Seeing me at the family party, you probably think I am fine. I arrive on time with my partner and children, bearing the promised contributions to the refreshments. You see me doing the rounds of hugging, kissing, asking questions, quickly catching up with relatives not seen for months, admiring the prodigious growth of children. I remember to ask about what’s been happening with a cousin’s business, check on the progress an in-law’s university course. I offer to wash up (but get waved away), top up others’ drinks as I top up my own.
So I don’t look crazy. I don’t look sad. Perhaps I am even a little more sociable and ebullient than you expected of me. I tell a funny story. I make the younger children laugh. I remind my teenagers to tell their great uncle and aunt what we did on holiday, to say please and thank you. I seem fine. A least fine, maybe more than fine, better than fine. I’m really chatty, which could just be that I’m having fun, or it could be that second glass of wine. Even if I’ve just told you I’m still sick, that I’m not yet ready to go back to work, you probably can’t see it.
You watch me returning again and again to the buffet. It is, after all, astoundingly good and eye-wateringly ample. There are salads of all kinds: salads made with potatoes, with green leaves, with hard-boiled egg, with pine nuts. Immense platters hold all kinds of meats, and another bears an entire cold trout. Pork pie, bread, quiche, and Coronation chicken compete for our attention. Later, cut-glass bowls of fruit salad, jelly, and your carefully made trifle, are brought out to take over the table. A Victoria sponge involving cream and fresh strawberries is displayed on a cake stand. Everything is as satisfying to the eye as the stomach, from the sea-glass green of the jelly to the blush of the gammon slices. You might be thinking I just have a healthy appetite, or that I am making a deliberate show of appreciation for the work involved in the meal, or perhaps, that I am just giving in to naked greed. In fact, it’s the drugs in my system urging me back for more. The antipsychotics, or the lithium, or maybe both, are well known to drive users to consume calories. It was easy to think when they were first prescribed that I wouldn’t get fat, oh no, not me! Other people may have ballooned, but I was going to watch what I ate, I would start running again and make sure I trained regularly. I would not succumb. And yet somehow I am two dress sizes larger that when I saw you this time last year.
As I leave, everyone makes sure to say that it’s been wonderful to see me. We should do this more often! There is a tentative suggestion that we meet when the weather has improved, aim for a barbecue. Getting into the car we wave and wave, until we turn the corner. I’m not even home before the anxiety kicks in. I start to think back over everything I’ve said and done at the party, worrying about what kind of an impression I’ve made. I start to believe that I did seem sick, that now I’ve gone everyone else is saying things like, “Oh, dear! She’s really not very well, is she?” I get the idea from somewhere that when people say how nice it’s been to see me, they’re just being polite, and actually couldn’t wait to be rid of me.
Two days later and the same slight high that had me bubbling over at the party has made a complete switch into dysphoria. I am continually out of sorts, ill at ease with myself, unhappy in my own skin. My energy level is elevated, but my mood keeps flipping back and forth between elation and despair, irritation and paranoia. I am managing social interaction very badly. I am already in emotional discomfort, yet feel compelled to do things which can only make it worse. I find myself in vehement disagreement with almost everything I hear on the radio or read online, and am driven to tell people why they are wrong. I am unable to ignore a Twitter argument or a blog comment thread, or to allow others to hold what I consider to be muddled or poorly though through opinions. I cannot agree to disagree and mean it, and so risk alienating my online support networks. Feeling cut off and alone drives me into deeper and deeper psychological anguish. I feel desperate, unable to bear what’s going on in my own head, dismayed by the realisation that I have been going round and round in these same loops for over 25 years, and terrified that I can’t see an end to the cycles. I spend an afternoon employing every distraction technique I can think of to stave off the desire to take a small overdose, just to knock myself out for a bit.
It would make sense if I were better at ease with real life friends, among whom there is so much less risk of the misinterpretation which occurs so easily online. But in fact it turns out I cannot do people at all. The next morning I get myself out of bed early, with considerable difficulty, as the antipsychotics are still lying heavy in my system central nervous system. I manage to get to choir for 9am and fulfil my first soprano duties. Afterwards is a chance to meet up with some of good, supportive friends I’ve made and talk as we flick through the Saturday papers. But on this occasion, when someone tries to attract my attention, to my shame that I pretend I haven’t seen. I run away, because the thought of being asked how I am, of having to make conversation, terrifies me.
If my social skills are very much off, in this slight high I seem to have acquired extra prowess in other areas. I am really happy with some of the writing I’ve been doing. My vocal range, the quality of my voice, and my sight-reading ability (which is usually pretty dire) all appear to have mysteriously, dramatically improved with no effort on my part. Except… have they? Am I simply displaying typical bipolar grandiosity? Do I really think I’m better than ever, or are the altos making faces at me behind me back? Does anybody really like me? Because I don’t very much like myself.
Even if I don’t look crazy.
The masks we wear. We can perform beautifully and I’m not always sure why, is it just because we somehow feel that it is what society expects of us? It’s exhausting and bewildering. I see myself a lot in these descriptions. Thank you for sharing. 🙂
i’m right there with you. i’m sure many of my long-time friends don’t think i’m sick “anymore” although i’ve been hospitalized multiple times, including just 3 yrs ago. so, yeah, i guess they know on some level that something is up. but we never, ever talk about any of it. because i have the social mask and i’m good at it. until i can’t take it anymore and then i crash and think everyone can’t stand me. and then i feel lonely but can’t stand the idea of being with anyone besides my partner. and i have to go to work every day and put on the cheery/funny/warm/welcoming personality my job requires. and then i go home and fall on my couch and sleep.
you are so brave and so real when you write about all this. i am in your corner, pulling for things to get better always. i hope we get off this hamster wheel some day soon! xxx
Only a caring, sensitive, eloquent lady can write the post above with such amazing honesty and insight. But I wonder if we don’t all feel, to a lesser degree, what you have described. I too ‘dread’ social occasions and feel I put on an act when I talk to people. I’m not hiding my character which I believe is friendly and caring, but I have to try hard not to want to hide in the background. I’d find it so much easier to not go out at all than to have to ‘force’ myself to chat. I only feel totally relaxed around a handful of very close friends. Anyone else and I feel on edge, as if I’m being judged by my answers, beliefs, reactions. Perhaps it’s just the human psyche which makes us feel uncomfortable.
You seem a lovely lady Charlotte and I truly hope you find the perfect balance in your life. I’m sure you’re an inspiration to many people suffering with mental disorders as your writing is so constructive and dignified.
I look forward to keeping in touch on twitter.
Love Ange xx ( @angebarton )
Hmm, I think you slightly misunderstood me – the thing is, I’m not putting on an act! I’m genuinely not sad – if I’m sad, I don’t go! My point was that if you see me, yes I probably am OK – *that day*. That doesn’t mean I am fixed, better, not as ill as you’ve been led to believe. Because on the bad days you won’t see me at all. I can genuinely feel great and enjoy myself on one day, and want to take my own the next.