Memories That Almost Break Me
By Emily K HarringtoN
Yesterday in therapy I told the story of the last days with Sophie and my first days of incapacitating mental illness, just before I was officially diagnosed. I was surprised at how upset I became in therapy, and by the clarity of my often faulty memory. Timeline was:
I started to feel like I was becoming invisible in October, right after I started dating Sophie, right when I turned 19.
My depression increased. I started to disappear.
By Christmas, I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. I remember saying “Something is really wrong with me,” to my mom when I came home for Christmas break. When my folks drove me to Austin at the New Year to put me on a plane back to Ohio, my dad gave me a giant teddy bear in the parking lot, and I hugged him and cried very hard. My mom took a picture of us that I have here in my house. Our eyes are red, even though we’re smiling. His arm is around my shoulder, and we both look like we’re holding our breath.
January was something called “Winter Term,” which exists because it’s basically too cold to live in Ohio in January. The campus empties out. Everyone did an individual project during Winter Term, appropriately called a “Winter Term Project,” and you could complete your project anywhere in the world. Oberlin is mostly wealthy, so students would do their projects in Hawaii or Barbados or Portugal. Wherever they wanted, basically. A tiny minority of students would stay on campus, so the ice-laden, snow-covered campus stayed partially open. The libraries had some limited operating hours, and one of the cafeterias was kept functioning. I chose a listening/research project on mezzo-sopranos of the last century. My roommate, Laura, went away somewhere for the month, so Sophie and I had a giant room to ourselves. We hid inside, only leaving to find food or go to the conservatory to research. Baldwin had a large, round practice room on the first floor with a piano in it, directly below my own round room, so we didn’t even need to go to the conservatory to practice. There were two places near us that delivered food: a Chinese place on Main Street and a Dominos about 30 miles away. With temperatures severely below zero, it was worth the money and the wait to not have to leave the house. We binge-watched TV and movies on her laptop, ate takeout, and existed naked with the radiators cranked. The sky was only ever grey or black.
I started to think that I would marry this girl, and soon after I had that thought, I started feeling stressed and trapped. I didn’t think I’d ever be strong enough to leave her. There were things I didn’t like, but I felt so stuck. I was madly in love, and marriage seemed like an inevitability, but I had the sense that I was too young and hadn’t been with enough people yet, seen enough of my life, or learned enough about myself to be happy making that lifelong commitment. Then I started to get sick.
It started with stomach pain that turned into nausea and vomiting. I went to the doctor, got lots of tests done (including a CAT scan and a vaginal ultrasound), and wound up with a diagnosis of an ulcer, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and interstitial cystitis. I did have cysts on my ovaries, but one correct diagnosis out of three is a pretty low success rate. The gyno who did my pelvic exam said I had a bladder condition, prescribed legal speed, and sent me on my way.
The first day on that stimulant was the night I became furious with myself in a conservatory practice room, blacked out (also known as having a dissociative fugue) and walked several miles out of town. When I came to, I called campus Safety and Security officers to drive out and pick me up. I got back to the dorm, popped two hydrocodone (my first attempt at self-medication), and stood outside of my room looking at the doorknob, feeling like there was a pane of glass between my outstretched hand and the door that I couldn’t possibly penetrate.
At some point, I found out my stomach pain, combined with my psychological symptoms, could be bipolar disorder. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist, went in to be assessed, told him about my perfectly practical and achievable plan to hang myself in an abandoned barn I’d found with a ladder and an electrical cord, and he sent me to a psychiatric unit for violent offenders in Lorain, Ohio. I stayed for 4 days and then came home with a Neurontin prescription and no diagnosis.
At 2:30 AM one night, Sophie got really sick and needed to go to the hospital overnight. The prescription speed and a missed night’s sleep started the true psychotic break, which you’ve heard all about. When I came to a moment of functionality around 4 pm the next day, I called my mom and said (again) “I’m not okay.” She told me to find someone to drive me to the airport at 5, that she would book a flight immediately, and to give her Sophie’s phone number.
On the drive to the airport, the blue sky was heavily dotted with bright white clouds that had the same texture as my mom’s fluffy scrambled eggs. I could hear them singing to each other. By that point in the day, my psychosis had completely enveloped me, to the point of adjustment. It wasn’t at all frightening; the heavens were singing to me. I am not a religious person, but my psychosis has frequently taken on a literalist interpretation of angels, Satan, spirits, hell, and heaven (so far).
On the plane a few hours later, I was watching the Johnny Cash in-flight movie from the aisle seat. Next to me sat a man in his 40s with glasses, a button-down shirt, and khakis with a phone holster attached. Total white-guy dad. He was bouncing his 2-year-old son on his knee to distract and comfort the baby boy from popping ears and irritating confinement and boredom.
About halfway through the movie, I started to see a red glow in my peripheral vision where the man was seated. I turned to look at him and his eyes glowed red. I could see red light surrounding him, and his hands grew long claws from the fingertips. He was still bouncing the baby boy on his knee, holding onto him tightly with those terrifying claws. I knew in my bones that I was sitting next to Satan. I didn’t know what to do. I called the flight attendant but was afraid to speak when she came to me. He was going to hurt that little boy, he was going to drag me to hell with him, and I thought about screaming for help, but couldn’t see how anyone else on the plane could possibly save me from Satan, himself. As I looked around in a panic, I felt the floor beneath my feet drop away, and when I looked down between my feet, I saw 30,000 feet of empty space between me and the carpet of blackness and lights that make up a city from above at nighttime. My feet were swinging freely. My seatbelt seemed a laughable precaution. No one else noticed, so I stared straight ahead with tears raging down my face. I thought it best just to try to act the same as everyone around me. Surely the judgment of the many was currently better than my own.
I came home confused and in pain, still wanting to kill myself. My mom called every psychiatrist in town, and the nearest appointment was 6 months out. She convinced me that the fastest way to get help was to go to DePaul, the local psychiatric hospital. I seized a moment of doubt in my plan to off myself, and I told her to take me, quickly, before I changed my mind. We got in the car two minutes later. I didn’t even pack.
I already had one horrifying hospital experience under my belt that included living with real-life murderers and armed guards stationed at locked doors holding rifles with two hands. The threat this new hospital posed was made more significant in my mind through projection. By about one hour in, I was a wreck. I went into my very first mixed-state episode. It was hell. Literal hell. Eternal, unyielding suffering. I had no idea that episodes pass. I’d never had one before. I thought this was life now, that I was finally just broken, and that I no longer had a choice to live. I was in hell.
Suicide would make it stop. I knew that much. It was the only move I had left.
I double wrapped my phone charger around my neck and wrapped the other end around the top hinge on the bathroom door. I kicked a chair out from under me, but the jerk didn’t break my neck, so instead, I started to suffocate. My vision started to go white when I saw a shadow and heard someone screaming “help!” Someone grabbed me around the middle and lifted me up to take the pressure off of my neck. I felt cold scissors against my throat and hear a snapping sound of then cutting my charger’s cord. I took one deep breath in and started screaming.
I screamed. I wailed. I remember being partially removed, as if I was standing across the room, observing. I remember thinking that I sounded like a wounded wolf. I was screaming because they had cheated me. I had the answer. I even had the courage to commit to the answer. And they stole it. How could they do that to me? It seemed like the cruelest thing they could have possibly done.
I lost Sophie a few days later when I got out of one-to-one observation. She broke up with me over the phone. When I called her and admitted to my attempt, she was rightfully terrified and overwhelmed. Mental illness doomed and then ended the relationship, which is no one’s fault. I lost my mind and my first adult relationship at approximately the same time. This order of events is not unavoidable, but it’s also not uncommon. Many others who live with mental illness have experienced this themselves.
Lately, I’m not doing so great. I’m having more severe symptoms than I’ve had in years and some of the things that are happening take me back to these memories. All of this happened over a decade ago. The 13th anniversary of my first suicide attempt is in 2 months.
While the symptoms are becoming severe, the coping skills I have are now strong enough to provide some solace and structure. Still, even with great tools to use, it often hurts like hell, and I’m terrified of going back to the place I was in 13 years ago. I don’t want to have a full psychotic break, be hospitalized, attempt suicide, or lose my relationship.I have skills now. I have a support system. I have medical care. I have a partner in life. I have 13 years of experience in keeping myself alive. I have amassed a wealth of helpful components to cope with my illnesses.
I have to fact-check. There are worse things than having a psychotic break. There are worse things than going to the hospital. There is no evidence that I will attempt suicide. There is no evidence that I will lose my relationship.
Cope. Fact-check. Ask for help. Go to the doctor.
I know what to do. I’ve done this before.