Over the years the holidays have begun to take on a different meaning for me. I have always enjoyed the holiday season, ever since I was a small child, but my perspective about the holiday season is not the same as it once was. In my youth I took each holiday for granted, just as I did my mental health, not intentionally, but more so by naiveté. I could say I didn’t know any better, because this was my truth at the time. But I know better now, and I have four decades of experience to prove it. The last seventeen years have proved many other life lessons to be true as well. I am grateful that I have been taught these lessons, as difficult as they might have been to endure.
Historically, the fall and the spring have been sensitive times of the year for me living with bipolar disorder. For whatever reason, I have had numerous manic episodes in the fall and spring months. I feel this has more to do with the changing of the seasons and the gravitational pull of the universe, than with the holidays that happen to fall during this time of the year, but the holidays have played a role as well.
I clearly remember my first Thanksgiving away from home. I didn’t have the luxury of visiting a relative in another town, or a family member, or a friend from out of state. The year was 2002, and I had experienced a full-blown manic episode that led me to be hospitalized at Bellevue Hospital, in New York City, for two fun weeks and a bundle of joy. Of course I am just being facetious here and adding a bit of humor, but I can assure you I was not smiling or laughing at the time. I was fairly new to the whole bipolar thing, although this hospitalization had been my eighth in two years. Pretty staggering numbers statistically, if you ask me, but this was just the beginning of my adventures, in and out of, hospitals and institutions around the country. My love of travel, combined with mania, has led me to some peculiar places all over the map.
Up until this point I had been hospitalized in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and New York State. Eventually, New York City, with its close proximity to Connecticut, would become my destination of choice when manic. In the past my poor judgment, impulsivity, and uninhibited behavior during a manic episode could not compete with the bright lights of the big city that never sleeps. At a certain point, I crossed a threshold in my early twenties and almost every unplanned trip to NYC, due to the symptoms of mania, resulted in a hospitalization. I won’t disclose the exact number in this essay, but the list is quite long.
Bellevue Hospital is one of the oldest hospitals in the United States, and is also known for having one of the largest, and busiest, psychiatric emergency rooms in the country. Most hospitals have one inpatient psychiatric unit. Bellevue has fourteen units in all, which provide a full range of general and specialized psychiatric treatment services. Unfortunately, this would not be the only time I walked the halls of Bellevue, but the memories from this hospitalization have decorated my shadowed brain.
I never really cared for the smell of hospitals, and this distaste predates my bipolar disorder. Being hospitalized during a holiday doesn’t make this sensory experience go away. And as much as the hospital staff tried to comfort us patients on the unit during this memorable Thanksgiving, by bringing snacks and desserts in from home, their efforts, although appreciated, could only go so far. The hospital staff on a holiday is just a shell of what it normally would be, as most of the nurses, psychiatrists, and social workers had the day off. A Thanksgiving meal was served for dinner, but the turkey was more or less rubbery and the mashed potatoes came from a box. I am not intending to complain here, as things could have been much worse, but I am trying to paint a picture with some vivid details.
The most difficult part of being hospitalized during Thanksgiving, or on any holiday for that matter, is the longing that one feels for their loved ones. I can still recollect the dreadful knot in my stomach that didn’t disappear until days after my discharge. Looking back on this memory, I am reminded that bipolar disorder can set the stage for thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions that sometimes are out of one’s control. I also know, as a person living in recovery, that these unthinkable circumstances can also be avoided by taking certain measures including following a recovery action plan, changing one’s lifestyle, asking for help, being open and honest, and practicing good overall self-care.
But even with the best intentions, a breakthrough is still possible. This is the blessing and the curse of living with a mental illness, and my trials and tribulations have proved that I have to be vigilant on a daily basis to maintain my mental wellness. We all do to some degree.
So as the Thanksgiving season is upon us, and the most festive time of the year is just around the corner, I challenge you to look within and reflect on what you are truly thankful for in your life. Take a minute to really think about this question that gets thrown around so carelessly at times. I know for sure what I am thankful for, and I try to make Thanksgiving an every day affair. Much peace, love, and an abundance of blessings your way!