My rapid mood swings started when I was in my early teens. Sometimes I’d get super angry or very, very upset and have these manic episodes, these outbursts. It was like something would switch off in my head and I wasn’t me anymore. I would be screaming at the top of my lungs, I would be throwing things. I was a really small teenager, but I would have a ridiculous amount of strength. Sometimes my dad would have to hold me down.
Nobody knew what the hell was going on with me. Inside it felt like everything that was good was no longer there; everything just collapsed in my world. I would get into such a frenzy, my heart beating a million miles an hour. And sometimes I’d go into sort of a blackout, where afterwards I’d look back and wonder, Why did I act like that? I’d get to a point where I was just in a rage and I would do things I would never ordinarily do, like throw objects at my father, who I loved, because he was in my way and I felt like I just had to do it.
I can relate to what Liza Long said in her essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” about her son exploding at her when she asked him to change his pants. For me, it would often be like a small thing, something I would’ve just ignored if I was in a good mood. But if I happened to be in one of those dark places and there was already anger and self-hate building up, it would just take one person saying one thing to make me go off.
I don’t know if there was anything that triggered my mental illness. I know school was very overwhelming at the time. I was a very shy person, and some people bullied me because I was quiet. I didn’t get along with my parents all the time, either, like any teenager. They would get really frustrated with my outbursts — they’d send me to my room, which would just make me go ballistic. I would throw and break things, and eventually I started cutting myself.
I’m not sure exactly what eventually prompted them to send me to the hospital — a lot of things around my outbursts are foggy in my head. I do know that once my little sister was old enough to understand what was going on, she’d go to her room and shut the door whenever I was freaking out. Sometimes I was just completely uncontrollable.
Going to the hospital was a very traumatic experience at first. The ambulance came, there were all these people outside, and everybody saw me being taken away. The first day I was completely against it. But after a couple of days I embraced it. I’m lucky that we had health insurance and I was able to go there. I ended up staying for about a week.
Not all hospitals are wonderful, but I happened to go to one I felt comfortable in. It’s good to be around other people that have similar issues. I remember being in an outpatient group one day, and a woman was saying she was so depressed, she couldn’t even make her own coffee in the morning. It’s not that I wanted these people to have problems, but it helped me to know I wasn’t alone.
My parents took me to the hospital two or three more times while I was a kid. I wasn’t always responsive to the programs, but overall I’m really glad I went. Later on in life I ended up admitting myself because I got to the point where I wanted to die. I was like, This is it, I need to go get help now. And it was comforting — I would talk to other people there, and we would help each other out.
I’m 31 now, and I’ve been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. I take medication regularly. I’ve never tried to actually commit suicide, though I have been on suicide watch. I’ve also never actually reached out to hurt someone else, but I could have in those rages. That’s what scares me, that moment when you completely lose control of yourself.
But of course most people with mental illness never commit violence. Unfortunately the media does make a big deal about these killers; you always remember their names, but years down the line you don’t remember the victims’ names. And I feel like mental illness has always had a stigma. When I would get out of the hospital as a kid, my psychiatrist would tell me, “Just tell everyone you had mono.” But as I’ve gotten older, I don’t feel like lying anymore; it makes me feel more shameful about who I am if I have to lie. I need the people who are closest to me to know what I’m about.
I’ve always been that person that people had to take care of, and sometimes I ask myself, What is it like for people to deal with me? It’s a really overwhelming thought. But for parents of mentally ill kids, basically I would say that you don’t want to turn it into “this kid is bad.” It’s so important to talk to kids about their feelings and what they’re going through, and after they have an episode, when they’re calm, to let them know that they’re supported. And if possible, get the child into therapy early, when you first see signs of a problem. Try to find a therapist the kid likes — I didn’t like my first therapist, so I never said anything to her. I’d just sit there with my arms crossed. Get them involved in activities, but don’t force them to do things that they’re not comfortable doing. Basically, you just want to be as supportive and comforting to your child as possible.
I still have a hard time sometimes, and there have been lot of times in my life where I thought I wouldn’t ever be able to do anything with myself. But even if it took over a year I would be able to come back and do something. There’s always a brighter day to look to, even when the most horrible cloud is over your head. And the most important thing during those times is the support of others. If I didn’t have a supportive family, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
Sara prefers to use only her first name. As told to Anna North.