Down the Rabbit Hole and Through the Looking Glass

[Warning: this article contains discussions of suicide, caution is advised for readers who may be triggered by this subject]

Me in late 1998, aged 13

This writing was never intended for this website, but I have a lot to say and no other internet medium allows me unlimited space to express myself. This has been something that I have needed to address for the last two months, honestly I could say the past few years. It has been eating away at me from within, and with people still asking me why I “abruptly” quit my job in February of this year (2021), I feel like this is the best way to handle the matter. For anyone on the outside looking in, it did seem rather abrupt, but it wasn’t as spontaneous as it appeared. Only a small select few individuals knew about what was happening during and after my resignation.

Quitting one’s job may not seem all that interesting or useful to talk about. People quit their jobs from time to time, nothing unusual there, but most people don’t do it without having already secured a new one. Two years ago and barely more than a year into my now-previous-job, I had already attempted to find a different one. Sporadically over the next couple years I continued to apply elsewhere. The obvious question is why, why was I applying to other positions, why was I trying to leave my teaching job as a professional development instructor?

It’s an easy question, but not one that has an easy answer. There are many factors that went into that behavior and I will discuss that soon, but if I want to be more encompassing, the reality is I have not been mentally and emotionally okay for many, many years. The photo at the top of this article was included because that’s about the age where my mental health began to fall apart and my mental illness began to show itself. I may look cute and happy, but behind those eyes was a lot of fear, self-hatred, confusion, and sadness; wishing I could wake up and it would all be different or wishing I’d never wake up again. Some of it known and explainable, but held deeply secret. The other part of it was a total mystery even to me at the time, completely and terrifyingly mystified by what was beginning to happen to me, and horribly clueless as to how bad it was going to get in just three years time.

In more recent times, these past several years have been particularly daunting, a trend I have not seen in more than a decade. I have included a graph to better help others grasp what I’m talking about. In the graph’s severity rating of 1 – 10 on the Y-axis, a ten represents the worst severity in symptoms. The zigzagging blue line is my mental state from 1995 – 2021.

The red banner across the top represents a danger zone, wherein the suicide risk is greatly increased. The fluctuations over time are important, basically they map out the effects of my mental illness over the decades. This graph shows five spikes, in 2002, 2005, 2008, 2018 and 2021, all representing moments in my young adult life when I reached suicidality due to bipolar disorder.

For every person with a mental health issue there are triggers that can cause an increase in symptoms and a general sense of instability. If not monitored and addressed, these triggers can go on to initiate a psychiatric episode, a period in which a mental illness is its most severe and the well-being of the person is at greatest risk.

I have addressed my mental health experiences from pre-2018 in previous writings [A Journey Called Hope, My Experience With a Mental Health Condition, The Power of Hope on the Journey of Recovery], so let’s skip ahead to 2019. It was a pretty good year for me, as you can see the severity of my symptoms were on a downward trend, and then 2020 happened. My personal life and activities changed, my professional life and how business was conducted also changed. This impact was felt by many people around the world and the data collected by mental health support agencies, service organizations, and support phonelines such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and Crisis Text Line (741-741) reflect this same kind of global spike in reported mental health issues and crises during 2020.

I managed most of 2020 without any major struggle, which is a notable success because for people with a mental illness like me, any interruption to our usual routine can have dire consequences to our overall mental health. There were two exceptions to my wellness though: (1) my medication that I was taking for my mental illness stopped working in early 2020 and I came down off it, and (2) I became less physically active throughout 2020 despite it being my new year’s resolution to increase my workouts. This slacking in physical fitness had been an ongoing downward trend since 2016, the year my mother died.

As a professional development instructor I taught career skills to agency staff, and because we live in the digital age, I could do this job online at a desk in the workplace or at home and have no in-person interaction. In some ways I rather enjoyed my time away from others. As a naturally introverted person with an INTJ personality, I found the social distancing to be quite the convenient excuse to avoid other people. But as 2020 drew to a close, I began to sense that some semblance of “normalcy” would soon return and that I would have to go back to “business as usual,” something I was not willing to accept. Coupling this realization with a related increase in pressure in the workplace, an ongoing disagreement with decisions being made, and unfavorable management practices, I began to feel suffocated and trapped.

With my physical health going down the drain and other mounting pressures, I applied to positions outside my organization before 2020 came to a close. When those attempts were not fruitful by December, I no longer had any desire to remain in my position, whether I had found another job or not. I had always been financially responsible and I knew that money was not a problem for me, I could be unemployed for months without any real issues. I was overworked, overwhelmed, felt belittled by management, felt as though my ideas, talents and interests were not adequately respected or utilized, and when we were asked to nearly double the number of classes we were teaching I experienced immense burnout.

I felt as though I could never take off work without two weeks advanced notice, and when I did I felt guilty about it. If for some reason my mental illness was particularly bad one day, I could not just simply call-in that morning and take off, as a professional development instructor I had classes that were scheduled two to three months in advance, occurring 3 to 4 days a week, sometimes more than one class a day. Each class lasted anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours, and teaching was only half my job, the other half was equally demanding and consuming.

Some of my other tasks included maintaining employee transcripts by tracking and issuing education credits – including for professional licenses and certifications. I coordinated other training and education opportunities for the benefit of internal and external agency employees. Wrote and submitted proposals for new program initiatives and process improvement ideas. Designed and promoted marketing materials, informative graphics, and monthly newsletters. Captured and reviewed data analytics for performance expectations, tracking, and reporting. Truth be told, I felt as though I was working two jobs, but only enjoyed one of them.

I saw several news articles during 2020 about how teachers were quitting their jobs because they could not handle the new pressures that the Coronavirus and COVID-19 were placing on them, either directly with online learning, or indirectly by how it was impacting everything and everyone around them. The stress and anxiety was just too much. Reading and listening to those teachers being interviewed, I couldn’t help but feel a kindred spirit. Even though teaching teens and kids is vastly different and more challenging than teaching adults, mainly because I didn’t have to assign homework or grade papers, I could still understand their feelings of overwhelm and burnout.

I cannot speak for all teachers, but when you get in front of your class (in-person or virtually) you have to perform much the same way an actor performs in a movie. You have a role to play and an audience to win over, you have to be convincing in your act, and it is most certainly an artform. You have a responsibility to make sure they learn, but you also have a responsibility to make sure they learn in a pleasant manner, that they have a good experience. For someone with an extroverted personality, this performance is likely not that challenging, but for an introverted person – the task is an immense challenge. Mostly because you have to fake it, you have to pretend to be this outgoing and extroverted person in order to capture and retain their attention and interest. You have to be someone you’re not for the benefit of others.

After every in-person class or online webinar I felt absolutely exhausted, drained of my mental and physical energy, but because teaching was only half my job I still had to perform in other ways each day. Just like those school teachers, I too genuinely began to hate my job. The very idea of having to get up in the morning became a constant source of dread and despair as I prepared myself to once again perform for an audience, I had to literally drag myself out of my bed and down caffeine every single day just to survive it.

This agitation was amplified by the reality that I seemed to be working a dead-end job. Even though I was always a high performer and always went above and beyond expectation and was rightly financially rewarded for my willingness to do so, I was not allowed to progress in terms of job classification. Despite performing duties beyond my station, I was not permitted the opportunity to be acknowledged for doing so. This lack of willingness to recognize my contributions by rewarding me with the title I had dutifully earned was both belittling and demoralizing. I felt as though I was being taken for granted.

This daily experience was my main trigger, I began to feel as though I was being traumatized by my own workplace. Not traumatized in the sense that my work was gruesome or dangerous, but that it was violating my mind, a mentally grueling experience for someone who already had a major mental illness to combat on a daily basis. This ongoing trigger awakened my bipolar disorder in a way that it had not been stirred in more than twelve years. I began having this sense of panic or dread, that something was coming, something was growing inside me and about to emerge. I felt like I had to get out of that environment, out of that situation. It reminded me of when I had been suicidal in the past, this heavy storm in the distance, rumbling with quick and frightening flashes on the horizon.

So, I submitted my first letter of resignation on December 16th with the expectation to leave at the end of the month. After some renegotiation, I chose to stay for another month to write procedures for all the tasks I performed, and also record, edit, and post all ten of my courses online for agency staff to continue to take after my departure. While this process was daunting and came at great personal financial cost, I committed myself to completing it before I left and was successful. That last month felt so relieving to me, like I had been in prison and I was just given my release date. I was excited but nervous, I didn’t know if I’d make it on the outside or if I had been imprisoned for so long that I was forever changed and broken, unable to survive. I had worked in that building for 12 years of my young life.

The first two weeks after leaving were great, I began catching up on my sleep after feeling as though such a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I could finally get more than 5 hours of sleep a night! I was working out regularly again, I spent my time chilling out, catching up on Netflix shows and movies I hadn’t had time to see, but I also spent it being creative and experimenting with video editing and post-production, putting together informative content to share. I was also intent on finishing the book that I had been writing for several years, and finishing a research project I had started a few years ago. I had plans, I had intentions, a list of things I wanted to accomplish before finding a new job. All of those things seemed possible, and then everything changed.

By mid-February my mental illness arose in me, revealing its whole self. I began sleeping for 12 to 14 hours a day, and even when I was awake I struggled to get up out of bed, I just laid there like someone was drugging me, injecting me with a tranquilizer. I still managed to shower almost every day, and I cleaned my apartment, but I was barely eating anything, I had no energy or drive to do anything more productive than that, nothing that demanded deep thought and concentration anyway. This crushing sense of hopelessness came over me, not about unemployment, but about my life. That I would never find a sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment, that no matter what job I got next, it didn’t matter because in a few years time, I’d be right back here again. Trapped inside this loop of proverbial living and dying, drowning in the darkness of my own mental illness.

I would go for days never stepping outside, little sunlight touched my face, at times I couldn’t even bring myself to go outside to check for mail or throw my trash out. I began having suicidal thoughts, like little whispers in my ear, ways that I could end my life in my apartment. Hang myself in the closet, maybe a knife on my wrist, maybe those pills I had stashed away from a surgery several years ago. The storm swallowed me and nothing mattered anymore, all of it was meaningless, life was meaningless, I was meaningless. It was all I could do to get out of bed and go lay on the couch, my brain and body capable of nothing more than watching movies and streaming Netflix. My pushy 80-year-old father was perhaps my only saving grace, he expected me to visit him every weekend. This expectation was enough to get me up and going one day a week, the one day I felt like I could actually do something productive outside of my apartment.

For the next week I lived like this, if you can even call it living, and by the last week of February I knew I had to do something. I did manage to go hiking at the end of February, but I had so much more I wanted to accomplish! I knew I needed something to trigger my bipolar disorder again, to trigger the other phase called mania. For people with bipolar disorder we experience intermittent episodes or phases of major depression and mania, and sometimes a reprieve in between the two that can appear to be a “normal” state of mind. I was very clearly experiencing a major depressive episode and since I had been off and without prescription medication for almost a year, I had to find another way through.

I was not interested in going back to the doctor to try yet another prescription medication, I had tried 9 different ones from 2005 – 2020. Some did nothing, some made me sleep so deeply my parents couldn’t wake me, some gave me bad stomach cramps that didn’t subside with or without food, some caused me to gain weight, one made me have hallucinations of floating heads, and a couple worked for a few months and then had no effect. I knew that I needed to try something, to get up and get moving, so I went online to purchase a multi-ingredient performance enhancer (MIPE) that would give me the boost to do just that. Now, let me give a disclaimer here, I do not advocate for other people with bipolar disorder to take multi-ingredient performance enhancers because some of the substances in those cocktails can interfere with psychotropic prescription medications or with bipolar disorder itself.

I made the decision for myself to try it, I was in a bad place and felt like the worst was already upon me. By March I began the MIPE and after a week, nothing really changed. By the end of the second week I found myself experiencing the exact opposite of what I had been enduring – insomnia. I was able to go hiking a second time, but I also went from sleeping 12 – 14 hours to not being able to sleep at all. I would lay there in bed wide awake, the longest I laid there was for 7 hours, just laying there glancing at the clock every so often, waiting for sleep to take me. It seemed as though I could only sleep when the sun came up, and I would sleep at least until noon, sometimes well into the afternoon. Eventually this U-turn made me become foggy-headed, like I was in a daze all day, every day. I knew I had to stop the MIPE, but didn’t want to abruptly stop in fear of side-effects, so I took half the dose for the next week and then never took it again.

My second adventure into self-medicating was also over-the-counter, a chemical compound called 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan), a naturally occurring amino acid that impacts serotonin in the brain. Initially I took it at night, and the full dose as directed on the bottle, but after a week of feeling like it was perhaps perpetuating my insomnia, I cut the dose in half and started taking it in the morning. After another couple weeks I began to feel very different, my major depression was lifting and I began having moments of what felt like mania. Those who have bipolar disorder type 1 (one) experience hypermania, those with bipolar disorder type 2 (two) like me experience hypomania. The difference between the two types of mania is that hypermania is generally considered a more severe variant. Either kind of mania can induce effects such as euphoria, obsessiveness, compulsiveness, physical and mental hyper-activity, and impetuousness.

For me in the past, hypomania has caused all of those symptoms, there was one time where just drinking water felt like a profound experience. Some of my best creative work was done while in a state of hypomania. It can be difficult to focus during, but if I’m able to channel the energy into something productive I can accomplish a lot. There have been times I have sat and become so engrossed in my work that I didn’t eat, drink, or use the bathroom for some 12 hours or so, just completely and utterly transfixed on the task at hand, an unstoppable machine. Hypermania is like hypomania’s evil twin, often causing people with bipolar disorder type 1 (one) to engage in bizarre, risky or violent behavior. Anything from egregious social behavior, to gambling or spending all of their money shopping, to erratic behavior that puts themselves or others in danger.

Since taking the lower dose of 5-HTP I have started feeling emotions again, other than despair and dread. I have doubled my daily workout routine, found myself baking and cooking things I hadn’t made in more than a year, I’ve begun reading books again – something that I used to enjoy. Words seem more powerful to me, I can feel other people’s emotions in their words, written or spoken, and the lyrics in music feel more powerful to me, more invocative. One night I laid in bed listening to a song and tears started rolling down my face, not because I was sad but because I felt joy. I felt like things were going to be okay, like everything was fine, like I was no longer dying. These are the effects I used to feel when my prescription meds would actually work, but they are also similar to the effects of mania. So, is it the 5-HTP impacting my serotonin, or has the 5-HTP triggered my mania?

I won’t know for a few months, mania is always temporary but it can last months. It eventually breaks into intermittent bouts of major depression, causing someone to stumble back and forth between the two which can be a horrific experience. This is why many people with bipolar disorder choose to take mood stabilizing medications in addition to their anti-depressant, in an attempt to prevent these cycles of episodes and ending both major depression and mania. Like with many other health issues, not all medications or treatment options work for everyone, the key is to keep trying something different.

Hopefully this piece of writing sheds light on what has been happening for the last few months. I wish that I could say that this has been a new experience and one that I will never have to go through again, but mental illness often doesn’t work that way, especially bipolar disorder which is notorious for being treatment resistant and debilitating. While I have known from personal experience the harsh reality of living with bipolar disorder, I recently learned that 30-60% of patients never recover to the point where they can function normally and retain or return to full-time employment. Instead, they become disabled by the condition.

While these percentages are disheartening, they are not surprising. Looking at my timeline of symptom severity I can see how it makes sense. My mental illness has impacted my personal life and goals, my social life, and my professional life for many years now. I have received therapy from counselors, social workers, and a psychiatrist, I have received prescriptions for Celexa, Cymbalta, Depakote ER, Effexor XR, Lexapro, Paxil CR, Prozac, Wellbutrin, and Zoloft. There are other alternative treatments I have not yet tried such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), but it can be hard to hold on to hope in the face of such adversity.

Nevertheless I choose to keep moving forward, performing the mental acrobatics I need in order to make it through the day. I always say this, but people don’t want to die, they just don’t want to hurt anymore and they often don’t see another way out of that pain than through suicide because they see their life and their pain as one synonymous struggle.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

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