• Jørn Earl Otte

Heavy Mental

When I was 16 years old, I climbed out of the downstairs bathroom window of my grandparents’ house at three o’clock in the morning.

I was naked.

I ran around the house once, excited by the idea that someone might catch me, terrified by the thought of what that would mean.

When I made my complete lap and reached the bathroom window again, I quickly jumped back into the house, scraping my knee on the windowsill. I laughed hysterically, and of course, I, umm, did the thing that 16-year-old boys do when they are naked by themselves at three o’clock in the morning. It was exhilarating. (It’s damned embarrassing now. Why am I sharing??)

It was also, as I would learn many years later, a strong indicator that I was developing a mental illness that at that time was commonly called “Manic-Depressive Disorder.” The medical term now is Bipolar Disorder.

Bipolar Disorder can manifest itself in a variety of ways, and there are different types of the mental illness: Bipolar I (that’s me!), Bipolar II, Cyclothymic Disorder, Rapid Cycling, and Mixed Episode. People can begin developing one of these types, but could have their symptoms morph into another type as they get older. Essentially, people with bipolar disorder have periods of “severe highs” or “mania,” and period of “devastating lows” or “depression.”

To the uninformed, we seem like mood-swinging sonsabitches.

Now, I didn’t know I was “manic-depressive” at 16, but me running around with my ding-dong diddling in the breeze seemed to me a sure-fire sign that I was crazy as fuck.

Running around naked in the middle of the night is a sign of someone being Bipolar?

Sounds ridiculous, I know. But one of the signs of the “high” stage in someone with Bipolar Disorder is a hyperactive sex drive. This can lead people who are bipolar into having unprotected sex with multiple partners in a short span of time. Or, if you are 16, gangly, awkward, and have never been on a date in your life, it can lead to midnight in the garden of Grannie and Gramps.

I am 46 now, and have been on medication to treat my bipolar disorder for the last 8 years. But, if you do the math, you can see that I was sans médecins from the age of 16, when symptoms were first exhibited, and the ripe old age of 38. That means a little more than two decades of being a crazy mother fucker.

For the record, I did not spend those 22 years running around naked. (You’re welcome). I was not promiscuous – my first love was my forever love. Nor was I in a mental institution or strung out on heroin. I lived a life. I went to college, married my dream girl, had two kids, held down steady jobs, and, well, I lived.

Unfortunately, many people with Bipolar Disorder do not live. People with undiagnosed and/or untreated bipolar disorder are at a higher risk of suicide than normal. Even people who are being treated for it can be susceptible to the serious effects of depression, which can lead to thoughts or even attempts at suicide.

Bipolar disorder is often difficult to recognize and diagnose. When someone is “UP,” bipolar causes a person to have an abnormally high level of energy, and sometimes unrealistically expansive thoughts. (Once, I was convinced that I was the reincarnation of the Buddha, and another time, I was certain that I could invent time travel). These symptoms may feel good to a person, which may lead to denial that there is a problem.

Another reason bipolar disorder is difficult to diagnose is that, when “down,” its symptoms may appear to be just “being in a bad/sad mood,” or may seem to be part of another illness, like a cold or the flu. It may also be attributed to other problems such as substance abuse, poor school performance, laziness, or work issues. It can mean sleeping for hours and hours every single day. It can mean appearing to be a “lost cause.”

There is no known cause for bipolar disorder. There is no cure. There are medications, therapies, lifestyle changes, and support systems that can be both life-saving and life-changing. I know they have been for me.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The month is drawing to a close this coming weekend, so it is appropriate that a writer with a serious mental illness would wait until the last damn minute to compose his thoughts on the matter. As the great Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”

I am one of the lucky ones. The privileged. I married the most patient, loving, kind person on the planet. I’ve had two kids that are my sun and moon, with whom I share the kind of close bonds that the best of parents hope for in life. I had a therapist who listened with love, and who helped me find my own path of healing. I have friends and family the world over. Really, I am blessed.

Quarantine has been exceptionally difficult for many people with mental health issues, and if you or someone you love is struggling, I urge you to reach out for help: The National Alliance on Mental Illness has some great resources, and you can reach them easily. Call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-6264 M-F, 10 am – 6 pm, ET, or in a crisis, text "NAMI" to 741741 for 24/7, confidential, free crisis counseling.

But one of the struggles that often afflict people with mental health issues is this – We don’t always want to be the ones doing the reaching out. Often, the very thing that we need to do is the very thing that we feel like we just can’t muster the strength to handle.

So, if you are NOT suffering from a mental illness, take a moment and do some thinking: Who in your circle of friends and family have you not heard from in a while? Who have you talked to, Zoomed with, Facetimed, or Skyped, whose mood maybe seemed a little “off”? Who, right there in your own house, has just not been themselves lately? Who has seemed desperate for attention, or conversely, avoided it?

Who needs you?

Reach out. Texts are good. Phone calls are better. When and where possible, without endangering yourself or anyone else in this COVID-19 climate, in-person visits are best of all, even ones that need to happen six feet apart.

We may not respond to your texts. Keep texting.

We may send all of your calls to voicemail. Leave voicemails.

We may see you outside our front door, and tell you that we are “just not up for visitors today.” Tell us you refuse to leave until we at least poke our head out to say hi.

Be stubborn. In the long run, I promise you, we will be thankful.

And you just may save a life.

But if you see a dude crawling out of a bathroom window, remember – this is COVID-19 times, so give him a break. The man may just need to get away.

National Alliance on Mental Illness:

Mental Health America:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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