Navigating pregnancy without medication, my manic moods swung for months between the ecstatic highs of euphoric mania to the agitated episodes of the dysphoric variety. This experience was not only emotionally taxing; it took a tole on my physical body as well. I experienced a decreased sensitivity to pain such that I was prone to accidents — cuts, bumps, and bruises — as I energetically sped through my day. The inflammation from the hot blood coursing through my veins caused severe acne, hives, and scalp psoriasis that was impossible to treat. As I walked outside in a dysphoric mood on a hot summer day, my retina detached and I lost peripheral vision in my right eye. I remember feeling intense anger as my racing thoughts ruminated on my rage in the moment right before I lost vision. Visually impaired in my right eye from birth with a congenital cataract, I had emergency eye surgery during my second trimester of my pregnancy to save my eye from total blindness.
Worse still are the debilitating effects of insomnia. Countless consecutive nights without sleep adds lighter fluid to the growing flames of mania, providing the conditions for symptoms of psychosis to flourish. Instead of dreams, visual, auditory, and olfactory hallucinations colonized my mind. Sometimes the voices, images, and sensations were tantalizing and insightful or comforting confirmations of intuitions or premonitions. Other times psychosis led me down the path of paralyzing paranoia, crippling anxiety, seemingly unsurvivable panic attacks, and deep mistrust of myself and others. In addition to the way it injures the psyche, rattles the mind, and ruptures relationships, psychosis causes significant physical damage to the brain. After I experienced my first manic episode at age 18, my psychiatrist told me that manic and psychotic episodes scar the brain leading to cognitive impairment. My last manic episode, which I described above, provides a clear example of this.
In 2020 — after my episode in 2019 and giving birth in January — I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. My memory was unreliable and I could not orient myself in my physical surroundings when I left the house. Street signs, numbers, and Google maps were all unintelligible. And I panicked. After working all throughout undergrad, developing my research post-graduation, getting accepted into top Anthropology PhD programs, winning a National Science Foundation fellowship award, and having NYU grant me a year of paid maternity leave, I wanted to quit before even beginning classes. I felt so much guilt and shame for doing and saying things during my episode that were out of character. Being in both fragile recovery periods of postpartum and post-mania, my self-esteem was in the gutter. I questioned my abilities and my intelligence. The imposter syndrome came on strong! Was it all me or was the mania responsible for all my accomplishments? And now that I couldn’t read, I thought I was doomed to fail so might as well quit and save myself more embarrassment.
I’m so glad I didn’t quit. Although I didn’t believe in myself, others believed for me. My family, especially my husband, held onto my dreams for me when hope escaped my grasp. With his daily care and support, he helped me focus on the moment. I learned to take things one day at a time when my anxious mind wanted to exist in the future. I said to myself, I’ll just try one semester. If it’s too much, I’ll quit but let’s just try. Don’t pressure yourself with the standard of your usual stellar performance. Do the minimum to succeed. Just pass your classes. It’s okay not to be perfect. So I started my semester remotely as the pandemic raged on in the Fall of 2020. Being home with my husband and my baby eased the anxiety because they gave me both the space and the strength to rebuild my confidence.
Fast forward to today, at the end of my (remote) second semester as a doctoral student at NYU, I accomplished more than the goal I initially set for myself. I finished the year with a 4.0 GPA, two Zoom conference presentations at University of Toronto and Cambridge under my belt, my first academic publication, and two research gigs (the Disability Covid Chronicles and Reimagining Psychiatry) lined up for the summer. I feel so incredibly blessed to have made these strides given where I started out just one year ago. I am even optimistic about classes beginning in person in the Fall!
While I feel incredibly blessed for where I am in my recovery, I am also constantly unlearning the societal valorization of being “high functioning” and recovering in a linear progression with ever increasing stability, productivity, and “normality.” Even if my cognitive abilities are not fully restored in future post-manic recovery periods, I want to be able to embrace the fact that I am intrinsically valuable with or without my accomplishments or high functionality. The main thing I’ve learned from this part of my healing is that is a journey. It’s more about the inner experience and the person that I become through these experiences rather than arriving at a particular destination.
Alice Popkorn via Foter.com
A barefoot woman with long ginger hair in a dress with her back to the viewer walks out of a copper bird cage into the light in the background of the image.