By David Meyers
My mania began as a freshman in high school in 1996. In a small town near Buffalo, New York, I was a top student in biology and earth sciences and voraciously pursued these interests. In researching the interconnections in nature, learning about the DNA double helix and the energizing actions of mitochondria in human cells, I was transported into a strangely tantalizing and visual world that piqued my curiosity.
I explored scientific literature in the local library, coming upon ecology, then chaos theory. Meanwhile, I was learning how to play guitar and was drawn into the music of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. I was incredibly active and energetic and was constantly searching for the next rush through performances in the drama club or winning races in track. Note that the high was from healthy activities, not drug use. I was a healthy adolescent at the tail end of puberty.
However, as with many people who pursue activities that bring pleasure to them—in my case, music, science, and running—a crash eventually came. In the spring of 1998, the hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia began to manifest. I survived on little to no sleep. My symptoms were so extreme that by April, I needed the safety of a hospital so that I didn't hurt myself or anyone else. Doctors thought I was on street drugs, but in reality, I was experiencing intense mania that made me feel like I was spinning in countless directions at warp speed. It was terrifying.
My mania finally subsided with medication, but after a three-week hospitalization, I felt flat. I had trouble concentrating, even when I attempted to read books I loved. But a welcome change was that my social anxiety and severe depression were mostly absent. I made a beautiful impressionist chalk pastel in occupational therapy that others loved. My circle of friends grew wider, and I became the lead guitarist of a punk band. Although my time studying intense detail was gone, I had an exciting life balancing drama club performances, birthday parties, and high school dances. I was a popular dude, only made possible through medications, which counteracted paranoia.
After high school graduation, I made the tough choice to pursue biology over English in my freshman year. I yearned to be like my dad, a master in science. After intense study in biology, I eventually acquired creative talents and sought information about major world events. But times became tougher due to the freedom of being a college student and lack of structure.
I became manic again in September 2001. I slept little and had grandiose beliefs in my ability to save the world from terrorism. I fancied that my guitar playing would bring peace from Osama bin Laden. I was devoid of reality and rude and belligerent with loved ones.
After three years of alternating between dorm living and my parents’ house, I moved into formal transitional living in Buffalo in 2004. In 2005, I declared English as my new major at the University of Buffalo and won my Social Security case.
My psychosis never completely resolved, and I would occasionally hallucinate complex patterns. As I joked with friends in the car, I likened the patterns to functions in calculus--a subject in which I excelled in college.
Suicidal ideation crept into my mind for the first time in 1998. Yet it only became a tangible idea five years later in 2003, when I created a beautiful original chalk pastel, with a suicide note left for my family. Thoughts of suicide would repeatedly arise and surface with no warning for the next four years, until I finally followed through twice, in 2007.
In April 2007, I found solace and safety at the hospital from scary and restless agitation with minimal sleep. I was discharged per my request, but I was not of sound mind. A better treatment team might have recognized that.
My dad picked me up from the hospital and dropped me off at home, where I took an entire bottle of lithium and endured a severe cutting episode. I felt that I might as well have given up. I had no hope that I would ever feel good. This manic agitation, with three packs of cigarettes a day, was terrifying.
My final attempt at suicide in August 2007 left me with a frontal lobe brain injury. It was the result of a desperate attempt to take my own life by exiting the passenger side of an automobile on the thruway in rush-hour traffic. Recovery from this trauma and coma required a year of recuperation in inpatient units.
In 2008, I began a much-needed extended stay in a state hospital, where I began recovering from years of trauma, self-injury, and mental illness. This stay provided the genuine rehabilitation I needed. It even led to a volunteer job upon discharge that lasted several years, as a group facilitator of creative expression and smoking cessation. Looking back, an extended hospital stay earlier in my illness could have prevented my near-death experiences.
The resulting health difficulties from frontal lobe damage, such as poor impulse control and intermittent memory loss, have made my life more complex. Independent living was challenging. For example, a low-stress threshold due to my brain injury made it difficult to handle the large and crowded buildings where the housing agency assigned me to live. My stress, plus more responsibility outside of my group home, brought more unpredictable temper tantrums. These tantrums led to my eventual expulsion from the housing agency.
The system had difficulty understanding my needs because of my dual diagnosis of frontal lobe head injury and bipolar I with psychotic features. Between 2009 to 2016, I was able to move into an effective group home, which was a better environment for managing my stress. I was slowly moving toward independence, but the route proved painstaking. Once again, my stress became hard to manage, but I felt it was worth the struggle. As I increasingly realized that I function better when not living in close proximity to others, I became proactive in advocating for a home where I could be as independent as possible.
Luckily, I was able to advocate with my case manager for my housing and treatments before the COVID pandemic started. I felt strongly that I needed a safe place to be completely on my own before I hit forty. Currently stationed in permanent housing, I’m stabilizing. I am in a solitary, one-bedroom apartment, but regularly stay in touch with treatment providers. My flare-ups have steadily tapered off. Although I struggle with anxiety nightly, my psychiatrist, psychotherapist, neurologist, cognitive therapist, and case manager effectively help me manage my independence.
My journey has had lots of challenges, but I’m genuinely happy with my current circumstances. My frustration with community living has made me realize I am a loner at heart. I now enjoy studying science and history at my own leisure, and my original art is framed on my walls.
I hope that describing the last twenty-four years of my history with mental illness can help to convince others that mental illness is real and that treatment really does help. Medications have been instrumental in my recovery, and I believe education on the positive benefits of medication needs to be more widespread.
People like me know you don’t need to use drugs to hallucinate. It’s not your fault if you are paranoid. You cannot just “get over it.” But if you keep the faith and stay open and willing to work with your doctors to find the right medication, you will discover that staying alive really is worth it — it's more than enough!
David Meyers earned an associate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the State University of New York - Empire State College. He was awarded the E. Lester Levine Memorial Scholarship based on science writing and human services in 2016.