Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Crazy Friends
by Louise Pohle-Bjolin

I staggered out of the bathroom, a little hunched, and walked over to my bed. I sat down as carefully as I could, but the second my butt hit the mattress I whined, "Ow, ow, ow, ow."


I looked up. My roommate had a smile on her face as she asked.

"Yeah, how'd you know?"

"I've been there. Damn, that stuff is awful. Crapping it out for three days is worse than drinking it -- at least when you drink it you know when it's gonna end."

I smiled and nodded.

And with that I'd made my first crazy friend.

At the time I had no idea that I'd make more "crazy" friends, nor did I realize how much I would need them as the years went on. I would discover women who would keep me from feeling too isolated, who would provide me with support, who would understand the time I went crazy (well, it wasn't so much "the time" as it was that my life became so unbearable I had to seek treatment. And by "seek treatment," I mean when I had to go to the emergency room after my first suicide attempt). 

The ER doctors admitted me to the psych ward where the psychiatrists gave me my first real diagnosis: bipolar disorder. Before that I was just sensitive, anxious, prone to mood swings, sad a lot. Now I was officially recognized as a person with a mental illness. Which was something none of my current friends were.

Soon after my mother died in 1994, I needed to "seek treatment" again. Over the next two years, I became a regular at the hospital, going in every few months for weeks at a time. It was in the hospital where I found the women I could talk to about the crazy stuff --  who didn't think it was "crazy" at all. Women who would whine with me about side effects the same way my "outside" friends would whine with me about menstrual cramps.

The first time a woman showed me her arm full of small self-inflicted cuts, scabs and scars (like those on my own torso), I almost burst into tears. Could there be someone like me? Someone who really understood? Someone who could talk to me about the tools we'd used and how we tried to keep them away from ourselves? How resourceful we could be when nothing was available? How sometimes the stupid rubber band trick could be used on its own? We talked in-depth, never judging and more importantly never asking why. We were simply able to share our stories and offer each other compassion. With the compassion came familiarity, which was a brand new thing for me.

I spent a lot of time sitting around the tables in the dayroom or cafeteria sharing stories and listening. It felt so good to talk about how Zoloft had made me all "wonky" and hear someone else say, "Oh yeah... Prozac did that to me. That's what I was on when I had to pull my car over." She knew what I meant by "wonky" without my having to explain it in detail. I knew what she meant about pulling her car over; she was describing the urge to just drive it off the road -- which I think many people would view as suicidal, but it's more an impulse-without- thought sort of thing. She wasn't talking about killing herself; she was talking about being out of control.

After "lights out" I would sit on my bed and talk to my two roommates. One of them wore heavy, outlandish make-up (one of her symptoms during a manic phase.) She knew it was a symptom and knew it was garish but just didn't care. It was part of her illness. So what? She understood that she was never going to be like someone who didn't share her chemistry. I learned a great deal from her. Before meeting her I'd thought that once I got on medication I'd be fine and normal, that someone with bipolar disorder who takes her meds is equal to someone who doesn't have bipolar disorder.

My other roommate at the time suffered from depressive episodes and substance abuse. She was also diabetic. When I talked about how if I take my medication I should be pronounced "illness free" she talked about being diabetic (diabetes is often compared to mental illness in the sense that it's a life-long illness that can be treated with medication. We mentally ill folks need our meds the same way diabetics need their insulin. But medication doesn't make the illness disappear). She told me that, yeah, she takes her insulin shots and checks her levels, but she still can't go pig out on sugar the way someone without diabetes can. She couldn't start skipping meals the way other people could, not without some serious consequences.

I learned that mental illness has its own language and not all of it is translatable. My friends and I spoke of special lemonade, the quiet room, the Haldol shuffle, hallucinations and disassociation. We whined and whined about the damned side effects: a friend of mine who loved to paint couldn't anymore because her hands were too shaky. Another friend had to pee every half hour because she was drinking so much water to combat dry mouth. I changed my contacts two or three times a day because my eyes were so dry. We laughed and asked each other, "Remember orgasms?" "Will I ever have one again?" "Could I go off my meds for just a few days so I can have some really good sex?"

I learned that I'm not the only person who panics when they come down with the flu: Do I really have it or am I faking it because I'm depressed? I've been sick for three days now and have all the symptoms of depression... what if I get over the flu and am still stuck here? Did I make myself sick? Am I making myself depressed? Do people think I'm lying about having the flu just so I can wallow in depression for a few days? Any small symptom becomes a running commentary of worry.

A friend of mine told me about the voices she heard and how she knew they were lying and she wanted them to shut up; how she cried after she'd done or said stuff they'd told her to. During one of our "morning meetings" she once went into a tirade about Sports Illustrated being involved in a conspiracy against the Pittsburgh Steelers. She had all the details -- it had started at a meeting in St. Louis and the magazine was paying off certain team owners to trade or bench certain players and blackmailing all the referees. And this is why the Steelers would never go to the Super Bowl again. She told us she'd read a big article about it in US News & World Report and those of us who didn't know about it were ignorant. Then she shouted "Stop looking at me!" and ran out of the dayroom. 

She told another friend of mine she knew about her husband molesting their daughter. She told me that I was about to get in big trouble for all the vodka I had stashed in my locker, and she once stood in the hallway and screamed at the aides and nurses about how she couldn't take a shower until she had precisely eight clean towels and she was sick of them giving her dirty towels from the men's shower.

When she would act like that, my friends and I would be compassionate and patient. We'd tell her, "We know you don't really believe that. You're going to be okay in a few days." Now, when you're looking at someone whose eyes are wide and maniacal like that, it's not the easiest thing to be reassuring and say stuff you know isn't getting through on every level. But I knew that she was still there inside, that she heard us and that it would help, if even a tiny bit. I imagine it would be much harder for someone who didn't know what she was really like. That her actions at the moment had nothing to do with who she really was. But I'd seen the real her -- the one who mocked a look of horror when I put jelly, milk and sugar on my grits. I'd witnessed the exchange that became a legend on our floor: one of the male patients told her, "I'll take care of you, baby." She snapped back, "You can't even take care of yourself!" Another male patient, his voice very much like Eeyore's, boomed, "Takes one to know one." Everyone stood still, because you never know when someone might really lose it, but once my friend started to laugh we all cracked up. We talked about that exchange for days. 

Who else could be friends with this woman and not judge her? Not only understand her personality changes, but accept them as part of her? I felt awful for her when she was going through her episodes, and I badly wished she didn't have to, but really, it was no big deal. It wasn't a flaw that needed to be corrected. As we got to know one another, we learned each others' quirks and just dealt with them. One of my friends had multiple-personality disorder, and sometimes she'd talk as if she were some mafia kingpin's wife (some of the male patients were actually working for him, to keep her safe). I just listened and nodded. When she was herself again, I never brought it up. She had doctors for that stuff. She didn't need or want to be told, "Oh, you were so-and-so again today. And then you were someone else, because you acted like you didn't even know who I was!" Like me, like all of us really, she needed some companionship that was free of all the analysis, observations and judgments.

My hospital friends quickly learned when I rolled my eyes, sighed and looked away that there was no making me feel better. None of my “outside” friends would do that. To have those moods show up and not have to explain, apologize or even worry what others were thinking -- that was like a gift. I never realized until that moment that having to defend myself and getting worked up about it, as I had in the past, only made the mood stay longer. When I was able to skulk off alone, glare out the window and grit my teeth I could let the mood pass right through me. I had friends close by who knew that nothing was really wrong. They'd be right there when I was ready again. No questions asked.
Louise Pohle-Bjolin lives with her husband Brian, daughter Amelia and three black cats in Pittsburgh -- the city she insists has only two rivers. Her writing has previously appeared at Hipmama, austinmama.com, chicklit and Suite101, as well as in her zine, Leap, and in a journal where she charts her mood ring's activity. Contact her at loupbj@yahoo.com