I knocked on his door. He called out and made me confirm my identity numerous times even though I saw him almost every day. He opened the door slightly, peeped out, closed it, opened it, but stood there not inviting me in. I glanced over his shoulder into the dark cave that was his safe haven, his home. Every wall was covered ceiling to floor in pictures of various gods, of childlike drawings laden with personal meaning, demons, ghoulish and beautiful. He had empty drink cans lined up like soldiers across the room. There was a dirty mattress on the floor, a small winding pathway amidst the chaos and clutter from the living room to the kitchen to the toilet. A heavy layer of cigarette smoke hung low in the air making me cough. I noticed his frightened eyes, framed by unruly greasy hair, an impressive, unkempt beard, lips black from not being washed, and I braced myself for the same old conversation.
“Hi Clay, how are you today?”
“Good, I’m very busy, I don’t have time to go anywhere.”
“I know you’re busy. Are you making some new artworks?”
The defensive shield dropped for a minute. “Yes, I’m drawing the bumblebee god, he’s very powerful, he says…” Clay’s eyes narrow again. “It doesn’t matter, I’m too busy to go out,” he says firmly.
“It won’t take long. You know we have to go see Dr Clarke today. I’ll bring you straight back. Why don’t you bring you pad and pencils?”
“I can’t.” He gets irritable. “Why do they make me go? The bumblebee god needs drawing. He says so. Tell Paula I’m fine, I don’t need to go.”
Paula is The Almighty in Clay’s world. She enforces his Community Treatment Order, a legal order which dictates that Clay is to have a fortnightly injection of strong anti-psychotic medication. She arranges a forced hospitalisation if he does not comply and Clay is terrified of hospital. I’m The Almighty’s minion, dutifully carrying out orders for Clay’s own well-being and safety.
“Clay, you know we have to do this. It won’t take long. Let’s go get a frozen coke afterwards?” I try to sound excited but I’m thinking that it would be much easier if he just accepted that this had to happen every fortnight. Why is it such a battle every time?
He considers the frozen coke briefly. “Please, Sarah. Please, don’t make me.”
The pleading starts. My heart twinges a little. He’s so clearly unwell. His voices tell him that it is unsafe to shower and he hasn’t bathed in weeks. He’s mumbling to an invisible person as I watch him. I say his name several times trying to regain his attention.
“I’m sorry, Clay. You know we have to go. Come on.”
We go back and forth like this several times. He closes the door on me. I phone him and we talk on the phone through the door. More pleading, begging. He’s desperate. I’m frustrated but I sympathise too. He’s so despairing that he’s almost crying. Then he says something and at the time I note that it is odd and I interpret it as a sign of his psychosis. It will be several years before it comes flooding back to me and finally, I will understand him.
“Please, don’t take my colours away.”
Several years later, I find myself in a severe hypomanic episode that seems to last months. It’s exhilarating, wonderful, fun, dysfunctional, risky. It’s a time in my life that I will always remember with fondness. Despite the dysfunction and the lows, it’s a time in my life that I lived, really lived. Thanks to the exaggerated self-esteem in bipolar, the impulsiveness, the elation and the energy, I worked hard and played harder. Even when I’m not in the grips of hypomania, my moods are more extreme than people without bipolar. My happiness buzzes with electricity and energy and when I’m low, I often feel like dying. It’s intense, it’s lively, it’s colourful.
But of course, such intense and fluctuating emotions make other people uncomfortable. And it’s not a very functional way to live. I know this logically and I know how reactive I can be to every minor and major event through the day. I either control my emotions or they control me. So, I both begrudgingly and willingly engage in this endless pursuit to achieve stability. It’s exhausting. Sometimes stability feels elusive, sometimes I pass through it, sometimes I get there and stay there a while. And let me tell you, as someone with bipolar who sees the positives (as well as the negatives) of extreme moods, being stable is fucking boring.
After some weeks on my first mood stabiliser, I sat there one day feeling numb and only half alive, and Clay’s words came rushing back with a force and new meaning that made me cry. Please, don’t take my colours away. I finally understood his meaning. I finally heard him but it was much too late. Clay didn’t have any friends or family. He didn’t work and barely left his house. His “colours” and his art was all he had and we took them away from him. He was always much quieter in the days following his injections. He wasn’t animated, he didn’t draw, he responded less openly to his hallucinations and he was flat.
And now my colours were gone. I was living in this drab, bleached, grey existence of bland emotions after having lived 31 years in wonderful color. I was used to living in a blaze of bold yellows, electric blues, fiery reds, popping pinks, iridescent purples, festive lime greens and now all I felt was a bleak, never-ending, unbearable grey. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t really feel happy, I couldn’t really feel angry, I couldn’t even cry. I literally lost the ability to cry and I would sit there with these bottled up, muted feelings that couldn’t be expressed or resolved. Everything was dulled. It was like having the vague idea that I was happy or sad, but not actually feeling it. It was my own version of hell.
I went back to my psychiatrist and although I didn’t use these words, I told him essentially that he had taken my colours away. My psychiatrist is an empathetic man and he has patiently worked with me over the past two years prescribing different medications for me, helping me to chase an elusive existence that I call being “colourfully stable”. He is guided by me and we adjust medications if I’m too depressed or too unstable or too numb. He listens. He listens from the heart as well as the mind.
I guess that’s the point of writing this post. It’s my turn to plead with others now. It’s a plea to listen, to listen from your heart. When I worked with Clay, I had a degree in psychology, I had experienced crippling depression myself, I had watched family members and friends struggle with mental health and I had worked in mental health for a few years. I was no stranger to mental health challenges. I knew it from experience and I knew it by the text book. But I didn’t hear Clay when he pleaded with me.
Even today I would still encourage Clay to have medication and I would still take him to the doctor. But maybe I’d just sit with him first, sit beside him in his colourful world and I’d really try to understand what medications meant for him. Maybe I would advocate for him with his doctors and try to help him find his “colourfully stable” space. Maybe I would grieve with him every time he lost his colours and I would hold his hand and say “I’m sorry” and I’d mean it from my heart.