It's dark as I head over the mountain on Old Route 30. I've barely slept in the last few days; sick with a fever, hardly eating. The closer I get to home, in Greensburg, Pa., the more disoriented I feel. Still, I can't wait to see my mom because I know she'll take care of me. All I want is to crawl into my bed. I'm coming home on this August night to celebrate my grandmother's 89th birthday. We'll play Grandma's favorite card game, Kings in the Corner, or I'll get Grandma to play with my hair, something I always beg her to do. It's only 11 p.m., but I have that feeling of having pulled an "all-nighter" in college, studying for that final exam right up until the crack of dawn and then going directly to class. My face feels numb. My muscles ache. But once I get home I can collapse.
I have no idea I am about to lose my mind.
When Jax, my dog, and I enter the house, it is late, but my mom is still awake. And just like she always does, she makes me scrambled eggs, toast with grape jelly, and a cup of hot chocolate. We talk as I eat, and I start to relax. She asks me if I'm sleeping any better than I have been over the last few days. I tell her no, and she helps me carry my bags to the bedroom, tiptoeing past Grandma's room so we don't wake her. Jax follows. I get into bed and wait to drift off to sleep. I'm sure that this bed will do the trick. But I can't sleep. My mind isn't racing; in fact, it's blank. I toss and turn, just as I have for the last few days. Finally I give up and quietly head back downstairs.
First I peek in the family room. With its two skylights and fireplace, it reminds me of a rustic ski lodge. It's been a few months since I've been home, and the furniture is rearranged. There's a new brown leather couch, which I immediately sit on; I lie down and pull a blanket over me. The house is quiet -- it must be close to 3 a.m. I say the serenity prayer, which usually relaxes me: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Then I say it again slowly. I feel my body loosen, and I think, this is it. A dog barks in the distance. Jax barks back.
I give up and continue looking around. My grandma got a new chair, a bluish-green one that I decide does not go with the feel of the room, but it has a lot of buttons, and I'm intrigued. Press one, and the seat moves upward, makes a funny noise. Jax looks up. Press two, and the back of the chair starts leaning back farther and farther; press three, and the footrest pops out. Jax sits up. Press four, and the chair goes back to its original position. But my favorite becomes button five. When I press it, the chair moves forward, very slowly. I start laughing hysterically because this chair is so much fun. Jax runs out of the room.
The kitchen is boring. I open the pantry, searching for chocolate. My mother always has chocolate. Not this time. I open the freezer and find a Dreamsicle, which immediately whisks me back to my childhood days at the Charter Oak Pool, where I could buy a Dreamsicle or a Nutty Buddy for 25 cents. I almost eat the Dreamsicle simply for nostalgia's sake, but I'm not really hungry. I wander into the living room, the formal room. Whenever I'm home, I love falling asleep on the couch in here. Everyone seems to leave me alone in the living room. I hear the shower turn on, and the roar of it rattles the silence. The sun is coming up. Jax is at my feet. My mom comes down the stairs in a white silk robe. Her hair's a mess, and her eyes are barely open.
"Mishy," she says, with a look of disappointment on her face, "didn't you sleep at all?"
I smile, excited to finally have someone to talk to. She makes coffee while I head onto the porch to have a cigarette. It's early, 6 or so. I curl up in the white wicker chair, wearing my Tazmanian devil boxer shorts and a T-shirt ripped all the way up to my right breast. It's cold on the front porch, but almost as if on cue, my mom walks out with a cup of coffee in my favorite coffee mug. It's a blue-and-white mug with a scene of seagulls in flight. The mug belonged to my step-father, who died when I was 17. Since then, my mother always brings me coffee in the mug, and I always think of Johnny. My mother sits down on the white wicker chair next to me, and there's a tiny buzz of activity out on the street around us. A neighbor backs out of his drive-way and waves. My mom barely waves back. I know she is mortified to be sitting on the front porch in her robe at the crack of dawn.
"Mishy," she says softly, "you have to sleep." Then she goes inside the house to wake my grandmother, and I smoke another cigarette. When I walk back in, Ed, my mother's husband, is downstairs having breakfast. I sit at the table with him, drinking a second cup of coffee.
"So," he says, "you're not sleeping?"
When Mom and Grandma come back down everyone begins discussing their day. Ed is off to work; my mom is going to work for only half a day but will be home as soon as she can. The caretaker is coming to hang out with Grandma, and I am to try to sleep.
Grandma and I sit down in the family room, her in her new chair and me on the leather couch. I lay down, pull a blanket around me.
"So . . . ," Grandma says, "you can't sleep?"
I jump up and tell her to play with my hair, and that makes her laugh, because, truthfully, she hates playing with my hair. Fine, I tell her, then let's play cards. We leave the caretaker in the family room with the dog and go into the kitchen. After dealing a hand, neither one of us feels like playing. I try to sleep again, but can't, and before I know it my mom is home.
Everyone is gathered around the dinner table. It must be 6 or 7 at night. I am lying on the couch. Mom hollers that it's time for dinner, and I holler back that I'm not hungry, but Jax goes into the kitchen with everybody else.
"Mishy, come eat," she says. I stomp my way to the table, and the sight and smell of the chicken, broccoli, bread and salad almost make me sick. I sit down, stare at my food, move it around.
"Please eat," my mom says, while Ed and Grandma stare at me.
The night continues like this. I lie down and stare at the ceiling. Finally, it's late again -- or early, I'm not really sure anymore. I go back out on the front porch, sitting in the white wicker chair smoking, in the same boxer shorts and ripped T-shirt, and my mom comes out wearing the same silk robe, and all of the similarities to the day before confuse me. We sit in silence for a while.
Finally she says: "Michele, you know what happened the last time you didn't sleep. I don't know what to do. You have to sleep."
Alarm bells go off in my head. She thinks I'm losing my mind again. Two years ago, during my first manic episode, my friends Dawn and Nancy took me to Alexandria Hospital, where I was admitted. I was diagnosed as bipolar, although I'm convinced the diagnosis is wrong. I think my old doctor didn't get my Prozac dosage right. It shot me into a manic episode. I imagine being hospitalized here -- my home town. What if I run into someone, someone I grew up with, the mother of someone I grew up with? I have to get out of here. I say something back to my mother -- I don't remember what -- but I know it's mean. She goes back into the house. I sit there a few minutes longer. I didn't mean to upset her. I'm just so tired. She's worried she's going to have to admit me to a hospital, and I refuse to let that happen.
A few minutes later, I unlock my Jeep Wrangler, start it and back out of the driveway. As I reach for a cigarette, I see that I have only one left, and that I don't have my wallet. Climbing out of the car, I realize that I'm also barefoot. I tip-toe into the house. I hear my mother upstairs. I grab my wallet off the kitchen counter, slip on my black flip-flops and turn around to walk out the door. Jax is sitting there, wagging his tail, so I take him with me.
It is still dark outside, but I don't know the time. As I drive away, there is a car in front of me and one behind me. The one in front of me stops too long at a stop sign. But as I drive past Mountain View Elementary School on my way out of the neighborhood, I don't know where I am going. The road dead-ends. At the stop sign, I'm now the one holding up the cars. Left or right? Can't go straight. I need cigarettes. Left. But it's so early, or is it later? Nothing will be open. Right. Spee-Dee Mart. They're open 24 hours. Left.
With a destination, I feel confident and unzip my windows, turn up the music. "Ciga-rette," a song I love from my favorite band, the Clarks, blares from 102.5, WDVE. I light my last one, and sing along at the top of my lungs: "Do you know where you're going when you've taken your last step? / Do you know what you get? / Cigarette." For 17 years I drove up and down this road. Up here, on the right, should be a cul-de-sac where my best friend from high school, Jenn, and I used to park our cars and drink Old Milwaukee. I think that's it, except there's a big house there now, and the woods right next to it are gone.
When I open my wallet at Spee-Dee Mart, I see I don't have much money. In fact, I'm counting change to reach $4. Four dollars for a pack of Marlboro Lights. In high school, I could get Winstons for $2. I pull out my last nickel and realize I'm still 10 cents short. The woman keeps looking at me, and it's beginning to irritate me. I tell her that I have more change in my purse, but when I reach for it, I realize I didn't bring one. The woman is still staring, and only then am I able to see myself through her eyes: strange woman, middle of the night, boxer shorts, ripped T-shirt, scrounging for change. I look homeless, and that makes me laugh, hard and loud. I manage to find 25 cents hidden in my wallet. I tell her to keep the change. Back in the jeep, Jax and I turn onto White School Road. But now where do we go?
St. Vincent Cemetery. My father died when I was a little girl, and I have no recollection of him. As a child, I used to sit with my mom at the cemetery, not for a long time, but I remember running through the tombstones, as my mother sat next to his grave. She always looked sad to me, so I'd run around picking flowers. Dandelions were my favorite, but sometimes I'd find a daisy, or a buttercup. With yellow-stained hands, I'd proudly present her with the flowers.
It only takes five minutes to get there. It's still dark, and the entranceway is locked. I jump out of the jeep, and Jax starts wagging his tail. The two of us crawl under the gate. When we reach the grave, it starts to rain.
The bronze plaque is there for both my father and my mother when she dies. It reads: Patrick M. Capots, born Nov. 24, 1938; died April 11, 1974. Kathleen R. Capots, born Dec. 25, 1940, a blank space waiting to announce the date of her death. The words "together forever" sit between their names, linking the two. I light a cigarette and sit down. It's raining harder now, and Jax is farther away, heading over the next hill. It doesn't matter. No one is here.
"Hi, Daddy," I say.
We get back in the car; I'm wet, and Jax is muddy. It's cold, and I'm finally starting to get tired. It's still dark out, but I don't know what time it is. And I don't know where to go. I just want to find a place to sleep where Jax will be safe. I start driving away from the cemetery and make a quick right to put me on a country road that I used to drive as a teenager. I pass a place we used to call Hilltop in high school -- a field off the side of the road where we'd meet every weekend to drink beer. I slow down in front of it, but it looks like a pile of dirt to me. I think again of Jenn. She and her family live not too far from here on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. If I turn left on one of these roads, it connects to Route 22, which will lead me into Murrysville, which will lead me to her house. I turn right and end up on a back road behind Latrobe High School, which is nowhere near the road that will take me to Route 22. I should call Jenn to tell her that I'm coming; she will give me a bed, play with Jax, hide me from my mother. But I talked to her on my drive to Greensburg a few days earlier. Her in-laws are there. Her son, Blake, is 4; Claire . . . well she's younger than Blake, and there is a new baby whose name I can't remember. I can't show up at this ungodly time of the morning looking like this with a big black lab that doesn't like kids, and say: "Hey, good to see you. Can you help me?"
Suddenly I'm on a bigger road. I don't think it's an interstate, but there are two lanes going in each direction, and the cars are speeding by. I look at Jax and smile. "Now we're getting somewhere," I say out loud. If I could just see a sign, the name of a town, the county even, I could figure out where we are. If I find Interstate 70, I can get to Bethany College in West Virginia, where I went to school. There's a lake there called Castleman's Run, where I can sleep and Jax can run free. My thoughts are interrupted as we approach a hardware store, except there are no cars in front of it. It must not be open. I pull off on the side of the road. Behind the store there is a gravel parking lot, or a driveway. Jax runs off into the woods. I light a cigarette and start walking in large circles. I kick a few of the stones out of frustration. I don't have any money, but I do have an ATM card. But if I can't figure out what day it is, how am I supposed to remember my PIN number?
"Hey, you okay . . ." a male voice hollers out of nowhere.
"Is that your jeep? You break down?"
". . . That your dog? He really should be on a leash. Cars drive by here so fast, and he was getting pretty close to the road. You should keep a better eye on him. You do have a leash, don't you?"
"I forgot it," I say.
"I don't mind the dog, it's just -- hey, you okay?"
I smile, usher Jax in the car and drive away.
My windows are down, and it's so hot with the early afternoon sun beating down. Jax looks miserable. I think this is I-70, but I'm not sure. I notice my gas light blinking and try to remember if I got gas at Spee-Dee Mart. If I run out of gas, I won't know what to do. The jeep starts chugging. I see a place to pull over, turn off the car and light a cigarette. I'm so hot, I'm so tired, and I can't think anymore. I'll figure things out when I wake up. I crawl into the back seat of the jeep, and decide that, if I just stay put, someone will find me. How long have I been gone? Someone must be looking for me. Jax jumps in the back seat with me, and I shoo him to the front. With his tail wagging, he comes right back. He thinks we're playing a game.
Jax and I get out of the car and start walking. I wonder if there's an emergency call box up ahead. I've never used one before, but how hard can it be? We don't walk very far, and I stop, tell Jax to sit and stick out my thumb. I've never hitchhiked before. A blue sedan drives by, and the driver honks his horn; a minivan full of children drives by, and the kids point and wave at Jax. A scene from the movie "Mystic Pizza" flashes through my mind. In the movie, Julia Roberts and Adam Storke are riding in a Porsche that breaks down on a beautiful road in autumn. The man tries to flag down cars, and no one will stop. Roberts, dressed in a black cocktail dress, heels and her long, curly hair, strikes a sexy pose, and immediately someone stops. I roll up my boxer shorts, flip my hair, strike the same sexy pose. Nothing.
Before long I notice a firetruck pull off the road up ahead. The driver sits there for a moment, and I wonder what to do. Then the truck slowly starts backing up.
"Where you headed?" he hollers through the passenger side window.
"Bethany College," I say hesitantly. The middle-aged man whips out a map, tells me he doesn't know where that is and asks if I can show him. But I can't read a map on a good day.
"Where are you going?" I finally ask.
"Martinsburg, West Virginia."
A light bulb goes off. I have a friend who moved out there not too long ago. I've never been there. I'll find a pay phone and call her. Except, she's married now, and I can't recall her last name. It's a long one -- "S-A-L-V," no, that's not it. "Z-I-W-A-R." I'll just figure it out when I get there. "Can I go with you?" I ask the fireman.
"Hop on in," he says, pushing open the passenger-side door. There are four large silver steps in front of me to climb to reach the seat. Jax looks at me. "Can I bring my dog?"
The man gets out of the truck. He's a big man, with delicate features. He has a warm smile, trustworthy eyes. He looks safe to me. He tries to coax Jax into the firetruck, but Jax is afraid to jump over those steps. Finally, he picks up Jax and gently places him in the truck.
"Hey, is that your jeep back there?" he asks, before pulling onto the highway. "You break down? Just going to leave it there?"
"Okay then, let's go," he says, pulling out onto the highway. My side window is down, and the wind is blowing so fast. I feel great. I lean my head closer to the window to feel the breeze and the sunshine.
"So, you're a college student?" the fireman asks, interrupting my moment of feeling free. "How old does that make you?"
I try to think quickly: How old are you when you graduate from college? If I'm 33 now, when I graduated I was . . . I can't remember.
"Uh . . . 22?"
"Wow. You don't look 22."
I smile and turn my gaze back to the countryside speeding past us. I glance at Jax, who has his two front paws perched on the console between us.
"What're you studying there at Bethany College?" the fireman asks. "You did say Bethany, right? I've never even heard of it. What did you say you're studying?"
"Communications," I say finally. It's sort of the truth. My degree from Bethany College was in communications.
"So what do you want to be when you grow up?" the fireman says with a chuckle.
I look at Jax, wide-eyed in disbelief. This man just keeps talking.
"Really?" he says, entirely too interested. "What do you want to write about? I think it'd be a fascinating career. But not a technical writer, right? I don't know how fun that would be."
I don't respond. I give the fireman a half-smile, which is all I am capable of at the moment.
"You don't say much, do you?" he says in a sad voice.
"Mind if I smoke?"
We drive along in silence for quite some time. I light another cigarette, watch the fields and farms as we pass. I see a horse off in the distance. I sink deeper in the seat. My muscles begin to loosen, I feel sleepy and safe.
Then the fireman starts talking again.
"I have a daughter your age -- well maybe a little older. You sort of look like her, something about you reminds me of her." He waits for me to say something, but I don't.
"That's why I couldn't just leave you there on the side of the road. For a young lady, that could be awfully dangerous." I manage a brief smile.
The fireman tells me he needs to stop for gas and pulls off the interstate. We turn into a mini-mart, but it's not a 7-Eleven or Sheetz like I'm used to, and I wonder where we are. He asks if I need anything -- water, soda -- and I shake my head no. Jax wags his tail. The fireman climbs out of the truck, and I notice his cell phone sitting on the dashboard. I run after him.
"Hey!" I can't remember his name. Doug? Dan? Dave. Dave Daniels. "Hey, Dave, can I use your phone?" He nods while walking into the store.
Back in the firetruck, phone in hand, I think about whom to call. My choices are limited because without my cell phone, I don't know anybody's number; it's all programmed. I don't want to call my mom. There's my best friend from college, Jennifer, who knows me better than anyone, but she's in Boston, so she can't help me. There's Michael, my roommate. He's been in California all month, and I can't remember if he's back. Doesn't matter. He'll have his cell phone and know whom to call.
"Hi, Mikey," I say when he picks up.
"Hey, Mishy," he says, without concern. "Where are you?"
"You're in Boston?" he says, with such fear in his voice that it makes me laugh hysterically.
"No," I say.
"Mishy, where are you?"
I'm crying now, so hard that I can't seem to catch my breath. "I don't know," I whisper, between sobs.
"Who are you with?"
There is a long pause, and for a moment, I am terrified that he has hung up the phone.
"Michele," he says softly, "can I talk to the fireman?"
I watch from the truck as Michael and Dave Daniels talk on the phone. Dave is pacing back and forth, but he doesn't look angry, or worried, for that matter. Every now and again, he even laughs. Finally, Dave closes his cell phone and looks up at me in the truck. All of a sudden I become very aware of what's happening right now. Dave comes back in the truck, and in rapid fire I tell him: "Look, my name is Michele Capots. I am 33. I live in Alexandria, Virginia. I was visiting my mother in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It's my grandmother's birthday. I suffer from clinical depression, and some think I am bipolar. I've recently been weened off my medication, and I'm wicked confused."
Dave Daniels simply smiles.
"Can you hang in there, little lady?" For whatever reason, the question makes me laugh.
"As long as you let me smoke," I say, and this time I am smiling back at him.
We drive for some time and stop at a firehouse along the way. Dave, it turns out, demos firetrucks, so he has a job to do while I sit smoking in the cab, peering down. At one point I catch one of the other firemen looking at me, and I quickly look away. I wonder what, if anything, Dave has told them.
My friend Michael will tell me later that the drive to Inwood, W.Va., is pretty, but I won't remember. Dave indicates that this is our last stop, and I get out of the truck. The firehouse is cluttered. There are big blue-and-yellow coats on the wall, but I'm looking for a pole that the firemen slide down. Walking through the firehouse, I notice an old beat-up couch against the wall in the back. I feel like my body is about to give out, and I lie down on it. I am so tired. The couch is uncomfortable -- there is a spring poking through, the metal is cold -- but I don't care. Jax is lying on the ground right beside me. He looks tired, too, and I close my eyes.
"Is he friendly?" Two fireman have wandered over to pet the dog.
"Yes." I roll over on the couch, turning my back to them, praying for sleep.
Jax growls and lunges toward them.
I don't know how much time passes, and I don't even know if I actually fall asleep. When I open my eyes, Jax is gone, and there are only a few people in the firehouse. I wander outside, and the sun is still shining brightly. To the right, off in a field, a group of firemen are playing with Jax; it looks like they have found a ball. I sit on the ground, lean my back against the brick wall of the firehouse and light a cigarette. I wonder where I am. I wonder where Dave Daniels is. An ambulance pulls up, lights flashing, but no siren. Out of nowhere, I hear the static of a CB radio. A man speaks into it: "We have a psychiatric patient at the firehouse . . . Patient appears confused and disoriented." I look up, wondering who they are talking about.
Then Michael's maroon Land Rover pulls up, and my friend Dawn is in the car with him.
"Hey," I say, and take another drag off my cigarette. As they get out of the car, I hop in the back seat and remove my flip-flops. "Michael," I holler as they walk into the firehouse looking for Dave Daniels, "don't forget Jax."
Driving from the town of Inwood, the windows are down; there is a breeze, and I am dangling my feet out the left-hand window, which is odd, since I hate when people do that. Michael and Dawn are talking a mile a minute. Dawn has always been a motherly type friend, a worrywart. Michael, on the other hand, is the most laid-back guy I know. It usually takes a lot to rattle him, but this situation has him rattled. I catch a glance of him in the rearview mirror, and he looks nervous.
"Mishy," Dawn says, reaching into a bag filled with candy, "you want a Twizzler?"
"No!" I scream.
Dawn looks at Michael, makes a face. Michael looks like he wants to run away. And their silent exchange is the funniest thing I've seen all day. I start to laugh, deliriously, and then I can't stop. Michael starts driving faster, the countryside rolling by again. Everything is so green.
"So, Mishy," Michael begins, staring at Dawn, his eyes searching for reassurance that it's okay to talk to me. "You've had quite the adventure, haven't you?
I'm still laughing.
"You rode in a firetruck . . ." Michael says.
"And I hitchhiked," I tell them, quite proud of myself.
Three hours later, I'm on a bed. I'm not tired anymore. There's a table with a lot of utensils on it next to me, and circling me are lime-green curtains that wrap around. "Heeellllo," I holler loudly.
Dawn peeks her head in, which amuses me, and I laugh. A blond woman then appears through the same curtain, and I can't seem to determine how everyone is getting in my room. Where is the opening? The blonde is about my age. She is talking to me, asking if I know where I am. I look at Dawn, who looks scared. The blonde tells me that she's a doctor and I am at Georgetown Hospital. She wants to know if I know why I'm here. I stop paying attention. I'm trying to figure out her name. It's a long name, difficult to pronounce. "S-I-L-V . . ." I try to sound it out. Silvaw . . . I can't get it, and I become frustrated. Now she and Dawn are talking; they're standing right in front of me, and I'm watching their lips move, but I can't hear a word they're saying. My mind is moving so fast, I can't keep up. The confusion is no longer fun, but I can't stop laughing.
I am alone in the room now. It's quiet. I now know why I am here. I start sobbing loudly, the tears falling so fast I can't wipe them away quickly enough. I can't breathe. Dawn peeks her head in again.
"What is happening to me?" I whisper.
The answer comes over the next few days. I've suffered another manic episode, ignited by my lack of sleep and recent adjustment in my medication. My doctor had weened me off Depakote and Zyprexa, because I seemed to have convinced him that I wasn't bipolar. Now the official diagnosis is bipolar I, which is characterized by manic episodes and often accompanied by major depressive episodes. I spend seven days in Georgetown's psychiatric ward, smoking every hour on the hour, meeting fascinating people and participating in group therapy. The doctors there put me on a different pill -- Lithium -- to stabilize my moods, then send me to an outpatient program and eventually home. Ready to live my life.
But it isn't that easy. I still struggle to accept that I am bipolar. Whenever I have trouble falling asleep at night, if I toss and turn, I wonder: Am I about to have a manic episode? If I spend an outrageous amount of money on a pair of boots or jeans, I always have to question myself and wonder if it's a sign. Or if I lose too much weight and people say, "Michele, you're so thin," is that a red flag? The danger is always there. The question is, will I recognize the red flags for what they are, or will I ignore them?
Jax and I are on our way home for my grandma's 90th birthday party. More than 100 people are expected. I'm driving on Old Route 30, late. It's been a year since I've been on these roads, and my mind is reeling. As always, I'm excited about being back home, but this time I'm particularly uneasy.
Sanity is such a delicate place. Turn left, and it's just another morning. Turn right, and the world as you know it disappears.
Left or right?
Michele Capots is a member of the Magazine's editorial staff.