Manic Monday


September of 2000 is a month and a year that I will always remember. It was the first time in my life that my train derailed and went off of the tracks. As a 22-year-old kid, the world was my oyster. I was a scholar athlete entering my senior year of college at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, and my ship had sailed smoothly for most of my life. If someone had told me that I was to soon have a psychotic break, I would have told them that they may have some sort of a mental illness. Yet, there I was on the brink of insanity. I could no longer deny my fate nor could my family, my friends, nor my peers. My bipolar disorder had been lying dormant for over two decades and was on the verge of taking me down a long and winding road, that I could have never dreamed of in my waking or sleeping hours. My new existence had become a harsh reality seemingly overnight. 

I had no pre-existing symptoms of any kind of mental illness before my first manic break and no one in my immediate family had a history of mental illness. Although bipolar disorder can surface at any point in life, the onset of bipolar disorder is commonly between the ages of 18-22 years of age for males, and slightly older for females. Mania can be triggered by a myriad of life events including, but not limited to, a significant loss, death of a loved one, termination from a job, marriage, divorce, birth of a child, an unexpected transition, and numerous other life situations. The common theme between these triggers is a major life change. The trigger for my first manic episode was initiating a break-up with my high school / college girlfriend of seven years. I could have never imagined what was to soon follow this emotional and challenging experience.

Ten days later, I was admitted into an inpatient psychiatric unit at Tufts Medical Center, in Boston, Massachusetts. I had entered an intricate and delicate web of delusion and deceit that I could not comprehend nor understand at the time. Up until this moment in my life I was an all-American boy who had excelled in athletics, did well in school, had a wide circle of friends, and came from a loving and stable home environment. This idyllic world would be tested as far as the eye could see.

During the week and a half leading up to my first inpatient hospitalization, I did not sleep for more than one to two hours per night, and despite my lack of sleep, my energy levels were through the roof. I became hyperverbal with each passing minute. My speech was pressured. My thoughts were tangential. My behavior to those who knew me well was more than bizarre. I had skipped numerous academic classes to frolic along the Maine coastline, which was a rarity for me due to my major, at least the skipping classes part. When I was participating in class, I would ramble on about the unrelated and the trivial. Several of my classmates had insisted that I tell them what psychedelics I had taken over the summer. But sadly, there were no psychedelics involved in this long strange trip.

Everything around me did, however, become more vibrant and lively, from the conversations I engaged in, to the colors in the sky. I remember feeling incredibly buzzed, with no intoxicants in my system, and I was on a spiritual high that I had never experienced before. I no longer felt sad or depressed about the break-up and had entered an extreme state of euphoria. I was in the middle of my first full-blown manic episode and had no inkling, whatsoever, about this fact. I couldn't see a cloud on the horizon, and although my peers knew something was going on with me, neither could they. My own personal mental health awareness was limited and so was theirs.

The day before I was hospitalized, I disappeared from campus and made the impulsive decision to drive to the Fleet Center in Boston to see the The Other Ones (remaining members of the Grateful Dead) and Ziggy Marley. I found out that The Other Ones were playing in Boston that afternoon and didn't think twice about getting in my car and driving south unbeknownst to any of my housemates or friends. I had no intentions of going to this show beforehand. I barely had enough money in my wallet to buy a ticket, let alone pay for gas to get me to the city. I didn't tell a soul that I was leaving campus, which was very uncharacteristic of me. 

Twenty four hours later, I was dragged from the streets of Boston by a team of paramedics after standing in the middle of the road, in the heart of the city, and breaking my guitar into an impressive array of splinters on the asphalt.  If that wasn't enough, I crossed my heart and proceeded to lay down in the middle of the road, in front of oncoming traffic. I was ready to surrender but I had no idea what I was surrendering to. Minutes later, I was rolled into the emergency room at Tufts Medical Center and later admitted into their inpatient psychiatric unit. I remember waking up the next morning clear as day, as the white starch from that hospital bed is now encapsulated in my DNA.

A nurse walked into my room and closed the door behind her. She had asked me if I wanted to see my family and I had replied, "of course." The worry on their faces was hard to overlook, but I could tell that they were relieved to see me and I welcomed their warm embrace. Considering my state of affairs, things were pretty bleak all around. I can assure you that no one was jumping for joy, although my family members were happy to see me alive. It wouldn't take long for me to realize that my life was amidst a season of change.  This short story could have ended much differently, and things could have been much worse. Little did I know that I would be opening a voluminous text with many maniacal and depressing sequels. This truth was far beyond my comprehension at the time. 

My 10-day hospitalization passed me by like fast moving clouds overhead. I had nothing to compare it to, so my stay was somewhat pleasant, as far as hospital stays go. Once I had stabilized, I was even granted a day pass to meander about the city with my sister. As my discharge approached, I had a discussion with the psychiatrist and psychiatric nurse from my treatment team. They had informed me that I could, if I so desired, take the semester off from college. Although I could barely fathom what I had just experienced, I knew deep down inside that if I took a semester off after going through what I just went through, there would be a good chance of not graduating in the spring. I rebelled against the very thought of not returning to school immediately. After all, I was just entering my senior year and I was looking forward to the upcoming basketball season after being elected co-captain. I may have been lost at sea, but I did not lose my internal compass. I compromised and decided to take a week off from classes and then head back to campus. This proved to be a wise decision, but it did not make my lot any easier.

When I returned back to campus, I felt like an alien. I had transformed from a well- known student athlete into the guy who lost his marbles. I had become the pink elephant in the room or, at least, that's how I felt. I met with the school psychologist once, and vowed never to return to his office again, after he hinted that I had had an existential crisis. My friends had some background information about my disappearance, and several had even made the trip down to Boston to visit me in the hospital, but most of my peers were relying on the grapevine for answers, which lead them to scratch their heads. If things didn't add up for me, they definitely were more confusing for those around me back at school. I knew that I had gone up, way up, and I could identify as having a unipolar experience. But my life story, at that moment, did not equate to bipolar disorder, or manic depression for that matter, as I had first come to know it. Up until then, I had never been depressed a day in my life, but depression would be looming on the horizon for me.

Although I was in above-average physical condition at the time I, like many, never realized how much I took my mental wellness for granted. Before my first hospitalization, I had never met a single person, that I was aware of, who was living with bipolar disorder, and I had very little working knowledge about this mental health condition. Despite my naivety, from the very beginning of my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, I had made a conscious decision to play the hand that I was dealt. Giving up was not an option for me! Even though I had no idea what bipolar disorder was, I knew deep down inside that I had just experienced a profound and life changing event. My mind had been, literally and figuratively, blown away.

Once the dust had settled and the fog had cleared, there was one positive resource in my life that had remained a constant, besides the love and support of my family and close friends. Music had become my saving grace, as nothing else really made much sense to me. It was there while every other aspect of my being laid in pieces on the ground. Music has shaped and impacted my ongoing recovery in a multitude of ways and has helped to carry me through the twists and turns of living with a mental illness. I have come to know, rely on, and cherish the amazing healing power of music. Music has been much more than a collection of notes and sounds for me - it has become an alternative form of medicine for my mind. 

I am not breaking my anonymity about living with a mental illness to say "look at me", or "I have found a magic pill", or "I am cured." I have learned from my personal and professional experience that recovery from a severe and persistent mental illness is a process, and although relapse is not a prerequisite for recovery, it is a part of my story in many ways, shapes, and forms. I do not want the world to SEE me, as MUCH as, I want to be HEARD. In doing so, I hope to encourage others to raise their own voice, as those living with mental illness who broke their silence, encouraged me to do. As we carry on the dialogue about living with mental illness, we can continue to eradicate the stigma, stereotypes, discrimination, and oppression attached to, and associated with, mental illness. This stigma has plagued many of us for decades. I look forward to joining the brave mental health advocate pioneers who have come before me and welcome you to Sing Above the Stigma. Much peace, love, compassion, acceptance, and understanding your way!

Alexandra Gross

eco-bites about all things food, farming & sustainability