Saturday, July 6, 2013

Vacation from Bipolar Disorder?

I think I finally got it: there’s no vacation from Bipolar Disorder. Yes, I’ve been living with this diagnosis for over twelve years. Yes, I’ve been hospitalized numerous times when it’s been life threatening. Yes, when medication hasn’t been effective, I’ve even received an overzealous (and permanently memory-damaging) number of Electro-Convulsive Treatments (old school name: electric shock treatments) to save my horrifically, depressed, suicidal self. Yada Yada Yada.

But somehow I always still cling to the idea that geography—specifically the Greek Aegean Island geography--is the antidote to manic-depression: the reliable sunshine, the deep blue waters, the multiple, daily swims back and forth across Aliki Bay on Thasos Island, the pure, Mediterranean food (nevermind the fact that just a few years ago I was both anorexic and purging on another Greek island—nevermind the fact that AA reminds me not to believe in the geographical cure for whatever ails me…).

Of course, it didn’t help that this time I left in a manic state induced by severe insomnia.

“Surely, surely the less frenetic island pace will slow me down,” I told myself. “I’m always happy there, lying on the beach, eating real, ripe peaches, hiking through the olive groves, and snorkeling in search of sea urchin shells.”

Okay, a whole lot of revisionist history going on here. It’s been years since my travel abroad has been uncomplicated for the simple fact that I am now a mother who travels with two kids and their needs must supplant my own. Alongside this, I’ve been traveling either as an active alcoholic and anorexic or, for the past few years, as one in recovery from both, which doesn’t make it easy to travel to a port of call where people are often happily drinking around the clock and where European displays of female “thinness” often exceed even our American hyper-idealized notions. And then there is the fiction of a vacation uncomplicated by Bipolar Disorder.

It seems “crazy,” doesn’t it, to be unhappy in such a beautiful place—no, to be miserable, even on some days, flat out suicidal, wanting some days to swim out into the blue sea and keep going and going, letting the sea take me, wanting some nights to hurl myself off a steep cliff. I write this and feel the impulse to delete these sentences, to deny the words—but then, wouldn’t that be the same as denying what this disease feels like? How it stretches its long fingers into everything, curling around all possible moments and places I might go, refusing to loosen its grip? I say this not to terrify, but as a matter of practicality because I always seem to forget.

For instance, this trip to my Paradise. When I traveled to Greece in my twenties, I could live through the mania and depression, medicate it with alcohol, stay up all night, night after night, and managed, by chance, to stay alive. Now? What has kept me stable the past two years—the longest I’ve been without a trip to the hospital—has been a fairly predictable (i.e. predictable and rigid) routine: the same wake and bedtimes; healthy, routine exercise; seeing and talking to my support system/friends; seeing my therapist/psychiatrist; not being alone too much but also having time alone to decompress. The difficulty that I realized this time around was that the routine meant I was often alone with the kids for long stretches of time (out of necessity as my husband was working) which meant while I was often “alone” in my head I was never really alone, dinners only started around 10pm (the norm in Greece) which is my usual bedtime at home which meant a pretty chaotic wake/sleep schedule, and outside of my husband, the virtual absence of a reliable support system.

I don’t want to think that this means having Bipolar Disorder limits my ability to travel the world because that is such an essential part of who I am. But this is the first time that I felt limited by Bipolar Disorder in my travels and it was demoralizing. But maybe it just means that I have to plan more carefully in advance from now on. I’m always so busy trying to manically compress and compress everything into one tiny carry-on in the week before I travel that I forget to take stock of myself, to make a travel plan, to map out a routine and find a way to stick to it when I’m away regardless of the prevailing routines of everyone else. Find a way to keep maintenance going otherwise I risk losing everything I’ve worked so hard to gain these past two years. Bipolar Disorder doesn’t like to be crammed into a carry-on—I need to give it the space it needs. So if that means a giant suitcase in checked baggage? So be it.