Though the medical treatment for psychiatric illnesses has improved enormously in recent years, there’s still significant social stigma related to mental illness—a stigma that will lessen only as we invite those diagnosed with chronic psychiatric disorders to share their stories and talk about their struggles.
In this spirit of raising awareness and initiating dialog, I’ve invited readers of my blog to ask questions about my 20 year struggle with bipolar disorder, and last week I was asked if the now nearly normal me, the medicated me, feels less authentic than the crazy but creative version I experienced when I was most symptomatic.
So, does the recovering Kathy miss the mania? Do I miss the crazy, creative energy that allowed me to paint and draw, write and research, think in new and creative ways?
These are obviously difficult issue, but the short answer is yes. I do feel less like myself and less alive than I did when I was manic. I feel less authentic, less like the me that I like best.
When I was ill, creating felt effortless, as automatic as breathing, and I did it with the urgency and abandon of falling in love, deeply and maddeningly in love. I could no more not create than I could not now eat or sleep or dream of waking up tomorrow in a world with less poverty, less hunger, better housing in places like Haiti and more rights for women, children, gays and lesbians, the mentally ill and anyone living near the edge, far from the center of the bell curve that is middle America and suburban comfort.
Now creativity takes effort. It’s labor-intensive and even exhausting. Now it requires industry and diligence, determination, duty, drive.
But it’s better than it was when in the early ‘90s I began taking antipsychotic medication and the only ones around were things like Haldol and Navane, the older generation of drugs that made me feel even less like myself than I do now. Those drugs made me feel lethargic, zombied, and at times even, down-right dead. On May 8, 1990 I described it like this in my journal:
No one understands what enormous effort it takes for me to do anything—brush my teeth—wash my hair. No one understands . . . how afraid I am, how my life has been reduced—how I feel like a failure.
I don’t know what to do with myself—I mean, I don’t want to do anything—nothing sounds appealing—not even reading and writing. I mean, the frustrating thing is that I feel like I have no emotions or desires or urges—everything feels flat, blunted. I don’t feel creative or bright. I feel boring and stupid, to be honest. Everything just takes so much effort. I want to do something with ease. I want to be successful. I’m tired of being sick. Sick is scary. And I think that scared is what I feel the most—scared about the future—scared about my ability to live life—scared about the essentials—everything that matters.
The drugs made me feel thick-headed—like I had to swim through a fog to interact with the world. I had to fight to stay awake—to keep my eyes open—to carry on a conversation—to process language. Friendship was nearly impossible—too much work—too much to have to talk—articulate, move my mouth to form the words. The drugs blunted everything human about me—made me lose everything and anything I loved about myself, a woman with passion, a woman who cared intensely about the world and the people around her.
All of this was gone—or at least out of reach—beyond the fog I couldn’t fight or navigate my way through. The fog was dense, thick, terrible and deep.
But the newer drugs of the 21st-century are better. The medicated me of this decade is more alive and energized than the me of 10 or 20 years ago. I no longer fight the fog that separates me from the world. Now I only fight an internal fog that keeps me from the deepest and most creative places inside, keeps me from the bursting, blooming, art-making place in the center of my psyche. Now writing, painting, drawing mean managing this mist, hacking through the haze between me and the vibrant, secret center where the creative but crazy Kathy waits.
But she’s still there, there’s still that space, where the two-faced me, magnificent monster, gorgeous and god-awful, hideous and holy, hides.