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.