I almost drowned over a year ago. I was amid a psychotic break, in the Pacific Ocean, believing my loved ones were on a boat far out in the water waiting for me. The songs in my head instructed me to stay afloat.
My life raft as a child was escaping into stories (until they began to turn on me).
It started with books.
One tale, in particular, was “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll. This story has lasted through the ages and been adapted in many ways, much as Alice herself shrinks and grows as she journeys in Wonderland.
For my final English fiction writing project in college, I wrote a novella about a girl who, much like Alice, goes on an adventure in a fantastic land. Also, like Alice, she’s a girl who some may call delusional.
I named my protagonist Hel for the deity in Norse mythology who rules the land of the dead, Niflheim. Unlike Valhalla, where those slain in battle go to rest, Niflheim is for those who die of old age or sickness.
I thought the underworld of the sick was fitting for my character Hel, as she struggles with her mental health. When the story starts, she is drowning herself in her bathtub, and the tub opens into a mythical well. She falls into fantasy.
I used a lot of my life experience to organize this story and so, fittingly, it was haphazard and wild.
Similar to how Alice gets caught in a pool of her tears, Hel floats down a river of her own tears, and ghosts begin to swim around her, asking her to save them.
Like a manic young woman who sits at the water’s edge and lets the sea take her, Hel cries so hard she creates ghosts like schools of fish. Finally, she pulls her way out and the river disappears. She finds an elderly lady dressed in a jade-colored dress, sipping tea. This is her departed grandmother, Fate. They talk and Hel learns that, much like my own maternal grandmother, Fate has died by suicide.
I had the story end shortly after that. Fate advises Hel to keep living, to ride the emotional roller coaster, and breathe. The final scene is Hel swimming with her head above water. I never fully finished this piece, and I think of it frequently. There is so much I want to change about it: storylines to cut and edits to be made. I find myself struggling with the “Alice” of it all. Alice chases a rabbit and falls down a hole into another realm. However, when she wakes from her nap, we can believe her Wonderland a dream.
To me, that takes away the magic and security of the fantasy.
The stories that I read and the stories that I write are nothing like the stories in my head. As a woman living with a Bipolar condition, I have learned that trust within my mind is incredibly hard to manage. Today, over fifteen months have passed since the almost drowning; it’s been about one year since I got out of hospitals and treatment centers. I have some semblance of sanity; however, trusting myself is still an uphill battle.
My last piece for Women’s Republic was on my fear of happiness. As someone who has trusted mania to be true joy, I know that when the delusion breaks, trusting stability or sanity does not come easily. I can’t wake up from a dream of wonderland and go back to reading a book with my cat-like Alice. When I “wake” from a psychotic episode, after the haze and confusion in the psych ward passes, I am filled with shame and regret.
How could I have said that? How could I have done that? Did I really…?
I trusted my brain when it declared I could swim to the ship. I was swimming in a sea of delusions, believing everyone around me knew me, loved me, cared for me, was coming to save me.
In reality, those around me – my loved ones; strangers yelling at me on the beach to “GET THE FUCK AWAY.” A homeless man on the Santa Monica pier giving me his only jacket and sharing his pipe with me. The man in the parking lot, screaming at me to get down from the back of his truck. The head nurse’s kind smile when I tried to give him my number in the psych ward. And the stranger who took me into the public bathroom on the beach and forced himself on me – did not live in my delusion.
While psychotic, I could believe the fantasy. I was in Wonderland: smoking the caterpillar’s pipe, chasing a white rabbit, or being chased by some queen’s henchman. But afterward – afterward, I live in incomprehensible demoralization, drenched in self-hatred.
It took all this time since then to make sense of it and forgive myself for losing my mind. I deal with my shame on a daily basis. When I believed those things, I didn’t keep them to myself. Instead, I tried to bring everyone else into my delusion. I cringe and internally hit myself daily for thousands of things I have done in my “fantasies.” Because I trusted myself then, I beat myself up now, and that has conditioned me to distrust my brain, my thoughts, and my stability.
My fantasy land, my psychotic faith in the wonder of my mind, would have drowned me. My maternal grandmother, who killed herself because of her Bipolar condition, is not a fateful message for me. I cannot swim miles in the real ocean to some delusional vision of friendship and love.
Fairytales can stave off our loneliness or help us escape our realities, but when you suffer from mental illness, trusting those stories is a plank walk between a ship of playful fantasy and a sea of utter delusion. Thankfully, the lifeguards who rescued me didn’t care about my song cues, nor did my verbal vomit hinder them from strapping me to the surfboard and pulling me to shore.