Thoughts tumble down becoming real as they fall into my head. A blade appears in my right hand and steel wills it way into my skin. Pain presses down deep in my eye sockets. Blackness whips up a storm around me. It feels as though it will continue stealing my breath for the rest of eternity, and not even death could bring me comfort.
For my 29th birthday I wanted to see how far I could push my body in 24 hours. I picked the flattest piece of the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon and meticulously planned. I detailed all of my water stops, rationed out food, trial and errored trail runners, ran over elevation maps, and poured over the Halfmile App.
When the day came I was ready. I drove four and half hours, knocked back the last of my coffee, slipped on my favorite socks, and took off.
The weather was perfect. Sun shone through the trees, dappling the trail, which was flat and rockless. I listened to the clack of my trekking poles until the songs in my head stopped playing and then I got out my headphones, listening to nearly the entire 23 hours of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because I didn’t get to finish it on my PCT thru hike three years ago.
I flowed in and out of the book, remembering hiking with Felix and Boomerang and Dash. I remembered the hunger pangs and shin pain and reckless euphoria of my previous journey on this stretch of trail. I wandered past a huge lake, driven onward by mosquitoes.
I collapsed, eleven and a half hours into my journey and ate my cold fried chicken in the fine red dirt of a thin unpaved backcountry road. I wanted to walk another half a mile, making it to 30 miles out, but I couldn’t will myself to take another step farther from the car.
I turned around and retraced my steps, stopping to slump against large, cold granite rocks, marvelously flat stumps, and to even lay flat on a bench (!) buried deep in the woods. It was horrible to hike through the night, tripping over shadows in the dark, worrying about the Dark Lord, wondering if I would wake hikers with my loud, bumbling steps.
My headlamp dimmed and dimmed and finally died just as the sun weakly waved its way into the sky, exhausted and jet lagged from a long day spent on the other side of the world.
I had departed from the car right at noon the day before, which meant I marched into the heat of the high desert in my last few hours of burning, blistering uphill. I cursed myself for this lack of foresight, the only thing I hadn’t planned right.
I slowly hobbled to my car ten minutes before my deadline. I had walked 58 miles in 24 hours, the longest I’d ever walked in a single fit by eight miles.
What I hadn’t planned for hit me five days later.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last November, after months of hallucinations, panic attacks and meticulous suicide plans. It was some of the worst agony I have experienced—completely comparative to the near comatose depression I had experienced when I stopped drinking nine years ago. And even then, at my worst, I hadn’t wanted to die as badly as I did last year.
Happily, in December I found a medication that took away the nasty symptoms of this new mental illness, and I filed the whole ordeal away as a silly mix up from an antidepressant. I believed I had just had a prolonged bad reaction to Lexipro and now that the stuff was out of my system, I could go back to the way things were before: sane-ish.
But then the aftermath of the hike happened. Medical professionals and other people living with bipolar disorder will tell you that missing meds and sleep is the fastest way to flip that perilous mood switch. And I marched right through one night of sleep and my meds.
Five days after I finished my hike that switch blasted on, causing my brain to either flood bright or fall deep into darkness. And for three weeks after the hike, I battled that precipitous black and the equally dangerous light.
Confusion took over—how could this be happening again? I wondered. Circular thoughts rattled my mind. If it was just a Lexipro reaction, why would it be happening again, now? And if it wasn’t, was bipolar really the culprit?
The questions wouldn’t leave me alone, twisting away from logic and spinning out of control. I found myself breathless in a work bathroom, sending frantic emails to my psychiatrist—I had to get off the antipsychotic to prove I didn’t need medication. I was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t helping. Or maybe it didn’t matter, because I was going to die soon anyway.
Later that day I clutched the steering wheel of my car, sure that I would steer into the crushing concrete median. My mind was out of my control. And my hands might be taken over at any moment. I didn’t want to die, but also, I did.
Through those weeks I reveled in thoughts of my own demise, inflicted wounds to my body, and battled fatigue that threatened to keep me in bed. I stayed home from work, unable to pretend I was okay in public. Panic seized my mind. I felt deeply unwell, on the verge of a new height of madness.
It occurred to me, slowly, as if waking out of a bad dream, that I might have bipolar after all. But, but, but, my mind chattered onward. I couldn’t possibly. I could get to work. I could feed myself, most of the time. I could shower at least once a week. And my hypomania didn’t feel good at all. It felt like scarring my body. Fights with Azure. Geysers of panic. A need to take action right now, fixing everything all at once without any plan. That couldn’t be bipolar. Could it?
Finally, thanks to a new psychiatrist, medication and a lot of personal work, it passed, as it always has, and I was left with the stinging realization that my body (or at least my mind) has limitations, after all. A realization I had yet to come to, in all my years of pushing myself to the limit. It’s a realization that is deeply uncomfortable, with profound ramifications. And it’s one I’m still learning to integrate into my identity. It’s one that I resist, even today.