Snapshots of My Depression 1: “That’s a Lousy Trick to Play on a Manic Depressive”

This is the first in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.

First off, I want to apologize to anyone with bipolar disorder. I know that “manic depressive” is an archaic and somewhat offensive term. I use this phrase throughout this post because that’s the phrase I used when this story takes place…the 1980’s, when I was a pre-teen. I hope its use here does not upset anyone. If it does, I apologize.

I was always the smart kid, the “whiz kid” in my elementary school. I took an IQ test when I was in first grade, and I’m told that my principal used to brag about my IQ, until my parents asked her to stop. I didn’t find out the results of that IQ test for many years, because my parents didn’t want me to know. I think they were concerned that I would become arrogant with that information, and they were most certainly right.Because I knew I was the smart kid. I knew I was special. And I liked it. I liked being the center of attention. I was already arrogant, obnoxious, self-centered enough even without knowing my IQ. I was a royal pain in the ass, to be honest.

I was also a moody kid. I had very few friends. You can understand why. I don’t know if I was really fun to be around. It’s hard to say. It was over thirty years ago, and I wasn’t keeping a diary or anything. And as I’ve proven before on this blog, my memory is not always the most reliable narrator. But I was definitely moody. And I definitely talked about killing myself from time to time when I was young. My parents told me they didn’t take it seriously; they thought I was just looking for attention. And in their defense, they were absolutely right. Really, they were. I never actually considered suicide at age ten, even if I did talk about it. (Now, age 17 is another story entirely, but that’s a story for another “Snapshot.”) At age ten? I was looking for attention. I craved attention, and I didn’t know the difference between looking for it in right or wrong ways.

And here’s something else I remember: I remember thinking I was manic-depressive. I don’t know where I heard that term. A book I read? Some TV show I watched? I don’t know…but somehow I got it in my head in elementary school that I was manic-depressive. Looking back, I can assure you that I have never had bipolar disorder. Depression, yes. But bipolar? Sheesh. Not even close. You know what it was? It was me trying to explain why sometimes I felt fine and happy, and other times sad. Why sometimes I would get really grumpy and angry with everything, and then be fine later. Which on one level is just being, oh, I don’t know, a kid. But I didn’t see it that way. I thought I was different. And talking about it as “manic depression” was a way to get attention. The one vivid memory I have of this whole “I’m manic-depressive” phase is this:

I am at summer camp. I’m ten or eleven, I guess. My group is on our “overnight”, the night when we pack up our stuff, take a big tarp, and hike a mile or two into the woods. Instead of sleeping in cabins like the other nights, tonight we all sleep under the stars. We cook our own food around a campfire that we set up. In a few years, I will view this as my favorite part of summer camp. But this year…this year it is bad. Because this year we are the recipients of a “bear raid.” We had settled into our sleeping bags, while our counselors were still at the campfire nearby. A few minutes later, we started hearing sounds in the woods, and our counselors told us to be quiet, because they thought it might be a bear. The noises got louder, as all the kids got more and more scared. Me? I got grumpy. I knew there was no bear. I knew it was really a group of older campers out in the woods, trying to scare us. I knew that our counselors were in on it. And I got grumpy. And I just lay there, not moving, not screaming, not anything. I just pretended I was asleep. Eventually, the older campers came and “attacked” us, running up to our tarp, to the sound of many screams. I still lay there, grumpy grumpy. Somebody stepped on my hair as they ran through. That really hurt. Grumpy grumpy. Finally, there was laughter. The “bear” was revealed as this other group. Our counselors fessed up. Counselors and campers laughed. I didn’t. I sat up and said, “That’s a lousy trick to play on a manic depressive.” And I put my shoes on, and stomped out of the tarp, and stewed at the campfire.

What the heck does “That’s a lousy trick to play on a manic depressive” even mean? I have no idea. I don’t think I had any idea then either. I think I was just grumpy grumpy about it, and I wanted to share my grumpy grumpy feeling in some way that would get people to pay attention to me. I don’t know. The most vivid part of that memory is that one line of dialogue. What it meant? Hard to say. But I wonder if it was the first inkling of what I’ve come to know as my depression. I wonder if the “voice” was already clearing its throat. I wonder if my serotonin levels were already drifting away from typical. I wonder if I was responding to something I just didn’t understand. I wonder if I just didn’t have the resources to deal with stressors that other kids did. The bear raid was a stressor. I didn’t deal with it well. Could depression be why?

Maybe. It’s hard to say. In retrospect, it’s crystal clear to me that I was not, and never have been, a “manic depressive.” But I wonder if this was an early sign that there was indeed something amiss. I don’t know.

But I’ll tell you one thing. I like the idea of calling my depression my “grumpy grumpy.” That’s just plain nice.


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