I was a cute toddler. I was not a pretty child. That isn’t to say I’m a pretty woman, nor am I saying this to solicit compliments. The fact is, I wasn’t a pretty child. I was 10 or 11 in this picture, and as you can see, my lips were too big for my face. (I had to grow into them lol!) My parents, my mom especially, never let me forget this, so consequently I became self-conscious about my looks, particularly about my lips. (I still am.) She suggested that I roll my lips inward, like you would after applying lipstick, so their size wouldn’t be so noticeable.
In elementary school and all through my sophomore year of high school, I was considered brainy, nerdy, ugly, poorly dressed, had bad hair, all that. In 8th grade someone drew a picture of my lips as a blimp floating in the sky with a tiny body attached, and passed it around the classroom. I no longer hold a grudge against the “artist,” but the image is hard to shed.
I transferred to a private arts high school for my junior and senior years, where people were less judgmental. Many of us who transferred were considered “misfits” at our previous schools. I felt right at home. It helped my self-confidence, especially because I got contact lenses and my braces off. I was also introduced to weed and alcohol, and loved the effects they had on me.
After a year of college in Houston, where I did a lot of partying, I returned home at age 20 because I felt suicidal for the first time in my life. I was terrified. So I called my parents, told them how I felt, and they came and got me. They promised to take me to a Filipino psychiatrist, which never happened.
Back in Chicago, most of my friends were away at school, so I didn’t have anyone to party with. Then I began hanging out with an uncle who isn’t much older than me.
He took me to bars/clubs where he knew the doormen, so I never got ID’d. He picked out my clothes and did my hair and make-up. I let him, because I certainly didn’t know anything about that stuff. Then everything changed. I was no longer nerdy, ugly, poorly dressed, and sporting a bad haircut.
In the bars, I had befriended hair stylists who worked in high-end salons but cut my hair for free, as I was a hair model. Even though I’m short, I ended up modeling for some of the fashion shows at one of the bars I frequented. (The ceilings over the stage were low, so the manager didn’t hire tall people.) Make-up artists, clothes, free drinks, money. What was not to like? In addition to drinking and smoking pot, co-workers introduced me to coke, which I also liked. A lot.
I worked there and at another bar as a go-go dancer. This was in the early ’90s when Deee-Lite was at their height of popularity, so the manager had me wear a blonde, bouffant wig and I danced on the bar tops. At a punk bar where I would end up spending most of my early 20s, I danced in a cage wearing skimpy clothing and black, 10-hole Docs. I was also a cocktail waitress and did coatcheck.
I no longer needed my uncle. I had a lot of “friends” (drinking/using buddies) and “boyfriends” (sex buddies). It seemed that I was popular in my circle and that men found me attractive. Everyone wanted to be my friend, it seemed. (I also made some real friends, not just using buddies, with whom I’m still in touch today.) I had never before experienced that type of popularity, self-esteem. and easy confidence that I gained in my early 20s. It was completely different from what I experienced as a child. I reveled in it.
I didn’t think that I would live past the age of 25, what with all the drugs, alcohol, casual sex, and all-around rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that I led. But I was OK with that.
I figured that I’d either be raped and murdered by a cab driver because I passed out in the backseat on the way home from the bars. Or murdered by a complete stranger that I either brought home or went home with. Or overdosing on one drug or another. Or all of the above. I thought I’d die in a way that would be directly related to how I lived my life. It’s what I expected. All I cared about was each moment as it happened, because I knew it wouldn’t be forever. It might even be the last time.
In retrospect, I believe I was hypomanic though I wouldn’t be diagnosed as bipolar II until I was 25 or 26. I spent money that I didn’t have, so I’d keep applying for credit cards, which almost led to bankruptcy. I engaged in risky behavior that I can’t imagine doing while stable. I don’t blame the bars for my lifestyle. Everything I did was my choice, though I wonder if I made those choices because of the disease. Not everyone I hung out with engaged in the same behavior, or certainly not to the same degree. I sometimes wonder if any of this would have happened if I had gotten the help I needed when I moved back from Houston.
It all stopped once I began seeing a psychiatrist in 1994 and was put on medication. I eventually went back to college, went on to grad school, and taught until the Breakdown. With the help of therapy and medication, I got my life mostly under control, with the exception of the severe, depressive episodes I began experiencing in the mid-2000s that required ECT. Unfortunately, I still experience these at least once a year, although there were milder episodes in between my first ECT treatment (around 2006) and my more recent treatments, which began in 2014 (my last round of treatment was this past March).
I know it’s wrong to glorify hypomania because it can lead to self-destructive behavior and/or hospitalization, which it has in my case. I haven’t experienced it in 13 or 14 years. But if I’m completely honest, I have to admit that my early 20s felt good while it lasted. My self-esteem is not what it once was, and I’ve isolated myself from my friends because of anxiety. I have to work on letting go of the past, but I’m thankful that I’m still around to do that.
Photos provided by author