This year makes 12 years since my initial diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I was only 16 when I was initially diagnosed. I was taken completely by surprise.
I went to school one day, just a regular day of my sophomore year of high school. I felt such a weird feeling, like something was terribly wrong. The feeling built on itself throughout the day. It felt like a bad dream after a while. I ended up cursing out classmates, having an unexplainable feeling of paranoia, and for the first time, maybe ever, people around me were generally freaked out by my strange vibe and incoherence. Not strangers, but teachers and friends who knew me well were afraid of me, and for me.
After class a group of my close friends walked me home because I couldn’t remember how to get there. When my mom and step-dad got home, they took me to the ER. I spent the next 24 hours further losing touch with reality. I was transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Westchester County. So began my 4 month long journey in and out of different in and outpatient hospitals. Along the way I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I was away the whole semester from school. I came back 50 pounds heavier, not wanting to say a word about what happened to anyone.I was angry, disoriented, depressed, and confused. I felt like time out of my life was taken from me. I quickly grew to resent the medication I was prescribed. I made up reasons for why I was away if anyone asked.
I graduated from high school with excellent grades, acceptance to a good college, and so many good friends. I still hated my meds, hated what happened to me, and didn’t like to talk much about it at all. I headed to college optimistic about life. It didn’t take long though for me to see ‘these dumb pills’ and my own treatment as an obstacle I didn’t need in my life. It was a pain in the ass that just took up my time. I also wanted to party. I wanted to be able to explore the ‘full college experience’ or whatever I thought that was at the time. Drinking, getting high, and meds for bipolar disorder aren’t exactly supposed to mix.
As my young adult years went on I took my meds less and less. By the time I got back from a semester in Europe I wasn’t taking them at all. I felt like I had proved to the world (or really just myself) that if I’ve been off them for this long, I didn’t need them anymore, and maybe never really did.
The more I looked into the meds I was taking – Risperdal and Abilify – the more disgusted I became. Some of the side effects were ridiculous! ‘Gynecomastia,’ ‘suicidal thoughts,’ (how can an antipsychotic have suicidal thoughts as a side effect?) and of course, ‘excessive weight gain,’ which I had already experienced. I then read further into the pharmaceutical companies behind these drugs. I was done. Over it. ‘This is bullshit. I’m better off without it. What a sick scam.’
I never looked back the remainder of my college years and the couple of years right after graduation. I felt like I was living the life I wanted to live--carefree, young, wild, no fucks given, and all positive vibes. It felt like I took my life vest off and back flipped off the highest diving board I could into life.
I would experience mania at times and I loved it. I saw it as a gift, a window of time where I felt more amazing than any other time in my life. I had tried several ways to get high, including psychedelics, but mania reigned supreme- an overpowering, natural euphoria.
I moved back home to The Bronx from Queens after college. I began coming home at 4 or 5 in the morning every few days. Sometimes 2 or 3 days would pass and I wouldn’t even come home. I would party too hard, too far away, too late to go home. I couch-surfed among different friends places, and would zombie-walk home after the sun rose and my parents went to work. I would wake up after 12pm, sometimes as late as 3 or 4pm, and have another wild night, or two or three and the cycle would repeat. I held down a retail job, and was a freelance writer for different blogs and newspapers, but nothing really enough to fully support myself.
I started crashing and burning in the Summer of 2014. I tried taking oxycontin, something I never tried before, and had a mania session that lasted way longer than the usual 24 hour period I experienced before. I dyed my hair pink. I had dyed my hair other colors before, but even for me, pink was a stretch. I had several one night stands in a short period of time. I had my first ever interview for a salary job – a modest salary for a social media manager position at a local hospital – and completely bombed it. Showing up with pink hair was not my best move, for sure.
By the end of August I was off the deep end, refusing seek treatment, boastfully admitting to not have taken meds in 4 years, and repeating a legal research-backed mantra of mine, ‘I do not consent,’ when my family asked me to go to the Psych ER.
Eventually my family and girlfriend convinced me to head to the ER one night when I couldn’t sleep. I went from 190 pounds to 155 in about 6 months. I didn’t look good or feel good. They told a white lie to get me there - that this ER had a medical marijuana dispensary I could sign up for. I believed them at the time.
When we got there, and all the paperwork was filled out, there was a long hallway leading into the next room. I was walking gingerly interlocking my arms with my mom and my girlfriend on either side of me. I’ll never forget the feeling I got when I saw the sign above the double doors that read “ADULT PSYCHIATRIC EMERGENCY ROOM.” I knew they lied to me then, but I didn’t feel betrayed. I continued walking, looked at them both and shrugged, not breaking stride. For the first time in my life, I looked at treatment for bipolar disorder like I try to look at everything else, with an open mind, with an optimistic attitude.
My stint in the hospital at 24 wasn’t nearly as long as when I was 16 - a mere 4 weeks. It felt much longer at the time. This was the foundation on which I rebuilt my life. I advocated for a different set of meds, with less side effects. I’m on lithium now, the granddaddy of them all for bipolar disorder. Less side effects, less messed around with. I had a regular sleep schedule. After a few months of looking for different jobs of all kinds I resolved to try my hand at an IT trade school with an internship placement. My goal was to move out of my parents’ house, get a full time job, and to not lose who I am as a person in the process.
I’m glad to say I’ve done all these things and more since re-starting and continuing treatment. From 2014 on, I have found an unexpectedly successful career in Tech, moved into my girlfriend and I’s own apartment, and am glad to say that the meds haven’t zombified me; I’m still me, more me then I had been before. And I quit everything; weed, other pills, cigs, psychedelics, etc. All that and a healthy life don’t mix in my case. I knew that at 18, I’m just practicing it better now.
I have an amazing support system. My friends from when I was 16, are still a big part of my life. My family and close friends have helped me and showed so much love along this journey of mine. My girlfriend has stuck by me through it all, from my worst to my best.
Not everyone with a mental illness has that support system. It can be difficult to live with mental illnesses without people around you who show love and support. The first and biggest barrier to break is the stigma that surrounds mental health, illness, and disability in order to better help and support ourselves and our loved ones who live through it.
#dontcallmecrazy. My name is Ruben and I have #bipolardisorder, but it does not have me.
- Ruben Muniz, 2018