“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” – Winston Churchill
By Darin Barry
When I am in the labyrinth of bipolar depression, I am always reminded “it gets better” by therapists, psychiatrists, and loved ones. I call it a labyrinth because I am blinded with despair, murky, and unquiet thought, and I have many paths I can go down in trying to find my way back when in the midst of severe depression. A wrong turn can often mean death to someone like me who suffers from bipolar one. Fifteen-percent of us, and thirty times more than the general population without psychiatric disorders, do end up taking our own lives. Saying “it gets better” might seem sort of cheap, or at least overly simple, in terms of what to say to in attempting to coax someone out of suicidal thinking, but I can tell you from experience that it is not. Neither are the words “I care about you”, or “I love you.”
Bipolar depression is the biggest, and most dangerous enemy I have in life. It’s cunning, baffling, mysterious, powerful, and tells me lies when I am most vulnerable—lies that tell me I am without hope, without love, and living a life without meaning, or purpose. I have lived with bipolar disorder throughout my life, with symptoms manifesting strongly in my mid-twenties. Suicide attempts happened. The first time, my father saved me after a friend tipped him off that I may be in trouble. Dad burst through my bedroom door after I had not answered his knocking, and he found me weak, and trembling in a pool of blood. There would be other times, but each time I lived through a major depressive episode someone would reinforce the truth that “it gets better.” It gets better is a truth that it’s extraordinarily hard to believe when my mind and body are betraying me. But Dad said it would, and told me he loved me when he left me with a sheriff deputy guarding my side in the E.R. all those years ago. He also said that God wasn’t finished with me yet. So with his love, and with me borrowing his faith, I carried on.
A lot of my behaviors were chalked up to drinking in my late twenties, and thirties. A lot of my behaviors where chalked up to environmental stressors as well. After my first alcohol rehab, I lived with a serial killer’s family during his murder trail. One of Cary Stayners’ family members, my good friend Dana, brought me into the family fold working, and living with her in Mariposa, California the early part of the oughts. When Cary was sentenced to death, the Stainer family collapsed and so did I. I started drinking hard, and eventually hopped on my motorcycle heading north towards my hometown in the Lake Tahoe region of California. I did get sober again shortly after moving to Denver, Colorado. It was only by being sober a number of years, that the diagnosis of bipolar 1 was made.
For me, the 2000’s were a decade of concentrated tragedy. I was a mortician in Denver, Colorado when I found myself embroiled in a national funeral parlor scandal that brought news trucks waiting outside my house. I had a friend with H.I.V. related dementia froze to death on his way over to see me one night. I had no clue he had planned on coming over. My dear friend Mary bled out from alcoholism in my apartment. I found my brother dead on the toilet from a heroine overdose. My father succumbed to Alzheimers, and my Mom died in my arms.
Of course, bipolar disorder has it’s other half of the story called mania. Being manic, quite frankly, although it can be just as dangerous as depression, is fun. Well, until it turns to rage it’s fun. Super creative moments come from it. The oughts were not totally terrible. Me and my little brother Gordon opened up a coffee shop and pub in Portland, Oregon. The Brews Brothers, our shoppe’s name, was a huge success. Gordon, and I did a 700 mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I landed a wonderful job as national field organizer for Rachel Maddow’s favorite activist group from the decade satirically named “Billionaires for Bush.” I had begun a strange hobby of appearing in television and film as a background actor, most often, and notably in Grimm, Portlandia, and The Librarians. I manically wrote and recorded a music C.D. playing everything except guitar. My photographs were published in a coffee table book. And, last but not least, I grew some amazing pot for fun and profit.
A relapse with alcoholism in 2015 didn’t stop until February of 2017, ending with me being jobless, homeless, and facing charges for driving under the influence. My recovery over the last year is another story; a wonderful story.
Through most of those years, I had experienced depressive episodes of various depths. Medication, counseling, education, support, and the beacon of hope that the notion of “it gets better” imparts, I got though most of my depressive episodes relatively unscathed, although, sometimes it took a long while to fully recover. I had learned to stay on top of my mental illness.
But today, at 51, I am picking up the pieces yet again. A few weeks back, I quietly entered my bedroom for the evening, and downed a whole bottle of prescription Lunesta, a sleep aid. It was all smiles that evening, I left people believing I was doing just great. But weeks had gone buy without me experiencing any real joy at all. My synthesizers were dusty, I had not written anything in months, it was absolute torture to socialize with even my closest of friends. The thing I looked forward to most, was when I could go home, close my bedroom door, shut the world out, not answer my phone, and be in the company of my cat, and sleep. I slept a ridiculous amount of time. Whenever I could. That night I decided to sleep permanently. I didn’t warn anyone. I didn’t ask for help. I just downed a bottle of sleeping pills, held Isabella, my cat, close, and closed my eyes for hopefully the last time. It was eerily spontaneous. It took seconds to get the idea, and to down the pills.
It was still dark when I woke up with a great pain in my throat. Barf was all over my chest, and the side of my pillow. I was experiencing a headache like no other I had ever had. Isabella was fully awake and sitting next to me wanting food. I momentarily felt guilty because I had made no provisions for her care after I died. “It gets better”. I knew this. I decided that I would get help when I felt good enough to move my body.
It wouldn’t be until about 48 hours later that I felt good enough to take action. I called my behavioral health case manager Fred. I told him that I needed to see my therapist and that I would also need to see my general practitioner. He picked me up and delivered me to both. At my physical doctors office, she directed staff to take me up to a wing of our local hospital called the Crisis Stabilization Unit. I have been no stranger to the C.S.U. over the years. It was usually comforting, but that day, I was just numb. A nurse there, Casey, is someone I always feel comforted by, but that day I didn’t care to even chat with him. In fact, when it was quiet, I just decided to bolt and just finish the job. Perhaps if I downed pills with alcohol, that would be the trick. I was on my way to do just that, when a police officer pulled onto the sidewalk behind me while I was walking down the street towards a grocery store to get the ingredients for a comfortable suicide. He kept me from going to the store, and gave me a ride back to the hospital. I no longer had my rights, I had been put on what is called a 5150. I wasn’t going anywhere, and I really didn’t want to be chased around. I just surrendered to the whole idea that I was going to be committed to a psychiatric facility for a few days. I was relieved. I was just tired of my own ideas and plans. I felt safe.
Monday rolled around, and an ambulance came to transport me to Telecare Eldorado County Psychiatric Health Facility, some two counties south of my own. It is some strange California State law that dictates an ambulance must transport behavioral health patients to a psychiatric hospital. It feels demeaning, and unnecessary, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything anymore. Chad, the friendly EMT was a baby, probably barely in his twenties. During the course of taking my vitals, somewhere he had stated that he had always wanted to be an EMT. Another nerve was struck.
“I have never known what I was supposed to be doing.” I interrupted.
He asked me to clarify, and I basically said I was envious of people who were in step; those who to follow the classic 1950’s blueprint for living—get awesome grades in high school, marry your sweetheart, go to college, get a job that you are going to stay in for the rest of your working days, have kids, buy a two story house by the time you’re thirty, bank enough doe for retirement, and have grown kids that will hopefully take care of you when you can’t take care of yourself, drive a car, have money, and then leave some to your loved ones.
“I have been an abject failure in life. I change my direction every other year. I’m 51, only been sober for one year. I still don’t know what I am supposed to be doing.”
This would be a common theme during my ten day stay at the psychiatric hospital. I had, and still do have, to a degree, a plethora of self-deprecating thoughts that include the words like “should have”,” should be”, “supposed to be”, “could be”, “have to be”, and “must”.
The psychiatrist asked, “Do you know why you are in our hospital Mr. Barry?”
“Because I downed a bottle of Lunesta in a failed attempt to end my life. I am broken, and don’t know if I can be fixed this time. I don’t know if I want to be fixed.” I answer Dr. Singh. Then I add “I don’t know why you folks want to fix people that don’t want to be fixed. When I am out of here, the first thing I want to do is go buy some nighty-night pills, and maybe a bottle of Fireball to down it with. So, yeah, I can go through this time I have to be here— I can go through the motions, I can say all the right things, I can be very patient. And when I am released, I will follow through.”
“So you still want to hurt yourself?”, Dr. Singh Asks.
“I don’t want it to hurt, I want to die painlessly. I suppose real men jump off bridges, or shoot themselves, but I fear becoming paralyzed, or end up in some vegetive state should those methods fail.”
“Darin, that is why you are here. We don’t want you to die. You live with bipolar disorder. You are deeply depressed, and you have been before, and you have emerged from it to see a new day once your depression has passed. Were you not grateful that you didn’t hurt yourself when you cycled through depression in the past? You have to know by now that this is your mental illness talking. What is different this time?”
He has me on this one. Briefly. Dr. Singh continues; “Who are you closest to in your world?”
“Isabella Rossellini. And my brother, Gordon. Not necessarily in that order if there is one.”
“Isabella Rossellini, the actress?” he asks.
“No, Isabella Rossellini my cat. She’s a Snowshoe Siamese.”
Doc Singh half smiles, and his expressive eyes communicate a message of relief. Perhaps he is relieved I’m not completely delusional. I don’t know.
“So Doc, next you are going to ask me; Wouldn’t your Brother and your cat miss you? To which I would answer; They are both good looking, charismatic beings. Their type will always be ok. No, I am here because I was 5150ed. A cop drove me to the hospital back in Grass Valley, and then I was transferred here, to this psychiatric hospital. I was driven up by an EMT I envied, and admired. He was a twenty-something, new-on-the-job cop. He probably knew what he wanted to do since he was in eighth grade, maybe younger. He probably never got into too much trouble in high school. He got good grades because he could focus. He did everything his parents expected him to do because he knew they knew best. He never missed any starting guns like I had and could finish everything he started.” I said, with resolve.
I saw the good Dr. Singh daily during my stay, even on weekends; the guy never seemed to take a day off. Every day I opened up a little more.
I revisited the subjects of feeling like a failure, of having missed the starting guns, of having missed whole races for that matter, of not being like my friends who I view as successful.
He started talking of famous bipolar people who didn’t live in expected norms, of people like author Jack Kerouac.
“What if he were normal?” asked Dr. Singh.
“Well, we wouldn’t have On the Road?” I answered.
“What if Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe were not manic depressive as you are?”
“Ok, I have looked up famous bipolar people in searches, I get it.”
“Do you? Because you give license to all these people who have lived with your illness to be eccentric, and weird, but you won’t give yourself permission to be different.” Dr. Singh looked almost angry.
“Well, normal people don’t find themselves homeless, or rehabs. They enjoy stability. I want that.” I was defiant.
“Darin, most people would rather be certain they’re miserable that to risk being happy. At least you have made the effort to explore being happy, and you know what? If you keep trying, you are going to live a happy man, even if you do think out of the box.”
So those were some underlying demons I had, and still to a degree have now as I recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind.
My medication of three years, Lamictal, had simply stopped working for me. Dr. Singh said that the slow slip into my depressive episode was the gradual tolerance that my body was beginning to have with the medication. I was switched to Geodon, and in days, I could feel myself climbing back up into some peace and clarity.
I got a new roommate towards the end of my stay. He was a very young guy distraught over the loss of a girlfriend. We became friends, and are chatting on Facebook as I write this. When he told me how he felt for the first time, I said, “It gets better.”
Back in my hometown of Nevada City, California, I was greeted by several people who care deeply for me. I am homeless, but I am fortunate enough to have a couple of friends who are hosting me of a few days, and then it’s on to couch suffering for a while. I just landed a new job as a peer support specialist. I am very grateful.
My brother called last night from New Orleans. I told him I would be starting a new job, and then I when I’ve received a few paychecks, I would put money down on a used van from a local car dealership, and me and Isabella will live in that until as I am through with school. I told him I was going to have flexible solar panels on the top to power a heater, and an air conditioner in summer, and my musical instruments. He got excited for me, and said there’s a movement of young people doing just that. Then he said, “Thinking out of the box: That’s my big brother, and that’s why I love you so much. I wouldn’t want you to be anyone else.”
I am grateful to be living. It did get better.