Leaving Homelessness Behind: My Troubled Road to Recovery

Ben Bonkoske after jumping off 4-story building

This is part two in a two-part series. Click here to read part one.

The problem with bipolar, other mental illnesses and addiction is that you can convince yourself that you don’t have a problem when it is evident that you do. My road to recovery was not a straight line, but instead, a long meandering path. It took me more than two years to reach a state of stability. The story of retaking my life starts with hitting rock bottom, literally.

I will never forget the way it felt as my fall got momentously faster as I passed each window on my way to the unforgiving concrete. At once I felt weightless, my long hair flowing straight up, my arms flailing. Then, it all caught up with me. Splat. Crack. Slam. The sheer impact made me white-out unconscious as if to forget that I had tried to circumvent my circumstances by jumping off a four-story building. Or better, I had achieved an early death.

The excruciating pulsing pain of unbearable broken bones awoke me in a hollering terror. I couldn’t stand up. I tried to make use of my useless legs. They wouldn’t move. I thought I was going to be a paraplegic for the rest of my life. I brayed like a fertile cat giving birth until someone heard my calls into the night and phoned an ambulance.

When the paramedics arrived, they were confused by how irrational I was. I was coming off of a heavy hallucinogenic trip and severe manic episode. Even the grounding idea of never walking again didn’t sober me enough to not sound like a schizoid.

It is one thing to have suicidal ideation.

It is a whole other monster to be on the other side of an actual failed attempt, somewhere in between disbelief and denial of what trauma you have just caused. Not to mention, the likelihood of being locked up in a psych ward due to a 51/50 precaution. I was nonsensical, in shock, tears, and 3,000 miles away from anything I remotely considered a home. I will admit, I would have had rather died at that moment.

After a hectic ambulance ride (where the paramedic said, although he wasn’t a doctor, the fact that I could feel the piercing pain in my legs was a good sign), I was admitted to a general hospital. There they cut off my shoes and stitched up the gashes on my broken feet without amnesia. It felt like they were removing a baseball out of my foot it was so swollen. Then they took X-rays.

I waited 48 hours in hell, after calling my dad before he saved my life. My dad and I still have our differences. But like a broken child, when I saw him, a confusing rush of emotions washed over me in the realization that I had tried to take my own life, and that everything was going to be okay.

I lied to him and to the doctors about the reason of my fall. He was convinced that my behavior was a direct result of my stopping taking my bipolar medication. In hindsight, I think there is some validity to that argument, but I would hear nothing about it.

It took us three days by train on our way back to Chicago from San Francisco.

After he cut my hair, my father admitted me for psychological evaluation. I probably didn’t look like a promising case in my wheelchair and bad haircut. And my story changed multiple times based on what I thought would get me out of there quickest. I have always had reservations toward doctors, and the ones that work on psychiatric units are no exception.

At first, I denied all medication. I was smart enough to respond that I wasn’t hearing any voices and had no suicidal thoughts, even though both were untrue. It wasn’t until the third week of no progress when, after the doctor’s revision of my flippant explanations, they threatened to legally force me to take medication.

Instead of listening to medical advisers, I had the hospital appoint me a lawyer so I could fight the system. This is a perfect example of the self-denial that exists with being bipolar. I was delusional, experiencing severe mania, and convinced that the government was trying to silence me by making me take mind-numbing medication.

You cannot recognize your mania in the eye of the storm.

Eventually, after an ugly battle, reason won out and I started taking one medication, and then another, and then another. I was extremely sedated, but luckily the voices in my head began to quiet. After 40 something days of being watched like a hawk by nurses and doctors, my insurance ran out. They were forced to let me walk outside for the first time in over a month (an overwhelming experience).

I began an Intensive out-patient with others like me

The camaraderie was very helpful during the hard time of reintegration back into the normal world. However, another specter was looming over me. I was an addict. The inciting incident that caused all of this havoc was a Grateful Dead concert where I’m convinced I took somewhere between 50 and 100 tabs of acid (the effects of which lasted months after taking) and ended up shooting dope in a Winnebago in northern California.

I had tried many times unsuccessfully to be sober. The longest I had ever accumulated (after multiple attempts of swearing it all off for good) was four months.

An old friend of mine from high school had seemed to have gotten on his feet through AA. I was very skeptical. So skeptical that I am surprised I walked through those doors. I didn’t necessarily feel an instant connection with the program, but I soon came to realize that the alternative was much worse. So I began my first six months of sobriety.

During my “rock bottom” I had broken both of my legs, was admitted to a psych ward, had gotten my bike that I crossed the country with and all of my belongings stolen, my girlfriend broke up with me, my grandparents died, and my family moved out of my childhood home. Most of what could be recovered and reconciled came back to me in those initial six months of sobriety. However, none of that was enough to keep me medicated and sober indefinitely.

On my first night back at college in North Carolina, I sparked a joint that kept me high for the rest of the semester.

My instability returned. It wasn’t long before I decided I would stop taking my Lithium. I kid you not, it was the worst, quickest, disturbing uproot that I have ever experienced. I will not go into detail but I locked myself in my room without any food, and absolutely tore the place apart. Three police officers had to detain me. And just like that, I was back in the loony bin.

If you recall all of those horrible things that happened to me in my first rock bottom, well none of those things happened in my second “bottom”. I was medicated, and quickly acquainted with normal life in Chicago. I got a job, was sober for three months, and was planning to go back to school in the fall. Back at school, I smoked weed occasionally. But since I was medicated, I didn’t experience much mania.

It wasn’t two broken legs and a breakup that finally made me come to my senses and get sober. It was a $50 citation that made me recognize just how bad it could all get if I continued down this road.

A cop busted me with less than a gram of pot on campus. It wasn’t an arrest. It was just a small citation and a class I had to take on the dangers of marijuana.

The $50 citation saved my life.

I have been wise enough to not gamble again since that wake-up call. As my friend who introduced me to AA once said, “Sometimes God intervenes before something really bad has to happen.”

I had seen enough. Currently, I understand that a combination of medication and sobriety is the only way to a stable life. I will be coming up on my first year soon, and have graduated from college. Life is not always an easy road, but if you keep going, you’re sure to get there.

Ben Bonkoske

Ben Bonkoske


Ben Bonkoske is a graduate from the University of North Carolina, Asheville where he wrote his own major focusing on Inequality in America. He is the author of the novel Spoon in the Road. You can find more of his work at his website poetwithoutapen.com

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