January 2021: Ivy Hall Review Features AJ Firstman

 AJ Firstman is a Georgia-born writer and MFA candidate who specializes in absurdist comedy and turning dry subjects into fun, readable pieces. AJ dreams of telling stories that make people smile and help them understand the world around them. He has no other marketable skills. AJ currently lives in Atlanta with his two cats/life coaches Squeaks and Dr. Cornelius.


You wanted to be a superhero when you grew up. You wanted to protect people, sure, and to save the day, but you mostly longed for the ability to unshackle yourself from the earth and soar into the sky. To drink in the deep blue and to exist perfect and alone, just you and the clouds. Justice would be a welcome but unnecessary side benefit.

Gravity got you around your ninth birthday. First Santa, then the Tooth Fairy, then Superman. You decided you’d settle for breaking the atmosphere and setting foot on desolate new lands. “I’m going to be an astronaut” sounded realistic. Certain.

You were 23 when you remembered. It was the start of your third straight year of deep depression, when you spent hours staring at the ceiling and scraping your brain for something, anything to lift you out of the morass. You spent an afternoon watching videos of aerial races and Blue Angels and, for an hour or two, you were at peace.

Your dad bought you a flying lesson for your 25th birthday. He was more worried about you than usual, and he hoped a change in altitude might help you see things differently.

You don’t have the words to describe that hour with the yoke in your hands. When you try, it comes out as fragments. Breathtaking. Majestic. Peace. Control. You’re afraid that describing it improperly might taint the memory somehow.

You ask the instructor to take a picture of you in the cockpit of the rickety little Cessna. Your smile is as broad and open as the sky. You show your dad. He tears up. It’s the happiest he’s seen you in years.

Your dad buys you more flying lessons as birthday and Christmas presents. The certificates collect dust. You say it’s because you want to take them all at once, but you aren’t sure that’s true. Maybe you just don’t feel like flying. Maybe you know you’ll never have the money to finish your training, let alone to buy a plane of your own. You’ve never even considered being a pilot. Turning a passion into a profession shows you the ugliest sides of beautiful things. You can’t handle any more ugliness.

You pull into the parking garage at 9:03AM. You’re furious. It wasn’t the traffic or the job or getting up to work at 3AM the night before. The anger—your engine—is always there. Primed. Thirsty. Ready to turn drops of inconvenience into hours of blood-red rage.

You keep a flask of bourbon in your glove compartment for mornings like these. You stop for a cup of iced coffee with extra espresso before stepping on the elevator. The coffee obscures the alcohol on your breath, and the espresso gives you a much-needed kick. You’re tired. You’re always so tired.

You sit at your cubicle and pretend to work on an old report. The system is processing—and your boss knows that—but God help you if her boss walks past and sees anything but work on your screen. You turn your head and look out the window. You silently run through the plan for the twentieth time that day.

Step 1: Stand up

Step 2: Pick up your squeaky-wheeled chair

Step 3: Take exactly four steps to the window

Step 4: Throw your chair through the glass

Step 5: Follow it

Ron, your friendly but awkward Bangladeshi coworker, will shoot himself soon. You’ll be jealous.

Your position is eliminated in July. They decided you were too junior to handle the work. They were right. You get another job. You get fired in three months. They decided you weren’t a good fit. Right again.

You’ve been unemployed for months. You’re wound so tight you’re afraid you’ll snap like a rubber band behind a plastic propeller. You look at your feet whenever you leave the house. You know your friends and family would be sad if you went through with it, so you don’t. You’re starting to resent them now. How dare they.

Your dad takes you to see a specialist at Northwestern. One of the best in the world, apparently. Several doctors take turns asking you questions. You’re in there for hours. Finally, the Big Boss comes in and delivers the verdict.

Bipolar II Disorder: A mental disorder characterized by prolonged depression punctuated by periods of hypomania.

The lifespan of Bipolar and Bipolar II is between 9 and 17 years shorter than that of neurotypicals.

Up to 60% of patients with Bipolar or Bipolar II disorder attempt suicide at least once.

Up to 19% of patients with Bipolar or Bipolar II disorder take their own lives.

Bipolar II cannot be cured. It can only be managed.

You’re crazy. But you knew that already.

Daily Regimen:

Lithium: 1500mg/day

-Mood stabilizer

-Must maintain a consistent level in bloodstream

-Must avoid anything that can change concentration

-Easy to reach toxic levels

-Makes you human again

Trileptal/Oxcarbazepine: 1200mg/day

-Mood stabilizer

-Helps prevent explosive rage

-About $1,600/month without insurance

-Hellish withdrawal symptoms

Zoloft/Sertraline: 200mg/day


-Causes weight gain

-Kills libido

-Saps creativity

-Causes brain fog

-Even worse withdrawal symptoms

Wellbutrin/Bupropion: 300mg/day


-Works well with Bipolar depression

Adderall/Amphetamine salts: 60mg/day

-Improves focus

-Helps treat ADHD, a very common comorbidity with Bipolar II

You take a fistful of pills every night and a few more every morning. You will do this for the rest of your life, or until the lithium does irreparable damage to your kidneys. Someday your sanity will come with the caveat of regular dialysis.

The world looks clearer every day. Like your perspective was a dirty window that’s undergoing a long-overdue cleaning. Your life looks even grimmer in high definition. You will spend years reckoning with the person you were, perpetually afraid that the raging beast inside you might return with a vengeance. The darkness still visits, but its stays are shorter and less intense. You’ll sit in your room and cry because this is as good as it gets with your condition.

The first year is the hardest. You’ll spend most of it in your mom’s basement looking for jobs and hating yourself. You get rid of your social media. You can’t handle seeing your old friends and rivals moving forward while you sit and stagnate. The endless black sea recedes bit by bit until you feel the sand beneath your feet. You take a breath one day and realize the chains around your chest have loosened.

You’ve gotten used to the meds by the second year. Your engine—the anger—burns inconvenience and indignities with barely a puff of smoke. You’re horrified that you relied on it for so long, but you don’t know how to live without it. You see the marks of your fists and your words wherever you go. You apologize and apologize to everyone you’ve ever known until the words lose all meaning. You still see a wrecking ball in the mirror. You shudder when you see the fire still smoldering behind its sad green eyes.

Your dad says you’re the toughest person he knows. That you’ve always gotten back up no matter how badly you’ve been beaten. He’s wrong. You’re held together with lithiated Scotch tape and sheer force of will. You’ve never felt so fragile.

You’ll be driving one day, practicing your breathing to the beat of your favorite song. You’ll be gripped with the sudden certainty that, with enough focus, you could levitate your car off the road and into the blue. You’ll remember the dusty certificates in your cabinet. You’ll remember how it felt to touch the sky.

You’ll look up the requirements for getting a pilot’s license on the FAA’s website. You’ll scroll through the medical requirements—just in case—with a hopeful sort of dread in your stomach. You’ll see this sentence:

“Certain medical conditions such as psychosis, bipolar disorder and severe personality disorder automatically disqualify a pilot from obtaining a FAA medical certificate and prohibit them from flying.”

You’ll cry about the unfairness of it all. It won’t make a difference.

You’ll never be a superhero or an astronaut.

You can’t even be a pilot.

You’ll never have wings, and it will never be okay.

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