Grace sounded upset when she picked up the phone. Her voice rattled a little when she asked how I was, so I tried to sound put together when I said I was fine. Never mind that I was wearing hospital scrubs, shoes with the laces taken out, and a tattered bracelet with my name and diagnosis around my wrist: ADAM E. — BIPOLAR I. We’d definitely still be able to go to the Harvard-Yale game together next Sunday, I insisted. Surely the doctors would let me out for that.
But the hope was futile. In seven minutes my heart went from fluttering to bleeding as I listened to Grace explain that “it wasn’t the right time” for me to be in a relationship. I should “focus on my health” instead of on her. The feeling of ostracized dejection was one I was starting to get used to at that point in my life. After a rather colorful few days of mania on campus (at one point I wore socks on my hands and slept in a courtyard) I had been placed in the mood and behavioral health unit at the McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was a stale-smelling place with a well-stocked arts and crafts room and an alumni roster that included Sylvia Plath and John Nash.
I hated every moment I spent at McLean for a hundred reasons I can’t articulate and one that I can: Being in a mental hospital really fucked up my game.
EPISODE 1: A CRUEL JOKE ON GRACE
My mania has flared up three times in the last seven years, all after significant breakups. Each time I dumped a stable, long-term girlfriend, then seduced a new girlfriend. Little did my manic lovers know that the passion that defined our relationships were symptoms of the very illness that would, eventually, tear us apart.
Grace was not one of the stable, long-term girlfriends. Shortly before that first episode sent my life into a sideways spiral, I’d ended a two-year relationship. I met Grace a month after the split. She told me that she’d had a bad week, so I suggested we hang out in my room.
She sank into my beer-stained futon and eyed my belongings. “You shouldn’t ride bikes,” she said. Her ex-boyfriend had been hit by a car on his bike a few days prior and had died on the way to the hospital. It was a blind curve and bad timing, everyone said, but Grace suspected there was more to the story. Her ex had bipolar disorder and had been depressed. She wondered if that was connected to the accident.
When I received my diagnosis six weeks later, it must have felt like a cruel joke to Grace.
In the interim, my behavior became increasingly strange. I wore my old rowing uniform underneath my clothes in case a Superman moment presented itself, and I needed to strip down to spandex. I filled the wall of my dorm room with a pencil-drawn diagram of my plan to turn the campus magazine I edited into a nationwide political movement.
Grace didn’t see the full extent of my madness, but even the Adam she knew wasn’t really me. She was getting to know Adam Ultra, who talked faster than necessary, described plans loftier than possible, and, eventually, did not sleep, except for little bursts between classes. My insanity peaked on Veteran’s Day, when I burst into tears at a memorial service, then marched three miles to the Prudential Center in Boston to create a tribute to the fallen with a yellow scarf and an unsettling amount of theatrics. Security escorted me from the building. Within a few hours I would end up in an infirmary, where a doctor would request my transfer to McLean.
I still can’t get over the parallel between my first manic episode and the death of Grace’s first bipolar boyfriend. In my medically deluded state, I took it as a sign that she and I were meant to be. Now I just wonder how severely I traumatized her.
EPISODE 2: A CABIN IN THE WOODS FOR CHELSEA
Life was calm for a few years. I finished school, moved to New York, and settled down with a Wellesley graduate who lived with her cat on the Upper East Side. Then we broke up. Before I knew it, I was dating again and feeling especially good. One of the tragic ironies of bipolar disorder is that it transforms “feeling good” into a negative omen.
I met Chelsea on OK Cupid. Things were different this time around, both with the girl and the episode. Instead of plotting world domination, I tailored my delusions to what Chelsea would find attractive. I was unemployed at the time but convinced her, a Columbia MFA student, that I was taking time off to finish my first book. While this wasn’t total bullshit— I was doing some writing— I exaggerated everything, from the number of pages I’d hammered out, to the meetings with publishers I’d supposedly had. The book, appropriately enough, was about mental health— and a belief that I had cured myself of manic depression by sheer force of will.
Six weeks into the relationship, I drove Chelsea to a friend’s cabin in the Berkshires and called it a “writer’s retreat.” I cooked her breakfast every morning, and between periods of writerly silence, we’d sneak away to have sex. Mania, it seemed, had made me impossibly horny. Chelsea couldn’t figure out where all of the passion was coming from.
“It’s the woods,” I told her in a postcoital embrace.
“The woods turn you on?”
“No. You do, obviously.”
“So what’s with the, um, energy?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. I looked down at her, then up at the ceiling. The three-bedroom cabin was nothing special, but it did have a deck and a view of a little lake. “I think it’s just the setting.”
By that point, I’d whittled my sleep down to four hours a night and had stopped writing. I had convinced myself that my friend had gifted this cabin to me. While Chelsea wrote, I made plans for its expansion. I would knock out the wall that faced the lake and build a glass-encased winter garden on top of a game room, where I’d install a pool table, and possibly a foosball table, too. I drew up the plans and started pricing lumber based on quotes from Home Depot’s website. I was committed to improving my new home with my own two hands. When I mentioned the plan to Chelsea, she stopped typing, shot me a puzzled look, then started typing again.
When we returned to New York I met (and slept with) somebody else. I was cold to Chelsea when we went to brunch one morning. Instead of holding her hand at the table like I used to, I sat with my hands in my lap and stared out the window while we ate.
“You’d tell me if there was something wrong, wouldn’t you?” Chelsea asked as I paid the bill.
At this point I’d realized mania had crept up on me. I thought a relationship change would smooth out my mind. “Of course,” I replied. We never spoke again.
EPISODE 3: A RICH ARTIST FOR JULIETTE
When I’m manic I don’t feel bad about anything. I had no remorse about ignoring Chelsea until she stopped calling. I didn’t mind when Grace recoiled at the conspiracy theories on my dorm wall. I regretted losing my girlfriends, but it wasn’t until Juliette that I truly felt shame.
Juliette entered my life last spring at the Armory Art Show in Manhattan. I’d visited about a dozen booths before I arrived at one with the 30 busts of Osama bin Laden. The art was fine, but the girl tending the booth was phenomenal. I walked right up and introduced myself. She didn’t say her name, but I wrote mine on my steno pad, tore the page off, and slipped it into her hand.
Juliette contacted me a few days later. The first date, I decided, would be at the MoMA. I arrived at West 53rd Street in art-enthusiast drag, wearing all black and chain-smoking Nat Shermans. She arrived looking dazed. I grabbed her hand, hustled her into the museum, skipped the ticket line, and swindled two press passes out of the information booth. For hours, I sounded off like an art history book, detailing which artists had created what, and why and how the critics responded. My recall was amazing. It had been over a year since my last manic episode, and my brain was having a blast with the extra dopamine. I spoke faster, spent more, and slept less.
My most destructive recurring delusion is a belief that I come from old Southern money. In my fantasy, my parents are fabulously wealthy restaurateurs who have hidden their massive fortune from my sister and me so that we would grow up to be humble. In reality, my parents owned one small restaurant in Appalachia that barely paid the bills. But that didn’t stop me from spending several paychecks trying to impress Juliette, whose family had a country house in St. Tropez.
“Spare no expense,” was the advice a Parisian gave me when I told him I’d fallen for a French girl. I obeyed to a destructive degree.
My third episode was a bad one, almost as bad as the one that sent me to McLean. Early one Saturday after a sleepless night, my overactive mind became convinced that the key to immortality was gardening, so I spent the day in our backyard digging holes and filling them with seeds. I’d run out of seeds by the early afternoon, so I started filling the holes with household objects. It had something to do with magnetism, I thought, and embarked on a strategic outdoor furniture arrangement to summon ambient electricity to feed the plants. When it started raining diamonds, I knew I was on the right track.
That night, I went through all of the motions to prepare for a date with Juliette: haircut, shower, shave, freshly ironed shirt. We had plans to meet in the East Village, and for some reason, I decided not to take the subway or a cab. I wanted to walk across the Williamsburg Bridge. Juliette called me when I was about halfway across and we decided to meet in Tompkins Square Park.
Along the way I got distracted. I visited bodegas. I took circuitous routes. What should have been a fifteen-minute walk took nearly an hour, and by the time I showed up Juliette was gone. I looked around for a few minutes, then headed back to the bridge. I was halfway across when a cold, slick rain started. Juliette called, angry, around then.
“Where were you?” she yelled through her heavy Marseilles accent.
“I was walking there,” I replied with my eyes blinking fast from the heavy rain. “I must have underestimated the distance.”
“What did you expect me to do? Stand there and wait for you? Why didn’t you just take a cab?”
I had no reply.
“You were confused,” she said, and she was right. After managing my illness for the better part of a decade, I had committed so many warning signs to memory that, even through the funhouse mirror of a manic episode, I could sometimes recognize the failures of my own mind. For one brief moment I saw what Juliette saw: a confused boy in soaked clothes, insane and alone.
Three weeks later, after a series of interventions from family and friends, I checked into a mental health clinic in Maine, near my father’s family. Eventually I returned to New York, got a new job, and began integrating myself back into sane society. I have been stable for four months, now. I am single.