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Life Behind The Wire Mesh Screen: One Woman's Experience With Bipolar Disorder

by Selina I. Glater, M.A. , R.M.T.

The wire mesh window screen was thick and kept the bright sunlight from entering my room. My mind felt thick, just like the window screen, and I felt weighted down and heavy, as if in a fog. It was here, at this psychiatric facility for children and adolescents, that I learned about my mood swings the early indications of bipolar disorder. This wire mesh also represented being cut off from the world in this place I now called "home."

Age 14 brought depression and suicidal despair. As a young child I had lived through many surgeries for physical ailments, some more severe than others. I knew the inner workings of hospitals better than I understood the goings on in my own home. I had felt the cold and outright rejection of a mother who said that I was "killing her," and of a family who said they could not handle my depression and the attendant emotional disturbances. The following is an excerpt from my diary (at the time) which conveys a sense of my emotional state prior to my institutionalization:

"There are many things that I can't forget. Sometimes it's the cold, sharp smile of the white draped medicine man, or the hum o f the buzz saw inside of my head, and every once in a while it's the smell of mother's kitchen and her warm embrace on chilly winter nights. When I try to forget these ancient memories they always seem to come back
to haunt me with plastic images turned to reality in my sleepless hours. I've tried to forget the empty feeling I had when mother told me that 1 was leaving for good.

"Rotten kid, crazy, selfish, inconsiderate bitch" they called me everything, and I never ventured even one response. My eyes were always closed to the name calling and the fiery brawls of the sane. My life seemed all too cluttered and confused for parents or teachers to understand let alone listen to. I felt like a trapped bird as my days were stretched out to weeks and my weeks to years and all the while the twilight zone inside of my head was getting larger and larger. That great bubble of days was about to pop and all of it's bright colored contents left to spill out over my forever lasting memories of home. Home where the earth was the sky, and hell was my heaven."

I had seen blackness of the spirit, of the soul, and I sought relief in music. As a violinist I was able to transcend the dysfunctional home environment and my own despondency I was lifted to the stars. Sometimes the notes would dance off the page becoming faster and faster and more effervescent. This was a danger sign, but short lived and again I would be hurtled down into the abyss, feeling like I must end this life as I had come to know it.

I could feel my brain chemistry change. Even though I didn't know what was happening to me biologically. Freedom from the depression was, and still is, like a light switch being turned on in my head. The brain "clicks" into gear and the world becomes more crisp and clear. From here the swing can move beyond comfortable to outright mania and a feeling of being totally out of control out of touch with and apart from the rest of the world. Feelings of self confidence, power, and euphoria pervade.

Bipolar disorder has often cut me off from the world. Living in an institution only made this gap grow greater and, in time, an internal voice would "scream" for recognition and closeness; someone to understand the despair, the aloneness, the fear. Locked in isolation I was given time to think. Thorazine was a "mental straight jacket" it did nothing to calm the "screams." I needed human interaction and affection. I needed to be held, to be stroked, to be told that I would be OK. We who have this disorder need to connect with others not disconnect. And we need this especially within the confines of an inpatient psychiatric facility. Institutions perpetuate distancing! Wrong prescription! Isolation hurts. In the process we are degraded like non humans. It would be an interesting experiment to take away the staff's keys, put them in isolation for a day, and see just how "human" they feel.

Living with this disorder takes courage and the ability to fight to get well. As a fellow bipolar always tells me "It's a case of our over transmitting and over receiving that sets our moods swinging." Medications may not always work, It is a delicate balance of psychotherapy and medication that is vital to stabilization not the cure (yet) of bipolar disorder. You, in order to survive, must speak out frequently for your rights as a patient and for your desires, too for you alone know your brain best.

The wire mesh screen symbolizes the isolation And I know it still hovers out there in the periphery of my vision uncomfortably close despite the many successes I have amassed. Yet the screen also beckons the world outside to look inward for a place of acceptance and an acknowledgment of the person with bipolar disorder who still suffers
while the bell tolls for us all.

(This story was first published in 1995)

SELINA L GLATER is a registered music therapist, Coordinator of Self Help and Advocacy for Santa Barbara County Mental Health Services, and an active consumer advocate. A governor's appointee to the State Mental Health Planning Council, she also serves on The JOURNAL Advisory Board.




Special thanks to California NAMI. This article was originally published in The Journal of NAMI California, and is provided on this web site with permission of NAMI California. Copyright 2000, NAMI California.

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