Paranoia, voices, sleeplessness. What my psychotic break felt like.
The Washington Post
By Danielle Huggins
November 13, 2022
My bipolar meds made me gain weight, so I stopped taking them. That was a terrible mistake.
I am under slept and overwhelmed. I’m in a London hotel room, at the beginning of a four-day trip that was too cheap to pass up. I am 25. There are assignments to complete for my graduate courses and tests to grade for my middle-school teaching job. I have brought work with me, and there are short stacks of papers everywhere.
Despite having airplane seats that turned into beds, sleep eluded me on the overnight trip from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. I’m worried about this lack of sleep. Will it make me manic? For people like me, with bipolar disorder, traveling can lead to mania, and the only antidote is sleep. To sleep, I need medication. I don’t have any. I stopped taking it a few months ago because it made me gain weight.
I’ve been here a couple of hours and should be napping when I hear a knock on my door and open it. “Be ready in 20. We are hitting a pub.” My travel companion glances into the room. “What are all these papers?” I shrug and say I’ll be ready. I put on tight jeans and a black sweater. In the mirror I look and feel amazing. I am gorgeous. Am I really gorgeous? Or am I manic and overly confident?
The next day, Lorenzo, my middle-school colleague who put the trip together, his mother, his sister and I make the most of London. We ride in a red double-decker bus, take pictures in a red phone booth and watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
At night, I start off trying to sleep but cannot. Instead I work. The piles of paper seem to multiply. On the second day, riding the London Underground, I hear Lorenzo speak to his mother in Italian. I think: Why are they speaking Italian? Is something wrong? Is this a code?
I know that being severely manic can cause the brain to spin webs of conspiracies and make connections that aren’t really there. But I no longer ask myself if I am or am not manic. His mom must be an illegal immigrant. We’re going to have to smuggle her back into the U.S. I am terrified.
I am certain that his mom is not a citizen and that the British police are onto us. At the Sea Life London Aquarium, Lorenzo is studying a map. I walk over, but I cannot make sense of it. The neon-colored routes are shifting and merging into one another. I say, “How are you supposed to figure out where to go with the lines moving all over the place?”
Lorenzo turns his head and cocks it. “Nothing is moving on this map. Danielle, are you all right?” Suddenly I have a realization. Lorenzo is pretendingthe map isn’t moving. He is trying to tell me that his mom isn’t a citizen, and he is trying to figure out a way to sneak her out of this place so she doesn’t get picked up by Interpol. I resolve to be quiet and follow him, his sister and mom out.
On the plane ride home, I believe we are the biggest story in, if not America, the world. All the passengers on the plane are reporters, writing up the story of how we’re smuggling Lorenzo’s mother into the United States.
Lorenzo pleads for me to sleep. I lean my head on the small, cool window pane and try to sleep, but the second I close my eyes I hear the click-clacking of the reporters’ computers. They are all writing about me and Lorenzo’s family. When I open my eyes and crane my neck to catch them in action, the sound stops. They are cagey and slick, these reporters.
Back home in New York, despite zero immigration issues, my paranoia persists. In his car, Lorenzo asks if I took any drugs. “Be quiet,” I say, since the radio must be bugged. I hear a helicopter and am convinced that Lorenzo’s green VW is being broadcast on every TV station, just like O.J. Simpson with his white Ford Bronco. I picture reporters relaying the story of how two middle-school teachers smuggled an illegal immigrant from Italy, via England, into the United States.
Lorenzo pulls into the parking lot of a hospital and tells me to wait in the car. I am so scared of being caught on camera I curl myself into as small as a ball as possible and wait for him underneath the glove compartment.
When Lorenzo comes out, I tell him I’m afraid of the camera men and reporters. He tells me the coast is clear. I feel safe enough to walk inside the emergency room. I talk to a psychiatrist. He asks me if I have been diagnosed with any mental disorders. I tell him I have bipolar. He asks about my sleep and decides I need to be hospitalized.
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Danielle Huggins and her daughter. (Courtesy of Danielle Huggins)
I am relieved because I know from experience that hospitals are secure, and there is no way any reporters will infiltrate. I don’t know how Lorenzo got this doctor to agree to admit me, but I don’t ask. Before being taken up to the unit Lorenzo hugs me and I see he is crying. He must be worried about his mom and these reporters.
In the hospital, I’m given 40 milligrams of Zyprexa. That is a lot of Zyprexa. I sleep. After four days, I realize my mind fabricated the entire story. My stay is two weeks long and I am discharged with medication much stronger than those I quit months ago. I have an additional two weeks of recovery at home before I am cleared to go back to teaching. I sleep late every day, getting 12 or 14 hours each night. During the day, I feel hazy and unclear. I can’t read, and even find it difficult to follow the plotlines of TV shows.
When I go back to work, Lorenzo tells me some teachers are asking what is wrong with me. He says they think I’m on drugs. I tell him I am on drugs but not illegal ones. I explain my diagnosis and why I got so sick.
He says, “I’m so glad you’re fine now.”
I am not really fine, however. I feel like a zombie.
I see my doctor every four weeks, and each time he lowers the dose of Zyprexa, until he takes me off it completely. After three months, he prescribes Lithium instead, an old standard, having been around since 1949. I do not feel as out of it on Lithium, but because every manic episode is followed by a depressive one, I still have little energy and long for my bed all day, every day. At some point, I have to be readmitted for depression, but my stay is less than a week, and I am able to go back to work right away.
In the two decades since that psychotic break, I have never gone off my meds again. And I have never had a manic episode as severe as the one in London. Since then, the last thing I do before bed is open my bedside table drawer, take out my green Monday through Sunday pill box, and swallow the sanity pills kept inside.