Brain on Fire

I wonder if it’s possible. Can I describe it? Are there words adequate to illustrate what my reality is like when I’m not on medication?

I moved once from a big city where I had easy access to public health facilities to a rural area where I isolated and did not attempt to find the health care that I needed. I have no excuse. I was scared. I took 3 month’s worth of meds with me.

I knew that I would run out of my meds, and so I took matters into my own hands to wean myself off the best way that I knew how. I was taking valproic acid as my main bipolar medication, and so I started by cutting my dosage by 25%, and the symptoms began right away.

Walking up the stairs to my room one day, I felt a hand reach into my head and begin to squeeze. I gripped the handrail to keep from falling. It felt like the hand of some god had decided that I no longer needed my brain and was trying to extract it. I can’t say that it was exactly painful. I believe it would be better described as immense pressure.

The shock was tremendous. I remember when I was diagnosed with bipolar, I felt betrayed by my brain. I’d had delusions in the intervening years, but now I knew that my brain wanted something completely foreign to what I’d ever imagined. It wanted out.

Next came the sobbing. Sitting in my room, I soundlessly sobbed doubled over in a chair, gulping air, heaving. Uncontrollable terror ripping at the inside of my skull.

During one episode, my brain caught fire. It seethed and writhed and ate up all the oxygen that I could consume. Pressing my hands against the sides of my head, I squeezed, attempting to extinguish the flames I could feel licking at the inside of my skull.

By this time, I was out of meds. I began to hallucinate.

Hearing things. Singing came from the toilet.

Seeing things. A young man with blond hair sitting at my desk, wearing a plaid shirt.

Pacing. Moving. Unable to control. Thoughts racing. The only thing consistent were the thoughts of suicide. Longing for peace.

Erratic. Disjointed. Only suicide is clear. All else whirls.

The phone saved me. I called a friend I knew who had connections to psychologists, but he called a help-line for me instead. I was whisked into the system. Hospitalized. Blessedly hospitalized.

And sedated. After the hell of the months leading up to it. I welcomed the sleep. Deep dreamless sleep. Exhausted sleep.

Burning

I vividly remember the dream. I walked slowly into a forest at night. Dark shadows filled every nook and cranny. No moonlight pierced the canopy of trees.

Trees stood around me. They were old and lonesome, and they beckoned to me to approach. When I did, I realized that each tree was open, baring it’s interior for me to spy.

I approached one to pry into its secret life inside only to discover that it glowed with a raging fire. Smokeless. Hidden. Its soft life was being consumed by a fire burning from the inside out.

The next tree held the same secret fire eating away its life. The fire glowed, and bits of ash formed and fell, and the shell of life thinned.

And the next tree revealed the same.

And the next.

Until I was left looking at my own hands that glowed with the same internal fire. My skin blackened and turned to ash and flaked away. My flesh being consumed from the inside by a mad fire daring to escape.

Life in Hell

I lived in hell for too many years to count. All right, it was somewhere between 16 to 18 years. The hell centered around alcohol, preferably gin. I might start the evening with beer or wine, but it was gin–Bombay Gin–that I poured for myself over and over. I kept it in the refrigerator so that I never needed to add ice, which just took up room in the glass that could be better occupied by gin.

I drank for one simple reason: to numb the pain. It never worked. Not once. The alcohol would warm my blood and muddle my brain, but I was still miserable even drunk. I still loathed my self, my homosexuality, my mediocrity, my looks, my job, my lying, my relationships. Everything.

And I woke up every morning for years wanting to die. The first thought that would enter my head before I opened my eyes would be that I wished to be dead. I don’t know how many years it lasted, but it was easily decades. I hated myself. I hated you. I hated the world. Everything.

And I wanted to be dead. I have a vivid memory of lying on my bed one day with the usual thoughts of death rolling around in my head. Suddenly, I had an incredible flash of inspiration of just what it’s like to be dead. I was in a coffin. I pictured my body mouldering and decaying and wasting away. The skin was stretched tight across my bones. I was rigid and putrefying. Mostly, I was aware that there was no air. The image is still real for me many years later though it took only a second to see it all.

Some time in that last 10 years of my drinking, I grew aware that there was a sound underneath all my thoughts. It was a crying, a low heaving as happens when you gasp for air as you cry continuously. The sound was present always. I could be in the middle of a conversation or reading or at the movies, and it would creep into my forethought. Crying.

Gin never stopped it. In fact, gin exacerbated it. When I was drunk, the crying was at the forefront of my brain. It was scratching at the inside of my skull trying to get out.

There came a time when the crying grew to sobbing, and I tried pouring more gin on top of it to shut it up. It sobbed, because I was gay and doomed to die and go to hell. It sobbed, because, knowing that, I got married, hoping to cure my sexuality and save myself from hell. There was sobbing in my brain for the children I fathered who would never have the right kind of dad. The sobbing was with me at all times and in all places.

There was no escape, and the beer and wine and gin and whiskey never gave me freedom from it nor the death I dreamed of. The alcohol just gave me more misery.

I can still remember the day the sobbing changed. I was driving, and I realized that there was a screaming inside my head. There were no more tears. There was gut wrenching anguish, and the only way my body knew to deal with it was to scream. There were no words to describe my fear at the change. There were only more bottles to try to alleviate it.

My self-loathing grew exponentially, and my alcohol consumption grew, too. Until, the scream became a howling, and when that was not enough, the howling became the wail of the banshee.

Nothing worked. I drunkenly threw myself at my wife for sexual satisfaction while fantasizing about men. I tried harder at work to succeed only to fail at an attempted promotion. I played at being dad when it didn’t interfere with my drinking.

The drinking was daily. I drank the cooking wine once when we ran out of other stuff. I did run out one night and got to the store too late. I still remember the look of pity on the cashier’s face as she told me they were closed.

On May 1, 1999, I drank everything in the house. That was an entire bottle of tequila. I hated the stuff, but it’s all there was in the house. There was 3/4 of an opened 2 liter bottle of wine, and there was a 12 pack of beer. I drank it all.

I remember like it was yesterday going to the refrigerator to get more beer and finding it all gone. There was none left. I’d drunk everything alcoholic in the house, so I went to bed.

The next morning was the usual hell of a hangover. I opened the refrigerator while I was waiting for the coffee to brew, and there staring at me from the top shelf were two beers.

Two beers.

The picture of the empty fridge flashed across my mind, and then it hit me. I’d been so drunk the night before that I hadn’t even been able to see booze. I knew in that same instant that I was going to die, if something didn’t change. In the next instant, I knew that I was going to make sure I died, if something didn’t change.

That was the morning of May 2, 1999, and I haven’t had a drink since. Instead, I found A.A.

More of that journey later.

Thoughts in Hell

For years whenever I closed my eyes, I was submerged in a bog. A mirey glue held me under its surface. I couldn’t close my eyes to rest. I couldn’t close my eyes to nap. Going to bed at night was an exercise in strong denial. It makes me want to cry just remembering it now.

The bog was thick and deep. I could not feel anything solid underneath me, and I could not reach up to the surface. It was all encompassing, and I was suffocating in the black, slick waste.

I would pull myself one arm at a time upward trying to reach air. I would grab and pull and attempt to get myself out of the wretched mess, and eventually, my face would break the surface, and I could breathe. I was still trapped, but I was breathing. This imagery went on for years. My eyes would shut, and I would be trapped in sludge.

I think back on it now, and the emotions are strong. It makes me want to sob remembering the terror.

There came a day when more than my face broke through. Somehow, my hands broke the surface, and I attempted to grab something to pull myself free. To my horror, the bog was covered with razor sharp rocks. Points and edges of the rocks were honed to a fine edge. Grabbing hold would slice through skin and muscle on my hands and cut to the bone. My head was free, but I was still captive to this vicious muck.

I can’t remember when it happened, but I gathered the strength to lift my torso out of the mire. The rocks sliced through my hands, but I denied the pain and wrenched my body upward. I remember being exhilarated by the ability to twist from my waist up in the open air. My legs remained encased and unusable, but I felt exultant. I could move.

This exercise took years. For ages, I remained in the bog, and I saw it every single time I shut my eyes. Even to pray.

I don’t remember now which came first: the smoother surface or lifting my entire body above the razor-like rocks. Still, that day did come when I stood above the bog ready to move.

Was there celebrating? Was there exuberance? No, for I found myself at the bottom of a pit. The only way out was up a slope of razor-like rocks. Again, the pain. More pain. Fierce, blinding cutting pain. Searing behind my eyes.

For years, I languished sunken in a putrid mire. Now free of that black bog, I faced a mountainous climb up rocks meant to slice me to pieces. And I did begin to climb.

I don’t know how the healing began or even when, but the day came when I could close my eyes and not see myself in the bog or being sliced to pieces trying to escape. It was sometime after my fifth anniversary of sobriety. I spent a great deal of my life self-medicating with gin. The pain did not stop on my first day sober. It did not stop in the first year. It was sometime after five years of continuous sobriety.

It also came two or three years after my bipolar diagnosis, and the beginning of medication.

Today, I am relieved to report that I close my eyes, and I see nothing. Blessed nothing.