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The following took place January 2008.
At any given moment, without proper context, all of us can look deranged. Your kid kicks the back of your seat while you’re trying to merge, some dirtball at Applebee’s grabs your ass on the way to the bathroom, the placekicker hooks it left, a mouse skitters out from under your bed, you get stung by a bee, a gallstone passes, or maybe the air conditioner just broke and it’s really fucking hot.
Take a snapshot of a person during these moments and you’ll record the eyes of madness.
Without context, one can only assume you’ve lost your mind.
It’s with this understanding lawyers and representatives have made it difficult to have someone committed. The rules and guidelines are very strict, which I’m sure frustrates a person trying to save a loved one, but these laws keep many of us in our homes, allow us to walk the streets, and raise our children.
This is why after the crisis center I’ve decided to continue navigating the Los Angeles Mental Health Gauntlet. With my wits and self-awareness, I feel I can avoid long-term confinement. I’ve contacted Dr. Marcos to make me the appointment tomorrow in West L.A. I’m fairly certain it won’t end with me in a straitjacket, but I am still worried.
In California, they can hold you for 72 hours if they feel there’s eminent danger. Usually, this comes in the form of a confession. A person admits he’s going to do something awful. That’s why Dr. Marcos asked if I had a specific plan for killing myself. If I’d said yes and they let me go, they’d be liable. Thankfully, I lied and kept myself free for another night, which I am using to scour the Internet.
I need to know what I’m up against. Obviously, I want to get better, but I don’t want to be locked up.
I also realize the crisis center was nothing compared to what I’ll face tomorrow. The facility in West L.A. is state-run, meaning there’s going to be bureaucracy and a lot of pitfalls. In Culver City all I had to do was not shit my pants or try to bite someone’s dick off and they were happy to shuffle me out the door.
Tomorrow, I’m going to have to be on guard.
Jess and I wake early and drive to West L.A. We park down the street from the concrete citadel. It’s like someone decided to build a prison next to a 7-11. The elevator smells like vomit. We get off on the wrong floor. There’s an entire wall of children’s drawings, but I don’t see or hear a single kid. For some reason my heart starts to swell. I feel the tears coming and my face tingles. I shake it off and push the elevator button. The stench of puke helps stifle my emotions.
The waiting area is packed. No city in America can compete with Los Angeles when it comes to crazy.
Jess helps check me in. There are forms we have to fill out. We take a seat next to a nice Hispanic family. The kids are crawling on the ground, while the mother stares blankly at the wall. Her husband strokes the back of her hand with his finger. Their little boy struggles to his feet. His legs shake like a newborn calf as he tries to keep his balance. His father smiles and the boy looks at me, almost as if he’s expecting applause.
I give a little wave. Jess takes the clipboard from me and starts filling out my info. I see plops of smeared ink on the top form. I didn’t even realize I was crying. I wipe my face and focus on the social workers moving behind the partition. I have to get a hold of myself.
It’s fine to be sad, that’s why I’m here, but I need to stay in control. I can’t slip up.
An hour passes and I tell Jess she can leave if she wants, get a cup of coffee or some lunch. She tells me she’s fine and stays focused on the TV in the corner of the room. It’s CNN. You’d think they’d be running cartoons or PBS. The ticker on the screen says there’s been an earthquake in the Philippines. It says hundreds have died.
I look at my shoes, at the wall, a bulletin board of support groups.
A young woman calls my name. I get up and follow her down a hallway. She looks like she’s in college, probably getting clinic hours for this.
We get to a table with no chairs. She says she needs to go over a few things.
“So you’ve been having suicidal ideation?” she asks.
“Yes.” I just learned that word last night. It says I’m thinking about death, but not necessarily in specific terms, which was why I wrote it down.
She continues to ask me questions. Two women pass by, and I move to the left. I don’t understand why we’re not in an office. I feel like I’m in everyone’s way. A guy wheels through a mail cart. I’m turning, angling.
“Are you okay?” the young lady asks.
My head feels like a water balloon filling with tears. It’s going to burst.
The lady looks scared. She goes over to a female coworker, who comes over. The woman brings me to a seat, hands me some tissues. I’ve sprung a leak, but I’m not gushing, not yet. I smile and eek out, “Thanks.”
“Can you tell us what you’re thinking?” the woman asks.
“I just…really don’t want to be here.”
“In the office? Or do you mean something bigger?”
I nod at the second one. And I see their faces. It’s the look of pity, and it makes me want to rip out my eyes. These women see people at their most frightening, most disturbed on a daily basis, and I’m breaking their hearts. I’ve never hated myself this much in my entire life.
Their supervisor comes over and I secretly dig my thumbnail into the side of my finger, focus on the pain. I need to pull myself together. I need to do it now. The supervisor is calculating. She’s assessing the situation, placing me into a category before I open my mouth. I calmly wipe my cheek.
“I apologize,” I say. “It’s just been a long last couple of days.” I’m smiling. My back’s straight. This is the image they need to see, this is not the face of someone in eminent danger.
They call over a doctor, and we go into an office. I answer questions. The doctor is short, pudgy, and wearing a corduroy jacket.
I’m trying to look relaxed. I feel like a lab animal. I make eye contact, but not too much eye contact.
The supervisor asks, “It says you drink? How many drinks would you say you have a week?”
She scribbles something.
“It’s not a lot. I haven’t had a drink in weeks.”
“I see…” More scribbling.
Fuck! It sounds like I have a problem.
“I don’t drink when I get depressed. I don’t touch it. It’s not a big deal. I’ll go months and not even think about it.”
The three confer. I try to breathe. I know I sound like I’m trying to cover something.
The supervisor is not even trying to whisper. “We should think about including some substance abuse counseling in his treatment.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck…
This is what happens. These are the pitfalls. You can’t bring up alcohol. You can’t even mention it. Once you do, they put you in N.A. or A.A. Doesn’t matter that I don’t do drugs. Doesn’t matter that I don’t even think about drinking when I’m depressed, which would be the exact opposite of someone with a problem. But substance abuse takes the pressure off of them, because they don’t have to get to the root cause if I’m just an addict.
The pudgy doctor says, “I don’t know. From what he’s saying, I don’t think this is a dependency issue. I’d like to talk to him more, if that’s okay”
I want to thank the doctor, give him a high five, but I keep my mouth shut. The supervisor clearly has control in this room. I don’t dare enter the discussion. It won’t be me that sways her. Finally, she’s says:
“Alright, but keep it as an option.”
The two women leave the doctor and me alone. His accent is Eastern European. I think he likes that my last name is Szpak, even though he doesn’t say it. His name is Dr. Jimenz. He seems like someone I’d like to go fishing with, quiet, calm, willing to give me my space. I also get the feeling he enjoys a cold beer, which is probably why he just saved me twelve steps.
Dr. Jimenz asks me some follow-up questions, but he can tell I’m drained. He asks if I can come back in a few days. I say sure.
He says, “I would like you to attend at least one group session between now and our meeting. Just to give me some piece of mind. Will you do that?”
I agree to it just so I can leave. I came here hoping for answers, but I’m more confused than ever. The next day I go to group and sit in the back and listen to sad people talk about sad memories. They talk about medication and trying to hold a job. One guy is getting evicted. A girl just gained forty pounds. She’s also really horny lately, she says.
I go home and help Jess make dinner. We don’t say much, but I can tell she’s happy I’m seeking help. She doesn’t ask too many questions. She can tell I’ve answered enough. We fall asleep on the couch watching TV.
A few days later I have my next session with Dr. Jimenz. They’ve moved him to another office. All of his stuff is in boxes. He asks me how things are going. I tell him alright. I’m a little more open about the depression and suicidal ideation, but I keep the specifics to myself.
“How long have you been experiencing this current depression?”
“A month, maybe a little more. It comes and goes.”
“Describe what it’s like when you’re not depressed.”
No one has ever asked me this before. “Uh…happy, I guess. Really. Happy.”
“I don’t know. I’m just good. Emotionally. Mentally. I’m a writer – for a living – sort of…and there are these times when, I don’t know, I just can’t stop.”
“You mean you can’t stop writing?”
“Yeah, it’s strange. I just get zeroed in. It’s like a freight train. I don’t even sleep. I just sit and type and… It’s like a puzzle, you know?”
He shakes his head no, that he has no idea what I’m talking about. I can feel my pulse rising. I start speaking faster.
“Like if you break a story into pieces. You’re, uh, left with the words, right? You’re left with characters. Plot. Themes. Setting. Beginnings. Ending. They’re pieces, right? Pieces of a puzzle. And when I’m in this place, this electric place, I can see all the pieces in my mind and I just know how to put them together. I see how they fit. When I’m writing, it’s… it’s the only time I fit, if that makes any sense?” I give a little laugh, realizing I’m jabbering and sounding more insane than when I was sobbing the other day.
Dr. Jimenz stares at me. It’s making me fidget. Puzzle?! Writing is like a fucking puzzle? I do it like a freight train?!
Dr. Jimenz stands and walks towards the door. I know he’s going to open it and call in the supervisor. They’re going to sedate me and shove me in a padded room.
“Are you familiar with hypomania?” he asks. He rummages through a box in the corner.
“Oh, where is it?” He goes to another box. Pulls out picture frames. “Ah!” He yanks out a copy of the DSM IV and flips through it. “See, hypomania is mild form of mania, where a person experiences elation or ‘happiness.’ They also go through hyperactivity, like extreme productivity.”
He hands me the book and for the next few minutes he explains the basics of bipolar II, which isn’t as intense as bipolar I, which often comes with delusions. Dr. Jimenz says there’s evidence a lot of writers, composers, and scientists suffer from it. The hypomania allows for long bursts of production. It can create a certain euphoria. But when the pendulum swings back it often leads to severe depression. The drop is so steep, it can destroy a person.
As Dr. Jimenz continues to explain the symptoms and treatments, I start to cry, but for the first time in years, it isn’t sadness. I finally have an answer, some explanation as to what’s happening inside my mind.
“I take it this sounds familiar?” he says.
I nod and sob and curl into my knees. Twenty years. That’s how long I’ve been unraveling. I just assumed I’d die without an explanation. I thought I was doomed, but this sweet, pudgy doctor is telling me I’m not.
Dr. Jimenz sets the book on his desk. “How long have you been writing, as you say, like a ‘freight train?’”
Why did I use that stupid phrase?
“I don’t know… A long time,” I say.
“I guess…” I picture the countless nights in L.A., pacing the floors, guzzling coffee. But it started before that. When Jess and I were living in Brazil to write our theses, I had plenty of all-nighters clacking away at my laptop. Then there was grad school. I’d go days without a wink until I could barely string together a sentence. But as I think back further, I see more and more pacing, more and more writing. In New York. In Florida. In Kansas City.
And then I finally hit it, the first frenzy.
I was twenty-two years old. It was the week after Thanksgiving.
My mom had just come out of the closet.
I didn’t sleep for six days. My friends almost took me to the hospital. I couldn’t stop writing. No one could keep up with what I was saying. It was like someone had shoved an electrical wire into my brain. Visions and ideas sparked and crackled in the dark unused matter of my mind.
As Kay Redfield Jamison would say, I was “touched with fire.”
My mother coming out didn’t make me bipolar. My disease was stamped into my DNA long before my mother told us she was gay. But her declaration shook the foundation of me and set off my first real hypomanic episode.
Now, seven years later, the invisible monster finally had a name.
This is the last post in the crisis story, but that doesn’t mean the crisis fully went away. If you or anyone you know needs help, please don’t hesitate to call 1-800-273-8255
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