bipolar story

i keep meaning to tell my bipolar story. so here, finally.

at the very end of my sixth grade year my family moved to a new home that was outside our school district. i continued to go to the old school in april and may and then started at the new school that fall. Thirteen, what a wonderful age to change schools at. oh dear god. it was every bit as awful as you might think. i was the smart kid and kinda funny-looking and didn’t have any friends, etc. really quite ostracized for the first few years there.

that was about the same time that i noticed my bipolar symptoms. crippling depressions, manic rages that no one saw as i lived it all out in the confines of my bedroom and my own head. i turned to mild self-harm for a while as i couldn’t come up with an explanation for all the pain i was feeling, so much deeper than others seemed to feel. wanted a reason to feel such pain so i gave myself one.

fortunately i didn’t have access to drugs; alcohol never appealed to me much. and i was a Good Kid [tm]. any major acting out occurred in the dramas with the few friends i did have.

i knew this was something serious, and i suspected it was bipolar disorder. but when you’re a 15, 16 year old girl, nobody’s gonna believe you when you tell them you think you’re bipolar. just drama, just teen angst, learn to control your emotions. started seeing a counselor at school who, though very engaging and friendly, was utterly of no help.

i got through my high school years without incident, amazingly enough. i was deathly afraid of my parents’ potential reaction to whatever was wrong with me, so i hid it inside, locked away like a top secret file. didn’t dare do anything drastic. i was terrified they’d “institutionalize” me.

i got to college and the disease only got worse, mostly huge depressions but once in a while a manic rush here and there. it was a religious school and i was studying theology — mainly because i was manic and wanted to “glorify god with my intellect” — and my peers had me convinced that some sort of spiritual warfare was going on and that satan was trying to keep me away from the joy of christ. yeah, really. so, no help there. prayed so hard and so much to have it all taken away from me, to no response. i was high on jesus the first two years but during the first week of my junior year i realized everything i was doing was wrong, wrong, wrong. i had screwed up my future in a colossal way and i had no idea what to do.

fall of my senior year was the worst. i had realized that my theology degree was going to get me nowhere — i had never planned on going into ministry but had vague ideas about an M.Div from some seminary and then going into teaching, but nothing ever came of that. i couldn’t imagine surviving on my own. terrified of ending up living in a cardboard box somewhere in some seedy part of minneapolis. couldn’t possibly imagine any sort of work that would give me a decent living considering all the student loans i had.

i went down, down, down. i played oboe in the concert band, and oboists need sharp instruments such as razor blades and knives to trim their reeds and such. so during rehearsal one night i had a razor blade out, gently tracing over the lines in my left hand instead of playing. the other oboist was horrified and unsure what to do. i managed to contain myself for the rest of the rehearsal and then went into the band director’s office, hiding under his TA’s desk and sobbing. for an hour.

my friend kim, also in the band, watched over me. eventually she said “look, i love you very much, but sometimes i think you need to go to the hospital.” as i could see it, the only choices available to me were to either go to the hospital or go home and slit my wrists. do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

i chose the hospital.

i was there for seven days, not very well cared for. they recognized my depression, but that was all they saw — put me on prozac and after a week had passed they sent me home.

i took incompletes for the fall semester and made them up during the one-month “january term” between fall and spring semesters. my professors were all very sympathetic and understanding. the art department had sent me flowers while i was in hospital.

being in the hospital meant that my parents had to find out about my mental illness, which mortified me. my mom didn’t take it very well and didn’t really get that mental illness was actually a real thing and not just excessive drama. dad was just quiet and worried. they said later “we always knew something was wrong but we didn’t want to say anything and make you angry.” yes, i grew up in minnesota, can you tell?

my plans for taking the GRE and going to graduate school fell through. there was no way i was going to be able to prepare for the test that year, so i never did take it, never did go to grad school. i put my nose to the grindstone, finished spring semester by the skin of my teeth and then graduated.

i found the cheapest apartment i could get that wasn’t technically subsidized housing. i temped for a while, struggling to pay my student loans, struggling through the depression without any health insurance. couldn’t afford the prozac. i remember my dad trying to help me find some sort of social security help, but i couldn’t go into the building. i walked by it and couldn’t open the door. not that it was locked. i just. couldn’t. open it. he paid for my prozac for several months.
i was so suicidal. so so very very suicidal. but despite it all i have never once attempted it. too afraid. afraid of failing, afraid of god’s wrath. i sat in my quiet office cubicle and thrashed around in my mind for something to hold on to. nothing worked.

i got a credit card and developed a taste for fancy scotch. the depression turned around into mania and i got super promiscuous and super drunk rather often. one night i was at my friend amanda’s place visiting and as i left she told me she thought i had a drinking problem. this totally horrified me and my thoughts whirled around in my head a thousand miles an hour. drinking problem?? that’s some serious shit, man. what do i do, where do i go, i can’t be alone right now. i called my friend bill from a pay phone (remember those?) and said i need somewhere to go, i can’t control myself, will you take me in… he very kindly obliged and so i went downtown to his apartment.

i was in what we call a “mixed state,” manic and depressive at the same time, changing by the minute, laughing and crying and laughing and crying… bill had severe OCD and depression himself, and so he got on the phone to his doctor and was asking him advice on how to keep me safe through the night. i was on his futon going completely out of my mind while he patiently watched from the other side of the room, checking in with his doctor every hour or two.

in the morning he took me to the community health clinic that he went to himself. doctor listened to my story and he goes, “sounds like bipolar disorder to me.”

oh. my. god. VALIDATION. the reason i had been searching for, the reason for all my pain, suddenly appeared before me like an angel. oh my god, you take me seriously, i can’t believe it, this is amazing, THANK YOU. i was 23, having gone it alone since i was 14.

the community health place set me up with a doctor — thankfully i’d found a steady job with insurance earlier that year — and sent me away without charging me any money. i went to the doctor as soon as i could and was prescribed depakote, a mood stabilizer, to take along with my prozac.

it wasn’t the perfect drug, but it sorta made a difference. years went by and we tried lots of different drugs to see which one was best — i didn’t really truly stabilize until i moved to massachusetts in 1997 and found a doctor who got just the right mix of antidepressants and mood stabilizers to keep me level and sane.

i’ve had episodes here and there since then, one major one in 2006 when the first doctor i had in texas messed with my effexor dosage so bad it sent me into huge mania (and nearly destroyed my marriage) and then the deepest depression i have ever ever known. had to switch doctors and advocate for myself even though i was at the lowest point i had ever been. but the doctor i changed to has been the best one i’ve ever had, and i can say today that i have never felt better. i take six different drugs; four antidepressants, a mood stabilizer and an antipsychotic. it’s a lot but it works and i’m not about to mess with it.

my life is really pretty normal. been happily married for 16 years. i’m an artist with a part-time barista job. at 43 i’ve become the person i was meant to be and i’m stable and happy. there are ups and downs but they are quickly dealt with and i spend most of my time in a very good place. i am a lucky, lucky person, and thankful for every day that i have.

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