Staying up late to study or switching from day to a night shift can play havoc on anyone. But it’s exceedingly bad for us polar bears**. The time change in spring sets off horrific insomnia for so many people who have bipolar/manic-depression.
At first, it’s fun. You get So much energy—cleaning is easy! Vacuum, dust, polish furniture, do laundry & hang it outside on the clothesline, clean litter boxes, scrub counter tops & toilet all in 2 hours. In between, you paint a picture, dance & play with your cats. No problem!
I have never taken speed or meth’ but from what people have told me (those who have experimented with those drugs), being in a super mania is like taking speed. Your brain goes 200 mph, you talk a mile a minute & can’t stop yourself. You literally cannot. A small part of you says: “Shut Up! Let someone else talk!”
But all those thoughts Have to Come Out! Or you will Die! That’s how it feels. It’s as if you had to go to the bathroom but were trapped in a car & no restrooms for 50 miles. The urge is horrible, painful. So you babble on & on & on….
In Spring, I write 200 poems a week. Maybe 3 of those are decently good. The rest make No sense. My husband deserves to be canonized as Saint Peter, patron of Madwomen!!! He tries to read library books while I run around the house, gesticulating so wildly that it frightens our cats.
“Innit??” I say at the end of each sentence.
We use the Irish contraction to make sure the other person is really listening, since both of us can get caught up in books, projects & the internet.
Peter answers, “Yes, my dear. You did laundry. Thank you very much. And cleaned the entire house. You wrote great poems. I see the stack & promise to go through them all—I’ll give you critiques on each one. Oh, and yes you are painting again. Lovely. I don’t mind spots of yellow up & down the hallway. It’s acrylic. It will all come out in the wash.”
As he’s saying that, I am still talking, exuberantly: “Oh my GOD! I was typing a chapter in my memoir but my little finger hit a weird key & the Internet came up. Hahaha Inter-web (inside joke). Then you’ll never Guess What! There was a photograph of Gustaf Skarsgard! We Have to go to the Video Station & see if any new Vikings episodes are available!!! Innit!?”
“Yes, the internet is a mad thing, indeed. Vikings would be great. Would you like a cup of tea?”
It goes on like that all spring & often into summertime.
Spring of 1971, I’d been living in a crash pad for over four months. I actually cannot recall how long, I was so messed up. I’d quit smoking pot. Quit drinking. Registered for 4 classes at a community college. Ran the cash register at a tavern 25 hours a week. Deeply involved in anti-war projects. I was a sign painter (“War Is Not Healthy For Anyone!”), drove AWOL soldiers & draft dodgers to places where they could be picked up safely by other “underground railroaders” and ultimately, taken to Canada.
Me, age 17 in my Lum’s Tavern uniform.
I’d had recurring bouts of strep throat & fevers (104-106 F.) since December, 1970. Even tho’ I’d “run away” (at age 17) I made sure to have a First Aide Kit like Mom kept back home. Thermometer, band aids, gauze, nurse’s tape, scissors, etc. were neatly arranged in a lunch box.
I’d gotten anti-biotics at a clinic, tried to rest. But fear of getting bad grades at college & terror that my boss would fire me from the tavern kept me rushing around. When my car broke down, I ended up hitch-hiking to NOVA & Lum’s every day.
By May I was up all night long, driving my beau RW & his family crazy. “Mama San, you need Sleep!”
“I’ve got Homework! I have to read all about the reign of the Czar and Czarina! Alexander & Nicholas, memorize dates & pogrom locations. Did you know they killed Jews, too? Augh! I used to like them! Plus MATH! I can’t do it. It’s supposed to be the Easy class for Lit’ majors. But there’s Algebra. It’s not Fair! English I love. But I have to type up a 10 page essay & do an oral report on our topic. So I’ve Gotta be at the library to use their typewriters. I chose to compare James Joyce’s Ulysses to the original Odyssey. Which is easy but my note cards got lost when I was hitch-hiking last week. They must’ve fallen out of my back-pack! Nothing makes sense.”
“I don’t know nothin’ about college. But you are sick as a skinny pup. That fever” (he touched my forehead) “is gonna kill you. Go lay down. I’ll bring in some ice water.”
I flopped onto a mattress on the floor of a small bedroom I shared with RW’s younger sister.
The ice water felt fantastic going down my sore throat. RW brought me a cold washcloth & lay it firmly over my burning eyes. My thin limbs thrashed less with no sunlight blazing into my brain.
But frenzied manias kept me awake all night for weeks afterward. I may have slept 2 hours off & on during those crazy nights. However, I was up walking around outdoors from 3:00 a.m. until Dawn. So it wasn’t like I imagined being wide awake—I really was!
Others who have this type of brain understand. People who go through five or six nights of sleeping poorly due to job or family worries get that it’s no fun losing sleep. But it’s us polar bears who wander around in all night, pulled by an irresistible golden thread from the moon that tells us “You are magical! No one else has The Message!So I began hearing voices Again that Spring of 1971. I’d heard voices since grade school. Some told me (in hateful whispers) “you are an idiot!” But the elfen ones said things like, “open that door 3 times, then run down the hallway.” I had to do what they said or something really bad would happen.
I got a reputation at Langley High in the 60s. Class-mates asked, “Dixie, where do you get your acid?” When I answered, “I don’t do LSD!” They looked at me in utter disbelief. How could someone so wacko Not be on acid?
The 1971 voices were super intense. They bellowed night & day, Abbie Hoffman’s evil quadruplets announcing urgent messages to me through bullhorns. Ocean waves or radio static muffled the shouts but I could pick out random words.
“Go! Construction! Post Haste!”
“Wood! Wood! Now!”
So I roamed around construction areas. Collected 2x4s, scrabbled in iron trash cans for bits of red paper.
One day, I got lost. I was headed down the highway to catch a ride to college. But there was spray paint on the side road & on grass alongside the street. I knew intellectually that this was for surveying—ultimately, a pothole or sewer would be fixed according to the lines painted. My father was a geological surveyor so I knew about surveying. But the Urge forced me to follow bright orange spray-painted lines, arrows, circles & numerals.
I spent hours counting up the numbers, writing them on my arms with purple, orange, red and green markers. It Meant Something! It would solve algebraic equations for school! My backpack was filled with art supplies. One of my favorite classes was Art 101, so I always had colored pens with me.
Suddenly the sun was directly overhead, burning into my pale scalp. That meant I’d been following painted lines since 7:00 a.m.! I turned back toward Reston’s Section 8 housing. Ran with parched mouth panting.
Mrs. P was at work. So was RW. His brothers were gone but his younger sister was at home.
“What the heck?”
She looked me up & down. All those markings. Nobody back then had tattoos (except Navy guys). It wasn’t a common sight, a young woman covered in ink.
“I need a shower.” Even at the height of insanity, I could feel shame about my bizzaro-world actions.
Hot hot hot water & soap got most of the marks off my arms & hands. I wrapped myself up in a thin towel. It was hot as Hades. Humid Virginia spring-time heat. Bleaugh! I went into the kitchen & collapsed in a chair.
“Drink this water.” I guzzled a big glass down.
“Listen, Dixie. Mom loves you but she hates how you’re acting right now. So do I.”
“Do you think I Love it? I can’t help it. I’m going crazy.”
“Well, maybe you should see another doctor.”
“Like with what money!? Every cent I make goes to food, school, art supplies. I can’t even get my car fixed. I don’t have the cash!” I burst out crying.
“It’ll be OK.”
She gave me a hug and left the apartment. Nobody wanted to hang out with Speedy Freaky Acid Head Chick Dixie.
The voices softened. I lay down on the mattress and zonked out. Didn’t wake up until people were milling around in the kitchen, arguing over who had to clean up after dinner. It must be 6:00! I’d slept for hours! What a relief!
But after a meal of generic spaghetti with government cheese grated on top, the hyper-engine inside my chest started back up again. I scrubbed pots & pans. Then ran down three flights of stairs, back up, back down in an effort to wear myself out so I could sleep that night.
When running stairs didn’t make me tired, I darted toward the road that led to Reston’s Lake Anne & the library. Didn’t stop running until the stones of that village’s oval courtyard were under my feet. Leaned against a fountain sculpture and gasped for breath.
Then went into the Peace Love Café.
“Out for a jog, are you Dixie?” An old Irish nun I loved was on duty. Bridget.
“Yeah,” I lied. Not able, ever, to explain what was going on with all the forcible runs, marches & other mental mayhem which had tortured me since I was 7 years old.
“Here you go.” She set a cup of coffee gently on my table. It was half cream, the only way I could drink coffee back then. I shook four sugar packets into the cup and stirred. Ah! Heaven. Poor people’s dessert.
I dug into my jean pockets and found a quarter. Yeah! Dropped it into the “What You Can Afford” jar, saluted the caring workers with a firm Peace Sign. Ran out the door, around Lake Anne, up and down numerous twisty-turny lanes.
The sun was setting. I sat on the pier for a little while, then dove into the water, fully clothed. It felt miraculous.
Me at Lake Anne in Reston, Virginia (age 18)
My fever was healed by Lake Anne. She spoke to me. “Dixie, you have a mission. Stop the war.” Her words were watery, divine.
I dove deep, touching murky bottom. I burbled into the beautiful twil-lit water.
“I will. I’ll Do It!”
I was Joan of Arc! I’d read zillions of biographies about her since I was a kid. There was a Classics comic book about her on sale at a dime store near our trailer park. I was six. Had money from doing dishes & sweeping the trailer. I paid the friendly shop-keeper lady 10 cents.
My atheist father snarled, “What damned stupid book to read. She was nuts.”
I didn’t care. Reading helped me escape the instability of my home life.
Finished the comic book in one sitting, I walked down to the school library and found a children’s biography of Joan The Warrior. Fascinating! At fourteen, I read two adult versions of her life’s story. At sixteen, I went to the Library of Congress and read ancient documents regarding her life and death.
Jeanne D’Arc was born with part male and some female physical characteristics, according to one book I read. That was me! Although I had normal feminine body parts, I felt like a guy inside. I was tough. A cowboy. My brother & I competed to climb the highest trees, leap furthest over creeks, dig the deepest snow forts, build better tree-houses & go-carts. Until I was 13 and Bob was 11, I could out-wrestle him.
It was Spoken! I was the 60s Joan of Arc! Peace Warriors would follow me into Non-Violent Battle! The war would end! Everyone had to listen to me, my voices were Angels. Lake Anne Knighted Me!!!
I raced back to the crash pad, determined to tell No One my amazing secret. I clutched my ribcage to keep my heart from leaping outside of my body. Excitement & euphoric high were so fantastic, it was as if I’d turned into a hot air balloon, tethered to earth by a slim rope.
I’ve read a lot about The Brain. It’s a wild frontier. Even great neurologists (like my Dr. Marilyn Newsom) do not fully comprehend all the twists & turns of a bipolar person’s mind.
People with “Polar Bear”**hallucinate sometimes. It’s not just folks who have schizophrenia. We with bipolar disorder hear voices & see things that ‘normals’ don’t. This comes from severe, extreme insomnia which happens in manic times.
I get super manic in spring-time. Usually euphorically manic. My great neurologist told me, “Let’s call it ‘Dixie Brain.’” I’ve got 3 types of seizures, OCD, bipolar (manic-depression, mostly manias), panic attacks & PTSD. Dixie Brain is a good way to put all those DSMV diagnoses into one box.
People with brain differences (schizophrenia, bipolar, clinical depression, those within the autism spectrum) are Not all alike. No two people with bipolar have identical symptoms. Medication that works for me won’t work for others who have this complicated brain difference.
Kay Redfield-Jamison is a gifted author who writes about convolutions of the brain. She was in med’ school when extreme manias hit her. I recommend Dr. Jamison’s books for anyone dealing with a brain dysfunction (when stable enough to read). Family members/friends who want to understand would benefit from reading Redfield-Jamison’s books. These include “Touched with Fire,” “The Unquiet Mind,” “Night Falls Fast,” and “Exuberance: The Passion for Life.”
I’ve read them all, as well as her medical journal articles (& watched videos of her speeches). She is erudite, writes clearly & is intensely honest about her own mental condition. The new film “Touched with Fire” was partly inspired by her writings. The writer/director has bipolar disorder. It is wonderful that people are going public about their experiences with mental differences (I refuse to use the pejorative term “illness.”
(**from the Great movie, “Infinitely Polar Bear” written/directed by Maya Forbes. She is the daughter of a highly intelligent man who was diagnosed with manic-depression in the 1960s. One daughter in the movie says to new friends, “My father has Polar Bear.”)