By Cairo Amani
I think it was a Sunday.
Early afternoon and sunny. I sat on my bed in full panic, shivering with fear, crying my eyes out. The panic attack was continuing from the day before when I sloppily and offensively asked my ex to get back together with me. Insulted, hurt, and angry, she left shortly after to visit the woman she was dating at the time.
My mind was tortured with images of them together, so vivid that I couldn’t sleep, so heavy on my chest I couldn’t breath and so full throughout my body that I couldn’t eat. And so, when the panic tried to push out anything else in my stomach, there was nothing—I was sick and couldn’t even throw up.
For the past few years, my girlfriend had been there to help me calm down during panic attacks but now that she was my ex, I was alone and I would be alone for many more attacks to come. What worried me was that a couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have even cared that she was gone. Then, with very little build up, I was suddenly destroyed by it. What happened?
Though I didn’t want to, I texted her: “Please come home. Something is wrong.”
I’m lucky she’s a good person. I’m lucky she’s selfless. I’m lucky that after several months of pain and heartbreak she not only still loved me, but respected me enough as a human to still be concerned about me.
While I waited the few hours it would take her to get from Yonkers to Brooklyn, I did the typical thing any 20-something with a copay does—I WebMD’ed my symptoms.
I didn’t like what I read.
When she got home, she took me to the doctor. And when I didn’t like what the first doctor said I went to three more doctors. But they all said the same thing.
I had Bipolar Disorder.
The news crashed into me. I saw the past year of my life dance before my eyes like I had front row seats to The Lion King on Broadway. I’m not being dramatic; I literally envisioned every bad or out-of-character decision I’d made. Some of them were great, like my decision to change my name. Some of them I mildly regretted, like cutting off my dreadlocks. Others devastated me—like breaking up with her. She held me while I cried. For days after, she listened to me narrate my understanding of the news; I’d been manic and now that I was coming out of that mania, I could see my actions for what they really were: mistakes.
But that didn’t erase the pain.
It didn’t mean that she could forgive me for everything and come running back to me, even if she understood, even if she believed it wasn’t me with the haircut and men’s clothes parading my new relationships around without regard for her feelings. But how could she not believe it? After five years of being with me, how could she not have known something was terribly wrong?
But that’s what mania is—almost undetectable if you’re not looking for it. I convinced everyone I was fine, even though my friends thought it was preposterous that after five years I was suddenly leaving her. I had my reasons and I laid them out like Johnnie Cochran in a courtroom. I almost convinced myself. But, while mania meant I did a lot of things I didn’t have the ovaries to do otherwise, like begin a public speaking career, it also caused me to spend large amounts of money, drink and smoke too much and neglect most adult responsibilities. I prized partying over work, I didn’t write for months and I got behind on bills. Those were the moments where I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t stop. Mania feels like being trapped behind a glass wall and watching someone else burn down your house, laughing and smiling the whole time. And when it’s over, the glass breaks, the person is gone and you’re alone in the ashes.
How could I sweep that up?
To be completely honest, I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out. And every single day I face the consequences of my actions. I lost two close friends while I was undiagnosed and almost destroyed every chance I had with the love of my life. Since my diagnosis, I’ve worked to be a better friend to the wonderful people who are still in my life and I’m striving to be a better partner to my girlfriend—who graciously agreed to give me a second chance. This has been a learning experience and I’m still learning.
I’m learning to differentiate between explanations and excuses. I’m learning how to live with a disability, how to love myself with mental illness, how to be more than my disorder and how to understand that without that disorder I wouldn’t be myself. I’m learning that self-care comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s extra sleep, sometimes it’s a day off of work, and sometimes it means turning this article in by June when May is actually Mental Health Awareness Month.
Now that I understand Bipolar Disorder, I can identify key points in my life where I was manic, where I would completely redo my wardrobe, take on a new persona, pick up a new hobby and abruptly drop it all. It’s scary and embarassing that many of my quirks were an illness I didn’t know I had. No one knew. And my memory of my manic moments is terrifyingly blotchy. Manic Cai is charming, funny and magnetic. Depressive Cai can be all those things but not as effortlessly. Depressive Cai overthinks almost everything and is incredibly insecure about stuff that doesn’t even matter to anyone else. Medicine has helped me find a balance between the two Cairos and helps me function noticeably better than when I don’t take it but even that comes with difficulties.
I have trouble remembering to take it. I’m convinced that’s because subconsciously my pride makes me view it as a weakness. Staying on medicine is also hard, not just for me, but many patients because when you’re well medicated you begin to think you don’t need it. So now I need to be monitored, which is also embarrassing. It’s a sore spot for my girlfriend to ask me if I’ve taken my medicine but she’s vigilant and I’m grateful. I’m still figuring out the right dosage, trying to find the right doctor and incredibly conscious of making sure I keep a job that offers health insurance. A year ago none of this mattered and now, I can’t live a full or healthy life without it.
There is no cure for Bipolar Disorder. My experience of it is that I react ten times more intensely to things than the average person. Medicine helps regulate this, helps me act “normal” but it doesn’t always work. There are still times when I cry because I’m frustrated that I can’t find a shirt I want to wear. There are still times when I spend a couple of days staying out late and drinking too much. There are still moments when I decide I want to start a new hobby, invest in it for a week and give it up. But for the most part, I’ve survived this; this thing that was possibly the worst thing I’ve experienced in my adult life.
I’d love to say that things are normal again except that I don’t know what normal is. I’ve been back and forth so many times—trying on different clothes, different labels, different hair, different skin that I’m not really sure who I am. Is that my disorder? Who knows? It could be because I’m fucking 27 and no 27-year-old knows who they are for sure. My girlfriend has lovingly nicknamed me “Phoenix” for the many changes she’s seen me go through in the six years we’ve been together.
There are, however, a few things in life that I’m certain of: true friends weather the storm, writing is as therapeutic as my pills and there’s a woman in my life who has proven to me that she’ll love me forever.
No matter which me I am at the time.
Cairo loves moleskin notebooks, considers Scrivener a godsend, and enjoys reading, dancing, and board games that involve doing silly things for points. You can find out more about her here: about.me/cairoamani.