Creative non-Fiction: Untitled

Bran Shehan


When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was stunned. Sitting in a small, dim room, my whole life seemed to shrink down to me, my mother, and the doctor. Originally the first doctor I had seen had diagnosed it as Schizophrenia, but I didn’t like him, so I got a second opinion. Schizophrenia is a death sentence for the mind, you waste away a little more each year, till you’re basically just a well fed animal. My second doctor said it was bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes, I guess that was somehow easier to swallow, so that’s who I stuck with, and that’s what I have.

            I generally take things in stride, laid back and mellow-like, but being diagnosed with a mental disorder changes many aspects of your life, so it becomes a fundamental part of who you are, whether you like it or not. At first, any reference to the word “crazy” was a touchy subject fro me; I remember eating at a restaurant, and a girl behind me asserted that she was “totally crazy”. My recollection of what that made me feel, would best be described as dark amusement. People use the term, and the idea of insanity in a non-chalant, even wishful way. Some people fantasize about crazy psychos from movies, or the unhinged hero, who treats life like a bad joke.

            But the truth is, actually being crazy, which I am not, is an unbelievably dark, dark place to be. People are reduced to animal states, only caring about hunger and their personal purgatories. Last spring I spent some time on Mercy Hospital’s Psych floor. The nurses all stay behind shatter proof glass, and all the furniture is heavily weighted. While I was there I shared the ward with a man who thought he was Houdini, and a terrifying young girl with Antisocial Personality Disorder (famously known as Psychopathy). People who didn’t or couldn’t follow the rules were strapped down to restraining beds, even if they weren’t actually being disruptive. There is nothing to do, and no one to talk to, so the days take forever to go by. I was lucky to have some books, which helped pass the time.  The memories I have of being there, and the kind of people who stay there… Fights breaking out, and psychotic rants being the norm, wouldn’t allow me to sleep for weeks after I was released.

            One huge way that Bipolar Disorder has affected me has been my choice to be public about it. When I was first diagnosed, I felt like my friends would treat me differently if they knew I was chemically imbalanced. But I couldn’t live with the way things were, laughing and joking, but always remembering that it was there, lurking. Like hanging out with a friend for the first time after your dog dies. You forget yourself, and have fun, but as you laugh, the memory floods back to you, and you can’t help but remember. When I did finally tell my friends, they responded how I should have known they would, with sympathetic interest, and by quiet respect.

            Unlike my friends, my family remains blissfully unaware, that a member of the family lacks a clean bill of mental health. Only a few of my most immediate relatives know, and in my family’s tradition of bad news that can’t be helped, they refuse to talk about it and pretend it doesn’t exist. A tribute to the eighties.

            I’ve never considered myself to be crazy, (which I’ve found is a softer word than insane) but there is still a small measure of normality that has fled my life. Every morning and every evening I take an ample mouthful of pills, supplemented with vitamins and allergy medicine. Like an old man, but not as wise, I can’t wait to see the medical meal awaiting me in my golden years.

            Another aspect of my life that’s been metamorphosed is my religious faith. In Baptist Christianity, pills and psychiatric help are a grey area. Pills and psychotherapy are viewed much like abortion, as completely unnecessary. It’s been suggested by well meaning, but uninformed church-goers, that perhaps I haven’t prayed enough, or that I’m being punished for sin in my life. I view these claims the same way I view Eugenicists and other people who discriminate against the mentally unhealthy, with sympathy and compassion… And an occasional rage fit…

            Having a mental disorder has opened up my life to so many remarkable people, and so many rich and vibrant cultures. So many of the world’s geniuses and musicians suffered from a variety of mental conditions, such as Edgar Allen Poe, or Robert Frost.

            An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed is that when you’re with someone who has a comparable illness, the level that they can push their jokes, goes far beyond what would be acceptable for a “healthy” person. I have a friend who also has an illness with psychotic tendencies, and who also did time at Mercy. The things we’re able to say to each other would be fighting words coming from anyone else: screwball, unbalanced, and wackjob are just a few of our psychiatric rebuttals.

Another funny phenomenon is ignorant people suspecting that I might, in some way be contagious. As unbelievable as it sounds, there are several, mature people, who I’ve been unable to convince that mental illness is non-transmittable.

            Being a person with mental illness is part of who I am. It has drawn the people I love closer to me, strengthening and enriching relationships. And it has  reaffirmed my feelings towards others, cementing their places in my ignore list. It has opened up a whole new world of people and ideas, and it has given me new friends, which above all else, is priceless.