Saturday, 14 September 2019

Black Garbage Bags

By Julie A. Fast

I lived in Japan for years in the early 90s. I remember being so down that I would go out on the roof of the gaijin (foreigner) house where I lived just to be in the sun and the fresh air. My friend Maggie would come sit with me and try to help — but how could she help when I had NO idea what was happening to me? I knew she experienced depression and anxiety, but the other side of the story was missing when I talked to her.

  • The wildness that would come before my super down mood swings.
  • Sex with strangers that ALWAYS ended badly in big hotel rooms where I would black out after a night of partying.
  • Enormous creative surges and work ability followed by a body that could hardly get out of bed.

I felt possessed by my out of control behavior and swore I would stop it each time, but then it would happen again and again.

I was also seeing and hearing things that were not there, but didn’t know this was not part of the regular human experience.

I do remember asking What is wrong with me? over and over again. I never had answers.

When I first moved to the house, I rented a tatami mat room that included a futon, book shelves and a closet. I heard from the other women that the former renter was picked up by her parents and taken back to Australia the week before I showed up. When I walked into her room I saw that the windows were covered with black garbage bags. The room was incredibly warm and there were books all over the place. It felt crazy to me. We talked about her as though she was a ghost. I never met her but I knew that something must have been wrong in her life to lead to the black garbage bags and her parents having to take her away. Was she keeping something out or trying to keep something inside? It all felt really crazy to me and a bit scary and spooky!

The black garbage bags represented being out of control to me, and yet I also had a story about black garbage bags that was equally bizarre. I didn’t make the connection because as often happens with mental illness I could see it in others but lacked insight into seeing it in myself.

When in college the year before I moved to Japan, I parked my car quite far from campus and had to walk on a Seattle trail in the woods to get to my classes. I have very clear memories of being freaked out on rainy or dark days on that trail. One day I looked to my right and saw a black garbage bag and could just tell there was a body in the bag.

I could SEE the body.
I could feel the body.
I heard a voice that said, ‘You need to call the police! You have witnessed a murder!’

I experienced this with all of my being. It freaked me out and I turned away. When I looked back, it was perfectly obvious that it was a bag of leaves. On other days, I would see a leaf that looked like a severed hand and when I looked away in fear and looked back it was once again obvious it was just a leaf. I didn’t tell anyone about this, not even my therapist. I assumed it happened to everyone.

It’s incredible to me now that the story of the young woman who put garbage bags on her windows and my own black garbage bag experiences didn’t lead to any kind of self-awareness. She was crazy. I was depressed. It wasn’t the same thing.

For the next four years in Japan I would be high on the world and then so down I couldn’t function. I had a fabulous job in Tokyo that allowed me to really use my brain — and then the brain that could be so amazing would just SHUT DOWN. And I would end up back on my futon crying or going out on the roof to lay in the sun. It made no sense, but not for one minute did I think of myself as mentally ill. After out of control behavior that led to deep shame I kept asking for help from very uneducated therapists who would try to get me to figure out why I made such poor decisions.

I once told a therapist about waking up with a strange man in a hotel room. I explained that this was SO out of character and shocking to me that I needed help. She said, “Maybe you need to address the lack of Christian values in your life.”

Oh yes, that is an exact quote. How could I know what was going on with me if the ‘professionals’ who were supposedly trained to help people with depression were this ignorant? This level of ignorance of serious mental illness is still present today. We don’t know what’s happening with us and when we finally do tell a therapist or general doctor what happened we need them to have answers. Often they don’t.

I often wonder what would have happened if I told the therapists in Japan, “I see dead bodies in garbage bags and leaves that look like severed hands.” When I finally did tell this to a psychiatrist in 1995, along with all of my out of control sexual behavior, work problems and deep, suicidal depression, I was told, “You have bipolar disorder with a lot of psychosis.” My official diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder. (This means I have bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder.)

The garbage bag with the body and the leaves/severed hands were visual hallucinations. The voice that said I had to call the cops as I witnessed a murder was an auditory hallucination. The paranoia I felt all through college and often during my time in Japan was a delusion. The out of control sexual behavior was mania and the sadness that led me to sit in the sun was simply depression.

Between the ages of eighteen and thirty-one I saw at least twenty health care professionals and asked for help. Not one asked me the right questions. I hope that the woman from Australia got the help she needed once her parents got her home.

We are the sisters of the black garbage bags.

I’m sharing this story to shine a light on how and why people with serious mental illness like me can see mental illness in others and not for a minute recognize the same behavior in ourselves. The woman with the garbage bags was obviously sick. I didn’t feel sick in the way I observed her being sick. I was just confused about my behavior. And yet our symptoms were the same.

Everything — and I do mean everything — was explained by a correct mental health diagnosis. This diagnosis gave me insight. Insight is something we can grow in ourselves once a diagnosis gives us a direction for care.

I still have hallucinations and delusions. I have an illness! But I live with it now and I am no longer scared. We can learn to manage symptoms. Now if I see a black garbage bag and a body that isn’t there I know I am sick and I get help. The fear is gone.

About the Author

Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder and Get it Done When You’re Depressed. She lived with a partner for ten years who has bipolar one. They met in a Tokyo bar and neither knew they had bipolar. You can find more about her work at and



  1. Wow, this is so very helpful ( and comforting) in my quest for understanding certain things I remember my son telling well written, so enlightening.

  2. Thank you for sharing with such candor,vulnerability and wisdom Julie