The “Really Crazy” People

Weddings usually provide their fair share of awkward moments, especially if you don’t know many people there.  Last night Andy (my husband) and I were at a wedding for one of his best friends from high school.  We were placed at the awkward table – you know the one.  Every wedding has an awkward table where the bride and groom put the hodgepodge of people that don’t fit at any other table: the cousin they haven’t seen in years, the plus-ones from the wedding party, the random guy from work who doesn’t know anyone, and the old friends from high school.  That was our table: Table 15.

We engaged in the usual small talk that happens at every one of these awkward tables everywhere in the world. Seriously – if you could say the following questions/statements in every language, you could hold your own at the awkward table for any wedding anywhere:

  1. How do you know the bride and groom?
  2. Doesn’t the bride look beautiful?
  3. These centerpieces look great.
  4. This food is delicious. (Which you say even if it isn’t).
  5. Gorgeous day for a wedding.  (Alternatively: Too bad the weather is terrible.)
  6. What do you do for a living?

The awkward table quickly became “the nightmare table” once we got around to question 6.  I answered that I’m a teacher (normal answer).  My husband answered physical therapist (normal answer).  This British dude who’s a friend of the groom answered mortgage lender (normal answer).  The random cousin from Ohio answered nurse (normal answer…so far).

“What kind of nursing?”  I asked.  I didn’t actually care.  I just asked because, you know, I have to sit at a table with these people for an entire evening, and I know there are a zillion different kinds of nursing.  I was trying to make conversation because that’s what you do at the awkward table.

Her answer stunned me.  “I’m a nurse at a psychiatric facility,” she said.  “But I only work with, like, the really crazy people.  The ones with bipolar and schizophrenia and stuff.”

I attempted a polite smile and head nod.  “That must be difficult,” I finally said.

“Yeah,” she responded casually.  “I don’t like it much.  They’re like, seriously insane.  I never know what I’ll be dealing with.  It’s hard.”

I didn’t have anything else nice to say, so in following my mom’s age-old instructions, I didn’t say anything at all. I was thinking Hard for you?  Ummm…how about those of us living with those ‘really crazy’ disorders?  You don’t have any idea about ‘hard.’  And you’re a nurse…shouldn’t you have the slightest bit of compassion?  Do they not teach that in nursing school anymore?  

I looked down and tried to act really interested in my mashed potatoes.  Have you ever tried to act really interested in mashed potatoes?  It’s impossible.  They’re colorless blobs of nothing, but I was studying them as if they were a display in the Museum of Modern Art (which, actually, modern art can be kind of weird.  I bet potatoes could pass for a brilliant piece in certain galleries).  The potatoes blurred as tears sprung to my eyes, but I was not going to let any tears fall.  I studied the potatoes harder.  Andy put his hand on my leg under the table – his way of saying, “It’s okay.  She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”  And I know she didn’t.  It still doesn’t make it okay.  Since when am I one of the “really crazy” people?  Come to think of it, who are the “normal crazy” people?  Isn’t that an oxymoron?  Actually, if we’re getting right down to it, isn’t “normal” a phantom anyway?  Who’s “normal”?  Is there such a thing?  Probably not.  Regardless, it felt like she’d just slapped me.  Why was she allowed to look down on me and talk about how I’m a completely different level of difficult craziness?  How dare she insinuate that we should all feel bad for her for having to deal with people like me?

Imagine my complete shock when mortgage lender British dude came out with, “See, what you probably didn’t know when saying that is that I’m actually bipolar.”

My head snapped up from the potatoes so fast that I might need my physical therapist husband to fix it from whiplash.  The British guy is bipolar?  And he is confident enough to tell an entire table full of people?!  The nurse suddenly seemed very uncomfortable (which I sadistically loved… #sorrynotsorry).  I probably should have chimed in with a “me too,” but I’m just not there yet.  Instead, I stared wide-eyed at this man who had just flipped our conversation in a very different direction.

“I was diagnosed fourteen years ago,” he said to a table of six very uncomfortable people and one person feeling a rush of relief that oddly also felt a bit victorious (Don’t degrade mental health patients, you idiot nurse!).  British dude continued.  “My brother has been hospitalized for bipolar disorder in the past, but he’s fine now.  I’m fine too.  People don’t understand that people with mental illnesses can fight them, overcome them, and lead very normal and meaningful lives.  None of you would have even known I was bipolar if I didn’t tell you.  It was a long road to get where I am, but I got here.  I’m okay.  And that’s cool.”

I wanted to stand up and start clapping or go southern Baptist style and chime in with a loud “AMEN,” but I only stared.  That must be what it feels like to feel starstruck – I had so much to say, but I said none of it.  All I could think of was I want to be like this guy.

“Anyway,” he said, totally comfortable. “Sorry to take that conversation in a dark direction.  I just thought I should mention it.”  The conversation slowly dwindled back to safer topics such as “where was your last vacation?” and “does anyone know where the bride and groom are going for their honeymoon?”  I didn’t talk much.  My mind was spinning.

Later that night, there was a point where the rest of the table was out dancing and it was only me, Andy, and British dude sitting at our table.  I took my chance while I had it.

“You know how earlier you were talking about being bipolar?” I asked.  There’s no natural way to bring that up in conversation, so I figured I’d jump right in.  “Well,” I continued after he nodded yes, “Here’s the thing – I’m recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I’m so very much not okay with it.  How did you…I mean…how did you do that?  How are you okay?”  He explained a bit about his story, a bit about his family, and a bit about the quirks he still has.  He told me he never matches socks, and I gasped.  “NO WAY,” I said, “I NEVER match my socks!”  I made him prove it by showing me his socks.  They didn’t match.  I know “mismatching socks” isn’t a symptom of bipolar disorder, but it was one more thing this guy and I had in common.  It was one more thing that made the all-too-rare thoughts cross my mind that Maybe I’m not the only one and Maybe I’ll be okay.

We were only a few minutes into talking when the now drunk out-of-town cousin stumbled back to the table with her boyfriend.  She had busted a bra strap.  Classy.  We switched the conversation over to her wardrobe malfunction, and we didn’t get back to bipolar disorder for the rest of the night.  Before we left, though, the British guy gave his e-mail address to my husband and me and told us to contact him anytime – that he knows what it’s like to struggle with bipolar disorder and that he’d love to help in any way possible.  Also, I’m pretty sure he meant it.

What started out as the awkward table ended up making me feel more understood than I had in a very, very long time.  Maybe one day I’ll have the confidence to speak up too, and to make only the people looking down on me feel awkward.

Got Any Secrets?

I don’t usually find myself sitting on the floor in a dark corner with a lady fifteen years my senior.  When I did find myself in that situation, I didn’t know the social protocol of what to say.  What came out of my mouth was, “So, got any secrets?”

*facepalm*

But seriously – it felt like junior high where my girlfriends and I would crawl into the dark crawlspace above the laundry room and confess who we liked, as if these secrets were of utmost concern and to be guarded as closely as matters of national defense.  If I’d had the opportunity, I’m sure I would have stashed a little piece of paper that said “Hazel loves Marcus” in D.C. right next to the files that contained codes on how to launch nuclear missiles.  That was a long time ago; those files are all digitized now, I’m sure.

Actually, that brings me back to my main story.  At my school, we have a consultant come in once a month to help us with technology issues and advancements for our school.  I’m the lead teacher for technology here (HA! – I’m pretty sure I only got this job because I’m under thirty and therefore must be “up on all of the new-fangled contraptions”).  On the day that the consultant comes, I get a sub for my normal classes and take the day to hold meetings, address issues that teachers may be having, etc.  She and I hang out and do teacher tech stuff all day.  It’s kind of fun.

Back in the early fall, my life was crumbling. I didn’t have much time/energy to create stellar plans or even pretend that I knew what I was doing.  I forgot our October meeting entirely, so she showed up and I was completely unprepared.  I didn’t try to cover for myself – when she came in I immediately said, “I am so sorry – I completely forgot you were coming today.  Don’t worry; I’ll get together a schedule and we’ll still get a lot done.  Just give me ten minutes.”  And, because improvising is a strength of mine, I did.  And, because kindness is a strength of hers, when my boss asked how things went at the end of that day, she said, “Great!  Hazel always keeps me on my toes.  We got a lot done.”

I could have hugged her.

With that kind of early impression, there was really no rebounding.  Obviously every meeting day since then I’ve been ready, had a sub, had plans, etc., but when things didn’t go according to plan or a new plan sounded better halfway through the day, I just quickly switched things around and rolled with whatever.  I joke around with this consultant and have fun because – come on – I lost all sense of professionalism back in October.  No reason to pretend I’ve got my shit together.  She knows I don’t.  It was actually kind of freeing.  Pretending gets really tiring.

Last week the consultant was here again.  We had a lockdown drill in the middle of one of our meetings, so I had to lock my door, pull the shades, turn off the lights, and then we had to go sit on the floor in the corner.  It was, as I said, kind of awkward.  That’s why I came out with “Got any secrets?”  I explained how my friends and I used to tell secrets in the dark, and she thought that was funny.  Then she surprised me and said, “Yes, I actually do have one.”

Intriguing.

She went on to say, “This is totally unprofessional so please don’t tell anyone…but your school is my favorite of all the ones I consult.”  Really?  I told her no way, that she probably says that to every school.  She continued, “No, seriously.  I go to other schools, and people are so stuffy.  They have these perfect schedules that we stick to down to the minute.  They’re overly organized, and they’re stuck-up like they completely know what they’re doing all the time.  You are fun, funny, and we get a ton done, but I never feel nervous when I’m here.  You’re super relaxed and just roll with whatever comes up.”  I laughed and responded, “You don’t know how badly I wish I could be like those people!!”  Which is absolutely true.  If I could be stuffy and organized and totally prepared for everything, trust me, I would be.

Trust me, I have been.

I won the award for “most organized” at my school last year.  I was promoted to head of my department after only one year of employment at my last school.  I’m the teacher who generally “has it all together.”  My principal has sent in other teachers to observe me.  The truth is, my technology consultant let me in on quite the secret last week.  It’s just not the one that she thought she was telling me.  Here’s the secret:

People like authentic.

People like real people.

People don’t like perfect people, because perfect people aren’t real.

I was authentically me only when I lost the ability to be anyone else.  When I was so down that I literally couldn’t perform my usual “A-game,” that’s when I became likable.  My consultant had never met pre-apocalyptic Hazel.

Apocalypse summer 2015 was when my life completely exploded.  Full nuclear.  Nothing was left of what it was before except for my cockroach-like husband (cockroach-like because he would stick with me through any sort of life explosion and destruction, like how a cockroach is supposed to survive a nuclear bomb.  Other than that, my husband has nothing in common with a cockroach.  Just to be clear).

Anyway, because the consultant didn’t know pre-apocalyptic Hazel, she didn’t know that I was supposed to be organized.  She didn’t know I was supposed to have it all together like the stuffy people she can’t stand.  She just knew that I was relatable and fun and that I don’t try to pretend to be someone I’m not.  Truly, I feel like most days I am trying to get back to my super-teacher A-game.  When I really think about it, though, that’s silly.  Why do people spend so much time and energy trying to impress people they don’t even like?  What if we could get our jobs done, still be very effective, but be okay with mistakes and shake the feeling that everything has to be perfect?  What if we could be honest and confident about our strengths and weaknesses and just let the chips fall where they may?  Confidence isn’t saying, “Everyone is going to love me.”  It’s saying, “I don’t care if they do or not – I’m going to be me, and I’m going to be okay with whatever comes with that.”

That, my friends, is a way more important secret than the ones I told above my laundry room.

But seriously – if you run into Marcus, don’t tell him I liked him in seventh grade.  Whoa.  Embarrassing.

I Have a Drug Problem

Most people who have drug problems have a problem with putting drugs in their body when they shouldn’t.  I have the opposite problem.  I hate hate hate taking drugs, even when (especially when) I really need them.

I’m not exactly sure why this is.  Maybe it’s a pride thing?  I want to be okay without these drugs.  I don’t want to need them.  The problem is, I do need them.  I need them for a variety of things.  I just hate taking them.  I can’t be the first person in the world with this type of problem, right?  The issue is, unfortunately, that this is a somewhat serious problem.  I can’t just not take drugs when I’m supposed to.  Theoretically.

It started eight and a half years ago with a brain tumor diagnosis.  It was absolutely terrifying for a little while, but I eventually learned that it was non-cancerous and “easily manageable.” As long as, you know, by “easily manageable” doctors meant frequent blood tests, MRIs, so many endocrineologists that I should make a facebook group for them, and a daily cocktail of drugs that makes me feel like a ninety year old. I have to use those weird daily sorted pill boxes that you see casually strewn about in nursing homes.  Oh, and now I also have a side dish of bipolar disorder.

Easily manageable.

Okay.

I’m not going to go through the history of the past eight and a half years right now.  If you follow this blog, I’m sure through pieces here and there you’ll eventually get the full story.  It’s actually pretty fascinating.  There are all the elements of a good read: true love, fake love, betrayal, near death experiences, secrets, loss, redemption, hope…you get the idea.  It’s just that living it is a lot different than reading it in a novel.  Living it is kind of a hot mess.

Which is why I need drugs.  I need drugs to keep my brain tumor from growing, and I need drugs to keep my bipolar disorder from turning me into a version of myself that I hate.  But… I hate them.  I have this internal battle every time I open a pill bottle.  It’s almost Shakesperean: “to take or not to take”?

Every time I have a good day, I wonder, “Do I really need these? Could I maybe be okay without them this time?”  And every time I forget to take them (really forgetting or just “forgetting”), the answer I find is no.  I am not okay without them.  Yet.

Think about being a kid in school – the one message you heard over and over again was “be yourself.”  Imagine a world where doctors tell you, “Take these drugs, because you can’t be yourself.  You have to be this drugged up version of yourself, otherwise you’re completely nuts.”  It’s strange.  It’s scary.  Who am I really?  The crazy me or the me on drugs?  WHO IS HAZEL HILLBORO?

Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder about the person staring back at me.  She’s a stranger.  It’s very weird.

My psychiatrist tried to make me think of mental illness as more normal by saying, “Think of it this way – if you were a diabetic, would you refuse to take your insulin?”  I immediately said, “Yes, I probably would.”  My husband laughed, and my psychiatrist looked at him, startled.  I’m glad that he laughed, because it made me laugh.  I realized I’d given the wrong answer, but at least I’d given an honest one.  And if you can’t laugh at these kinds of things, you’re just going to cry.

I don’t know why I have such a mental block about putting foreign substances in my body.  Surely in any other case, this would be a good thing.  Unfortunately, for me it means that I make it more difficult for myself to get better.  Chalk it up to another piece of my crazy.  Hopefully another blog post down the road will explain how I got over this, and I now have no problem being in my mid-twenties and taking enough pills to fill a pharmacy.

That’s an exaggeration, but not as big of one as I’d like it to be.

Excuse me – I have to go take my 4:00 pills.

That one’s not an exaggeration.

The Beginning

“I don’t really believe in mental illness,” I said.  This is always a great way to start off a conversation with psychiatrists.  You can almost see the smoke come off of their pencils as they try to write fast enough about how crazy you are.  I wasn’t joking, though.  I was on psychiatrist #4, and I still didn’t believe in mental illness.

I perched on the edge of my comfy blue chair and eyed the kleenex box next to me.  I wondered if psychiatrists get immune to people crying sort of like kindergarten teachers do.  Kids cry all the time, so I’ll secretly think things such as, “I’m sorry Timmy took your cookies, but actually I don’t care.  Stop crying.”  I wondered if psychiatrists have also become jaded and learned not to care.  I made a mental note not to cry, just in case.  I looked around at the “calming” decorations: beach scenes in frames and a random fake plant in the corner.  A plethora of degrees on the wall behind the psychiatrist’s desk were hung proudly to make me think she knows what she’s talking about.

“It’s like this,” I continued. “I see people all the time posting on facebook and twitter and such, ‘love me because I have an anxiety disorder,’ or ‘how to love a person with depression,’ or ‘my depression is really bad today, so everyone be nice.’  I mean, it seems like they wear their ‘illness’ as a badge of honor, a way to get attention.  It’s an excuse to be an asshole without having to apologize.  That’s dumb.  I’m a teacher, and the teachers at my school offer around xanax like tic tacs.  I realize we have a stressful job, but come on.  We’re not all mentally ill.  People just need to learn how to deal with their lives better.  People who broadcast their ‘mental illnesses’ drive me nuts.”

My psychiatrist stopped writing to look me straight in the eye.  “There may be people like that in the world, and they may be annoying, but I would rather work with someone like that than someone like you, because you just tried to kill yourself and still refuse to believe you have a problem.”

Oooooh snap.  Shut down by my shrink.

I mumbled something along the lines of “good point” and sank back into the chair.  I wasn’t going to get out of this one easily.  My vision blurred, and I grabbed a kleenex.  Stupid psychiatrists and their stupid kleenexes.

“What kind of meds have you been on?” she asked.

“All of them,” I answered.  “I don’t remember them all.  Name one.  I’ve probably been on it.”

I’d been diagnosed with depression and anxiety multiple times over the years, I’d taken medications with varying degrees of little to no success, and I’d given up on ever getting better.  I’d just tried to kill myself the day before, and I’d been dragged to this psychiatrist pretty much against my will.  I mean, not literally kicking or screaming or anything, but when one doesn’t have any will to live, it’s basically like, “Fine.  Another doctor? I don’t want to go, but I also don’t actually care.”

She ran down a standard list of medications.  Prozac?  Yep.  Zoloft?  Uh huh.  Klonopin?  Of course.  Xanax?  Got a collection.  You get the idea.  So many pills, so little time in a one hour appointment.

Finally she asked if I’d been on oxcarbazepine.  Umm…no?  Is that even English?  Did she just make that one up as a trick to say if I’d say yes to everything, even random made-up words?  The answer, however, was no.  I had not been on that drug.

She asked if I’d be willing to try it.  That’s like when the teacher asks you, “Would you like to give the answer to #5?”  You can’t very well just say, “No.”  I said fine, that I would take it.  I can’t say I had a lot of hope that it would be any different (my resume of drugs taken was impressively long with very little results, as you may recall).  I took the prescription, got the pills, and immediately googled two things:

  1. Can I overdose on this drug?  (No)
  2. What is the success rate for this drug? (Pretty good…for bipolar disorder)

Bipolar disorder?  What?  I obviously didn’t have bipolar disorder.

(If you haven’t already figured this out, I was also a pretentious idiot)

If I had anything (which I didn’t believe), then it was depression, not bipolar disorder.  I was incredibly uninformed about this disease.  I thought it just meant that people got really moody – happy one minute and furious the next.  Basically PMS on steroids.  I had no idea that bipolar people could sometimes go days without sleeping for no apparent reason (which I had absolutely done) and be super productive.  I didn’t know that it made them act completely out of character for themselves sometimes for weeks on end, and that they could then crash into a horrible depression.  I didn’t know that bipolar disorder can go undiagnosed for an average of ten years before stumbling on a correct diagnosis.  No one goes to a doctor to say, “My life feels absolutely perfect and I just solved a bunch of problems by staying up for a week straight.”  They go to a doctor when they feel depressed, hence the misdiagnosis.

My psychiatrist is very smart.  I think she knew that if she told me I had bipolar disorder, I wouldn’t have believed her.  I would have refused to take the drugs and decided she was the crazy one, not me.  Only a few days after I started taking them, though, I felt like I woke up from a years long coma.  For the first time in a very, very long time, I could think clearly.  I could be rational.  It was strange.

Isn’t that sad?

This blog is my way of reaching out to two groups of people.  The first is to people who have a mental illness or love someone who does.  I am just starting down this road, and it’s scary as hell.  I hate knowing that my brain can’t function properly without drugs.  I hate thinking that I will probably have to deal with this for the rest of my life.  I guess, selfishly, I’m looking for anyone out there who can give me a “me too” or a “been there” or a “you can do this.”

I’m also writing this for people who are like I was only a few months ago.  I fully subscribed to the “ignore mental illness and it will go away” philosophy, and I am now a true convert who knows firsthand how damaging that view can be.  I almost lost my life over it.  I would like to help other people know that mental illness is serious, it should be taken seriously, and they should stop shaming those of us who have to struggle silently.

Lastly, I’m writing this blog because in all the research I’ve done, a bipolar disorder diagnosis looks bleak.  I’ve stumbled across all sorts of (varying degrees of accurate) statistics that say things like I have a 100x greater chance of killing myself than someone without the disorder.  It says I have a high probability of ending up in a mental institution.  It says I will probably get divorced.  I’m not okay with any of these things.  I want to read a blog that says, “I have bipolar disorder, but don’t worry – I’m kicking its ass.”  I don’t see one out there, so I’m writing one.  I’m about to kick some bipolar ass, and I’d love to have you follow this blog and be on my team.