The shadows, and the podium, then alone in a room: what it’s like to be bipolar

Imagine you’re making your way in life, weathering its ups and downs. You’re coping well with the strains and struggles of the average working parent, when all at once some unseen force captures you. It’s as if a hand lifts you up by the scruff of the neck and hoists out of your day-to-day circumstances, your feet spinning fruitlessly, like a cartoon character overshooting a cliff edge. And then this great hidden hand, this invisible captor, drops you into a cupboard.

It’s dark inside the cupboard. Lonely. It’s pretty clear right away that it is, and will remain, a place of solitary confinement. There is a door, with hinges and a handle. You can see that it has the capacity to open. It’s just that it’s locked at the moment, very firmly locked, and there is little give, no matter how you twist at the handle or put your shoulder to the wood. You start off being brave and sensible, thinking positive thoughts, telling yourself that this can’t go on long. Surely the unseen hand will realise its mistake and let you out. Or, if you are patient enough, someone will notice that you have been taken, and will come along to rescue you. You don’t know who this cupboard is intended for, but it must be meant for someone else, because this can’t be happening. Not to you. And so you have confidence in your ability to cope with this brief inconvenience.

Very quickly, this sense of hope and perspective vanishes. Days and nights are more or less alike in the cupboard. You have already lost track of whether it is sunrise or sunset, Tuesday or Saturday, and all you know for sure is that you are still trapped inside. Without the usual markers to break up the time, you find yourself sleeping more and more. You manage great stretches of slumber in what could well be the night, but this does not prevent an urgent need to nap in what might be the day. This seems like a good thing, because it’s an escape from reality, which is becoming both boring and exquisitely painful. Your only other refuge is food, which appears whenever you are asleep, great quantities of it. It doesn’t taste of much, yet still you are driven to eat and eat, like a bear preparing for hibernation. It gives you something to do, something to think about.

Deprived of much else to contemplate, you begin to over-analyse the circumstances of your capture. What can you have been doing to have made yourself vulnerable, or conspicuous, to have unintentionally attracted the notice of the unseen hand? You begin to hate yourself for permitting your own abduction. It proves you are stupid, and a failure, that this situation is all your own fault. You have a sudden, dreadful realisation, hard and heavy somewhere in the centre of your chest, that you have no idea how long this will go on. And that means that it could go on forever. You have already started to forget what you even look like, cowering there in the dark. From what you can remember, you’re probably ugly. Ugly and fat. It goes with being so stupid, with eating so much. New thought patterns emerge. You understand now that your early optimism was naive, idiotic; you absolutely cannot bear life in the cupboard, and if it does go on much longer, you will have no choice but to start to harm yourself, chew your own leg off like an unfortunate animal caught in a snare. Sometimes in the darkness detailed images flare before your eyes, split second horror movies of bizarre ways in which you might injure yourself, had you a hammer, had you a blender, had you a machete. Each time you fall asleep, you pray that you will not wake up again. You would rather not exist, than continue the anguish and isolation of captivity.

It almost makes it worse when on rare occasions tantalising shafts of light slice their way in through the tiny cracks in the door, reminding you that there is an Outside. There is even a knothole, to which you now and then press your eye, desperate for stimulation. Almost unbelievably, sometimes there are people in a room beyond the cupboard. They seem busy, happy, involved in their activities. Free. You long to interact with these scattered passers-by, but at the same time you are terrified of attracting their attention. You can’t be certain they would hear you if you tried. You are not sure if you even have a voice, after spending so long alone and in silence. You fear they might laugh at you if you called out that you were held captive in a cupboard. Captive in a cupboard? Ridiculous! They might call you mad, a loony, for saying so. They might tell you that being shut in cupboards is just a sign of weakness. You’re afraid they might be right. They might walk away out of disgust or embarrassment, pretending they can’t hear your pleas, acting as if they don’t know you are there. Supposing they do acknowledge you, and your cupboard; what if they don’t understand? What if they tell you that you are overreacting, that the cupboard isn’t as bad or as dark as you seem to think it is? What if they call back that they know how you feel, because they were in a cupboard once, but were able to extricate themselves quite quickly and easily. Could you bear it, if they tell you that you just don’t have the right mental attitude, that you should embrace the darkness, or try harder to escape? Better to stay quiet and quarantined than take that risk.

Once more, without rhyme, without reason, that same unseen force intervenes again. It scoops you up, and the cupboard simply melts away, no more than a fancy. You are dazzled by the light, and it is only when your eyes adjust that you understand you have not yet been released. In comparison with the cupboard, however, your new environment is so bewilderingly wonderful that you are scarcely able to consider yourself a captive at all. Hard, hot showers remove that bleak amalgam of dust and tears from your skin. Expensive unguents are applied to your cracked lips, and your ragged nails are trimmed and polished. Your hair is gently, respectfully, combed through to remove the cobwebs. Clothes that have become rags are taken from you, presumably destroyed. Standing in your soft cotton robe, you weep a little, just from gratitude. You are presented with a closet containing a seemingly endless supply of outfits for you to try. Everyone seems to flatter you more than the last, and your final selection magically glorifies your figure and skin tone. Looking into the mirror, you are half in love with yourself.

And then you are deposited in the middle of a party. Everyone there seems uncommonly attractive, which is only reasonable, because so are you. You feel hot, with all its connotations of sexual attractiveness, of being in vogue, of current popularity. Vaguely you recall that when you were in the cupboard you had the idea that you were stupid, ugly and fat. What nonsense! Anyone can see that you are blessed to be so voluptuous, so alluring. Every little thing about this party feels perfect. The playlist is full of upbeat songs which incite you dance, so you do, without inhibition. Observers tell you what a wonderful dancer you are, and you encourage them join you on the floor. Almost everyone you speak to is interesting and desirable, and people are falling over themselves to assure you that you are on tremendously witty, insightful form. All the while, ideas are fizzing up from somewhere and out into your brain like champagne bubbles. As you dance around, sharing your effervescent thoughts, every notion is so amazingly well received that you begin to believe that you may just be a little bit of a genius. And you keep dancing, just that bit better than everyone else, and you continue filing away your abundant ideas to be worked on later. You find that you barely get tired, snatching only a few hours’ sleep here and there, because all that matters is to be back on the dance floor, flirting and making yourself the centre of attention. You are also far too busy to eat. Occasionally you may lift a canapé from a silver tray, and become momentarily lost in the explosions of flavour. But then you dance onwards.

Eventually you stop sleeping at all. Now you dance on the bar, you dance on a podium, feeling better and better. In this state, you are happy to pay for anything, as many drinks as it takes to keep you and those around you engaged in the moment. The barman suggests a new and highly expensive cocktail, and you know immediately that you must have it. You deserve it. You order two for yourself and one each for all of your friends; you will figure out a way to pay for it later. The music acts like a party drug. You can feel your pupils stretch and dilate, the hairs on your arms rising to attention. Your breath is snatched from you by the pulses of bliss rippling through your system. Some loser grabs you by the arm. He claims to have had his own party once upon a time, and urges caution, begs you to get some rest, to take a break from all the people and go easy on the drinking. You laugh in his face. Doesn’t he know people take controlled substances to feel the way you’re feeling now? They pay good money, they risk arrest, but it’s yours for free. In fact, you feel that your skull might just burst open with elation. As you dance away from him, the lyrics of a certain song work their way into your head. You’ve heard this song a hundred times, but only now do you notice the profound significance of the words. You are absolutely certain that this song is being played just for you, so that you can pick up on its enigmatic messages. You become totally fixated on the play of light from the glitterball, picking out patterns, looking for meaning.

A switch flips somewhere inside. All at once, everything seems a bit too intense. You realise that your feet are terribly sore, that you might actually like a rest after all. But your body keeps on dancing, with or without your consent, because when you try to stop you find you itch from the inside. Only movement can numb that itch, and so you are unable to remain still, although your dance moves are becoming more and more erratic. Lack of sleep is now making you emotionally, as well as physically, exhausted. You become easily frustrated when people don’t seem able to keep up with your champagne bubble ideas. Whether you like it or not, you are talking louder and faster, leaping from one thought to another in quick succession. You can see from faces of your entourage that they aren’t following you, and decide that they are stupid and sycophantic. Now you seem to be in various sorts of trouble. You were flirting and fondling with whoever took your fancy; now it becomes clear than some of those people were very much married, and their spouses are very much displeased. You are presented with your bar bill, and find that somehow you have maxed your credit card, and have no idea how you are going to pay it off. Worst of all, everything is far too loud. The beat of the music now causes you discomfort rather than pleasure. Sudden laughter, the sound of a chair leg scraped across the floor, cutlery clattering together, cause you physical pain. You put your hands over your ears.

More unexpected, invisible intervention: before you know it, you are ensconced in a hotel room. It’s much better than the cupboard, more physically comfortable, and it’s certainly a relief to be away from the bright lights and the people. There are no excruciating noises here. The window is mirrored so you can’t see out, but the room’s equipped with a phone and a television, so you have means of connecting with the outside world, should you choose. The bed is a double, and you have a bath tub. There are pictures screwed to the wall, and the walls are beige. It’s all very anonymous; there might be a million hotel rooms like this in the world. Despite the mundane nature of your surroundings, you cannot relax. You start to feel more and more hunted and haunted by your actions at the party. The world outside this hotel room begins to feel like a hostile and frightening place. You think about all of those people you met at the party, and you cringe, feeling sick, picking over your awful behaviour. You can’t stop tormenting yourself with fearful fantasies of how people were appalled by you, how they must have been sniggering, discussing you together in the toilets. Your dancing, your jokes, your outfit, the way you carried on with people who were married, your belief that you were irresistibly sexy, and a genius; you review all of your absurd behaviours and want to punch yourself in the head for having humiliated yourself so publicly.

Now your thoughts turn, horrified, to the money you spent. You decide the only way you can cope with your financial situation is to ignore it. When a brown envelope is pushed under the door, you throw a towel over it, so you won’t have to see it any more. Of course you are aware that this is the worst thing you can do that, ignored, bills will spiral, but every time you think about tackling them your throat closes, and you begin to feel panicky. In fact, quite soon almost everything makes you feel panicky: an item on the TV news about environmental catastrophe; the possibility of the bedside telephone ringing; the threat of someone knocking on the door. The party is long since over, but your brain still can’t (or won’t) stop. It insists on playing a snatch of that special song, just the same few bars, over and over. You try thinking of different music, but your mind returns again and again to this particular phrase, intruding into other thought patterns and muscling its way into every attempt to be mentally quiet. Soon you have to hum other songs, tapping out their rhythms on the chest of drawers, to stop the music in your head from overwhelming you.

Your bewildered, overtaxed body is desperate for rest. Yet when you finally lie down and start to drift off, your brain snaps instantly to attention, your head jerking from the pillow, your lungs gasping in a great breath of alarm. It’s the response of a hunter gatherer, alert even in sleep to the possibility of the big cat; of the homeless person who huddles in cardboard, fearing robbery or attack. Your brain will not accept the relative safety of the room. You check the door repeatedly; it’s locked every time, but you feel compelled to unlock it and lock it again, just in case, over and over. Your body is hungry, too, but the meals provided worry you. Sometimes you can’t remember if you are looking at today’s meal, or yesterday’s. Unsure, you are unable to eat it, fearful of multiplying bacteria. Now and again the thought comes that it might even be poisoned. You kick the covered plate under the bed, unwilling to even lift the lid. You close the curtains and leave them that way, worried now that the reflective window might actually be mirrored glass, that you might be being watched, part of some kind of experiment.

Fear now possesses you as completely as elation once did at the party. You are afraid of your own panic. Having no control over it, it might consume you forever. You have no idea what to do with yourself. You try to watch television or relax in the bath, to occupy yourself with tidying your room, but you are too overwrought to focus on anything. You retain that itchy, agitated sensation, only now instead of needing to move for the sake of moving, you need to move to defeat the panic. And the only way you can really see to end the intolerable anxiety, is to end yourself. You fantasise about being outside, lurching under a tube train, diving under a bus, yet cannot bring yourself even to turn the knob, much less fling wide the door. You are tempted to give in to the energy and throw yourself against the glass of the window. Even supposing it is a real window, and not a mirror, and even supposing it shatters, would you fall two floors? Or thirty? You’ve no way of knowing, but your body continues to twitch towards the drawn curtains in endless false starts. You scrabble through the desk drawers, looking for something sharp, reasoning that if you could hurt yourself, physical pain might be enough to stop the panic, even if for a moment. There are no blades, no pointed objects, not even a pen by the bed. And so you think that you are going to go properly and permanently mad.

And then one day you are back in the cupboard again.


About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards 2013. Winner of the World in Mentalists Mood Disorder blog 2012. Regular guest blogger for the International Bipolar Foundation Expert by Experience working with Mind training department. Working on The Incoming Tide, a bipolar memoir. Find me on Twitter @BipolarBlogger or at my Facebook page
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19 Responses to The shadows, and the podium, then alone in a room: what it’s like to be bipolar

  1. Too true! Luckily my highs aren’t quite as extreme as that, but… I sometimes think of it as steaming along, as if there’s some extra power behind it. It can be terrible for people at times, because I just sweep them up. Some people love it, some people hate it. I don’t quite have the endless, non-stop energy, but I do have the crazy ideas that don’t seem to stop coming…

    Then the dark place, that I try to avoid. Darkness so deep you never think you’ll get out. Luckily for me, I can avoid the extreme side of it if I keep myself busy. But then, as soon as I have a quiet day, it seems to come over me like a flood, all at once.

    I also have another middle point – plodding along, feeling a bit depressed, but capable and not weighed down by it.

  2. ManicSleepTeacher says:

    Beautifully described. That’s all I can say. Just fabulous *goes off to delete own blog*

    Hope you spend as little time as possible in the cupboard.

    Much love

  3. mrsshortie says:

    What a great post, I suffer from PND / Depression, but not bipolar. So reading this has been a great insight into what it must be like for you and so many others. I can imagine the dark cupboard to some extent, but I am hoping that I will get out of the cupboard and manage the rest of my life out of it. I know though that you won’t have that luxury, and really feel for you because of that.

    I hope you manage to stay on the middle ground as much as possible and you have the help around you that is needed.

  4. Pingback: This Week In Mentalists: The Am I Well Enough For College Edition « This Week in Mentalists

  5. Great description. 🙂

  6. hi purplepersuasion,
    i know exactly where you are! it’s a good way to describe the place that you are in. I was there about 10 years ago, but i’ve slowly taken the cupboard apart and knocked the nightclub down, so that there is no longer a cupboard there to walk into or a nightclub. I think that at the very heart of the illness it’s a question of BELIEF. by this i don’t mean anything to do with religion, far from it. what i mean is that if on some level you believe that you are a genius or that you are a messiah, or that you talk to angels or that you are very very powerful or important in some way, then you will be back in that nightclub over and over again. and if on some level you believe that you are a rubbish person, who is worthless or ugly or stupid or lazy or a failure then you will find yourself spending a lot of time in the cupboard. What’s important to realise is that you are not a genius, and you are not a god and you are not very very powerful, and that you are not rubbish, and that you are not worthless and you are not a failure. The truth is that you are just a person like anyone else who has fallen foul of an illness that tricks you into believing these lies about yourself. If you stop believing in the lies, then you will be free to resume a more stable mood again. I hope to cover this in more depth in my blog which i have just started, but it could take me a while to finish it.
    cheers for sharing your feelings

    • I think I believe both…. but I believe that I am rubbish more. Hence throughout my life I have spent waaaay more time in the cupboard than on the podium. I don’t think I’ve had enough therapy to start to dismantle that.

      • ok then how about i put it this way…. do you believe that I am a god and that I am rubbish ? if you can see that another person is neither a god, nor a piece of rubbish, then perhaps you can start to imagine how actually neither are you, and this is just a TRICK of the illness. it’s a huge mind trick, a lie, and a trap, and i’m not saying it’s easy to escape from this, because it’s such a convincing trick. but the less you buy into it, the less credit you give the illness, the less significance you attach to illness related experiences then the easier it will be to write it off for what it really is, which is a big nasty trick.

  7. Jemfmurphy says:

    Brilliant description – thank you! Hope the mellow days get longer and the others shorter as they have done for me (well, at the moment anyway :-))

  8. The thing is, everyone is different. Whilst symptoms under a certain umbrella are similar enough in a way, everyone still experiences things in their own way, with their own little quirks, plus with their own ways of dealing with it.
    Do you have Bipolar? The reason I ask is because I have Borderline, and tend to experience symptoms more on a similar level to you, without the full mania that Bipolar people get. I also tend to be quite a fidget, so get bored easily at times when my mind is racing, if things aren’t going fast enough for me. Or, at other times I just don’t fancy being social, so withdraw into my own mind or find a nice quiet spot for myself.

  9. I have totally felt like that cup in the cupboard! Loved your description. Looking forward to following your blog.

  10. sionnanmaree says:

    Fantastic post – thanks for writing it.

  11. beingbrave says:

    I have always been depressed, sometimes quite severely but until yesterday I didn’t suspect I was bipolar.. I am trying to find out how likely this is and I found this wonderful article, I feel as though you read my mind to write it. Thank you. Trip to the therapist tomorrow I think.

  12. Pingback: If depression were a word cloud… | purplepersuasion

  13. Jim says:

    Great blog on bipolar – just come across it coutesy of BBC article. I’m going to find out more

    • Thanks, Jim! So glad you like it. I’ve been at it for about 2 years no so have almost 100 posts on a range of different topics around mental health – not just bipolar 🙂

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