My name is Kathleen. In my cluttered mind, I am twenty-three years old but do the math from my driver’s license and I check in at an ominous thirty-eight. These days, I mourn the loss of my youth on a daily basis and yearn for the happier days that have all but slipped away from me or else never existed at all and I’m conveniently forgetting a shit load of tragedy. Some prosaic facts about me: I grew up in Boston, I vote Democrat, I have black hair far past my waist. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Geoff. I’m fairly basic. I hate crowds.
After being booted out of Oberlin College in Ohio for mental instability, I moved West to attend The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. I moved out here without ever having had seen the town, the state, even; I just picked up and left the Northeast with its familiar sense of urgency, frigid winters and stiflingly humid summer seasons and I vowed never to return although perhaps it would have been better for my heart if I had stayed close to my family and dear friends. It was an impulsive decision, to go west. I often wonder where I’d be if I had, arbitrarily, chosen a different place to make my home. I was not thinking rationally. My little sister died of cancer in 1996 and all I knew at 19 years old was that I had to get as far away from the hospitals in Boston as I could.
I am a person that thrives on extremes. I’m trying to change that, to find a degree of moderation and the peace that would ostensibly come with that. I have a severe mental illness and my mood swings have tossed me around like a ship on a stormy sea. In my daily life, there is much ricocheting from anger to melancholy and my energy levels fluctuate wildly. Sometimes I cannot get out of bed; sometimes I am awake and hallucinating for days on end, no rest for the wicked. I’m prone to paranoid flights and there is a never-ending chorus of voices in my head, then outside my head, voices I hear with my ears as if I had constant companions, always talking while in actuality, I am totally alone in a room. I’ve lost so many friends by virtue of manifesting noticeable psychotic symptoms and there is a permanent line between myself and the world of normal. I’m constantly experiencing whiplash. I wake in the morning and my neck is sore and I’m still stuck in my head.
When looking back over my life, I see a steady decline in my mental health. I fell apart slowly, then all at once. I had friends in high school and it seemed to come naturally. I mean, I never quite fit in. My friends were all beautiful, and my Asian features seemed to preclude me from that category. I probably talked too fast, was a little too wild, but I seemed to amuse people. I think I was excluded from a lot of get-togethers, especially if there were boys there. Apparently I was not beautiful enough to be included in these parties that were merely an excuse for my friends to make out with boys that would never pay attention to a crazy ugly girl like me. I think I was an embarrassment to my girlfriends, who were constantly making fun of my appearance. I didn’t make things easy for myself. I’d do stupid shit. Piercing my nose before it was socially acceptable. Shaving my head. If I was going to be ugly, I figured I’d just go for the upper limit.
I’d had bipolar symptoms since I was a child, but they seemed to be worse and worse all the time. I spent my high school years skipping class…sometimes I was so depressed that I arrived at school, waited until I knew my mom and dad were at work, and then walked home and spent the day sleeping and watching soap operas and feeling like shit. Sometimes I could not stand sitting still in class and I’d ditch and go to Dunkin Donuts with my friends. I’d talk their ears off and act all kinds of obnoxious. After school ended, I’d go out with a different group of friends. And after dinner, I was out again. Since I never spent my whole days with the same group of friends, no one realized that I pretty much never slept at night. I could go for days without a wink of sleep. And the voices were constant; they terrified me. I knew I was losing my mind.
And my baby sister was sick. Diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome after a routine blood draw at her annual check-up turned up abnormal. My mom moved into the city to be with her during her treatment. My aunt and uncle would fly out from LA to help our family. Church ladies brought casseroles for my dad and I, to keep us going. My dad owned a small business and threw himself into it, working long long hours and leaving me to my own devices. My activities were completely unmonitored, and since I was still whupping ass in my academics despite my regular absences everyone thought I was doing fine.
Meg passed at the end of my senior year in high school. Right before graduation, prom. Right when I was trying to decide if I had the fortitude to attempt moving away to college in a mere couple months. I didn’t want to go, but staying wasn’t an option as far as my family was concerned.
So I went to Ohio and lost my mind. Seemed like a reasonable place to go crazy—everything was so flat, there were tornado warnings, and I was in a very small town. At first I thought I could pull it off. But things got weird. I was perpetually confused. I spent a lot of time wandering and wondering where and when my classes were because the campus map and my class schedule just were not making sense. Sometimes I’d attempt to go to class at 2 am. Sometimes I couldn’t read…the letters in my textbooks just looked like chicken scratches, incomprehensible. I wasn’t sleeping, showering. The voices were there, drowning out my thoughts and I just couldn’t stop talking to random people, thus scaring them with rants about nothing at all. My parents wouldn’t let me come home.
I ended up attempting suicide. I was just so confused, and I hadn’t made any friends that may have noticed I was losing my shit. I took a bottle of Tylenol, washing it down with lukewarm coffee. And then I waited to die.
A few days passed, and I was violently ill. It didn’t seem like I was going to die. I finally got so sick, I called 911 from a phone booth downstairs in my dorm. I’m pretty sure there was a lot of chaos, but I wasn’t aware. I was taken away by ambulance. Since I’d waited days to report my overdose there was no point in pumping my stomach. I was transferred from the teeny hospital in Oberlin to a bigger hospital in Cleveland. Tylenol wreaks hell on your liver…I was placed on the liver transplant wait list. I was sick as a dog. But I got better.
And this is when I went off the rails. I thought to myself, this is as bad as it could possibly get. But it wasn’t.
And what right does a woman like me have to want to bring a child into this world? My illness is a part of me, as much as I wish that wasn’t true. I will live with it for the rest of my life. Having experienced so much crazy, having spent so much time in the dark places of my mind. I know there is judgment, as there always is. But in my defense:
I was stable for 10 years before I met my husband. After I struggled for years trying to find medications that would keep okay, I had managed to stumble upon just the right concoction. Tossing back pills three times a day–well, it was a necessary evil. I had friends again, I had a life back. And when I married Geoff I was confident that my dark days were behind me. And I want a normal life now. And I have so much love to give.
Yes, bipolar disorder is hereditary and having suffered so much with it, you may wonder how I could possibly put a child through that.
For all the years I spent wanting to die, I never regretted having been born. Life with bipolar disorder is still worth living.