Being awake at 6 am is almost a feat in itself. Sunbeams begin to weave through the clouds, and this pisses me off, because what good is sneaking off in the dead of the night when it’s not even the dead of the night? My flair for theatrics has been thwarted by my vanity, as I have spent far too long applying “natural” makeup and choosing the perfect pair of underwear, because heaven forbid I get caught wearing granny panties on the day I throw myself off a bridge.
I didn’t mean to end up here. I started walking away from my house without any real sense of purpose and found myself on the overpass of Port Union. If I had walked the other way, I would have wound up in Lake Ontario, so I guess I picked the lesser of two evils. My phone was dancing in my pocket the whole way, but I didn’t want to look. I knew who was calling me. Hordes of cars – punctuated with the occasional truck – surge down the 401, and I watch them vacantly from the concrete ledge. I’m still not allowed to drive.
Logistically speaking, it doesn’t look hard to get down there. The exit signs for the highway are supported by a thin sheet of metal grating that is only a few metres below me. I don’t want to jump. I’m afraid of heights. I just want to sit in that friendly nook and enjoy the perfect silence, the kind of silence that isn’t silent at all, but is filled with hollow sounds so that you can think without fear of hearing your own thoughts.
I am going to fail my creative writing class for the third time in two months. My portfolio was due at 5 pm yesterday, which is 5 am in Hong Kong. Daniel, my lovable, xylophone-tie-wearing professor, keeps writing me letters to the school in an effort to stop me from falling, but I’ve broken through every net. I see everyone else trying to help me, but sometimes the floor is so cool and quiet that I don’t mind staying down for the count.
Believe it or not, I write comedy. The only serious story I’ve ever written was about the last time this happened – and by this, I mean the gentle feeling that I could fall into my shadow and nothing would change – but I said I wouldn’t do it again. I also said I wouldn’t do this again. The line between fiction and nonfiction, at least for me, is very thin. No one wants to hear that their life is a cliché.
Yet here I am, teetering on the edge of the curb. It’s been four months since my words invoked laughter instead of blank stares; the passing of time is only illustrated by the growth of the used Kleenex colony that has pitched camp by my bedside, and the empty pages of my notebook. Now that my sense of humour has been sucked up through a crazy straw, I don’t know what I have left to offer, if anything.
My phone vibrates yet again, and I check the time. It’s only 6:09, but I have been standing here a little too long. A woman in a grey Camry drives past, glaring – at least, I think she was giving me a weird look. I’m often consumed by the feeling that people are upset with me or don’t like me, but the truth is that we are all trapped inside our own boxes, and it’s hard to see in or out of them. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be reassuring. My therapist likes to stress the importance of “positive self-talk,” but the only time I ever really talk to myself is to tell my brain to shut up already. I wish that people walked around with thought bubbles above their heads – you know, like in the Sims, where their dialogue is complete nonsense but you can always see that tiny picture of their actual thoughts, and whether or not they like each other. A minivan passes by me at a suspiciously low speed. I decide that I don’t want to know.
I would like to tell you that this isn’t like me – that you’ve caught me on a bad day – but that would only be partially true. My bad days are slowly outnumbering my good, and I’m starting to think it’s not just a passing low pressure system. I ran into someone from my high school last week, and she asked how my law school applications were going. I froze, realizing that she had me confused for someone else – the circa 2009, bright and shiny, scholarship-winning Leanne, a girl who was reported missing by her parents about five years ago. Her body was never found.
There’s no easy answer, if you ask me what changed. You could look back through my photo albums and see nothing – maybe a smile here and there stretched a little too thin. What they couldn’t tell you is how I stopped handing in school work, stopped attending class, stopped getting of bed, stopped wanting to ever get out of bed again, stopped eating, stopped talking. And that’s when they called in the experts.
I found out my diagnosis the hard way. A commonly prescribed antidepressant propelled me into this luminous place where anything I touched glowed back into my soul. I know, that sounds kind of dumb. But explaining mania is like explaining to your neighbours the amazing sexual experience that left you on their front lawn without your pants. It’s wonderful, but only to you. And to everyone else in my life, it was a serious case of bipolar disorder.
It was hard to believe in this invisible monster that behaved like a strange extension of my natural self. To be told that my dream-big, rapid-fire way of speaking and unpredictable energy levels were “medical symptoms” seemed like a huge rationalization of my personal weaknesses. I had always been successful because I was different, not in spite of it. A label was just a label – someone else’s opinion. I needed to toughen up. Right before I started university – against the advice of my doctors and family – my best friend solemnly told me, “I don’t really feel comfortable being friends right now, because I don’t want to get depressed too.” I agreed with her more than I should have.
The morning clouds have nearly dissolved, and I am treated to a stunning view of Mike & Lori’s No Frills from my place on the bridge. The empty parking lot is littered with stray shopping carts, and the cheap banana decal is peeling off the side of the building. I have been avoiding that place – also known as “No Skills” – since high school. Its staff is comprised of old acquaintances who inevitably ask the same loaded question: “So, what have you been up to?” If I was going for complete honesty, I could tell them that I was just released from the psych ward, where I encountered at least three different people who believed they were the Messiah. Maybe that’s not great dinner conversation, but I wouldn’t really know. There are just too many people who remember the old me and will be disappointed by the sequel. Plus, they don’t take Air Miles.
My family dealt with the change in different ways. My sister disappeared, called me crazy when I threw a phone through the wall. My mom bought five books on bipolar and studied them with a passion usually reserved for the Dog Whisperer. My dad took me out for ice cream and wept in our driveway, confessing that he had always worried about me, because he saw a reflection of his own intensity. That night, I found out that he had been diagnosed with OCD at the same age that I suffered my first psychotic breakdown. I had never loved him more.
My iPhone shivers enticingly in my hand, and I tighten my vice grip around it. Part of me wants to hurl it onto the 401, but that part is stifled by the low, metallic hum that reminds me someone cares. I want to pick up. I want to let Jason tell me that everything will be okay. I can’t believe my own words anymore, so I yearn for his – 12,547 kilometres away in Hong Kong.
When he reached for my hand on our first date, on a wooden bench overlooking the dazzling and contaminated waters of Lake Ontario, I burst into tears. “I’m sorry,” I sniffed, trying to keep my mascara intact, “I haven’t been this happy in a while.” He has kept me afloat for the past two years, but somewhere along the way, I let go. Maybe I knew I could bring him down with me.
Lately, my mom has been sorting my moods like laundry – light and dark, high and low, manic and depressive. Pulling an all-nighter to learn enough guitar chords to write a song? High. Sleeping for 21 hours straight and refusing to eat anything but Ritz crackers? Low. Hovering by a bridge that overlooks heavy traffic? Jeez Leanne, you’d better journal about that one. But what if that song was my last chance to prove that even broken, I could love with my whole heart? What if I overslept to numb the pain of teenage heartbreak, eating only Ritz crackers because they reminded me of (his) home? Maybe I’m only here because I enjoy long walks on sunny days and hate journaling almost as much as the Habs. Where do I end and my illness begin?
An indignantly fit woman jogs past me, her neon clothes slick on her body. Her steady breaths fall in line with the pounding of her feet, and her gaze remains fixed on the horizon. I decide that I should take up running – after all, the only objective is to move forward, and maybe it would carry over into real life. The only problem is that I’m not much of a morning person. After I was released from the hospital (long story), I was drugged up on a real candy-kabob of antipsychotics, antidepressants, and for some odd reason, Ritalin. At this point, I’m pretty sure my doctor – who, fun fact, has Morgan Freeman’s voice – just didn’t like when I was conscious and prescribed accordingly. Waking up became a four hour affair, as I swam hazily through nightmares about funerals and hamburger trees. My only clear thought was that I should try and hock my Ritalin at U of T.
I thought maybe if I wrote it all out, there would be room for something good to crawl into my brain and make a home, even if just for a weekend. But despite the pile of scrawled notes from my adventures in the psych ward – the doctors confiscated my laptop on Day 1 – I could not compose the screwball comedy that I had confidently pitched a few weeks back. The anecdotes that had kept our wing in stitches suddenly seemed unbearably tragic. I took my pills every day and hated them. My senses were dulled, my thoughts cloudy at best. I wanted to give a voice to mental illness, but it had taken mine first.
I’ve never understood why Tim Hortons decided to put two franchises across the street from each other, both along Kingston Road. It seems a little excessive, but maybe they support each other when they run out of jelly donuts. The line-up at Tims #2 is starting to reach its peak and I realize that I can’t remember the last time I ate. My appetite fluctuates with my mood, and all too often relies on my love of rainbow sorbet. Unfortunately, my favourite brand is only sold at No Frills. The reason I was discharged from Rouge Valley Hospital was that I argued with a nurse. I believe I loudly criticized her for “solving every problem ever with tranquilizers.” I can’t really remember what happened next because then she gave me a tranquilizer. The next morning, I was kicked out with no treatment plan. I don’t know if it’s worse to feel everything or nothing at all.
That’s why I went cold turkey. I knew it was risky, and that letting my natural mood swings go unchecked could eventually lead to serious neurological damage. I’ve read a lot of books on bipolar, mostly against my will. I’m well-educated in my personal madness. But what the cold, hard facts can’t overpower is the bitterness of being abandoned by your own words. My friend asks me how I’m feeling, and I can only mumble that I’m fine. My therapist asks how I’m feeling, and my feeble words melt into tears that are real yet deeply unsatisfying at the same time. Tears only exist to be wiped away.
It’s been about a month of living “clean.” I didn’t tell my parents because I knew they would try to stop me. The first week off was absolute heaven. At soccer, I could feel the energy pulsing through my veins, and I scored my first career hat-trick. I wrote a whole story overnight, one that had me giggling the entire time. I didn’t need sleep. I didn’t need Jason. I didn’t feel sick anymore. But then something changed. Melancholy seeped through the cracks in my head. I reread my story and it wasn’t funny – it was barely coherent. I panicked and deleted it, and then panicked again because I had nothing to hand in to Daniel. I still have nothing – despite being graced with many ideas, I can’t seem to articulate them properly. People ask me to repeat myself, or tell me that I’m yelling. Sometimes my words tumble out too fast because I can feel myself melting into the floor. Often I don’t say anything at all.
I told Jason my decision before he left – in an apricot dress that I couldn’t afford but bought anyways for dramatic effect – and he was worried. I told him not to worry. I promised that without meds, I wouldn’t be sad all the time, and we could be a team again. Today I realized that I would break that promise, and apologized before I left. I am not the only victim of this disorder – it has drawn blood from my family and friends, and I am too tired to apply another Band-Aid. Maybe if I can get down from this bridge, the noises will stop and I’ll finally be able to sleep. I wish I had walked the other way so I could have seen the beach, and sat on one of those ordinary benches, and let the wind carry me away. He’s not calling me anymore.
But someone else is. I turn around and my dad is standing there, his big Ford Avalanche parked behind him. “Let’s go home,” he says softly, tossing his phone into his pocket. It must have been a long-distance call. My face crumbles as he wraps his arms around me and tells me that he loves me, and in that moment, I finally have the right words.