The remedy to your disease will be so unexpected, you won’t realize it is medicine until you reflect to look back and see you are no longer ill. But to cure a disease you must first diagnose it because tending to symptoms only keeps you in a loophole of pharmaceutical treatments.
The Beginning – Manic
Growing up, you were a fairly happy toddler. You did not notice the abuse happening right under your nose and the abuse of substances from your father was well masked with how he pampered you. You were Daddy’s Number One and needed no escape from that.
As you grew older, your light grew dimmer. You spent more time alone with internal agony and a vast sense of emptiness in your chest that made no sense to you. The environment you were in was not sustainable, but you never questioned it. You thought you had a happy family. It seemed to have been an externally safe space although you had traces of internal harm.
The First Fall – Depressive
Walking barefoot around the yard at age 8 while daydreaming and crying, you realize you stepped on broken glass and it quickly got rid of your confusion. You went outside the house whenever your father started yelling at anyone because it made your chest pain. The pain from the broken glass on your foot immediately made the pain you felt in your heart feel like it had reason to be there. You stay down, carefully observing this piece of glass, but then press down the sharp piece of broken glass across your thigh. Your heart expands with more reason to the pain you initially felt. It was strange to find a soothing satisfaction in hurting yourself, but you did not know that. You get called for in the house and after you answered back that, instead of throwing the broken glass away, you tucked it inside the pockets of your pants with a mental note; ‘for the next time I need to make sense of the pain in my chest, escape here’.
Time is well-known to be a revealer of truths, and soon enough you noticed things. You noticed you are not a part of a happy family, you noticed your father is quick to raise his hand or lift his foot to everyone; your siblings and mother, just not you. You were spared for reasons beyond your knowledge until you upset him too eventually. Your mother and sister’s health quickly began deteriorating, and the chest pains increased… so did the self-harm. You faced rapid changes to your emotions; thrilling excitement had gotten you joining the school’s athletics and sports but horrible lows got you down in bed for days. Before you knew it, you were fighting yourself to stay alive and escaped to draw lines trying to help yourself.
You were not even a teenager when you had your first suicide attempt. For reasons to skip school on days you were low, you had plenty of painkillers from doctors. You hoped 4 would do the trick but they only got you drowsy. You would double them up every time, hoping if it works and you do die, it will look like you were just trying to keep out a bad headache. It never worked, and after the last high dosage, as you ran out of medicine to overdose on, you woke up with your first panic attack; upset that you did not die.
The Second Fall – Depressive, Anxious, Suicidal And In-Betweens
Even as your mother got better and your sister too, you had no safe space. You did not trust anyone. You withdrew more from your family; eating in your room, spending time at school when you did not need to be there. You avoided people, spent time alone in the bathrooms during breaks at school, and would not participate in any extramural activities anymore. Your periods of lows got longer and the cutting elevated from broken glass to razors. The dark hole in your chest and heart got so deep you got scared of what you could do to yourself. You slept every chance you got to keep away from yourself.
Some days were better than others; you could get yourself cleaned up and get through the day without crying. Other days felt like hell as you could not control your tears flowing between classes. This reflected on your school marks and your grades declined to average from being a star achieving academic, no matter how hard you studied. And when you wanted to quit even with trying at school, you got introduced to Oom Paulie Synman – the English teacher who got everyone to work ten times harder. On top of all your schoolwork, you now had to write weekly reviews on how the last 7 days have been for you. You will later come to see how this writing called you into staying alive.
The Rising – The Manic And Writing
In these reviews, you stayed open and honest writing from your heart through your sleeves to the ink your fingers held. Almost always forgetting that someone else would read them, because for the first time – with words – you felt what a safe space is like. Here you expressed your loss of interest in everything, including being alive.
You wrote on how you find it hard to believe anyone alive could ever be genuinely happy and how prayer and church 4 times a week doesn’t seem to be reaching to God; if it is not your own life upsetting you at home, it’s the News on the world and Mike Brown trending in the media. You felt more things in your chest and you processed your thoughts and days through writing, mostly well-graded and unjudged. He eventually encouraged you to seek help, commenting more on his concern for your overall health because your mental health and self-harm birthed other worries such as Anemia and Hepatitis B, but he never pushed you to do anything other than commit to writing and submit a new review each Monday. And commit to writing you did.
Writing allowed you a new sense of freedom. A first, secure rush. Nothing that had you feeling judged. Not once did the paper gasp at your reckless actions when manic nor twist its eyes in concern at your depressive lows. The letters did not ask silly questions. So even in the middle of a horrible week, you kept reminding yourself at the back of your head that at least you get to tell paper about all this in the weekend.
Still Rising – Attempting Help
After being referred to SADAG, your answers to “are you hurting yourself” and “do you feel suicidal” gave away your urgent need for professional support. The lady on the other end of the phone line asked you to get your family to get you to a professional, as you have many Bipolar Disorder symptoms but you plead with her on how bad of an idea letting your parents know would be. She explained that as a minor under the age of 18 you can’t get help without them, so you told an empty promise and shared your address for more information on Depression, and a week later you got mail.
The envelope held plenty of pamphlets and flyers on Depression and Bipolar Disorder. It got harder to hide the open scars and wounds on your thighs and wrists – especially in the Summer. But you made a wise plan to hold on alone, not risking being misunderstood, scolded at, or beaten, until your 18th birthday. Some days when triggered to cut, you would write instead. And that was relief enough some nights.
Two years later, your birthday was a Friday, and that morning you insisted on going to see the doctor. You arrived there with your mother, explained the common fatigue, back pain, headaches, cold knees, irritability, PMS, and then asked if your mother could wait outside because you had a private thing to tell the doctor. After she stepped out, you took a deep breath then blurted out “I need help. I need help and my family cannot know”.
Defined Diagnosis – What The Professionals Did
Everything went better than you could have imagined, the doctor reassured you of your privacy then asked you a few surface-level questions; what do you feel? (empty), would you say you want to die? (yes), how long have you been feeling like this? (it’s been years), who told you of bipolar? (the internet), what got you to talk to me? This was when you presented your English Review book. He asked to hold onto it for some time then called you a week later.
Because you wrote when through depressive episodes and manic episodes, the doctor got enough information to transfer you to the care of a social worker, who referred you to a Psychologist.
It first felt like a pill-popping life sentence to be diagnosed. After a few questions and written activities, the Psychologist took a deep breath and ensured eye contact to explain the nature of your mind’s unfavorable possible genetic inheritance.
“… It seems you go through extreme emotions of deep sadness that comes with feeling suicidal – depression, to high highs of excitement – we call that mania. Most people get through life fairly differently… but it is not all uniqueness that gets concerning. It is not very common nor okay to want to end your life every time you are upset”.
You knew that she was well-meaning, you kept in mind that you sought out her for help, so everything she was sharing had to be true and even scientific.
She then continued to reassure “it is not your fault at all. And by the sessions we have had, it is clear to me you are genetically Bipolar, from your mother, but essentially it is the chemicals in your brain and your environment that do not have a helpful impact on your overall well-being. This is why it feels beyond your control”. You liked this lady. She got to address concerns you had without having to tell her.
Your Life Is In Your Hands – Now What?
When you had your third session with the professional who got you to comprehend the nature of your mind’s disorder, she sadly explained her upcoming maternity leave that would be followed by a transfer to another town. You had to face the reality of possibly having to travel further for another Psychologist she promised to get you in touch with, which brought internal conflict you would not voice out; transport money, which you cannot ask for because nobody knows you are seeing a professional for mental health therapy. Once again, you decided to face everything by yourself. But at least you could write about it. That helped you feel less alone.
Although you were put on medication – which was explained to be a trial to find what works best for you – with your doctor leaving, and the Biral and Lithium having you feel like a zombie; completely out of touch with what it is like to feel anything at all (cutting no longer gave off the same relief), you did not see the sense in continuing popping pills. You got calls from your psychologist who kept checking if you would see the new one she referred you to but out of the resenting feeling of abandonment you blocked her number. In the least time of expecting it, you got a letter from Oom Paulie. Writing back reminded you that there was still some sort of sense in the world.
Writing To Reflect – Girl In The Pages, Girl In The Mirror
The “weekly reviews” were no longer a thing since you have completed high school now, but this old man kept writing to you, giving you letters to always write, too. You wrote to him often about how numb you feel on the pills and that you are making the decision to stop – writing this helped the decision be more solid. You wrote to him of how your father stopped your plan for a gap year in a church youth ministry after they called you in for an interview besides having had agreed to everything months ago – writing this reminded you that none of it was your fault. You wrote of how it felt like you are watching your life depicted as something you are not, because being insisted to study nursing regardless of the fact you never applied to any nursing school or are interested in it helped you see the reality of living under a dictatorship. And writing of how grateful you are for the backup secret plan you had for studying whatever they can fit you in the University of Johannesburg revealed you had always been aware. Your dad wasn’t drinking nor smoking anymore, but he was still a narcissistic dictator and it was clearer on paper. At church, you were always encouraged to obey your parents, and so you did.
Life on tranquilizers, anti-anxiety pills, anti-depressants, and sleeping pills was very grey. And you were still trying to feel shifted the reason to why the cutting continued. Working on holiday, a conversation with your supervisor, Steven, where he opened up about his early childhood diagnosis of Schizophrenia, Depression, Dyslexia, ADHD and how “white privilege” is something he could only wish to have grown up under as his family was poor nudged your grief from living as someone Bipolar.
His life was a mess, he said, but at least he would not let the labels of what he got diagnosed with define who he is. He was not taking medication he was prescribed but instead took hold of his life in his own hands, in his way with creating art and being gentle with the voices in his head. Although very cautious of letting you know you decide how you live your life with your diagnosis, Steven had no idea how much he inspired you to live fully again. Here you realized your “way” included writing.
This powerful piece of writing is the first part of a two-part submission by the talented Julieta Lusati Aurelio. Find Part 2 of her writing over here.