Hitchhiking to Sanity
The long road to recovery from mental illness
By Mechelle Stone
“How in the hell did I get here?” Once again I’m caged up like a rat. Doctors and nurses surround me, asking questions that I can not answer.
In my last memory, I’d been standing in a 7-11 parking lot in Salt Lake City. I remembered that I was naked, screaming into thin air: “Is this, what you want from me?” In my delusion, I talked to pimps who tried to prostitute me, but in reality no one was there. It was August 2005. I was a thousand miles from home and completely out of my mind.
I had pulled on my clothes and ran, not knowing where I was going. Police officers chased me down and transported me straight to the University of Utah mental institution where I now lay. This was my eighth hospitalization within a year and a half. Bipolar disorder had gotten the best of me once again.
I was a much different person before my world collapsed. I was always known for my outgoing personality, kindness, consideration for others and strong work ethic. I had a wonderful home life. My husband was, and still is, a very loving and supportive man. I was a full-time student and a night-time bartender. I was close to completing my degree in finance; job opportunities were presenting themselves and my lifelong dreams were starting to fall into place.
I was 28 years old when bipolar disorder shattered my world. Bipolar is a mood disorder where one usually experiences extreme lows, as with depression, and extreme highs, known as mania. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression include anxiety, hopelessness, guilt, feeling worthlessness, decreased energy, restlessness, irritability, sleeping too much, chronic pain, and thoughts of death or suicide.
During a manic episode, one usually experiences euphoria, irritability, racing thoughts, limited sleep, distractibility, unrealistic beliefs or powers, spending sprees, and increased sexual drive. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but it can be controlled through medication.
The disease completely changed me and made me deviate from who I was. I became easily agitated, paranoid, and delusional. Without warning, I ran away from the life I once cherished. I hitchhiked across the country, slept with strangers, and performed criminal acts.
I became totally unbearable and angry. Most of my anger was directed at my husband, whom I firmly believed was out to get me. Prior to leaving town unannounced, I spread false rumors that my husband was a passive-aggressive control freak, I threw candles and lit cigarettes at him, and burned sweet poems he wrote for me, right before his eyes. I even told him “I want a divorce.” He refused to abandon me. During my hospital stays, I would tell him “I never want to see you again!” He would always be there the following day.
Then the paranoia regarding my husband escalated. I had decided that if I left him he’d beat me. Later, I imagined he was out to kill me for life insurance money. I fled to California, Colorado, and Utah by hitching rides. In most of these places, I propositioned men for sex and found myself in on the wrong side of the law.
In California, I was arrested for sneaking into a hotel room, taking a shower, and wrapping myself in a comforter. I escaped through a side window and the police found me at a nearby truck stop begging for clothes.
In Colorado, I went into a 7-11 and there was a long line of patrons. I grabbed an apple and loudly asked if anyone would buy it for me. I got no response, so I started throwing apples and oranges at the cigarette stand behind the counter. Moments later the police arrived and placed me under arrest.
Utah was a miserable place. There, I became addicted to crack cocaine. I also got into regular fights and shoplifted to support myself. At some point, I found myself sitting in the back seat of a blue Suburban. I suspected that we were heading to a motel. Angry, I jumped out of the Suburban and stripped down naked. In my deluded mind, I needed to prove I wasn’t going to let any one control me, especially a pimp. Once again the police arrested me. Thank goodness they transported me to the University of Utah mental institution.
Looking back, jumping out of the Suburban and getting arrested for indecent exposure was the best thing that could have happened.
This time I was prescribed a medication regimen that I could live with. This gave me the opportunity to understand and accept my bipolar condition. My paranoia diminished. Finally, after two months without contact, I called my husband. His compassion was undeserved but genuine. After all that we had been through, he still showed me the love and support I needed. He and a friend came to my rescue and brought me home with out hesitation.
In my recovery, I’ve had to redefine myself because the same medications that keep mood swings at bay have also changed my personality. I’m not the outgoing, bubbly person that I once was. I’ve had to learn to accept this as part of living with bipolar disorder.
I’ve had to set realistic expectations of my self. I am now only taking one class a term for my bachelor’s degree and I work part-time. As I learn to live with bipolar, I find more balance in life — my routine is very stimulating and yet not overwhelming.
I’ve also had to reevaluate what I define as success. Before my condition was treated, I thought I was going to have a big time career. Now I feel satisfied to live a stable life, making ends meet.
In fact, I might not be stable today without the strength and support of my friends, family, and especially my husband. They all are very forgiving and have shown me a great deal of empathy.
Bipolar disorder tends to produce reckless behavior. We who suffer from it don’t always understand the consequences of our actions. As a result, we may push away those that can help. Yet with treatment and support, people with bipolar can manage their condition and lead productive lives. People like me, who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, need not wind up naked and screaming in public. Help is available. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers resources for anyone affected by mental illness.
Before I landed in a University of Utah mental ward, I was out of control, and it’s a wonder I was able to accept treatment, kick my drug habit and learn to function again. I’m lucky my husband recognized my need for unconditional love and support. Although I had to hitchhike around the country to reconnect with sanity, I’m thankful that he never gave up on me.
Mechelle Stone is a Eugene resident and author and her website, including contact information, can be found at www.mechellestone.com NAMI Walks occur around the country in May to raise money, and awareness of mental health issues. Portland is having a NAMI Walk at 1 pm Sunday, May 15, at the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade Festival Area. See http://naminwwalk.wordpress.com