Being a creative type and having an inkling that mental illness was in my future following an abnormal psychology class in high school, I hoped to become a l'enfant terrible of the literary world and die tragically at the age of 27 like Kurt Cobain. Perhaps it was my dual Irish/Filipino Catholic upbringing or low threshold for physical pain, but suicide was not my preferred option. I had even begun to list "cool ways to die." My favorite was a fantasy where as a wealthy, eccentric writer who obtained her pilot's license, I would be caught in a raging storm and come crashing into the Atlantic.
In this quasi-self-fulfilling prophecy, I did "die" at 27 and remained in purgatory until I was 30. There had always been something "off" about me. Teachers, classmates, parents, and friends always gave this puzzled stare when I answered routine questions like, "how are you?" with "I would like to be happy, but that's boring, so I'd like to think about people who are dead or suffering." Anything I was interested in had to be pursued to the extreme and in a short period of time before my curiosity waned and I could only watch movies I had already seen because I would not need to concentrate on the plotline.
Once I started working, my shopping sprees became epic. As a 16-year-old I managed to open 14 credit cards at the Walt Whitman mall and maxed out each one multiple times before I was 18. When I had my first real, corporate job in midtown Manhattan, I would spend $300 to $500 a lunch hour at the stores surrounding my Madison Avenue office. The rationalization I provided to my husband (whose wages funded these manic episodes) was that I never paid full price, so I was in fact saving him money.
Following eight years of explosive, violent (with the physical aggression coming unprovoked from me) arguments, my husband pleaded with me to seek professional help. The social worker I went to see referred me to a psychiatrist within the first two minutes of our session citing, "clearly there's something chemical going on with you." The psychiatrist, with her posh Upper East Side office and waiting room filled with ladies of leisure who lunch, diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and ADHD in 15 minutes and prescribed a slew of medications. In six months, the dosage for the most potent medication had septupled from the initial prescription.
Within a year I had gained 150 pounds (going from a size 4/6 to an 18/20), lost two jobs, and spoke only to my husband. Incoherently most of the time. Blaming the medication for making me too tired to workout like I used to and crave carbs, I "weaned" myself off psychotropic medications in one week. The depression that hit felt like the payment for my lifetime of mania. Rapidly, I unleashed racing thoughts on all my insecurities: being morbidly obese, being too ethnic looking, not going to an Ivy League, losing valedictorian by .001, not breaking 1400 on my SATs because I was too lazy to take a prep course. Not only was I a fat loser now, but it turned out I had never actually been a winner.
This was my rock bottom. I slept twenty of twenty-four hours. I was so overweight I could not even walk down the stairs from our bedroom to the bathroom. Instead, I had a Guinness pint glass next to our bed that I would urinate into and empty out the window into our backyard. All I wanted to eat was fast food and in one sitting I could scarf down a Wendy's triple cheeseburger, large fries, bacon and cheese baked potato, twelve chicken nuggets, and a large vanilla frosty. This would all be washed down with a large orange soda.
Desperately in the throes of suicidal ideation (I was still too lazy and insecure to literally pull the trigger myself) all I wished for was to die of a massive heart attack. My fear was that it would be a paralyzing stroke instead and I would be forced to live forever as a vegetable trapped in my own torturing thoughts.
My mother-in-law, a social worker by nature and profession, managed to get me out of the house (she offered diner food) and into a doctor's office. "I feel like the person I used to be, the one I could at least pretend was impressive, is dead and I'm the pitiful replacement. Everyone who supposedly cares about me only wants her back. What's the point of living?" In nine months I would have two involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations.
Defeated by my own thoughts, I had no choice but to listen to ideas that did not develop in my own mind. I learned to let go of my preoccupation with assuming what awful, judgmental thoughts people had of me and started to just be honest about what I could and could not do at that point. Once I was unscripted with my friends and family, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that they were not mourning the loss of my old self, but that they believed I was still talented and intelligent despite where I was at the moment. Many people also told me what they missed about me had nothing to do with my size or the resume I had, but the sense of humor and thoughtfulness that had come to characterize me in their minds. One of our closest friends confided that he constantly re-read a thank-you note I had sent years ago because no one had ever believed in him that much.
Finally, I embraced my quirks, oddities, strong but fleeting passion, and abilities as part of who I am. Whether those qualities stem from being bipolar are irrelevant now, because I am not compartmentalized. The old Sam, trapped in a constant state of frenzied insecurity, died at twenty-seven. She did not die as the famous writer I had hoped she would become, but as a young woman whose existence was too mired in false perceptions of others to continue into adulthood. I am still getting used to the new Sam, and she is as awkward as any adolescent, but I know she has one very impressive trait: potential for longevity.