My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Intermixing with Police and First Responders

I am of the mindset that police and college campus police could do well with more training as to what constitutes a paranoid episode that is largely safe and what constitutes a paranoid episode that is largely unsafe.  I feel that the police serve in a hugely defining role as to whether someone experiencing an episode of bipolar illness should go the hospital or be incarcerated.  There is no such distinction for any other type of intervention that the police are called upon to mediate.  It takes a great amount of training about paranoia and how it operates particularly in the minds of our youth.  If psychiatrists are largely unable to determine when paranoia is linked with violence or not after days or months or years of working with that person, think what a challenge it is for a police man or woman intervening with no case history on the patient while being charged with the safety of that patient and all bystanders.  It is a huge responsibility that falls on the police and college police. 

I have worked through NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Health) in their In Our Own Voice Program to talk with these First Responders and provide more insight into the patient’s point of view when these incidents occur.  I found the reception at that event quite welcoming as if the police or campus police had never had a conversation with someone prone to paranoia when that person was outside of that paranoia event.

In any case, I find the work of police and campus police to be a gargantuan task.  It almost requires the intervening police officer to be all-knowing and to be able to size up the situation in a matter of minutes as to whether the person before them is paranoid and a danger to others or paranoid, a danger to themselves and needing hospitalization.  I feel that additional training in differentiating these behavioral health outcomes should be mandatory both for crisis interventionists as well as medical and clinical professionals.  As a person who has experienced mania and being a danger to self and perhaps others, I readily do not see a clear line for police to follow from which to determine how best to intervene.  If I am unclear on that intervention after 30 plus years of managing (or trying to) the illness, I would imagine most police and campus police feel that they are overwhelmed and alone as First Responders in assessing the case of a behavioral health incident.

I feel for the police and the campus police and their courage in this line of work and believe that greater training like that of NAMI’s In Our Own Voice Program is extremely important.  I had one first responder come up to me at that In Our Own Voice presentation and thank me.  The officer had never talked to someone with a tendency toward paranoia when they were not in a paranoid state.  All he had ever seen was the patient at the height of a paranoid event – he must have assumed through no fault of his own that that state of paranoia was the norm for that person rather than a state that comes and goes and can be managed for the most part through medications and talk therapy.   

The First Responders should have some sort of script that allows them to assess if the danger is being directed internally toward the patient or if the danger is more generalized to people external to the person experiencing the breach of reality.  I do not claim to have the content to that script in full, but my current thoughts about how questions for this script might go is something like what follows.  This script below should be vetted by a team of first responders, therapists, doctors and other professionals and is only a “strawman” from the point of view of one patient.

 I am going to ask you a series of 20 questions.  I would like for you to respond to each question to the best of your ability. OK, are you ready?  First question: 

          1) What is your name?

2) Are you a student here?

3) Are you feeling OK?

4) What is the date today?

5) Are you feeling suicidal?                

6) Have you ever felt this way before? 

7) Do you have a mood disorder illness?   Have you ever been hospitalized for a mood disorder?

8) Are you hearing voices?

9) What are the voices saying?

10) Are the voices asking you or telling you to harm yourself?

11) Are the voices asking you or telling you to hurt anyone else?

12) Do you have a weapon?  Are you intending to use it? 

13) Where did you get it?  Have you had it on you for several days or just a few hours?

14) How long has it been since you took a shower?

15) How long has it been since you had a full meal?

16) Have you been using any mind-altering, recreational or prescription drugs?

17) If so, what are they?

18) Do you feel safer now that the paramedics are here and we are talking?

19) Is there someone in particular you would like to talk to? Your parent? Your friend? Your psychiatrist? Your therapist?

20) What do you need to feel more calm?    

If there had been such a script available for use by First Responders at the West Ferry airport back in 1985, perhaps my first episode would not have been so cataclysmic.  Perhaps I would not have been plagued by security concerns for several years after this first episode if that episode had been less threatening and less dramatic. 

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Fear of Flying

Note – several names and places have been changed throughout this text in order to keep my story somewhat private. Thanks for understanding that need. I hope you will tell me what most interests you from my story so I can focus on that moving forward.

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.