Part 4 of the Surviving Bipolar series.
There are few outward signs of a manic episode, at least in the beginning.
You may notice lots of activity or an outburst of rage or violence, but generally, just looking at someone tells you nothing about the storm brewing inside.
There’s one exception: the eyes. The eyes truly are windows to the soul. If you focus on the eyes, it’s much easier to tell how far the mania goes.
Who Am I?
If this is your first visit to Speaking Bipolar, you may wonder, “Who is this Scott Ninneman guy?”
I’m just a single guy in my fifties trying to “keep it between the ditches,” as one of my friends would say.
I’m not an insightful oracle or guru, and don’t have any mental health training. What I can share is based on my own experiences and the lessons I’ve learned about living with mental illness. Hopefully, it will be the start to finding the answers you need.
At times, living with bipolar disorder and a physical chronic illness (Familial Mediterranean Fever) makes my life very dark. Each episode has taught me how to best conquer the darkness.
This series is proof things can get better. The key is to never stop fighting.
Running From Everything
In part three, I shared the painful reality of coming face to face with repressed memories.
I felt like everything was crumbling around me as the memories got clearer. My attempt to flee the pain inside sent my world into chaos.
Long before the memories resurfaced, I felt something was off inside me. With the avalanche of horrific memories resurfacing, it was harder than ever to keep things together.
The reality of my past was a weight too heavy to carry. I lashed out at my parents, dealing a crushing blow to our relationship. As they fell to pieces, I packed up and ran away. My number one coping method was to run.
I ran away once as a child. Defiantly, I refused to go with my dad to get my hair cut at his barber. I vowed never to return home.
My escape was less than a mile. When I reached the last spot where I could still see our house, I dropped to the ground and made piles of rocks with the gravel on the side of the road. I stayed there until the sun started to set. Then, with baby steps, I marched myself back home.
My parents never came after me, and to my young mind, it meant they didn’t care. Years later, my mom told me I was never out of her sight. Perched at a second-floor window, she watched as I learned how to accept what I couldn’t change.
Running away as a 20-year-old was nothing like my childhood jaunt. A voice inside told me to run, and it had to be to a place with no memories of home.
I had nowhere to go, no plan, and very little money. None of that mattered. All I knew was that I had to go.
For a few nights, I was technically homeless. I could have gone home at any time, but I refused. It was too painful to be in “their” house. I even stopped referring to my parents as Mom and Dad.
I couch surfed at friends’ apartments and slept one night on the floor at my sister’s place. There was only one night I slept in my car, and that was barely six hours. Then, a young couple offered me their guest room.
Looking back, I was never really homeless, but I wanted to be the tortured artist, so for years, it was the story I told.
You Must Run Farther
I saw little of my parents in the weeks after I left home, but still felt they were too close. Knowing they were in the same town made me feel like they were always watching. In my mind, my mom was still standing at that second-story window, and I needed to run further to escape her gaze.
My blood boiled with anger, and my parents were the target. In my rage, it felt necessary to punish them. The worst punishment would be to erase me from their lives.
At night, I laid awake and obsessed about my folks. They were a disease, and the only cure was to get the heck out of dodge.
The need to run is a common symptom when living with untreated bipolar disorder. The bipolar mind becomes fixed on a task, real or imagined, until nothing matters but the one thing. I’d love to say the urge to run goes away with proper treatment, but the flight response still shows up in times of high stress.
Stability just makes you less likely to actually run.
A Way Out
A friend of mine was talking about moving to Tennessee. He wanted to live in the mountains and met a girl from Middle Tennessee. An idea started to form that maybe he was my ticket out.
When my friend announced he was moving, I was afraid to consider going with him. I knew I longed to escape, but to Tennessee? I wasn’t sure.
My writer dreams always included living in the mountains, but my hopes floated more toward Colorado or Montana than the plateaus of Tennessee.
I knew nothing of the South other than the tales Midwesterners make up. Let’s just say, in the 1980s, many of those tales were false and unkind. Still, my friend leaving was an opportunity, so Tennessee became an option.
When the time came for my friend to leave, he asked for my help. He needed me to drive his car so he could drive a U-Haul with the bulk of his belongings.
I was ready for anything in those days, so I agreed. One morning, after no sleep, we headed out just after 3:00 a.m.
Tennessee was a dream come true. We arrived in late August. Left behind was one of the coldest Wisconsin summers in my memory. By cold, I mean we only had ten days the whole summer with a temperature above 70-degrees. Only the diehards wore shorts that season.
In Tennessee, the sun greeted us each morning and warmed the air to 80+ degrees. Nights were cool, in the mid-60s, perfect for sleeping or sitting by a campfire.
After my second day in the mountain paradise, I was ready to buy everything Tennessee was selling.
During my week stay, I met amazing friends, people I knew would become my chosen family. When they asked if I would consider moving, there was no hesitation. I promised, if things worked out, I would be back before winter.
Three weeks later, Tennessee was my home.
Making a New Life
Despite the way I got here, moving to Tennessee was one of my best decisions. There’s no way I would have grown to be who I am if I’d stayed in Wisconsin.
While moving to Tennessee was a smart decision, moving in with my friend was a terrible one.
There’s a reason I’m skipping giving him a name in this story. The person I thought was my best friend quickly turned into a narcissistic snake.
Looking back, I can’t fault him entirely. He was just as damaged as I was, and both of us were untreated.
It took years for me to get over my anger from the hurt he caused. Yet, now I know I also bore some blame and inflicted my own wounds on him.
We’re no longer in touch. I’m not even sure where he lives or if he’s still alive. If so, I hope he found the home he was looking for.
Cutting Off Family Ties
In a brutal fashion, I cut my family out of my life. Communication was a continual problem, and my untreated mental illness only made things worse.
First, my parents, because I blamed them for everything wrong in the world.
Next, my siblings had to go because they were guilty by association.
Finally, most of my friends in Wisconsin also stopped hearing from me. I wanted a new life, a new family. Nothing from my old world had a place in Tennessee. Everyone from my past only served as reminders of all the things I wanted to forget.
As for the repressed memories and nightmares, they stuck around, but my new surroundings made it easier to ignore them. Only my roommate knew about those last dark days in Wisconsin, and I swore him to secrecy.
I learned to smile and laugh no matter how little I slept or how awful I felt. My new friends only knew me as a happy and funny guy, and I thrived in their adoration.
I put all my energy into believing the memories were a lie, a bad dream that never happened. Every story I told was about how great I was doing.
In time, I began to believe my own lies.
Friends Tried to Help
Before I left Wisconsin, a few friends wanted to help. Only a couple knew about the resurfacing memories, but several noticed that something was wrong.
One of my closest friends asked me to meet her at McDonald’s one night.
“I’m worried about you,” she told me. We were both 20, and although we were like brother and sister, we weren’t mature enough to have a serious adult conversation.
“Don’t be,” I told her. I remember my smile was so big it almost hurt to keep it up. I was determined to show no weakness.
We talked on for some time about trivial things before she tried again.
“Your eyes are so big,” she finally blurted out.
I laughed at her, so much so that I hurt her feelings.
My eyes had betrayed me. I had bipolar eyes, or “crazy eyes,” as I like to call them. They are something you have to see to understand.
Bipolar eyes are more than just having your eyes opened too far. There’s something else stirring in them, dancing in the background. The mysterious glimmer tells the viewer that all is not right in your world.
It was years before I saw crazy eyes on someone else.
In a flash of memory, I knew what my friend saw our last night together at McDonald’s. It was no wonder she was concerned about me and my well-being.
Back then, I was still in the beginning of my bipolar journey. I had many lessons to learn and a few years to live through before I would receive an accurate diagnosis or come to terms with self-harm.
In late 1992, though, nestled in my three-bedroom home in the mountains of Tennessee, I had no worries. Life was good again.
Until next time, keep fighting.