My name is Sarah, but my family calls me Sarah Beth, and since you and I are going to become very close, you can call me that too.
I know what it’s like to struggle with mental illness. I also know what it’s like to live a hard life. When I was nine years old, I developed ketoacidosis and lapsed into a diabetic coma. Because my blood sugar at the time was so high, the doctors at the hospital tried to bring it down as quickly as they could; unfortunately, the rapidity of the drop caused my brain to swell, which led to a stroke that in turn rendered the right side of my body, my dominant side, as good as useless for several years. The stroke caused me to lose nearly all memory of my life before the incident and also caused my personality to change drastically. To make matters worse, my parents went through a messy divorce only three months after I was released from the hospital. Needless to say, all the factors were in place for me to develop a whopping case of crazy, even if mental illness didn’t already run in my family. (Also, mental illness totally already runs in my family.)
When I went to diabetes camp the summer after I was diagnosed, I was the only kid there who had suffered a stroke and the only kid there on an antidepressant; depending on which doctor was on staff that day, the camp infirmary sometimes wouldn’t give me my medication because, as I overheard them say one day, “kids this young don’t need antidepressants.” That remark stuck with me a long time. I remember thinking, Then what do I need? Because there is something missing in me. My first summer there, I tried to drown myself in the pool, but, being only nine years old, I didn’t realize that you had to breathe water in to drown and gave up after discovering I couldn’t hold my breath long enough to die.
I grew up knowing there was something wrong with me, but not being able to figure out what it was. I started cutting (well, technically, scratching) myself when I was 12 and continued until I was about 22, using insulin syringes, mechanical pencils, scissors, and my own fingernails. I’ve since learned that most people who self-mutilate do it to release the pain they feel inside, and that a very small handful of people do it in a desperate attempt to get someone to notice and try to get them the help they need. I did it because I hated myself so very much that I wanted to punish myself for existing. I wanted to hurt both physically and emotionally, because I thought I deserved to suffer. I repeatedly begged for help, but people told me things like “You don’t have anything to be depressed about,” or “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, or my personal favorite, “You’re only sad because you want to be.” (These are all actual quotes; if anyone has ever said anything like this to you, you’ll understand how impossible it is to forget.)
I was the “smart kid” in school, the one everybody wanted on their team when it came to group projects, up until I started high school. At that point, I was so utterly miserable that I no longer had the energy to concentrate in class or apply myself to my studies. I wrote myself hate letters in class during lectures, slowly and painstakingly forming the words with the pencil in my right hand because, though I eventually trained myself to do just about everything left-handed to make up for the loss of the motor skills in my right side, I never learned to write with my left. I threw myself at boys, always looking for the love I couldn’t find within myself. I developed a “reputation”; I was the girl who would “do anything” for a boy. (Hypersexuality is, of course, a major symptom of bipolar disorder. Knowing this didn’t stop me from feeling guilty for my behavior for years and years after my diagnosis, though. Forgiving myself for being such a “bad” girl took me down a long, difficult path, but thankfully I wound up where I needed to be in order to move forward and allow myself to experience sexuality again – in a healthy way this time.)
My mom got remarried at the end of my sophomore year, and I switched high schools when she moved us in with her new husband. At my new high school, I met my future husband, and we had a rocky relationship fraught with many indiscretions on my part that lasted until I graduated and started college, at which point the storm that had been brewing for most of my life hit and hit hard. At 19, I broke up with Alex because I thought he didn’t love me. I somehow managed to spend all my graduation money – a sum of $3,600 – in less than a month, leaving me with nothing to pay the rent on the house I was sharing with a roommate. I got and lost three part-time jobs in as many months, and started and ended two relationships in the same time span. I stayed up all night every night playing online games and slept through every day, missing all my classes; on the rare occasions that I did show up for class, I found it impossible to concentrate.
At the end of the semester, in a depression so heavy it felt like a literal stone around my neck, I decided to kill myself. On my way home from work one day, I stopped at a gas station and bought a pack of razor blades. My plan was to slit my wrists in the bathtub; however, when I got ready to actually carry out the act, I decided to punish myself a little more first by slicing long, deep cuts into my arms and thighs. As I watched the blood spatter the dingy tile, I thought about my best friend and the fact that I had never told him how much he meant to me. I called him to say goodbye, and he showed up 10 minutes later and held my hand and talked me out of what I was doing. The next day I went to the emergency room, and from there I went to a psychiatric hospital in a nearby town.
It was during my stay at that hospital, the second of three hospitalizations during my life so far, that I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and started on a medication schedule that helped give me the stability I had always longed for. The medication improved my attitude and behavior so much that the people who used to accuse me of making my illness up now threw their support behind me because, they said, to have changed so drastically there must have been something wrong with me.
Fast forward ten years and here I am, sitting behind a laptop in my “writing nook” in the nice condo where I live with my husband, the man who never gave up on me (though I gave him plenty of reasons to). I have two degrees, a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in teaching, that I worked so hard for I almost sent myself to the psychiatric hospital a fourth time. I have tried around 15 or 20 different medications over the last decade; every day I struggle with the physical side effects of the medications I take as well as the symptoms of my mental illness, which are only alleviated and never cured. My arms and legs still bear the scars from the cuts I made in college, and people often stare at them when I wear a short-sleeved shirt.
But I’m here. I’m still fighting, still striving and surviving. And I’m so glad I didn’t give up that day I almost did, because I have done things and met people in the following years that made me feel like the struggle was worth it. I really want you to know that, even though it’s hard to see sometimes, the world can be a beautiful, fulfilling place if you take the steps to get help and then hang in there long enough for change to happen. That’s the point of this blog: to encourage you to take those steps and to tie a knot in the rope you’re at the end of.
It will get better.