By Ashley Gates Jansen
My first psychotic break happened in Israel. I will forget many things in my life, but never my mother’s face, after flying halfway around the world to tend to her deluded daughter. Although already hospitalized, it was not until I saw her face that I understood: something had gone terribly wrong with me.
Hearing the diagnosis bipolar for the first time was terrifying. I literally couldn’t move. It felt like a life sentence being handed down, without any possibility of parole. I wanted to throw up. The doctor’s face was kind, revealing a trace of pity in his eyes. Poor you, he might as well have said. Life-as-you’ve-known-it is over. The room began to spin.
Whether you were recently diagnosed or have been struggling for years with a mental illness, I imagine you were as bewildered as I was, by the sheer number of medications prescribed. There were drugs to stabilize my mood, and drugs to help me sleep, and drugs to keep me from becoming psychotic – followed by more drugs to counteract the side effects of the other drugs.
Their names marched across my medical chart like a death squad, firing off into my ever-receding psyche: Lithium (BOOM), Thorazine (BOOM), Haldol (BOOM), Restoril (BOOM), Clonopin (BOOM) And so became the rhythm of my days.
I have never been lonelier.
What I craved more than air during those days was one voice. Only one. Mine was not enough. I needed one person to speak the words of my heart: you are not crazy. Something deep and profoundly mystical had happened to me. And yes, it overwhelmed me. And yes, I needed help. I admit that. I just question whether being injected with a huge needle, and held down with restraints, was the way to go.
Then my prayer was answered.
Upon learning the news of my illness, the Dean from the theatre conservatory, where I had trained, called. “My dearest,’ this sixty-eight year old man assured, “you are not Manic-Depressive. You are an artist. And whatever you experienced in Israel is yours. And you will, in time, process it and learn from it – as only you can.” I have never been more grateful to anyone in my life.
With those words, recovery began. And before it was over, I would force myself to name everything I had ever buried or denied. Everything.
God writes straight with crooked lines – Portugese Proverb
That’s what healing from mental illness was like. The process was not linear. It was more like a corkscrew. What initially felt like going around in circles, began – as I opened my heart, finding the courage to say exactly what I was thinking/feeling – to reveal my own truth. Not what I thought was supposed to be true for me. Not my parents’/friends’/doctors’ truth. Mine.
During this time, I encountered the writings of the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. With one sentence, she unlocked the door, between myself and the god I’d encountered abroad. “A psychotic drowns in the very same stuff a mystic swims in,” she wrote. I didn’t even need to highlight it.
There are some truths, which once revealed, are never forgotten. That line fell, like rain, in the bone-dry desert of my soul. And with it came a vision of myself, not only healthy and whole, but radiant. The spark of the divine within ignited.
Through the haze of psychiatrists and psycho –pharmacologists, I emerged. The patient who realized her care was being “managed”, but her recovery had stalled. I was in neutral not drive. How deep would I need to go to find my way home? “Oz and back, Dorothy,” my best friend winked. “Oz and back.”
As I embarked on the journey to reclaim my place in the world, I remember vividly that sun-streaked San Francisco day. And how I shut it out, with heavy drapes, walking into my bathroom determined to face the mirror. Gazing back was someone I didn’t recognize. She was old (32) and fat (175 lbs). Her eyes were dull, her hair thin and flat. She looked “not there”, not unlike a corpse. Something deep within me whispered, help her. Not that I had a clue how to do it, but that day I agreed.
Okay, I had one clue.
I phoned my brother for help finding a treatment facility. The one thing clear to me was that I needed to go away in order to “come home”. That night I boarded a plane to Topeka, Kansas and headed to the Menninger Clinic, a world-class psychiatric institution. After six months of fierce determination and willingness to get to the bottom of the mess that was my life, I returned home – with only one prescription. One pill. Several years later, I stopped taking that.
Today I use a lot of words to describe myself, but bipolar is not one of them. Instead I use words like wife, mother, artist, minister, teacher, and friend. Drug-free for over five years now, doctors remark that I have beaten the odds. It puzzles them that a person with my psychological history has not relapsed. They fail to recognize that that person no longer exists.
You, reading this, may be feeling hopeless and overwhelmed, lost and deeply confused, frightened and totally alone. You may think you cannot “do” this. You didn’t sign up for it. You can’t stop crying. You want to punch someone or something. Just breathing feels like you’ve inhaled shards of glass. Everything is bloody and raw.
And yet inside of you is someone with the presence of mind to read this story.
Here’s what you can do RIGHT NOW to begin healing:
- GET A JOURNAL. The pages should be blank not lined. This is your book in which to keep whatever moves you. Write your thoughts and feelings. Write your grief and rage. Discover what YOU love. Not what anyone has told you to love. Copy poems. Cut out quotes. (In a psychiatric facility in Philadelphia, too drugged to write coherently, I cut pictures out of magazines and pasted them inside.)
- MAKE A MIXED TAPE. You cannot be “crazy” while listening to your favorite music. You cannot be “crazy” and connected in the same moment.
- SAY THANK YOU. I have never been more serious in my life. Ask yourself what exactly you have to be grateful for and write it down. Then – and this step is non-negotiable – say it out loud, over and over again if needed, until your body experiences it as true. You may laugh. You may weep. Either way, you’re on your way home.
And for whatever it’s worth, I don’t think you’re crazy. You may need therapy. You may need medication. But you may not always. Something happened to you, but it doesn’t have to define you. I believe in you. And I know that you have what it takes to turn the curse of a fractured mind into the blessing of a grateful heart. Mental illness is a strange teacher – not unlike cancer or death. When I was willing to listen, it illuminated a golden path to my deepest truth. It can for you, too.