It is 1 a.m., my stomach is growling, and I am out of reading material. I step off the curb and walk toward the neon light that spells “TATTOO.” I left the Laundromat only moments ago with the intention of getting a quick snack at Ralph’s, but suddenly I have the urge to get a tattoo. I have never considered getting a tattoo before, but all at once it seems like a great idea. So great, in fact, I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it before. I open the door and enter a crowded waiting area.
“Excuse me, how long will this take?” I ask a tall, thin girl with a lion tattoo on her fragile arm. “I only have twenty minutes left on my dryer.”
“It depends on the size. How big do you want it?”
“About this big,” I say holding up my thumb and index finger two and a half inches apart.
“That shouldn’t take any longer than fifteen minutes, if you hurry up,” she says with an impatient tone, and so I quickly pick the Japanese character for “balance” out of a tattered binder and walk behind the counter towards a stool.
“Alright, where do you want it, sweetie?”
“My butt, and I think it should be purple.”
“Okay, drop your drawers.”
“Right here? You want me to pull down my pants in the waiting room?”
“Sweetie, this isn’t a waiting room, and this isn’t a doctor’s office. This is my studio. If you want a tattoo on your butt you’ve got to pull down your pants, and have a seat on the stool.”
The green vinyl was cold against my bare thigh and for a moment I thought about my underwear swirling around in the warm dryer. I handed her thirty dollars and she began unwrapping her tiny tools. But I didn’t care if they were dirty. I wasn’t particularly concerned with the aftermath of my actions. Once she began I was waiting for the pain, but it never came. This is what I call a side effect of being bipolar.
During my favorite mania I spent six thousand dollars in one afternoon. I walked through the park along Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue that seemed to be a roofless, homeless dormitory and disposed of my very last two thousand dollars. I can’t describe the looks on their faces, because I only laid the money next to those who were napping, gently tucking the crisp one hundred dollar bills underneath their dirty blankets and knapsacks. I also can’t describe what it felt like, because I was so manic I couldn’t even feel my own feet touching the ground as I walked. I was weightless. I was a manic fog rolling through the park.
Next, I visited Westwood’s beloved psychic. She was a heavyset woman wearing a paisley printed housedress with greasy hair, a round face, and eyes as black as a magic eight ball. She told me I had a black aura for love. Trust me when I tell you this is some of the worst news you can give to a manic girl. But with two thousand dollars, she explained, she could nip this black aura in the bud. The problem was that I had just disposed of my last two thousand dollars. I went to the bank and got a cash advance on my credit card. With my two thousand dollars she would buy a candle my exact height and weight and when it completely burned down my aura would be cleared. To my manic mind this made perfect sense, and I hung on to her every word.
Next, I walked home and made three phone calls. I dropped out of UCLA, I quit my job, I broke my lease, and called Bill’s Moving Company who charged my credit card two thousand dollars to move me out of Los Angeles on a manic whirlwind.
During other manias I have shoveled snow from neighbors’ driveways at 3 a.m., stood in apartments doing jumping jacks, ran miles in the middle of the night, barefoot. I have ended a four-year relationship without a tear or a word. I have attempted and failed at many things to stop the endless, nervous energy that lives and breathes in my veins; but during a mania I am the bionic woman.
There is no need for sleep. There is no project too big. I am full of great ideas; I am elated; I am brilliant. Everything I say is profound. Everything I create belongs in a museum. I know the secret of life. Everything is exactly how it is supposed to be. The planets are aligned. I see constellations that have never been discovered. I defy the laws of physics.
That is until the counting starts. It is quick and constant. It cannot be turned off or tuned out, “1234567891012345678910….” Once the pure manic state turns into a mixed episode there are no more pleasantries. Anxieties and insecurities destroy my brilliance. Intense anger and irritability paralyze my relationships, and projects of any size, no matter how small, can no longer be accomplished. My rage can only be calmed by the sound of breaking dishes.
And then the moment comes when the counting ceases to exist. It just stops. Depression inevitably follows. It sucks the air straight from my lungs. It hits hard and fast and opening and closing the curtains is an impossible feat. I can think of no reason why I should get dressed or brush my teeth. The only thing that doesn’t seem difficult is sleep. I can sleep fourteen hours at night and at least another three during the day. Not unlike a black hole, it is a spinning, sucking hopelessness, collapsing into a dark void. It is crying with a ferocious hunger, the walls of my chest empty and aching. It is a gnawing at my core, drowning in a pool of water shallow enough to stand in, the deep desire to fade away into nothingness.
My first depression was in 3rd grade. I pretended to be sick and stayed in bed for half the school year. For months, I did my schoolwork from bed, took naps, and cried. I couldn’t bear the idea of riding the bus, sitting in class, writing in cursive, or playing hopscotch. My first mania was in high school. I stayed awake for three days creating artwork all night. I was in awe of myself. I was invincible. I ditched school and rode the train to Chicago where I stood in the sunlight and heard beautiful music no one else could hear. I had never known such happiness. Everything in the universe was exactly how it was suppose to be. I came to call these moments “clear notes.”
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was twenty-two. I was not surprised. It did not seem like a brilliant diagnosis, but there was something different about hearing it out loud. I could look back over my life and see a reason for my reckless behavior. There was also now a reason why I felt crazy. I was. The validation felt good. I liked having a name for something that felt so out of control. Knowing I was crazy verses feeling crazy was oddly comforting, and having a diagnosis meant I could finally have treatment. The years ahead would be a difficult journey of trial and error.
My doctor and I experimented with pills. Lots of pills. Twenty-five pills starting with thirteen different letters to be exact. Blue pills, yellow pills, pink pills, maroon pills, gray pills, orange pills, and several different shaped and sized white pills, filling prescriptions for Abilify, Ativan, Adderall, Celexa, Cymbalta, Depakote, Fanapt, Geodon, Lamictal, Latuda, Lexapro, Lithium, Lyrica, Nuvigil, Paxil, Prozac, Saphris, Seroquel, Starttera, Symbyax, Topamax, Valium, Viibryd, Wellbutrin, and Zyprexa.
I endearingly refer to them as my crazy pills. I keep all the bottles in an old Easter basket under my bathroom sink and once a week I separate them into a rectangular, plastic, weekly pill divider like the ones senior citizens use, except I am thirty-three. Being bipolar comes with this sort of maintenance. Being bipolar is a kite in a hurricane. I am tightly tethered, but still caught flying among the roaring and unforgiving wind.
I gladly take my rainbow assortment of crazy pills. I will do anything to keep me in the calm of the storm. My search for balance began eleven years ago in a little tattoo shop on Sunset Boulevard. My life remains a tipping scale but I have a two and a half inch, purple, permanent reminder of my ongoing quest.