…but I wish that you had only known just what was wrong with me long before you did.
Today, I turn to Steven Page, and an album I’ve been avoiding listening to for nearly a year.
Surprise Surprise is a song off of his newest album, Heal Thyself Pt. 1: Instinct, the first half of a double album, with the second to be released at some point between this year and eventually.. I’ve been hesitant to listen to it since last March because a friend had told me that it would likely hit way too close to home. This song came up on my iPhone on my way home this evening, so I sucked it up and started to listen to the album. Big mistake.
I didn’t make it too far in before turning into a pile of emotional on the train.
Steven Page has been one of my biggest influences musically for most of my life. He has this way as a lyricist and musician where he could take the most depressing text and turn it into the happiest tune on the freaking planet, without losing the feeling of the lyrics. His open struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction have gotten me through a lot of bullshit over the years…
So my friend was right — what I’ve listened to so far has hit too hard and too heavy for a Saturday night. This album is a musician trying to find his voice again, regardless of mental illness and addiction. In his honesty, there is hope.
Tonight’s prompt is about coming to terms with life. I feel like this song is very fitting to this prompt.
How old were you at the onset? How old were you at diagnosis? How were you given the diagnosis and are you satisfied with the way it was handled?
I don’t know how old I was when things started to go crazy in my head.
I think this is something I’ve always lived with, in some way or another. I’ve never not known a life of chaos; I was damned with that chaos long before I ever even had a say in it. The only difference is that now, I have a way to finally grow up.
I grew up in a Greek immigrant family. I was born less than a week after my mother was extremely pregnant on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic between Athens and Allentown. It was October of 1987, and there was snow on the ground when she had left the hospital. My mother had also just experienced the first ever holiday of Kiltmas (as we affectionately have called it growing up). Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s now almost 30 year old Celtic Classic festival and Highland Games — a celebration of bagpipes, kilts, trinity knots, and caber toss — pretty much the first day she landed in America. And then Halloween happened.
I’ve often thought of just how insane it must’ve been for a 20-something to have landed in a strange new country, surrounded by bagpipes, kids dressed in scary costumes, knowing barely enough academic English to get by… and seeing snow for the first time ever. That is how my life began — full of chaos and wonder of a foreign land that made absolutely no sense besides that crazy notion of a land of great opportunity. Life was kinda hopeful in the late 1980s for a young immigrant family.
When I was barely 2 years old, my father was run over at the bottom of a city hill by a car driven by an elderly drunk driver, and needed metal rods in his forearm.
Of course, it was my fault… because I did what two year olds do, and tried to catch my ball in the middle of the street.
My earliest memory is of being in the ER and getting a lollipop.
Now, I don’t think I know what of this memory is actually a real memory… or what has been fabricated by years and years of stories. Doesn’t make a difference. Anyways, my father resented me until his dying breath last year. As he descended into prescription painkiller abuse, he physically and emotionally abused me (sometimes several times in one day), so I could “feel the pain” I had “caused” him.
Me, a two year old, doing what two year olds do.
I won’t get into all the violent things he did to me right now, but it took me several years of therapy to even begin to admit that it was abuse. ABUSE! I don’t quite understand that word at all… because it’s what I called normal until recently. I’ve had trouble differentiating boundaries, and even functioning sometimes… because I truly do not know a life of quiet and solitude.
Chaos is, in a way, my definition of “comfortable” — it’s all I truly know.
Looking back, the moment I guess that I can define as an “onset” is the first time I picked up a musical instrument. I started to study the flute by the time I was barely old enough to form a real sentence in English. (English is not my first language.)
While I was being beaten up, I fell in love with music. I don’t think that I quite knew the significance of it at that point, but I knew that it was an escape.
In adulthood, I am a professional musician. Music is my entire world and I’d be dead without it. As a kid, I quickly wanted to learn as many instruments as I possibly could, and picked up the violin before I was a pre-teen. I was obsessed with Celtic music, growing up in a city that has a deep Celtic influence, and wanted to learn the fiddle by the time I was 5 years old. I also had a love of Mummery, and taught myself how to play the saxophone by the time I was in high school, hoping to one day join a string band. (Until recently, I thought that world was closed off to me as a queer person… more on that in the future.)
I then discovered musical theatre, and I instantly fell in love with it. I learned the economic aspect very quickly — why pay five musicians to cover five different instruments, when someone could hire one musician to play five? Oh, how that was incredible to learn! Having some saxophone under my belt, I taught myself clarinet and bassoon that same year. I was just overjoyed that something existed that fed into my obsession with instruments, and that I could potentially make a living out of it. I was barely a teenager.
Swimming was also an escape. I competed for most of my childhood. This combination of music and swimming was fodder for my illness, but it was also survival. I wasn’t a stupid child by any means. By the time I was in high school, I would leave the house by 4.30-5am to go to swim practice. I would not return home until after an evening swim practice and a later evening rehearsal or performance, often past 10pm. This was at least 6 days a week. I figured that the longer I stay out of the house, the less I’d be beaten up.
This routine truly fed my illness. It was fight or flight, and I chose both at the same time. I remember the insanity of my mood cycles, as well…. primarily how hard I’d fight during lows just to keep up with my survival routine… and how I’d go through weeks of highs where I really didn’t need the sleep that I was already depriving myself of. This continued well into adulthood, and I still don’t think I’ve broken that cycle — at a few months shy of 30 years old.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was drinking and abusing enough drugs to kill a man twice my size… and I was a tiny, 150 lb teenaged “girl”. I went through insane cycles of anorexia, like enough swimmers can relate to, and when I consciously wasn’t thinking about limiting my food intake, I was actually forgetting to eat (something I struggle with to this day). I was drinking nearly every night at one point… primarily to slow down my racing head through what I’ve learned now to define as weeks of mania. I started sneaking off to Allentown’s Stonewall bar… it was to the point that when I actually turned 21, the regular staff didn’t believe me because I’d been drinking there for a good five years by that point. It was one of the few places I felt safe in my self-loathing internalized homophobia and transphobia.
When I was going through lows, what I now know as depression… I was doing all sorts of drugs, just to try to chase those weeks of mania and to keep up with this insane, unmanageable schedule I’d created for myself just to avoid being in the house where I’d be abused.
I thought it’d all be behind me when I made it to college. I was, surprisingly, accepted at all three of my top choices, and decided to attend the alma mater of many of my childhood role models.. a “small” state school just outside of Philadelphia, PA with a storied history of creating music educators.
Just before moving away, I had my first suicide attempt. I had this “secret” spot along the Lehigh River, where it meets the Monocacy Creek, overlooking the old Steel mill’s blast furnaces. I’d go there to escape — to practice, to get extremely high and drunk… Only two people knew of my spot. When I didn’t show up to a rehearsal the next day, something I never did even while in a low, one of those two people found me.
Fast forward to music school. And past it. And one more suicide attempt. And coming out as queer and transgender. And an initial mis-diagnosis that resulted in a long manic episode… And doing some living… and lots and lots of addiction in between, just to self-medicate my symptoms away.
AND FINALLY GETTING ACTUAL HELP.
I put it off for nearly ten years, until my symptoms got so bad that I was unable to function. During a manic episode, I was named employee of the month. And then I started having severe flashbacks at work. I stopped sleeping. I lost a lot of weight by forgetting to eat. My illness finally caught up to me, after many years of thinking I was hiding it… Manic-me was this awesome person with a lot of ideas and a lot of energy and amazing to be around and never saying ‘no’ to anything thrown at him. Manic-me was invincible.
Manic-me was dangerous.
I was mixing pills with a lot of alcohol, and doing reckless things. Remember when I mentioned that I literally black out during manic episodes? Combine that with substances.
I always crash.
I guess the lyric I chose completely describes how I got help.
Someone knew just what was wrong with me long before I did, I just refused to admit that my particular brand of chaos was not normal. I thought I was doing a great job hiding my insane behavior, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. I have always been one episode away from losing everything. And I did.
I was hospitalized three times in less than 6 months in 2015. Three times, I got so bad at hiding my symptoms, that I had to be locked up in the nut house. And I still denied that anything was not “normal”. Chaos is the only “normal” I’ve ever known.
At 28 years old, I finally got an answer inside a nuthouse somewhere south of Joe Biden City, Delaware.
I later found out that my then-psychiatrist had already made the diagnosis months prior, but either I was so manic that I didn’t hear it… or he just glossed over it without mentioning it. A younger doctor inside the hospital sat me down, after I had come-to from blacking out… and told me “You have bipolar disorder.”
I denied it and denied it, and checked myself in a few months later at a local hospital…. but I’ve grown to be thankful for it. Due to insurance issues, I have been seeing a new therapist and psychiatrist for the past few months. My new psychiatrist has insisted on scheduling me every two weeks… and I’ve accepted that. He’s actually been listening to me, and has been incredibly helpful in my understanding of my illness. I believe I’ve made more progress in three months than I had in the 15 years of self-abuse prior.
I’m scared out of my mind right now, but I’ve not lost total hope.
I have this illness that wants me dead. This illness that has only taught me chaos and uncertainty.
And I’m finally ready to grow up.