently nudged me back in the right direction. He tapped on a door with a sign that read "Dr. Stevens" and led me to a comfortable yellow chair that belonged in the '70s in front of a desk cluttered with folders and random papers. Dr. Stevens looked like Santa Claus, belly and all. 

The doctor put his pen down, smiled at me, and addressed Mr. Stocky Nurse. "Thank you, Frank; you can go now." He picked up a file that read "Larsen: 51:50." I knew that meant suicide. I knew it meant someone had admitted me. "Miss Larsen, do you know why you are here?" as soon as the words left his lips, I saw a flashback of Mr. Stocky Nurse, or Frank, pouring pills down my throat. 

"It all seems kind of fuzzy to me, like a valerian-induced dream," I replied. He sighed, and a gentleness radiated from him, though the smile left his face.

"Miss Larsen, you had a manic episode. You were half-naked when you stole a car and went on a high-speed chase. The police stopped you by laying down three sets of spikes. They brought you into the hospital, and we put you in a drug-induced coma to bring you back down from the manic high. You've been asleep for three days." This must be a dream. Santa Claus that is quite a cruel joke. He continued. "Have you heard of bipolar disorder or manic-depressive disorder?" Pink shoes. I could see myself in pink crocs walking across a stage. I wondered if I graduated from nursing school. I wonder if I made my family and boyfriend proud.

"Miss Larsen, have you?" I nodded. "You have type 1 bipolar disorder. You are here to be evaluated and are on a mandatory two-week hold. Your family has been contacted, and your mother is on her way to see you." I closed my eyes as another memory floated back. I saw myself in a black SUV. I saw the glimmer of a police badge as they yanked me out of the car and put a gun to my head. It wasn't a dream. 

Mr. Stocky Nurse returned, and I noticed his eyes for the first time. They were the same ocean blue as mine. "Miss Larsen, would you like to go back to your room, or do you want to watch T.V.? Your mother should be here within the hour," he said as he kneeled down to meet me at eye level. The world kept growing more concrete as I connected to the people around me. I wanted to reach out and touch his bicep. I wanted to reach out and stroke Dr. Stevens' beard. I wanted to make sure they were real and not a hallucination. Mr. Stringy Gray Hair stopped yelling, and a redhead glanced up at me and smiled. He had dimples like me. 

"I think I'll stay out here and wait if that's okay," I told Mr. Stocky Nurse as I looked at the redhead with hair-like flames spiking out in all different directions. It seemed to be reaching out for the sky like somehow it was reaching for the sun. The faded beige couch sunk in as I sat down. I could feel its steel coils on my bones. 

He reached out his hand to greet me. It felt like summer, warm and inviting. "Hi, I'm Matthew. What's your name? Surely you want to be addressed by something other than Miss Larsen." His normalness took me back as I turned to see Mr. Stringy Gray Hair run down the hallway, his legs like toothpicks colliding with each other. Matthew laughed. "That's Clyde. He's a little loopy, but he's damn good at playing cribbage. Do you play cribbage?" 

I wasn't sure if I should tell him my name or tell him I played cribbage as I looked at his black sweatpants and white t-shirt with yellow pit stains. The strings were missing on his pants. He must be 'dangerous' like me. "Phoenix. And I used to play with my grandma a long time ago." 

He stood up and curtsied to me. "Well, Miss Phoenix, splendid to meet you. Can I sit next to you? You seem nice. I need a friend." I couldn't understand what looked nice about me as I stared at my kneecaps. When did they get so large? When did I get so thin? I nodded, and he sat down. 

"I saw you come in a few days ago. Bipolar, right? Me too. I checked myself in this time because every knife in my kitchen drawer was calling my name. It's better than being dragged in." His transparency shocked me as he continued. None of my 'normal friends' spoke so candidly about their struggles. "I was diagnosed two years ago. It slipped under my family's radar when my 5th-grade school counselor labeled me an 'angry child.' It all clicked when I had my first manic episode. I was standing in the middle of a grocery store in my birthday suit, dumping milk on myself. It all felt like a strange dream. Did it feel like a dream to you, the mania?"

Read more: What is it like growing up with a bipolar mother?

Memory after memory faded into my mind's eye, and I saw myself with a set of pink golf clubs. I have never golfed a day in my life. I could see myself dropping $1000 into a church's drop box. Where did I even get that money? Matthew poked me on the cheek to draw me back into the world. 

I shrugged my shoulders as I avoided his gaze. "I guess you can say it felt like that. It's a little hard to comprehend how someone like me, a straight-A student and model citizen, could snap like that." 

We turned to look down the hallway as we heard Mr. Stocky Nurse guiding Mr. Stringy Gray Hair, now all giggles, to the black leather chair to the left of us. Matthew inquired, "What's so funny, Clyde?"

"I thought Frank here done stole my wife. I mean, look at that brawn," he blurted out. "Turns out there's no wife, and the voices lied to me again. That's why my grandson brought me in. I'll never know how I don't have a wife," he said as he jumped out of his chair with a twirl and slapped his pot belly. "I mean, who wouldn't want this?"  We all laughed, and his brown eyes locked with mine. "You, missy, what are ya here for?" 

He reached out his rough, wrinkly hand to shake mine, and his eyes sparkled with kindness and mischief. "They diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. I stole a car. Me, a straight-A student and model citizen, another one in the cuckoo's nest." Who am I now if I am not that woman, the 'socially acceptable' woman with dreams and goals? 

Matthew laughed and brushed a piece of my loose hair behind my right ear, just like my mom did. Everything suddenly made sense. I never fit in because I wasn't with my people, these 'crazy' ones like me. I was never normal, but I was also never alone.

Clyde shifted in his chair, put his hand on my knobby knee, and winked at me. "Did you steal the car from my wife?"