Mind and Body

bipolarTo pop pills, or not to pop pills? That is the question for which there is no easy answer. As I found out during my first year of college, there are quite a few good reasons to be on either side of the argument. Nobody wants to feel like an over medicated cow, standing bleary-eyed in a field, but you have to be able to function as well. For me, the question of taking anti-depressants evolved from a theoretical issue covered in magazines such as Time and Newsweek, to a reality I had to face.

It all started last fall when I arrived, suitcase and guitar in hand, for my first year at Sarah Lawrence College. The front lawn was swarming with purple-haired students sporting Bauhaus t-shirts and labret piercings. Aesthetically, it was everything I expected, as though the administration had yanked the one, weird “art-kid” from every high school across the country and amassed them on one campus. I had dreams of discussing Descartes and Nietzsche over a frothy cappuccino.

But almost everyone was too concerned with skyrocketing to fame with their indie band or landing a bit part in some MTV movie to be bothered by academics. I sowed my oats in high school, drinking and smoking myself into various states of consciousness, and experimented with just about everything I could get my hands on. I got it out of my system. By the time I ended up at Sarah Lawrence, I was ready to buckle down -- but nobody else was. The apathy permeated everything. Was I the only one who’d consider turning down an invitation to chug Colt 45s in the woods?

I ended up locking myself in my dorm room and living on black coffee and Chinese take-out. I was experiencing intense mood swings. One minute every object seemed to hold exciting promise, the next I felt utterly alone, cut off from everything. I ate and slept very little, dropping down to 95 pounds. I left my room only to go to class, even then, walking with my head down to avoid meeting the eyes of anyone I might know. I worked long nights in the library on a Gnosticism paper for my Religious Philosophy class, finishing two weeks prior to the due date. I spent hours sobbing on the phone to my parents in California.

I was desperate for some escape from the loneliness and from my own violent mood swings, but I was also determined to finish out the semester. My history professor became concerned and questioned me about my health and I just smiled and acted like I didn’t know what she was talking about. I couldn’t let anyone down, especially my parents who were draining their savings in order to send me to college in the first place.

In the second semester, there was an abrupt shift in my energy level. I began to complete everything -- even little tasks like making coffee -- with fervor and a supreme kind of motivation and energy. I became a vacuuming maniac, almost coming to tears when my roommate let incense ash fall to the floor, or accidentally ground granola bar crumbs into the rug. My ideas flowed with the same unmatched intensity as my cleaning rituals. Overwhelmed with the wonder of every living thing and the consciousness it contained, I started writing constantly. The physical world seemed different; objects held more meaning and became more distinct. I felt invincible, breathless and overwhelmingly strong.

That spring, my mother came to visit and I insisted on giving her a full walking tour of Manhattan. I dragged her from the East to West Village, through SoHo and uptown, to the Whitney Museum all in one day. She could barely keep up with me, although I hardly slept and still weighed barely 100 pounds. I bought things compulsively; clothes that I would wear once and throw away, three sets of expensive colored pencils which I was somehow convinced were going to help me get out of my art-slump, and two cases of vanilla-flavored protein shakes. It was like I had a continual, intravenous caffeine infusion. My patterns of thought were briskly paced, words tumbled out of my mouth and I flitted from one subject to another like a stunned hummingbird.

This period, roughly from January to May of 2003, I now recognize as a manic episode. It has all the typical markings of one: the compulsive shopping, the inexplicable, seemingly endless energy and the distracted, unfocused patterns of conversation. In the middle of May, after returning home to the Bay Area, my mood took another turn. I became weak, fatigued and often unable to get out of bed. I cried over everything, from spilling cereal on the kitchen floor to getting a “B” on an Anthropology exam. I sleepwalked around the house in my pajamas, barely talking to my parents. I couldn’t focus, not even on reading novels or poetry, and swallowed fistfuls of kava kava and valerian root in an effort to sleep off my depression.

Melancholy lingered in every nook of life, like snow collecting in the elbow of a tree. It all came to a head one night in the shower, when, dragging a razor across my forearm and seeing blood rise to the surface of my skin, I realized something needed to be done. I had become a danger to myself. I didn’t want to die this way.

zyprexaAt my mother’s urging, I called our family doctor. She saw me immediately and issued me a written test, with questions about my family history as well as my current symptoms. I told her that throughout high school I was consistently depressed and agitated, often falling into dark slumps and becoming, as Jane Campion puts it in her poem, "Having it Out with Melancholy," “someone who can’t take the trouble to speak; someone who can’t sleep, or who does nothing but sleep; can’t read, or call for an appointment for help.” My parents had chalked my dark moods up to typical teen angst. Based on my history and the test, she concluded that I was suffering from bi-polar two disorder, a disease in which symptoms of mania and depression are present at the same time. On her recommendation, I started taking a new anti-psychotic called Zyprexa, a mood stabilizer.

The idea of taking medication has always been something I’ve struggled with. I firmly believe suffering is an intrinsic part of being human; something that everyone has to confront and find their own ways of coping with. Medication has always seemed like some sort of bogus escape hatch, a way around dealing with reality and the issues at hand. But I soon came to realize that I needed something, anything, even if it was the dreaded blue pills, to pull me out of the slump I was in. My depression had begun to infringe upon my life to the point that I was not able to work, academically or otherwise. I realized that my particular brand of misery is not rational, and cannot be treated as such.

When I started on the Zyprexa I was barely functional, often sleeping past noon and then padding around the house the rest of the day, spending aimless hours in front of the computer and refusing to answer the phone. There was no one I could bear to talk to. After two weeks my sleeping patterns became less erratic and I got a bit of my old energy back. I started taking bike rides again and had a renewed interest in writing and reading poetry.

I never thought I would be sitting here, praising medication. Believe me, I’d much rather go through some sweat-lodge healing ceremony in New Mexico than be on a steady dosage of Prozac. But medication has really helped me. Zyprexa, also known as Olanzapine, is the only agent other than lithium to demonstrate that it “may delay relapse to both poles of bipolar disorder in a placebo-controlled, double-blind study”. It certainly has curbed my manic episodes. It’s been months since I’ve stayed up all night desperately scrubbing the tub or running up an astronomical tab on health bars. I hope that there might be a point, somewhere in the not-so-distant future, when I will feel well enough to think about taking less medication. On the other hand, I’ve had to resign myself to the possibility that I’ll never be able to fully wean myself from it.

The Zyprexa still allows me to feel the highs and lows, but without the same intensity. I no longer get to points like that night in the shower. There are times when I miss the manic, tumbling thoughts that used to rattle my brain and make me feel as if the entire world was opening up at my fingertips. I was born with a brain that happens to be a little erratic in the serotonin department, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy life. I’ve had to make peace with my body, and mend the mind and body divide.

Ashley Stewart lives in the Bay Area and is a writer for Youth Radio.

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