One Year Later
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
TRIGGER WARNING - This Story vividly describes my experience during a health crisis last Summer.
Topics include psychiatric illness, police violence, insomnia, depression, mania, psychosis and suicide.
To my family, friends and readers: I’m so much happier and healthier than I was a year ago and am not currently in crisis. Thank you for your never-ending love and support, and for making me Who I Am.
To anyone in need of help: please reach out. To me, to friends, to family, to anyone.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-8255
Trevor Project Lifeline (for LGBTQ+ youth) - 1-866-488-7386
Crisis Text Line - Text HOME to 741741
2020 was a pretty fucked up year, which means I've been through some pretty fucked up anniversaries in the last few months. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's noticed this - a lot of these have been of major events that affected people nation- or even world-wide. Still, I’ve been experiencing them on very personal terms. It started in early March, culminating on the 13th. A year ago, that date fatefully fell on a Friday and capped off a very strange week. It marked the cancellation of my last live theatrical production, as well as then-President Trump's national emergency declaration. As much as any other single date, it marked the beginning of the pandemic in America, at least in the sense of how severely it’s upended day-to-day life.
The next anniversary came a couple months later, on the 25th of May. On that day in 2020, Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, sparking a summer of the largest, loudest protests the US has seen since the civil rights era. On May 25, 2020 though, we didn't know yet what was to come. All we knew was what we saw plainly in that horrifying video - that another white police officer had killed another unarmed Black man. That video changed things in America forever. I think it's fair to compare it to the 2016 election in a way, both for me personally and for many other privileged Americans. It opened my eyes to a violence and vitriol that I knew existed in the abstract, but had managed to keep at arm's length for my own comfort. It managed to pierce the dense layers of My Armor and reach the human being underneath. This word has been warped beyond recognition lately, but it was a Moment of wokeness for me. An awakening, if you will.
So it's hard to separate what the death of George Floyd meant broadly versus what it meant for me personally. Protests began the night he was killed, and for weeks they grew and spread nationwide until eventually they consumed an entire Summer. Like the pandemic (but in a very different way), Floyd's murder upended life in America, and eventually across the globe. It also led directly to a third significant date.
Moreso than even these first two seismic events, the anniversary that I expected to be most difficult is one I've celebrated my entire life: June 1st, my birthday. Just about everybody has had a bad birthday in the past year, and mine in 2020 was a real doozy. In addition to everything wrought by the pandemic, boiling social tensions made it hard to relax and disengage from the news, even for a day. Kyra did her best, packing us a picnic lunch to take on a hike at Roosevelt Island, one of my favorite places in DC. For a few hours that afternoon, it almost worked; the outside world seemed to fade away in the beautiful seclusion of the island. As we drove home that evening to make a 7 o’clock video call with my family, we passed the White House, where I knew protesters had been gathering for the last few days.
Kyra and I arrived home sometime after 6, and within minutes our phones started buzzing. We were bombarded with urgent messages: turn on the TV; see what's happening; you're not going to believe this. June 1, 2020 is the day that Park Police, Secret Service and other local and federal agencies attacked protesters, journalists and clergy members gathered around Lafayette Square and St. John’s Church, just north of the White House. There were too many instances to count last Summer of law enforcement firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of Americans, but this is the one that will always be seared into my memory. It happened in my city, on my birthday, live in front of me - but that's not the biggest reason. The biggest reason is what followed, and I bet you remember it too.
At 7 pm I was in the living room logging onto my family call, as I'm watching the chaotic, violent scene at Lafayette Square on TV in the background. And at 7:02, as my loved ones are appearing onscreen to wish me a happy birthday, I watch Trump exit the White House and walk across the smoky square to St. John's. I watch the most powerful military and law enforcement officers in the country join him: the Attorney General, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jared and Ivanka are there, too; Vice President Pence is conspicuously absent. It's worth mentioning given that they had just ordered an ambush on Americans standing up for Black lives: every single person in the entourage is white. I watch them all stand by, condoning the President, witnessing his pathetic attempt to demonstrate Power and control. I watch as Trump awkwardly holds up a Bible for the cameras, as if it's a copy of The Art of the Deal that he's hawking on late night TV. I watch, I watch, I can't stop watching. In a year dominated by screens, I had the weirdest dual screen experience of my life: I saw my favorite people wishing me love and happiness on my laptop as I saw my least-favorite person flouting hypocrisy and hate on my television.
So yeah, not the best birthday. The good news is, June 1, 2021 was a major improvement. I spent the afternoon walking around Black Lives Matter Plaza, which borders Lafayette Square and includes St. John's. I've wanted to go since last Summer, but the crowds kept me away. Visiting the scene of what had been so difficult for me to witness a year earlier felt cathartic, and helped me claim some ownership over what could have otherwise been a really difficult anniversary to get through. And it didn't hurt that I followed the trip by having dinner at home with the same family I'd seen in little boxes a year earlier. We hugged and ate and sang. The TV stayed off.
All of which brings us, veeeeeery slowly, to this most recent anniversary: June 10th.
The thing about all of these dates is they're all connected. They’re all a deep blend of large-scale tragedies with personal fears and anxieties. They all build on one another, bread crumbs leading further and further down a dark trail. And they all peaked for me during the second and third weeks of last June. June 10th, as much as any other date, marks the start of the most turbulent week of my life. It also marks the beginning of my Evolution as an artist and Storyteller; I wouldn’t have spent the past year sharing my words with you if not for this particular anniversary. On this day in 2020, hitting 'send' on a lengthy, impassioned email to a work associate set off an absolute frenzy of writing. The next seven days were some of the scariest I've ever experienced - endless hours of writing a self-described manifesto, coupled with terrible insomnia, increasing mania and, eventually, severe panic attacks and borderline psychosis. Thankfully, I was saved by an incredible support network and especially Kyra, who took care of me as she suffered through a terrifying experience of her own - watching her partner unravel and deteriorate in front of her eyes.
Prior to 2020 I'd never been diagnosed with anything, but I'd definitely had bouts of depression from time to time dating back to at least my freshman year of college. So when the pandemic's arrival brought on some pretty severe languishing that Spring, I wasn't super surprised. Even without my personal history, who wasn't feeling depressed in April 2020? Still, I had it bad. George Floyd's murder and the uprising in the days that followed started to stir me out of this, before the events of June 1st jump-started my system completely. I remember the next day, the 2nd, when I spent hours lying in bed scrolling Instagram, becoming angrier and angrier. Inspired and motivated by the action taking place across the country, I pivoted sharply away from my foggy headspace. I remember thrusting myself whole-hog into an effort to educate myself about racism in America. I learned what it means to be an anti-racist, rather than just being "not racist." I watched videos of people marching across the country and of people being beaten and tear gassed. I drove to Swann St NW, where protesters had been kettled, pepper sprayed and arrested the night of the 1st. I met a local man who allowed dozens of folks into his home to avoid the aggression of the DC's Metropolitan Police Department. I did whatever I could to support protesters in my community. I donated money, made signs, amplified local activists, dropped off supplies, ran errands, taped a bedsheet to the hood of my car. I did everything except what I wanted to do most - march. Kyra's job puts her in close contact with elderly and at-risk patients every day, and we agreed that we both needed to stay away from the crowds. But still, I wanted to be there, on the ground. I felt overwhelming guilt and a desperate desire to fix things, to help out, to save the world. This was the Moment for our generation to stand up, for Heroes to be born. This was history.
Energized and eager, I tried to focus on stuff I could do from home, and one thing I settled on was sharing news on Facebook. In early June I was reading the news for hours and hours everyday; so much was happening, and access to reliable information felt more urgent than ever. Despite my longtime dislike for the platform I found myself using it more and more, sometimes sharing a half dozen articles or more in a single day. I shared pieces highlighting broad support for the protests, decrying the military presence occupying DC streets, exposing Republican hypocrisy and cowardice. And on June 10th, I shared something that I found absolutely disgusting but also a perfect encapsulation of the man I had come to loathe - Trump's plan to hold a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of an infamous and horrific race massacre. As one commenter on my post put it, the man was pure evil.
And so, that night, animated by righteous anger and personal disdain, I started writing. I felt the need to make a statement, literally. What started as a Facebook post turned into an iPhone note, and eventually a Google Doc. I wrote deep into the night on my front porch, pounding the keys furiously. I stayed up til dawn and watched the sunrise. Maybe I slept a few hours that morning. Honestly, I don't remember.
On the 11th, I kept writing. I sat on the porch. I pounded my keyboard. I was up til dawn. On Friday the 12th, same thing: writing, porch, dawn. My fingers were on a free-associating rampage; what was once an innocent little Google Doc had ballooned to nearly 60 pages that I’d titled ‘My Manifesto.’ Saturday morning I kept at it, until finally Kyra convinced me to take an extended break, my first in almost 70 hours. I wasn’t ready for a break, though - I was restless, agitated, energized. So instead, I took a breakdown.
On Sunday, Kyra and I went on a walk for the entire afternoon, to wear me out. We went for miles in the heat. She took me through some guided meditation while we walked; my thoughts had been racing for days. When we got home we settled in for an early bedtime and watched what we thought would be a calming, gentle movie - Pixar's Inside Out, a film where embodied emotions come into conflict. In retrospect, we probably should’ve picked something else. After the movie, I tried sleeping out in the living room to change things up, but no sleep came that night either. The world was seeming scarier and stranger, and my grip on my Self and my Reality felt slippery, fragile, hazy. The lack of sleep was finally catching up to me - I felt like I was being turned inside out.
That night, my unrest and insomnia intersected in a terrifying way that I would later refer to as a “waking nightmare.” After Kyra went to bed in the next room, I tossed and turned, no lights on but an orange salt lamp. The light seemed to vibrate and pulsate in the darkness. The chakra sounds I'd put on to lull me to sleep instead did the Opposite - they evoked colors and shapes in my Mind, stimulating me. I couldn't sleep, not with my thoughts firing like this. So, I walked through the house in the dead of night, becoming more frantic by the hour. I spoke to pictures of loved ones and to myself in the mirror. I covered up other lights in the house, mostly clocks, convinced that they were making it more difficult for me to rest. For good measure, I covered the television with a blanket as well. Screens had become increasingly agitating and I found the sleek, flat blackness of the TV to be a very unsettling living room companion. Occasionally I'd lay down on the couch, and then the bed, and then back to the couch, but to no avail. I resisted the temptation to open the Google Doc, but I did write notes to myself on my laptop. I still have these. They mention childhood heroes, nostalgia, sex, drugs, religion, sin, control. They're occasionally coherent.
By Monday, Kyra had finally convinced me to see a doctor. Over the weekend I’d conceded that sleep was an issue, but in some ways I was convinced my health had never been better; I felt a vibrant awareness and creativity I'd never experienced before, as well as unusual confidence and ecstasy. This high fell apart though following the previous night’s horrors, and then disintegrated even further in the hours before our afternoon appointment. I'd barely had an appetite for days, so Kyra made a big, delicious brunch to entice me. I had only a few bites before waves of nausea hit. I couldn't stand sitting at the table with the food, much less eating it. I went out onto our front porch, terrified that I was about to vomit. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was having a panic attack. And combined with my lack of sleep, food and mental stability, I couldn't handle it. I started spiraling hard, and I couldn't stop. After days of euphoria and artistic bliss, I was in crisis mode.
Kyra saved me. She coaxed me into the car despite my fears that we'd get in an accident. She drove us around the neighborhood in circles as I hyperventilated in the passenger seat. She listened patiently while I spewed verbal diarrhea, spitting out words and thoughts as they came, talking in circles. Eventually, she started driving toward the doctor's office. My fight-or-flight response immediately kicked in. I pictured myself being restrained, told that I'd have to stay somewhere cold and foreign overnight. I pictured myself contracting Covid from a stranger in the office. I pictured myself throwing up on the floor.
When we arrived, I was convinced the doctor was playing games with me. She asked frustrating questions that seemed designed to get a rise out of me. She smashed the keys on her computer loudly, annoyingly. She phrased things in ways that felt deliberately confusing, and at times I wanted to shout at her. But I kept my cool. My panic had mostly subsided and I was able to collect myself for the meeting. Kyra later told me she was stunned by the mask of normalcy I was able to summon for that interview. But still, the facts of the case pointed to the obvious. I'd been deeply depressed for months in the Spring, but my recent symptoms didn’t line up with that at all. Recently, I'd been running nonstop without sleep. I'd been hyperactive and hyper-talkative. I'd been having delusions of grandeur, fantasies of taking on the President, of embarrassing him, of shaming him, of hurting him. No matter how composed I was able to present myself in a one hour appointment, the mania I'd been experiencing was crystal clear to everyone in the room except me.
That appointment wasn't the end of my health crisis, but it was a turning point. I don't remember exactly which medications I was given that afternoon, but I know there was something to help me sleep, which I eagerly took that night. Still, no luck. Exhausted beyond belief, my Body simply would not let me rest. I remember this last night awake well. I was so ready for sleep, so eager for relief. Dozens of times, I felt myself begin to nod off, those pleasant few seconds before it goes dark. And dozens of times, my Body refused. Whenever I flirted too closely with sleep, I felt my temperature spike and my heartbeat quicken. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. My Body remained on high alert, ready to combat the perceived threats all around me. As far as my nervous system was concerned, sleep wasn’t an option.
On Tuesday Kyra went to work, which must have felt like sweet relief after a week trapped inside the house with a literal maniac. A friend came to stay with me that day. I talked his ear off nonstop, unable to focus on a single task or topic for more than a few minutes at a time. He brought over a puzzle for us to work on; I got as far as flipping over half the pieces before it became too overwhelming. When Kyra came home that evening, we shared dinner and he went home. I talked Kyra's ear off. I took my sleep medication. And that night, finally, mercifully, I slept. I wasn't entirely refreshed when I awoke on Wednesday the 17th; not even close, and in fact, I wouldn't be for months. But the longest week of my life was over, and I was finally on the road to recovery.
One Year Later, I’m much further down that road than I could have hoped last June. My mood is stable and my overall health has been solid for months. I have more thoughts to share on what I went through a year ago, but the most important is this: don’t wait until it’s too late to ask for help if you need it. Throughout my life, people have complimented me for my relaxed mood and calm, steady demeanor. Friends have called me a rock, a tree, someone solid and rooted that they can rely on. I pride myself on being intelligent, independent and above all, grounded. I’m not an expert, but I’m confident saying that I know more about health and medicine than the average person. All of this may come off as a giant humblebrag, and it is. But it’s also painfully relevant, because all of these facts contributed to my own delusion last year that I was in command of a situation that was spiraling wildly out of control.
In my time working with med students, I’ve become familiar with how doctors screen for psychiatric illness and what questions are asked of a person to determine suicidal or homicidal ideation (in layman’s terms, having thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself or someone else). In the throes of my crisis last June, I calmed myself at times by asking myself those questions. Not once in a week filled with so much chaos did I want to hurt myself, and my life was never in danger. But I also came to understand something important that I don’t think gets talked about enough: regardless of intent, people in crisis can act impulsively in ways that are risky and dangerous. For a week, I became obsessed with helping others, spreading love and defeating hate. My purpose was wholesome and pure. But despite this, I was a threat to myself and people around me in a way that I can only see now, in hindsight. My erratic behavior could have easily put me in harm’s way, especially if I hadn’t spent the entire time in the safety of my own home being watched like a hawk by some of my closest loved ones.
Over the past year, I’ve often seen surprise on my friend’s faces when I share this experience with them, particularly when I mention my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Sometimes I see confusion, as if I don’t match their preconceived idea of what someone living a bipolar life might look and act like. I don’t hold this against anyone; I’ll admit that initially I felt the same way. There is so much stigma and stereotype surrounding “mental health,” a phrase that I’ve intentionally avoided using to this point. We treat the brain as if it isn’t part of the Body, as if illnesses affecting thought, mood and behavior have little in common with other diseases. This is something that I hope to see change drastically in my lifetime, and I can say confidently that we’re heading in the right direction. But we can't fix a problem unless we acknowledge it. There is so much work left to do, and it starts with an open and honest Dialogue.
Thank you so, so much for reading. I'd like to leave you with a final request: take care of yourself and the people you care about. Ask for help when you need it, or better, before. Call the numbers listed at the top of this page if you need to. If you’re not ready for that, call a friend. And if you feel like there are no friends to turn to, call me. I won’t list my number here, but if you email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or DM me on Instagram (@matty.cino), I’d be happy to give it out. One Year Later, I’m grateful for so much. More than anything though, I’m grateful that when I needed help most I wasn’t alone. I know now that I can’t save the world, but I can promise you this: you aren’t alone either <3
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