I am sitting in my CRV in the parking lot of a hair salon in Tybee Beach, Georgia, eating stale crackers and a cheese stick. A mile South of me, Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron are running in slow motion—shirtless—while Priyanka Chopra sports a sexy red swimsuit from a lifeguard stand. They’re dressed (or barely dressed) for the filming of the new Baywatch movie. I, on the other hand, am wearing a boxy grey rash guard from the little boys’ department at Target. I’m dressed for my first kiteboarding lesson. I’m anxious and excited; it’s been over two years since my last outdoor adventure and barely two years since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
From the time I could drive, I have been overzealous when it comes to independence and adventure, safe or not. I learned to wakeboard before learning to swim, backpacked Australia alone without a phone, and bungee jumped in the arms of man I fell in love with like the snap of the cord. These were my highs. Following close behind like a stalker in the night were my lows, lows that sunk me deep into the ocean, the pressure crushing my lungs as I gasped.
Bipolar disorder is marked by dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and thinking patterns. It plays games with memory. Every time I would pop back up into mania, like with a spontaneous idea to move to Israel, I would forget how disabling my depressions had been. Whatever sadness I had felt—sadness that immobilized me to my bed for days or weeks—it became a distant memory. But after my sudden interests and investments in bouldering, or any other thrilling idea I ventured, fizzled out, I would lapse back into depression and see a doctor.
Now here’s the problem with bipolar disorder. Well, there are quite a few (obviously, it’s a mental illness), but here’s the one that prevented me from a diagnosis for close to 10 years:
It’s difficult to recognize the highs as mania. I’m young, energetic, curious, and indecisive. It’s not like doctors could diagnose me with the terrible disease of being a typical Millennial. So, I continued to totter on my seesaw.
I wasn’t alone in this frustrating experience, though. About 2.6% of the adult US population is diagnosed with bipolar disorder every year. And about 69% of us are misdiagnosed initially, with more than a third remaining misdiagnosed for 10 years or more, according to a study in Psychiatry (Edgmont). In my case, I would visit doctors during my blue months and they would give me an anti-depressant. A quick, simple cure for a stressed student. (A college student, mind you, who had been through 9 majors and 4 schools. Red flag?) It wasn’t until I was 25 and quit my job to do a solo walk across the country (with almost zero preparation) that a doctor finally questioned my adrenaline-based motives. I spent an hour discussing my life, not just the sad parts, with my new psychiatrist—a blonde Tom Hanks from Big. He listened from his cozy Dad-chair as I wrung my sweaty hands and rocked.
“Lauren, have you ever heard of bipolar disorder or manic-depression?” he asked, considering his words.
“Yeah. I think one of my bosses was bipolar. He’d be mad one day and friendly the next.”
“That’s sort of it. Not completely, though.”
Dr. Drobnick drew a graph of what typical bipolar mood swings look like over time, including the victim’s thought speeds, energy levels, irritability, happiness, loneliness, and mixed states, in which thought speed and energy levels are high, but self-worth and fear are low…a state in which most people with bipolar disorder attempt or achieve suicide.
“Does any of this resonate with you?” he asked.
I was dumbfounded. Nothing before had ever felt so right. It hugged my body like an old sweater. It filled my stomach and warmed my soul like hot chocolate. This new diagnosis, with proper medications and effective therapy, freed me from my rickety Ferris wheel of uncontrollable irresponsibility and unpredictable depressions.
Unfortunately, it also made me question my identity. Did I not have an adventurous spirit? Were all my escapades the results of manic highs? That time I slept between strangers after partying in a Bedouin tent? That time I biked a 100-mile race without training? The rock climbing? The snow skiing? The SCUBA diving? Is none of that really “me”?
There are countless brave triers and doers who don’t have bipolar disorder. I know that. But have their family and friends ever questioned their sanity? Say a girl tells her mom she’s going to take time off work to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. There’s curiosity: Why would my daughter want to do this? And then there’s concern: Will I ever see my daughter again?
I spent the past two adrenaline-idle years picking apart my own endeavors. What was Lauren and what was mania? Some were made with research and a rational mind, but some were thought up and raced after as if I were on drugs. I would obsess on wild ideas like Gollum and his Precious. So I’ve come to realize that the difference between an adventurous soul and a manic one must be consistency and organization. I felt comforted to know that, despite venturing in activities my family would never do, at least half of them came realistically and responsibly. Even my most bizarre ideas came from an authentic place of self.
It’s now been several years of therapy, medications, stability and love. I’m not questioning my identity, anymore. At the very pit of me, I am an adventuress. I just know it, and I think…I know…that my friends and family know it too.
So here I am in my car, after holding back all my thrill-seeking desires for years, waiting for a stranger to teach me how to be me again.
I first witnessed kiteboarding 11 years ago on a family vacation in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. My stepfather asked the boarder about the sport. The guy responded that the wind once picked him up over two streets of houses and dropped him onto a roof and he broke three ribs. He also said that kiteboarding’s one of the most unbelievable, freeing experiences he’s ever had. I immediately wanted to do it.
My instructor, Will, shows up in his salt-speckled old black Yukon. He’s in his early 40s and dressed like my Kiwi ex-boyfriend, with neon board shorts and thick sunnies. He’s cool.
“Hey, you must be Lauren,” he reaches his hand out to me as I tumble out of my car with a bagful of snacks, a towel, a change of clothes, sunscreen, a copy of my signed safety waiver, and multiple sports drinks. I am prepared. I am not doing this out of mania.
I climb into his front seat, my mountain of stuff on my lap and at my feet. His floorboards are covered in sand and there’s a damp milky smell coming from the AC. I feel at home.
We drive through town—a mile of rusty gas stations, Caribbean blue beach homes, surf shops, and fish and chips bars—and down to the Savannah River inlet. We empty the truck and load our backs and arms with bags and vests and boards (and my Saltines and Gatorades). I notice Will’s barefoot. I know we’re about to walk through the shelly, broken dried coral part of the beach, but I’m determined to look as hardcore as he is, so I forgo my sneakers in camaraderie.
I can already feel sweat pooling up in my sports bra and my eyes are on fire in the glare of the sun, but I’m psyched. The ocean smells welcoming and the beginner’s breeze (11-14 mph) pumps elation through my blood. I’m so filled with bliss that I barely notice the sandy path of shrapnel.
Despite being a complete novice to the sport, my younger years of okay-let’s-just-do-this pops into gear and I help Will unroll the kites like a pro. It feels natural, like we’re old friends who finally found time for some casual afternoon boarding.
“Okay, I’m not like most instructors,” Will props his hands on his hips and laughs. “I know I’m like an old man, or whatever, but I’m young at heart. I’m not even getting paid for this—just doing it for Corey, the owner of the company. Have you met Corey?”
“I interviewed him over a year ago for an article I never wrote,” I admit. “When I called him up last week to sign up for lessons, I tried to disguise my voice because I’m an idiot.” I squint in the sun as I look up at Will’s tanned face. He laughs again. “I’m not joking. I literally tried to make my voice sound different. I think I attempted a Southern accent, but I’m from DC.”
Since my diagnosis, I’ve been insecure about letting my weirdness slip, about the possibility of someone thinking, “Is this girl completely nuts?”
I’ve consciously made an effort to be more reserved around both friends and strangers. I’m always assuming they’re examining me under a microscope, ready to spot a bipolar symptom with any oddity. But now that I’m in the sun about to try something new, I finally allow myself to joke, to let “core Lauren” shine through. Easy. True.
“Ha! I can tell you’re going to be a cool student,” Will smiles and I wonder if he thinks it’s cool that my rash guard has a giant octopus on it. “Ready to get started?”
Um. Heck yes!
He buckles the harness around my waist. Yes, yes, yes! He helps me tighten the life jacket that’s two sizes too big. OMG this is so exciting! And then he hands me the trainer kite. What? It’s puny and frail. The lines look like they could barely hold the weight of a kitten.
“Let’s start with the basics. I want to get you into the water before the wind dies down, but we’ll go at whatever pace you set.”
In my mind, I’m already doing flips in the air and shredding the waves. I’ll be in the water in no time.
But I’m not.
Handling a kite is surprisingly tough. Pull too hard, and it chokes and dies. It’s down in the sand and you have to start all over. Don’t pull hard enough, and it faints and dies. It’s down in the sand again and you have to start all over. Move it too fast from one side to the other, and you’re pulled off your feet and face-planting into the ground, and the kite’s in the sand again and you have to start all over.
Will keeps it steady at 12 o’clock above us with one loose hand with the other tries to retighten my harness. He’s not even looking up at the kite; he can sense its placement and the wind’s unpredictable pattern and adjust accordingly. Again—cool as a Push-Up pop. He hands me back the reigns and I hold it delicately, squinting up at the green inflated canopy in the sky. Finally, it holds steady. I imagine it giving me a thumb’s up. “Way to go, Lauren.” After fifteen minutes of proving my ability to keep the kite at 12 o’clock, at 9, back to 12, over to 2, back up and over… Will says it’s time to move to the big guy.
“This is a pretty small kite. It’ll be perfect for you. How much do you weigh?”
“Like 110? I’ve barely gone through puberty.”
He realizes this one is a joke and laughs. “Okay, it might still be too big for you, but the wind is starting to die down. Let’s give it a try.”
We wade into the brackish water together. I’m used to the Chesapeake Bay’s spring chill. But here in Georgia, it’s a warm bath. Will has one hand on the back of my harness and I’m dragged wherever he leads. He holds onto the control bar with the other hand. The kite follows overhead like an obedient bird.
“Let’s do some body dragging,” he says. “Here, take hold.”
I do. I’m smiling like a maniac. A sane maniac.
“Go ahead and build momentum like you did on the sand: figure eights around 10-to-2.”
I do. The kite wants to jerk me. I keep crossing 12 o’clock too sharply and the kite literally drags me across the inlet. I’m taking in the Savannah River like a pelican swooping up dinner. Will’s weight on the back of me pulls me down deeper. I’ve gone too far in and can no longer feel the sand beneath my feet. I accidentally pull too tight on the bar, which chokes the kite, which dives into the water, which sits me back up like a buoy. Will, still tall enough to feel the bottom, drags me to shallow as I’m cracking up. My lungs hurt from the choking, but it’s the best kind of choking. I haven’t felt this joy in ages, back when I was a completely different Lauren. I find my balance and wipe off the snot from my nose, preparing to try again.
“Thanks for drowning me. You’re a really good instructor.” I give him a light punch on his arm.
“You’re really easy to drown. The wind’s basically dead, though. I think we need to get you a better fitting life vest next time we meet.”
Next time! I’m amped that this is not the end. My online confirmation detailed it would be just a 5-hour lesson. We’ve been out for 4 hours, but the wind’s too light and the kite’s acting like a fussy toddler. Next time…
Will agrees that we’ll get together several more times before I return to DC. “Either to practice more or to drink—you’re badass. The group of boarders here will love you!” A badass. And he has no clue that I have bipolar disorder.
We pack up the sandy kites and drag everything back to his Yukon.
My skin is tight from the salt, there’s still an annoying thimble of water in my right ear, my eyes feel sunburnt, and I haven’t felt this happy in years.
In the following weeks, Will leaves town for a couple days and texts me a picture of a great white 30 miles North of us. Then either he or I have a work responsibility. Then the weather’s not cooperating. Then the beach is closed due to an alligator sighting. We’re able to meet a couple more times, but always for just a refresher before it thunders or the wind dies. I never get up on a board.
Kiteboarding’s not cheap. It’s not easy. And it’s not a quick learn-it-and-go activity. The past Lauren would have met with Will one day and emptied her bank account of several thousand dollars the next to buy her own kit. She would have imagined being the center-spread in every sports magazine (not just as a fantasy, but as an unrealistic “I-can-actually-be-famous” mindset). But the Lauren today, despite having the urge to spend another couple hundred dollars on another lesson, knows that not every adventure needs to be accomplished right now. I’m satisfied for the moment with my short-lived thrill and feel proud that I’m taking baby-steps back into what makes me feel like me.
There’s no single “cure” to bipolar disorder. I will always have it and I will always have to keep my moods and actions in check, to adjust my medications and therapy accordingly. In truth, even if bipolar disorder is what’s giving me this sense of fearlessness, then I’m happy it will never go away. As long as I pursue these “wild” dreams with caution and awareness–that I’m being a safe adventuress–then I’m more than okay. In the eyes of my family and friends, I’m better than I’ve ever been.
I feel that way, too. With the approval of my family and doctor, I’ve been given permission to continue to self-medicate myself with doses of adrenaline. And I’ve given myself permission to continue to be the authentic me.
Lauren Wolf Strawbridge is a graduate student and copy editor at Savannah College of Art and Design where she hones her craft by using humor to discuss mental illness. She has worked for the the university’s graduate journal, Document, and for The Potomac Review. In 2013, Lauren taught English to business professionals in Chile. She returned to the States with the same amount of Spanish she had learned in seventh grade, the knowledge that humor doesn’t always translate well, and a dog that never laughs.