Absolutely Barking Stars
I see them every day: rambling, paranoid, desperate Facebook posts from an acquaintance I barely know. He’s being followed, he’s being stalked by secret agencies, even a prominent tech company. His phone is being hacked, members of an alcohol recovery fellowship are enticing him to suicide, going so far as to name these people; people I know for a fact to be decent and caring and concerned primarily for his well-being.
I think about trying to help him, but I know it’s pointless to even extend the most tentative of hands.
He’s deep in psychosis, as I’ve been many times in my life. As ludicrous as it may sound to those on the outside of it, it is absolutely, incontrovertibly, horrifying real to him. There is no argument, no sane presentation of fact that can change this for him. A mere acquaintance reaching out would be perceived as “one of them,” frightening him even more. No, this is something for close friends and family to deal with.
I read the insensitive comments some people post in reply to his ramblings:
“Why do you think you’re so special that (said tech company) would waste their time following you?”
“Get a grip. You sound insane.”
“Um…the government has a lot better things to do than spy on you.”
And the most egregious of all, in my opinion: “Stop using meth and get back to a meeting.”
He swears up and down in his angry responses to this last suggestion that he is not using meth, and that anyone who wants to drug test him can come over and have at it. While it is certainly possible that he is currently in a meth psychosis, as I know him to be a fellow recovering addict, there is an equal possibility that he is not. I would never presume to diagnose anyone’s psychiatric condition, but I can speak from my own experience and say that a psychotic break, while usually triggered by meth use, is something that can occur completely independently of drug abuse, particularly for those who are bipolar and primarily among those of us with type 1 of the disorder.
My first major break occurred back in 2008, when I had been six months clean from crystal meth. It began slowly, a strange feeling of being watched, being followed…nothing that felt concrete, but merely a…I don’t know…suspicion that something wasn’t quite right. A rustling in the bushes at night while sitting on the patio was no longer regarded out of hand as the foraging of nocturnal critter. The thought that maybe, just maybe, it was a person crawling around in there seemed just as logical. A light buzz in my head…a strange frisson of anxiety… began to grow, and along with it the paranoia. It escalated rapidly to what I can only describe in retrospect as an electrical crackling as everyday occurrences suddenly had sinister implications: a man hired to install a water heater had planted an electronic listening device somewhere in the electrical panel, as evidenced by the occasion strange flicker of our thirty-year old house wiring. Helicopters began flying over our house with disturbing regularity, firetrucks with sirens wailing would drive by, sirens blaring, firemen staring into my car with what seemed to be threatening gazes.
That crackling in my brain eventually escalated to a full-blown electrical conflagration as I was consumed with fear and paranoia to the point of almost helplessness: refusing to leave the house unless absolutely necessary, which cost me my job at the time. When I did leave the house, I mounted a video camera in the back of my SUV to record the vehicles I was certain were tailing me. I drove recklessly, trying to snap photos of license plates for later download and comparison, certain that if I could capture two of the same plate on different days, I would have incontrovertible proof of my harassment.
I installed video cameras, trying to capture the people I was sure were crawling on the hillside behind our home, beaming microwave frequencies into my skull, causing that strange aforementioned brain-fire. I spent hours trying to force my husband to watch the surveillance tapes, pointing at any moving shadow as proof that the secret cabal was closing in on me.
I was certain that I was being secretly recorded, had been being recorded for years during my episodes of meth-induced promiscuity, and that these videos were being distributed amongst this group of what I came to believe were “gang stalkers.” (A quick youtube search will explain what this is, the residual terror of this memory still prevents me from describing it in any detail.)
Early on, my husband Patrick accused me of being back on meth. I vigorously denied it, as does my Facebook acquaintance. Of course, he didn’t believe me, even when a drug test confirmed it. Additional tests were administered, all of which were negative. Still, my behaviors were so similar to the times I’d actually been in a meth psychosis that he had a hard time believing the negative results. I was, as stated above, as clean as a whistle, not a trace of meth in my system.
It grew worse, and worse…and when I thought it couldn’t get any more horrific…it got worse still. I took to putting aluminum foil inside my pillow and sleeping with it over my head to reflect the microwaves, a much more practical idea than the laughably stereotypical tinfoil hat. I accosted strangers on the street, accusing them of following me. I once scrambled up a hill to the street above our home and physically threatened a couple having a makeout session in their parked car. I began communicating with Patrick only through handwritten letters, as I was certain I was being electronically eavesdropped upon.
There were other horrifying memories of things I did that are still only now coming back to me, that still make me cringe with shame and guilt.
The psychosis lasted close to six months, the most horrific time of my entire life, ending with a suicide attempt and a stay in a psychiatric facility where I spent most of my time staring out the dayroom window at parked cars, trying to figure out which ones where there to observe me. Their intention all along, I believed, was to drive me to suicide. They knew I was a sick, sad, depraved meth addict and that getting rid of me would be a gift to society. But they wouldn’t dirty their own hands, they had to get me to do the job myself. And, though of course this was all delusion, they came very, very close.
My psychotic break didn’t end suddenly with the administration of powerful antipsychotics, rather, the fire in my head was slowly extinguished over a period of what I recall to be several months.
Just two years ago, I would finally learn the reason for this break. I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder – type 1 since I had already had a psychotic break – and while going over my history with my new (amazing) psychiatrist, remembered that a few months prior to the psychosis I’d been prescribed an antidepressant: Wellbutrin to be specific. For those with bipolar disorder, antidepressants can kick off a manic episode, which can turn to mania. During the entire six months of my psychosis, I was still taking that antidepressant. It almost killed me. I want to blame the idiot psychiatrists who tossed meds at me with careless abandon, not bothering to learn anything about my history other than my crystal meth abuse, but I also have to take responsibility for the fact that my drug use made it difficult to diagnose me with anything, made it almost impossible to get a baseline on my brain chemistry. Still, if one psychiatrist had seen me as more than just a drug addict and had bothered gathering more than a cursory mental health history, he or she would have asked the right questions. The questions that would have determined that i’d been prone to hallucinations my entire life, even before drugs entered the picture. They’d have learned that I’d always had prolonged bursts of inexplicable energy, hyper sexuality, and compulsive behavior followed by long bouts of debilitating depression, long before I put a meth pipe to my lips.
I have also had psychotic breaks triggered by my meth use, but was with many bipolar people, they last longer and are often much more extreme than those experienced by those without pre-existing mental illness.
Fortunately for me, I found that miracle psychiatrist who finally prescribed the correct medication: a mood stabilizer. For a year, it was a miracle. Absolute calm, without any of the constant ups and downs i’d experienced my whole life, though somewhere in the back of my mind was a tiny fear that they would stop working…and eventually that fear came to pass. Mania creeped up on me, that slow fire of excess energy in my head burning brighter and brighter every day. But, caught up in the sheer pleasure that mania induces, I ignored the signs and attributed it to the joy that I’d been feeling since being prescribed the meds. I deserved to feel this good after all those years of tumult, it was summer and the sun and swimming and tanning and vacations were why I felt so amazing, and a hundred other rationalizations. Yet, I knew deep inside something was starting to go very wrong again. And then, it happened: another relapse. Though very brief, less than twelve hours in duration to be specific, it was devastating to me.
I went back to my psychiatrist, and my dosage was upped. Since then, things have leveled off again, though it’s been nowhere near the magic of that first year. I’ve come to understand that i’ll never be cured, that i’ll always have a propensity for depression and mania, and that I have to stay vigilant if I want to stay sober. The signs of impending depression are fairly easy to identify, but the onset of mania is less so. I’ve come to recognize some of the signs, though: tapping my foot frantically, a strange humming sound I find myself making almost as if excess energy is trying to expel itself from my mouth, and a generalized feeling of restlessness. It is at these moments I know to lie down on the couch, try to quiet my mind, take the medication I’ve been prescribed for anxiety, and most importantly…tell my husband so he can keep an eye on me. I’ve only had one instance of severe mania with it’s attendant psychosis in the past six months, and I did all the right things: stayed home, told my husband what I was feeling, and asked friends to watch out for me (Thank you, Ashley Aoki for babysitting me and taking me to a meeting, and Robb Meese for the excruciating ride home from Vegas I put you through) and most important of all, stayed compliant with my psych meds.
I know my sobriety will always be tenuous because of this mental illness, and though I have a hard time taking responsibility for any relapse brought on while in psychosis, I take full responsibility for ignoring any warning signs that send me there in the first place. I shared at a recovery meeting recently that it’s frustrating when so many of my fellows are playing on one fairly level playing field, while those of us with mental illness are playing on a field that often feels like a navy seal training obstacle course. I, and those like me, have to work extra hard to maintain our sobriety, and have to be willing to get back up again and keep trying, recognizing that we’re much more likely to keep falling, and moving past the shame that that entails.
My heart breaks for my Facebook friend, and all I can do is pray that he finds relief, that his psychotic break doesn’t end in a suicide attempt. Or that if it does, it’s unsuccessful and he gets the help he needs. Again, I don’t know if he’s still using, or if he’s suffering a bipolar break. However, telling to stop using without being absolutely certain he is using is not only pointless, it can actually increase his terror and alienation. Telling him all the things he’s experiencing aren’t real is also pointless. It’s real to him, just like it was absolutely real to me. It still feels real sometimes, and there are still times I look over my shoulder for a car with one headlight, or hear a noise outside my window and shudder with reflexive memory.
So, pray for my Facebook friend. Pray that his family and close friends can find a way to get him to accept psychiatric help, and that he survives this.
Today is World Bipolar Day, so whileyou’re at it, perhaps you can say another prayer for all of us living with bipolar disorder; with all mental illnesses. Pray for the eradication of stigma surrounding mental illness, and pray that they get the correct diagnosis and the proper medication when they do.
And she’s wound up shooting off burning out
Tearing up the midnight heart
Stayed alive stayed alive so far
We know what we are
Absolutely barking stars
The bitch is quick I’ve tried to trip her up
She is full of tricks and blends so sticky in my blood
But she can fly and I can only run from everything and after her
I’m wired and tired and full of holes
And she plays Pandora with my soul
I’ll never let her go
It’s so quiet here without her
I don’t wanna feel myself
- – Maria Mckee