In the summer of 2006, I decided to move with my boyfriend of two years from the DC Metro area to Florida in search of some warmth and a slower pace. Tony and I sold most of our belongings. We quit our jobs and traveled 12-hours by car to start a business in an unfamiliar town filled with southern hospitality. Upon our arrival, we temporarily moved into a hotel with our two turtles and two cats as we began to look for a place to live.
In the first week, we found a great home that had a pool, gated access and offered a quiet, safe community. We began to scout locations for our business. Everything was working out perfectly. We were happy, excited, and optimistic about our future.
Tony left me alone to travel back and bring more of our personal belongings. Very late one night, a loud knock on the door abruptly woke me from my sleep.
As I stumbled from the bedroom I could hear someone trying to unlock the front door with a key!
I suspiciously looked through the peephole. I saw a tall, strong, visibly intoxicated man trying to get in. He banged on the door loudly as I was calling the police.
The man eventually stumbled off and the police came to explain he was likely just drunk and confused.
This incident combined with the adrenaline of our successful relocation in pursuit of our dreams was the beginning of the pattern of insomnia that changed my entire life.
It started slowly at first. A night with only four hours of sleep. I could manage and function the next day.
Quickly the sleeplessness progressed. I’d fall asleep for an hour, maybe two. Then wrestled with shuteye the rest of the night. My mind became erratic. I saw bright light in places where it should not be. Illuminated orbs danced in front of my eyes when they were open and closed. I had never experimented with any illegal drugs. I was afraid I had been poisoned. Maybe I was having a spiritual awakening?
I was cautious and excited. I sensed something magical and wonderful was beginning to happen!
The magic and excitement of hearing music inside my head and seeing beautiful spectrums of rainbow colored imaginary lights made it impossible to focus on anything.
After several weeks, the sights and sounds of my broken mind kept me up all night.
The madness took away my faculties of reason.
I could not read.
I was terrified constantly.
I remember taking long walks outside in the rain, sobbing for relief. Praying to sleep and for my mind to quietly resume normal function. Without a traditional employer I didn’t yet have quality health insurance. I visited a new primary care doctor and was prescribed sleeping pills.
They did nothing. I would take them and wake up 30 minutes later. 2 hours later. Sometimes I never fell back to sleep after that short “nap”.
At the same time, our savings were quickly being consumed with deposits and purchases related to our new business.
Then, the paranoia set in.
I saw “signs” all around me. The radio was telling me to do things. I thought commercials were produced and broadcast solely to direct my personal purchasing decisions. When a song played, I believed the message was intimately related to me as an individual. That song was playing at that moment for my personal benefit, instruction, or warning.
The street signs were put up just to help me make life choices. Spam emails were sent specifically to me with secret hidden instructions. I remember replying to them eagerly awaiting further instruction.
I drove too fast.
I ran red lights while singing along to ridiculously loud music during my long and reckless drives.
At an intersection near a major university in Florida, I got out of the car. I proceeded to unzip my hoodie and take it off at the red light. I swung it around my head like a lasso.
I was only wearing a black, lace bra underneath.
I was honked at. The light turned green. I got back into my car and continued on my way.
One day, I remember going to the bar for a drink by myself. I hoped the alcohol, socialization, and relaxation would help me sleep. I took off three pieces of jewelry I was wearing and put each necklace, bracelet, and ring into the ashtray on the bar.
The bartender called the police.
I did a sobriety test in the parking lot. I explained I was struggling with insomnia for weeks and had only had one drink. The officer asked if the belongings in the ashtray were mine and I said no. To this day I regret leaving behind those items. I don’t know why I did it.
Maybe I made a deal with God? Maybe I said take away all of my worldly possessions, give me back my sanity in exchange.
Maybe in retrospect, thinking about the way I adore jewelry I now see that as the logical explanation to throwing it away. Maybe I was just one very, very gone girl.
The officer let me drive home.
As my delusions evolved and escalated, I was convinced everything was against me. I believed the CIA or God or the FBI, and the police were all out to get me. I believed there was a grand plan to have me assassinated. I made Tony drive to a church parking lot to tell him these fears outside because I was afraid our home was bugged and, “they were listening”.
At one point, I was convinced I must be possessed. We talked with the pastor. We prayed together and waited for divine intervention.
We were young. I was 26, he was 22. Our family was over 900 miles away. We were running out of money. We were in a state of crisis and had no idea what to do.
One night when I couldn’t sleep, I bought a plane ticket back to my parents in the Northeast. I was so terrified. I was desperate.
I sent an email to a previous, but far removed work colleague to explain what flight I was on and how to reach my sister so she could pick me up at the airport. I didn’t want to create a direct communication to my family out of fear the agents were monitoring my messages and would intercept me at the airport.
I was GONE.
This work colleague friendship was the first casualty of my manic episode. I allowed someone to see how incoherent and paranoid I had become. I never heard from this acquaintance again in 15 years. Not even to ask how my flight was.
I was devastatingly embarrassed and never called or emailed either to say thank you.
I left for the flight immediately after sending that message. I didn’t wake Tony to say goodbye. I didn’t leave a note. I didn’t take or pack any belongings.
I just went to the airport in my pajamas and high heels and got on a plane headed home.
At the airport somewhere after security I screamed. I didn’t have a reason to scream. I just did. Airport personnel approached to find out what was wrong. They also inquired why I was traveling with no bags.
I fabricated a story about my grandmother just dying from breast cancer and I was flying home for the funeral. In a college town, this was highly likely, but it was a complete lie. My grandmothers had both died nine years earlier. In my paranoid state, I probably screamed out of frustration or fear of what came next.
I had enough creativity to devise this story which earned me compassion instead of an arrest at worst or no fly status at best.
When I got to Pennsylvania, my family was at the airport to pick me up. Something about my chaotic spiral and cryptic communication did work. I’m not sure what my family thought. I certainly don’t think they had grasped how bad it was until I arrived. There was a struggle to get me to help. I fought against going to the hospital.
I had no family history of severe mental illness. Only depression on my mom’s side going back to my mom and grandmother. None of us had ever seen anything like this before.
I knew I had lost my mind and was afraid. If I was admitted, they’d never let me out. I worried my life would never be “normal” again. I convinced my parents to give me a few days to rest.
I believed a few consecutive nights of quality sleep was all I needed.
In addition to no family history, this had never happened to anyone we knew from any part of our lives either. My parents bought into my hope. Now that I was home sleeping in the room I grew up in, I would be able to sleep. I would be comforted. I would be able to get better.
Sleep did not come.
When we got to the emergency room after a few days of reluctance and no improvement, I told the hospital staff my mom was having a heart attack. I found it entirely bizarre we were in the emergency room because I couldn’t sleep.
They needed to draw my blood to test for substances. Normally, I don’t struggle with needles. This particular venipuncture experience was excruciating. They needed to restrain me because I was fighting aggressively for my life. It felt like they were trying to kill me. The pain from the needle was entirely different from how it ever felt before or since.
Finally, the sedation helped me sleep. When I woke days later, my mind was still broken. I couldn’t read. Not even a sentence at a time.
I was terrified.
I was committed for the first time.
I was admitted to the psychiatric ward and held for three weeks.
If a patient is in the hospital with any other illness for three weeks, they get cards, balloons, and well wishes. I did get some visitors on the scheduled dates and times they were allowed, but in the psych ward I could not have nice things. There were no lovely flowers to be seen. No happy balloons. No hope.
I could not have pajamas with drawstrings to hold them up. My pants didn’t stay on. My favorite hoodie needed to have the strings cut off so I could not tighten the hood for comfort or to keep warm in the cold, clinical environment. No shoelaces were allowed in my sneakers.
These were suicide prevention measures for my safety and the safety of the other patients.
I needed permission to shower. They wouldn’t allow me to have a razor or tweezers. My leg hair, eyebrows, and fascial whiskers grew wildly out of control. My hideous appearance decimated what remained of my dwindling self confidence.
The healthcare workers also got very angry when I continued to struggle to sleep. They wouldn’t let me pace the hallway.
I was a prisoner more than a patient.
Therapy or treatment at the individual level was nonexistent. There were group sessions I was required to attend to show the staff I was trying to get better. Sit in a room, eat pretzels, and sing songs with the nice lady who plays the guitar. Is that therapy? They call it music therapy.
How does this help me sleep at night?
How does this help me climb out of the financial hole I’m in?
How does this help me rebuild the trust I broke with my friends and family?
How does this help me fix my social media accounts where I sounded like a lunatic?
How does this help me prevent this downward spiral from ever happening again?
By the time I was discharged, I could read again. I was also forever changed. Forever passionate about the way we treat the mentally ill.
My mind was still and quiet, peaceful. Though better, my mind was not how it used to be. I was awkward. I was incredibly anxious. I would visibly shake from my medications and the uneasy feeling inside my body and mind.
I didn’t understand what had happened.
What caused my mind to break?
What caused my rational thought patterns to abandon me?
Without a cause, I couldn’t identify a solution. I was terrified it would happen again.
I had a diagnosis. I experienced a manic episode and psychosis caused by bipolar disorder.
Without a clear cut path forward to wellness, I began the post hospitalization climb. The struggle back to the life I used to live. The fight for the woman I had lost.
Legitimate fear of a man breaking into my home in the middle of the night sparked a downward spiral of insomnia into madness. I didn’t know then that this disease of my mind would get much worse as I entered the depressive side of the illness.
Read the next post, Darkness Descends.