The Bipolar Lens

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Manic in Manhattan

Manic in Manhattan

Last Wednesday I stood on the corner of 57th and Madison Avenue, staring down at a scrap of paper clutched in my hand.  It was the same scrap of paper I'd been staring at for over twenty minutes.  I paced back and forth, ignoring the strangers that jostled me every time the streetlights changed.  I recognized my handwriting, but I couldn't make sense of what I'd written.  Some numbers, a name I didn't know:  what did it mean?  Why did it seem so desperately important?

I'd come to Manhattan to see the fall foliage.  It had been decades since I'd seen the City inflamed by autumn.  Living in L.A. for so many years had faded my memories of bloody scarlet and crimson and russet and carmine.  My senses had dulled, and that's death for a writer:  I needed to be shocked alive again, to be stabbed in the heart by beauty.

"You don't travel well," a friend said to me, when I told him where I was going.  "Are you sure you ought to do this?"

I ignored his well-meaning concern.  Sure, traveling was stressful and I'd been known to have a meltdown or two, but that was then and this was different.  This was medicine.

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I continued to peer at the slip of paper, sure that if I looked long and hard enough the hieroglyphics would make sense.  Droplets of sweat began to trickle into my eyes.  When I wiped them away, my mascara melted off onto my fingers.  It was way too hot for October.  "Enjoy this unexpected heat wave," the newscaster had said that morning, and I'd cursed him right through the screen.  I wanted crisp and cool, a snap in the air.  This was thick and stifling -- embalming fluid disguised as air.

If I'd known it was going to be this humid, I never would have come.  Even I have to admit I have limitations, and heat and humidity are at the top of the list.  It isn't just the personal discomfort I fear, although that's a huge consideration.  The truth is, sometimes I lose my mind in the heat.  I can't think, can't make a decision, can't comprehend ordinary sights and sounds.  I get disoriented easily and forget where I've been and where I'm supposed to be going.  When it's really bad, I don't even recognize my own face in the mirror.

Before I know it, I'm manic.  My thoughts begin to race so fast I can't hear them anymore -- there's just a savage buzz inside my head that has no rhyme or reason.  I'm terribly frightened, so I get hostile and paranoid, attacking at the slightest hint of a threat.  There on the corner of 57th and Madison, I watched myself as if from a mile away snarling at strangers who came too close.  One woman stopped to ask me if I was lost and I snapped at her, "For God's sake, leave me alone!"  I needed space and time and cool and quiet to figure out where I was meant to be.  The answer was in my hand, in that crumpled up piece of paper, but it meant nothing to me anymore.  It was gibberish, and I threw it away. 

God watches out for fools and travelers, and I was both.  Right in front of me, a taxicab came to a halt and disgorged its passengers.  I jumped in at once, not knowing or caring where I should go, certain only that elsewhere must be better than here.  I snatched a hundred dollar bill out of my wallet (the only hundred in there, but I was frantic) and tossed it to the driver.  Believe me, I can't afford to be tossing money around, but when you're manic, it's only so much colored paper.  "Drive me through the Park," I said, "for as long as that lasts.  I need to see the changing leaves."

The driver spoke English, but barely.  "The leaves do not change yet.  Too hot."  He gestured to the sky.  "Like summer still, you see."

I saw.  It didn't matter.  I needed trees.  "Just drive," I said, then forced myself to mutter "please."

The cab was air-conditioned, another small miracle.  I sat back in my seat and let the Park unfold before my eyes.  The driver was right:  it was green, green, green, for as far as I could see.  Gradually, almost imperceptibly, I began to calm down.  The sweat all over my body evaporated, my heartbeat slowed and I was able to breathe.  I remembered where I was.  I remembered why I was there.  And most important of all, I remembered I was bipolar.

I forget that enormous fact sometimes, but I shouldn't.  It always matters.  A study I'd read just a few weeks before found that hospital admissions for bipolar disorder steadily increase as the temperature rises.  Other studies contend that bipolar individuals may have an off-kilter body clock, which affects their circadian rhythms -- including their body temperature regulation.  Not to mention that some of the psychotropic medications I take may inhibit my body's normal response to hot weather and put me at risk for heat stroke.

It was obvious:  just as I wouldn't wander alone in Central Park after dark, I shouldn't walk strange city streets in the heat.  I should have packed for hot weather, even though the forecast said chilly.  I should have ducked into a store or cafe to escape the height of the afternoon sun.  And I should have let someone who cared know the minute I heard mania's insidious whisper.  Next time, I vowed, I'd remember.  Surely I'd remember.  Next time.

I fished my phone out of my purse and called my cautious friend back home.  "I don't know exactly where I am," I said.  "But I think I'm going to be okay."

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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