When I Went Off My Psych Meds, I Set Fire To My Kitchen
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When I Went Off My Psych Meds, I Set Fire To My Kitchen


Typically, people with bipolar disorder have a hard time staying on their meds. Many times it’s because they miss the “high” that comes with mania. But when I chose to go off my meds in 2005, it wasn’t because I felt flat and wanted to get revved up again. I stopped taking them because I was literally sick of swallowing them.

At the time, I was taking 200 milligrams of Lamictal and 200 milligrams of Wellbutrin per day. For whatever reason, the pharmacy doled out the Lamictal in big white 200 mg pills, instead of two smaller 100 mg tablets. They weren’t coated with a resin, so if you let them sit on your tongue too long they’d get all chalky and disgusting and become extremely difficult to swallow.

I’m the kind of idiot who puts a pill in my mouth and then searches for the water. I still do it. The problem with this is the pill starts dissolving and the bitterness makes you want to puke, plus you run the risk of choking on it. It got so repulsive that I just stopped taking the Wellbutrin, which is an antidpressant, and the Lamictal altogether.

Psych meds stay in your system for a good six weeks, maybe even longer, so it wasn’t until a good six months off the meds that I really started having trouble. That’s when, for the first time in my life, I started drinking vodka straight from the bottle. I’d come home from working a mind-numbing eight-hour shift as a receptionist in a corporate branding firm, and a fifth of Absolut would help me reboot.

On top of my job, I had another major problem—my upstairs neighbor Sean.

That guy never slept. At four in the morning, he’d bang and stomp around doing God knows what, blaring his radio. Later I found out he was a bartender at some club on the Sunset Strip. And I needed my beauty sleep.

Despite my heavy drinking, I always tried to get a decent night’s sleep to help me plow toward whatever goal I was pursuing at the time, which, in 2005, was pursuing a Master’s degree in writing at USC. Unfortunately, that required studying for the GRE. After two months of drilling myself on big words I’d never use and algebra I’d never use, I needed some quality sleep the night before the test. But Sean was extra obnoxious, blaring his music non-stop—some cheesy disco crap—and screwing some chick he picked up at the bar very loudly.

Finally, I stormed upstairs and pounded on his door. After a few minutes, he opened it, screamed, “Fuck you, you stupid whore!” and then slammed the door back in my face.

“It’s four in the fucking morning!” I yelled. “Shut the fuck up!”

This wasn’t the first time we’d gone at it, but that night pissed me off more than any other night. I had to be fresh for the test. It was bad enough I had to re-learn algebra and geometry when I’m completely learning disabled when it comes to math. How would those formulas stay in my brain if I had no sleep?

The bastard kept making tons of noise. When I woke up the next morning, before heading out to take the test at 9 am, I blared Tool’s “Lateralus” as loud as my stereo would crank. It’s a thunderous album with heavy drumming and a constantly pulsing bass. Then, as an added courtesy, I wrote him a bitter note saying something about how I understood since he only got laid once a year that he would be extra loud and excited, but that he really should learn how to respect his neighbors.

And off to my test I went.

But Sean and I kept getting into fights, despising each other more and more every passing week. More cursing, more slammed doors. I waited anxiously to see if I got into grad school. Finally, the acceptance letter arrived.

I was thrilled. Already in a state of perpetual hypomania—lots of energy, unwarranted grandiosity, flooded with brilliant ideas—the news of my acceptance at USC cranked my mood up a couple more notches, putting me in the danger zone.

The first thing I needed to do was celebrate with a cigarette. Unfortunately, I had no lighter. I searched and searched for a lighter or matches in my incredibly disheveled studio apartment, but found nothing. So I decided to light it on the stove and rush out the door as fast as possible, since I didn’t smoke in my place.

Given my mania, my apartment was not only filled with empty wine and vodka bottles and lots of trash, it also was stocked with oil paints, large stretched canvases, half-completed paintings and a bunch of turpentine. And I stored the turpentine and oil paints on the stove for some reason. I suppose I couldn’t find room for it elsewhere.

After about two minutes of smoking the cigarette outside, basking in my success, I started to smell smoke. Then the crackling noises started. When I rushed into my apartment, there was a thick layer of nearly black clouds and the entire kitchen was up in flames.

Apparently, I forgot to turn off the burner.

I bolted out of the apartment and searched for a fire extinguisher but couldn’t find it. So I ran upstairs. The apartment building was small, just 18 units, with a huge courtyard in the center of the complex. Upstairs, smoking outside his own apartment, was Sean.

No one else was around.

“Do you know anything about putting out fires?” I screamed frantically.

Without any hesitation, he fetched the fire extinguisher, which was downstairs in the laundry room, ran up to my apartment, headed for the kitchen and put out the flames.

“Are you okay?” he asked me. “What happened?”

I told him about the cigarette, about the burners, about the turpentine, about how I was a complete idiot. When the fire department rolled up, he asked me if I wanted a beer. Of course I did—I needed one. I needed an excuse to drink. What better one than setting fire to your apartment?

The landlord wasn’t happy. And I was such an entitled bitch that I forced him to pay to fix the apartment, lying that the fire was an accident. God knows how much it cost—they had to completely redo the kitchen and buy me a new stove.

Just a few months later, I crashed. I got so horribly depressed I couldn’t function. Depression is often the reason bipolar folks crawl back to the shrink—or crawl to a shrink in the first place. Who wants to be incapable of getting out of bed in the morning? Besides, I had to kick ass at grad school.

The day after the fire, Sean bought me a lighter. “Here, hang on to this,” he said. We never fought again.

I also never went off my meds again.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.