My eyes popped open. Before I even sat up in my bed, my mind was racing with thoughts of weight training, treadmills, and elliptical machines set so high my butt could already feel the burn. My best girlfriend and I had been meeting in her basement or at the gym most days for the past 6 years, and as we’d talk about all matters diet and fitness related, we’d take turns spotting each other using free weights to shape our biceps, triceps, and chest.
Our friendship was one based almost exclusively on discussions about paleo diets, sprint training versus endurance runs, and occasionally we’d bring up the idea of running a half marathon together. I had already done two, but the idea of crossing the finish line with my gym buddy; our hands held high in victory, made the thought of our training process more glorious.
As I’ve reassessed the past several years of my life, I’ve realized that the search for glory plays a huge determining factor in whether I’ll bounce out of bed in the morning or lay there for months bundled in layers of unexplainable grief. Getting up and placing both feet, one after the other on the floor, is not something I’m familiar with. In my world, there are two speeds: fast and furious or curled up wishing death would come swiftly.
But on this day, when my body sought that familiar sensation of grandeur, a buzz of action jetted me upright. As soon as my feet hit the floor beside my bed, I took the stairs leading to our downstairs living room two at a time. I dialed; foot tapping, fingers tapping, jaw grinding; anxious energy bursting from every nerve ending. As I waited for my girlfriend to answer the phone, my mind had already decided its path: whether I had to go at this alone or with the pleasure of her competitive company, I was doing this.
Her familiar voice picked up, “’Morning!” “Hi Joanne? I have an idea. We should do the novice body building competition next March. We don’t have enough time to put enough muscle on for the ‘figure’ category, but we could totally rock the ‘bikini’ division.” My speech was fast, as it always is when this mood overtakes me. I already had visions of sparkly fabric basted in shiny sequins for my competition teeny weenie suit. This suit would cover the bare minimum, but in a classy way. I could read her mind as she decided how to break the news to me. “I wouldn’t be comfortable walking on stage in a bikini, but I’ll totally train and follow the diet with you.” Good enough.
The decision was made. At this point I knew my husband would support my idea because by now he was used to my antics, which, unfortunately, few people could talk me out of once I’d made my mind up. That very week, I hired one of the best trainers in Canada, bought more chicken breasts than any household should ever see frozen in their deep freeze, and I cleared various spots throughout my home to display the first place trophies I thought I was about to win. This period was definitely a manic one, probably one of the worst I’ve ever experienced, which unfortunately was followed by an emotional crash so hard and fast, it still lingers.
I have bipolar II disorder. This illness used to be referred to as manic-depressive disorder. Bipolar II disorder is a mental illness comprised of erratic moods, mostly ranging from hypomanic to manic episodes, and in the case of bipolar II, more often depressive symptoms manifest. Bipolar II disorder has the highest rate of suicide of any mental illness because it is often misdiagnosed as Major Depressive Disorder, and as such, proper treatment is difficult to establish.
At the time that I had decided to compete in the novice bikini competition, I was not aware of this. I had no idea I was exhibiting classic manic behaviour. What I knew was that I was destined for stardom. First I was certain to win the novice division, then the provincial one, and finally the national one. Oxygen magazine would discover me. And I would be a 40something year old cover model. These visions of grandeur are one of the many manifestations of mania. (My psychiatrist once asked me, “Do you think you’re the Queen of England?” I replied honestly, “No, no I don’t,” but something deep inside me thinks I’m the queen of something.)
I did as I said I would and spent nine months training for the competitions. I spent money on boot camps, posing classes, very expensive bikinis, stripper shoes (referred to as such because…well because strippers wear the same shoes on stage); not to mention entry fees, and sessions with photographers (because how often is your ass ever this perky – it actually should be sculpted in ivory and set on a pedestal instead of photographed).
My family was as supportive as they always were when I’d get some cockamamie idea in my head. In solidarity with me, and for nine months they ate as much chicken breast as they could stomach (today we don’t even mention the word ‘poultry’). They put up with my exhaustion, late nights coming home from the gym, and the funds I was dwindling through trying to support my newest dream. The only thing they were unable to fully support was my absolute conviction that I was going to win first because…well why wouldn’t I? “You know mom, you might not get first place,” one of the four kids would gently take turns explaining.
“Of course I will,” this was my mantra.
However, my children were right. I placed second during my novice competition. I placed second during my provincial competition. And I held a national title for second place. After each competition I told myself that there was always next time. And each time, my stomach sank to my toes and I dragged my suitcase filled with makeup and hair appliances from the hall where the competitions were held, and took refuge under my bed covers to lick my wounds, while everyone told me how great I had been on stage. They didn’t understand though.
I hadn’t been great enough.
As I walked from the hall where the national competition was held, second place trophy in my hand once again, I could feel the thrill of victory I had been awaiting for the past nine months leak through my fingers like sludge. I awoke the next morning, and the bounce which had been a part of my days for almost a year had disappeared. I had nothing left. No more competitions to chase. No more opportunities for athletic greatness. No reason to train at 5am. And no Oxygen photographers calling me for photo ops. It was time for real life again.
As I sat in church that morning between my girlfriend Joanne and my husband, the slow melancholy of the choir sank into my heart, and as I listened to it crack, I felt a void so horrible, I was unsure how to even comprehend it, much less fix it. As I sat there between my girlfriend and my husband, tears began rolling down my cheeks; tears which turned into loud hiccupping sobs. My husband handed me a tissue, and asked, “What’s up with this?” My girlfriend stared, her mouth open. People around me turned to stare, and then quickly turned away trying to avoid making eye contact with the hot mess in the pew behind them.
My sobs continued. They continued when my husband ushered me into our car. They continued as I walked through our front door, and my kids asked, “Mom, what’s wrong?” They continued as I crawled into my bed, and pulled the covers right up over my head. They continued for two years.
This began my descent into a depressive episode so deep, hell would have been an easier escape than the depths I was spiraling into.