My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Fear of Flying (reposted)

I am reposting chapters of the book I wrote a few years ago in hopes of catching some more recent readers. Thank you in advance for your readership. These posts provide a graphic account of a life with bipolar illness. Please avoid these posts if that is a trigger for you.

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Note – several names and places have been changed throughout this text in order to keep my story somewhat private. Thanks for understanding that need.

Although I had had no prior fear of flying, my first episode of bipolar illness was in a tiny airport near my Ivy League college (hereafter known as Ivy College).  While I was waiting for the plane to get ready to taxi off the runway and take me to my first interview for a job after college in advertising, I was consumed by runaway thoughts.  My thoughts were anywhere but on my interview for an Account Executive position at Chicago Avenue Advertisers.  I had no specific directions for my fears but I took out some papers I was working on for my undergraduate thesis at Ivy College and was writing and writing furiously in and around the margins of the pages of the papers I previously had written.  The thoughts seemed to co-mingle with the characters in the fiction as well as characters or people I knew in real life.  The writing was fast and furious until I finally heard the flight that I was to take to Chicago on the puddle-jumper called.

For some reason I did not feel safe in myself enough to board the plane once the flight was called and I came to the conclusion that the plane was going to crash.  I did not communicate this fear with anyone.  Instead I determined that I did not want to get on a plane that was going to crash, so I got my suitcase together and asked the airplane attendant if I could check my bags on the plane but not board the plane myself.  For some unknown reason, the contents of my suitcase were of paramount importance.  I recall a navy suit that I had packed and feeling like that suit should reach a friend who I was going to see in Chicago.   The label on the suit became extremely important at the time – it was an Evan Picone double-breasted navy wool suit.  The airport personnel immediately got suspicious and asked me why I was putting my suitcase on the plan and asked me to move away from the plane with them.  When I refused, the safety patrol man exerted more force and tried to get me to go with him.  In my fears, I turned to run down the runway away from the scene of the fears and ran completely down the airport runway up into a stand of pines, one shoe flying off in the process and resting in the snowy runway.  I recall exactly what I was wearing – a plaid pleated wool skirt in muted tones, a long sleeve silk blouse and a double breasted woolen gray or taupe sweater.  I don’t recall a coat or over-coat.   The safety patrolmen at the airport followed me into the woods with snow all around and made a chair with their arms for me to sit on.  I was in some stage of delirium and thought they were providing me some sort of throne to safety. 

Instead the next thing I knew I was being handcuffed to the backseat of a patrol car with the patrol lights flashing blue and white and was being escorted to the police station down the road.  When I arrived at the police station I kept telling the police that I was a Senior and straight A student at Ivy College and they must have made some mistake.  On the walls there were pictures of wanted criminals – I kept trying to figure out what the pictures meant.  There were three pictures:  a young woman who I thought looked like Ayn Rand, a man with a long beard who looked in my state to be like a long-haired Jesus and one other picture of a youngish man whose face I cannot recall.  What I do recall is feeling like a criminal and being treated like a criminal until a kind policeman named Michael started to ask me questions.  Once I started to talk with Michael I began to calm down.

After what felt like days of swirling and runaway thoughts and a myriad of questions, the police finally called my family and called the school clinic and I was escorted there.  Soon after, several of my college roommates arrived to be with me while the admission process continued.  After talking briefly with the clinic staff, I was transferred to the local hospital’s Psychiatric Unit. 

Within the next few hours my parents arrived in town and tried to begin to make sense of what had happened.  I recall my parents visiting me in the hospital mostly my Dad whose anxiety I could sense was through the roof.  Within a couple of days, we made arrangements to go back home to Augusta, Georgia.  I unenrolled from classes and moved back home to live with my parents for the spring and summer of 1985.  No one was sure yet if this was a temporary reaction to stress as a Senior and as a Senior thesis writer or the beginning of a lifelong behavioral health diagnosis and challenge.

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Paranoid Thoughts and Depression

Just because I have been able to hold a good job (at times) and have married successfully and had a child in no way shape or form means I have been immune from paranoid thoughts, depressive thoughts, anxiety or mania.  My illness over the years includes acute paranoia that I have had to process or let go of and get past. 

My first episode at the West Ferry airport is a case in point.  In addition to that mania and paranoia I have believed that I could see some terrorists in the Himalayas who had two “broken arrows” pointed at the US specifically at Washington, DC.  I have felt that I could see the boot camp of these terrorists as well as know the path that got them to their hide-out and the code associated with both of the bombs at their disposal.  I have envisioned the recovery of these weapons from such a terrorist camp via a team of highly trained military personnel and their dogs. 

The day the Challenger exploded, I was in a complete state of paranoia.  I was on the train from Chicago back to my college campus and believed the conductor was signaling me to exit the train.  I got off in an unknown location and started hitch-hiking down icy back roads in the pitch black of night with snow and frozen ice all around.  At some point I ended up on Interstate 400 going North.  I believed I was conducting the cars in various colors in a symphony along the highway.  I must have been in the middle of the interstate when a trucker named Bill picked me up on the highway and took me to a nearby exit from the highway where by some turn of fate I ended up at the police station.  I remember that the Challenger had exploded and that I felt somehow responsible for this.  I kept repeating that “I have a dream….” like Martin Luther King but instead of stating it I was screaming it over and over as if it were more a nightmare that I had instead of a dream…  Thanks to the police, I ended up back at the hospital on campus.

In addition, I later came to believe that I was a master code-breaker for bombs and machines that had been constructed by the military.  I believed that I was able to isolate code line by line that had been altered by terrorists and to communicate those lines of code to the military so that the code could be disengaged.

In addition, I came to believe that HIV was becoming a food-borne illness in need of early intervention and that a nuclear meltdown had been grossly underestimated by the military establishment — that the whole electric grid was liable to go up in smoke within minutes considering the griddle like effect that the grid provides its ability to relay power between destinations within seconds. 

In the early months of the postpartum period, I believed that three men from Eastern Europe had immigrated to Canada in order to migrate from Canada to the US as Canadian citizens.  I believed that these three men were planning a “nuclear accident” somewhere in New Hampshire such that the entire watershed East of the Mississippi would be unpotable and contaminated with nuclear waste.

Almost all of my paranoid thoughts have involved feelings of unsafety.  Whether around the corner at a neighbor’s house or on the international nuclear war stage, I can get easily paranoid about human safety.    Could these issues of safety be tied to the fact that I was not safe as a six-year-old child?  Probably so – more work is needed.

This tendency toward thoughts of safety more than likely dates back to my first episode in the snow at the West Ferry airport.  When I allowed my fears about safety to be expressed, I was treated as a criminal and as someone who was unsafe.  If my fears had somehow been allowed to be conveyed to friends, family, an airport personnel or even a passer-by, perhaps the reaction to my fears might not have been so dramatic.  Even more compelling, if my fears of flying had been addressed in the airport with airport personnel in a way that they could understand, I may have been able to avoid what became years of preoccupation with fear and safety.  Instead of them seeing me as a threat to self and others, perhaps they would have been able to request I be moved directly to a hospital setting rather than being arrested and handcuffed and locked to the door of a police vehicle with flashing blue lights. 

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Imprinting

What I took away from this first break experience during my Senior winter at Ivy College is that being mentally ill meant I was first a criminal and second a person. I know that first responders were doing their jobs to watch out for the safety of all those who were boarding the plane and/or in the airport. But that experience told me: “You are a criminal. You were trying to bomb the plane. You are guilty of anything and everything until proven innocent. You need to be handcuffed. You do not have the right to have fears much less to express them. You do not have the right to have perceptions that are not 100 percent clear. You are a danger to others around you and you need to be locked up.”

My first episode imprinted me for the rest of my life. For years, I would try to escape the label of criminal that had been imposed on me by circumstance and happenstance. But try as I might, I still felt like I was a criminal every time I had a subsequent break-through episode no matter how big or how small.

In hindsight, things could have unfolded quite differently. I could have reported to the school clinic that I was having anxiety about traveling to Chicago and had been having some trouble sleeping. I could have gone into the clinic for a routine evaluation and perhaps been put on lithium or some other drug for bipolar. But sadly, that is not the way my first episode and subsequent diagnosis of bipolar went. I remember to this day looking at those pictures on the wall in the police station and thinking they must be looking for me as “most wanted.” Being mentally ill simply meant I was a criminal.

I will talk later on about stigma and first responders — including the importance of training first responders how to recognize the signs if a person is a danger to him or herself or whether the person is also a danger to those around him or her. But that discussion about stigma and first responder training is for another day.