Today marks the fifth anniversary of my bipolar diagnosis. In some ways it seems like yesterday, while at the same time it’s like it happened half a lifetime ago.
I’ll never forget how I felt when Dr. Awesomesauce pronounced the words that changed my life forever. “I’m diagnosing you with bipolar disorder not otherwise specified,” he said, clearly wishing he didn’t have to. “We need to talk about getting you on some meds.” I thought about it for a minute and then asked what that meant. Even as an RN, I knew little about bipolar at the time and thought there were only two types of the disorder, so this diagnosis was confusing to say the least.
“It means that you have what looks like bipolar, but we don’t know yet what kind it is,” he told me. “Depending on what I see in the next couple of visits, I may change your diagnosis back to major depression. We’ll see.”
When I left the office that day, I felt like I had a big banner plastered across my forehead that labeled me as MENTALLY ILL. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t suspected it, but to have it confirmed by a well-qualified mental health professional was something else entirely. I went home and told my family, who were not surprised in the least, and proceeded to research the condition. I never realized there was so much information out there, and how little I really knew about mental illness in general. Dr. Google was my best friend; I read everything I could get my hands on and recognized myself in almost all of it.
My first medication was Lamictal. It took what seemed like an awful long time before my depression lifted, but as the dose went up I started feeling better. Then summer came, and with it my first full-blown manic episode. One day I sashayed into Dr. A’s office wearing a bright turquoise outfit and blue eyeshadow, and one look at me made the diagnosis official. He still didn’t want to speculate as to what kind of bipolar I had, but the fact that I had it was never again called into question.
Now, five years, six medications, four mental healthcare providers and an equal number of bipolar 1 diagnoses later, I’ve come to terms with the illness, even if I’ve never become comfortable with the idea of having it. For the longest time I treated it as if it were an alien that lived in the house with me and ate my food; I mistakenly thought I could make it behave if I distanced myself from it. Now I give it the respect it deserves, and I can usually discern what is me from what is the disease.
Yes, I’ve learned a great deal in the past five years. Back then I was still somewhat emotionally immature; I’ve grown up a lot. Thanks to medications, I’m also mellower than I ever was in my former life; I rarely get worked up over insignificant things and I’ve learned how to pick my battles. There are no more screaming fits, no more breaking things or slamming full plates of food against the kitchen wall. And I’ve developed a deeper compassion for other mentally ill people that I wish I’d had when I was nursing.
I’m glad it’s not five years ago today. I know now that this is a lifelong illness, and as someone much wiser than I once said, I’ll die with it but I refuse to die from it.
It’s all good. 🙂
Spring hasn’t sprung yet, but I’m out of that mild depression I’ve battled for much of the winter. I woke up the other morning with a sunny disposition, and I’ve done so ever since. I still stay up too late and sleep in almost every day, but otherwise I’m in good shape. Not even the rain is bothering me. I just dream of the sunnier and warmer days to come, and look forward to the change to Daylight Saving Time next weekend. Longer days and shorter nights! Having some energy again! Flowers in the yard! Yay!!
This is why I love this time of year. On the surface, the only sign of spring is a few scattered daffodils, but soon there will be tulips and cherry blossoms. It’s still cold and snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but change is in the air and even with the cloudy skies, there is promise in the occasional sunbreak. I haven’t even been using my HappyLight. I don’t need it now. Dr. Goodenough said to back off on it when I felt I was OK without it, but I’ll return to using it if the winter blues attack me again.
In the meantime, the season of Lent is upon us, and this year rather than give up sweets or doing some other form of penance, I vowed that I would attend Mass every Sunday and go to Confession at least once. So what did I do this morning but oversleep! I have to get up around 9 to go to the 11:00 Mass, and even though I set my alarm I must’ve turned it off and promptly fallen asleep again. I didn’t wake up until 10, which is when I have to leave. I’m going to Hell for sure if I don’t get my act together and do right by the Lord, who has given me so much.
Speaking of spiritual matters, I’ve been talking to Will a lot lately. I feel his presence so closely sometimes that I half-expect to see him sitting in his chair next to the sofa, wearing the T-shirt he bought in Jamaica and pajama bottoms. Toward the end he wore those PJs more often than jeans, and that was OK. But in my dreams, he always looks happy and healthy, and it comforts me to think he really is.
Thinking about Will just made me recall something from the early years of our marriage. He went through a phase where he bought me a card almost every day and wrote some pretty suggestive things in them, reminding me of how sexy he thought I was. Looking back, I realize how hard he worked to make me feel desirable, because my self-esteem was basically non-existent and I couldn’t understand why he loved me so much. It took me some ten years of marriage to recognize the unconditional nature of his love, and even longer to accept it. Still, he persisted until he’d convinced me that I deserved love, and I was never the same again.
But even with all this reminiscing, my grief is slightly less acute than it was, probably because I’m feeling good overall and that makes me less afraid to experience it. I can sometimes get through a day without crying, or at least feeling like it. Will’s birthday was rough, to be sure, but Ethan and Clark kept me distracted all day and I got through it. They’re really good at it, and they seem to know exactly when I need help the most. I think Ethan is more like his dad than he realizes, and his husband is right there with him. I’m so glad they took us in when they did, and that I’m not living on my own. I think my story would be a lot different if I were.
Oh, how funny—I was just watching the dogs and the little one bonked her head on the top of the doggie door on her way out. She’s such a spaz—she’s a year old but still acts like a puppy, chasing the other dogs all around and playing with anything she can get her paws on, including people and plastic bags. She uses my belly as a launch pad and is always trying to lick my face. I don’t let her because she eats turds. (I wish we could break her of that habit…yuck.)
Well, I guess I’ve rambled enough for one day. Sometimes several blog posts come to me all at once and they end up being blended into one that may or may not make a lot of sense. I hope this one does. Happy (almost) Spring!
Have I ever told you how much I hate winter?
Oh, it has a few charms, like the rare snowfall that sticks around for a day or two and then melts. This year, however, we’re having a long, cold, snowy, wet winter and the perpetually grey skies over our Pacific Northwest home make it hard for my HappyLight to keep up. I want sun. I want warmth. I want it to be 80+ freaking degrees every day. And sometimes I wonder why on earth Will and I moved up here from sunny Southern California.
Then I remember that we were poor as church-mice and had no opportunities to better our lot in life there, so we packed up everything we owned (which fit into an 11-foot U-Haul truck) and moved to a place we’d never been to live among people we’d never met. I look back at that time, now half a lifetime ago, and wonder how we’d had the guts to do it. Neither of us had much of a sense of adventure, but this was one we never regretted…except for missing the sunshine we’d taken for granted.
This time of year is the worst. I was over winter two months ago, and of course spring is usually an extension of it except for warmer temperatures and budding leaves on the trees. I keep watching for clues that portend a change in seasons, but of course it’s only late February and as cold as it’s been this year, I don’t expect to see them for weeks yet.
Obviously, this doesn’t do my mood a bit of good. I’m not actually depressed as of this moment—the artificial light is helpful—but I wake up every morning wishing it were summer and being resentful that it isn’t. I curse the rain and the cloudy skies, and picture myself working in the garden in front of the house. I think ahead to our family’s next trip, and fantasize about sunning myself on a beautiful Caribbean beach and frolicking in 80-degree temps on Christmas Day at Disney World. I peruse my Woman Within catalogs and dream of wearing shorts and T-shirts instead of sweats and thermals.
Speaking of sweats and thermals, I am also sick of being cold. Despite my abundance of adipose tissue, I’m always cold no matter what I wear, and it’s expensive to keep me warm—my entire rent check went toward paying the electric bill. I get chilled in October and don’t thaw out until June. There doesn’t seem to be anything to be done about it; I’ve had my thyroid checked and it’s fine, so all I can do is wear layers and use my electric blanket, which Will got me a year ago and is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
So I’m looking forward to better days, because winter WILL end and life will begin again. The leaves will return to the trees, flowers will bloom, and birds will sing once more. I can’t wait. How about you?
I’m a bit bored today, so I thought I’d pass it along and give you all an update on how I’m doing.
I’m saddened by the loss of a good friend from church. He was my reading partner for two years, and he and Will were also friends as they were both battling cancer. This man didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and he had a lovely family. I feel so bad for his wife, who is at least a decade younger than I, because I know what she’s going through and there’s nothing I can do other than to be there for her if she wants me. It feels so weird to suddenly not be the newest widow on the block.
But I have yet to go through more “firsts”, and the next one is Will’s birthday on the 26th. I’ve decided to make it a day of celebration of his life, complete with chocolate cake. It’s for the same reason I asked everyone not to wear black at his funeral…he wouldn’t have wanted us to go around moping and looking somber.
I try hard not to be glum. Some days are better than others, and I make the most of them. On Valentine’s Day, Ethan and Clark took Shelley and me to the coast for the day, and I enjoyed that as much as I possibly could. Will loved the ocean as much as I do, and we used to walk on the beach and prowl the antique stores before stopping at the candy shop to pick up some saltwater taffy. Our kids wouldn’t let us come home without it. Of course I couldn’t help reminiscing about our happy times over there, and thankfully the rest of the family allowed it.
It’s not all gloom and doom, however. I think all I’ll need is a few days of sunshine and the appearance of daffodils and I’ll be in a better place. A LOT better. I can feel the faint stirrings of hypomania deep below the protective layer of medications, and it won’t take more than a breath of spring to bring it up to the surface. I think using my light for 45 minutes rather than 30 is making a difference. I don’t want to back off on it because I’m still slightly depressed, but if I start getting manic I hope I’ll have the wisdom to do so. (Historically, I haven’t been so good about that, as I love my hypo and miss it terribly. But it has a way of turning on me and progressing to mania, which must be avoided at all costs.) I guess Dr. Goodenough is right about cycling even when I’m not acutely ill.
Yes, you could say I’m a little mixed-up. Nothing to worry about, I’ve been here before and it’s nowhere near as ugly or confusing as the actual mixed episodes I’ve had in the past. When I’m sitting on the bathroom floor at 2 AM, scrubbing the tiles and bawling my head off, THAT’S when to worry.
It’s all good. How are you doing?
I’ve never really liked Valentine’s Day.
I’ve long suspected that it’s a fake holiday invented to fatten the wallets of the CEOs of the chocolate and florist industries, so I didn’t make a big deal out of it. Will, on the other hand, always bought me a card and roses, and in good years we went out for dinner and a movie. Now that he’s gone and my first Valentine’s Day without him is tomorrow, I find myself feeling nostalgic for it even though there’s no one to bring me flowers anymore. Why didn’t I appreciate it when I had it?
I miss romance. There wasn’t a whole lot of it towards the end of Will’s life—we were too busy battling the cancer juggernaut—but for the vast majority of our marriage there were thousands of little moments, like when he’d brush by me in the kitchen and kiss me on the back of the neck for no reason. Or bring me a candy bar just because he thought I needed one. Or walk through the shopping mall holding my hand.
It’s been seven months today since he passed. In some ways it’s like it happened yesterday, but in other ways it’s as if I’ve lived the longer part of my life since then. Naturally, the subject of relationships comes up between me and Clark’s mother Shelley every now and again, and we are both in agreement that we don’t want to look for another one. We both had the greatest husbands on earth—how do you top that?? Besides, I’ve got several strikes against me: who would want someone as old and fat as I am? What’s more, who would want to be with a bipolar person? That would be a deal-breaker for me if I were a guy. And even if I did want a relationship someday, I don’t think I could go through losing another one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here; I have no intention whatsoever of getting into the dating scene. I don’t even know what the dating scene really is. So I will probably spend all future Valentine’s Days alone, and as bad as it hurts right now, I know I’ll eventually make peace with it. Ethan and Clark are taking us out to the casino buffet tomorrow night, which is a sweet gesture as they are giving up their private V-Day (and one of Ethan’s rare nights off) to get us out of the house. Tomorrow is also Shelley’s wedding anniversary, so this means a lot to both of us. There’s nothing better than family!
OK, I’ll admit it: my mood has taken a dip. The mild mixed episode I had last month has settled into a moderate depression, and now I’m utterly lacking in motivation. It’s not bad as depressions go; I’m able to enjoy things and people given the opportunity, and I can comfort myself with the fact that this will pass. There are no suicidal thoughts, no feeling of hopelessness or worthlessness. I have plenty to live for, family most of all, and of course there’s that trip in December to look forward to. I’m just blue.
Dr. Goodenough says it’s classic seasonal depression, and wants me to use my light for 45 minutes in the morning now rather than 30. He is a wee bit concerned that it might turn me around to the point where I become hypo/manic, but is giving me the discretion to back it off if I do. (Well hell, I could use a dose of mania right now, but that’s no more acceptable than depression and I know it.) He also wants me to get up just a little earlier in the mornings to take full advantage of my artificial sunlight, but thank God he’s understanding about my night-owl nature. I was never meant to be a day person, but staying up till two or three in the morning and then sleeping fitfully until 11 is ridiculous.
It’s amazing how much ground Dr. G and I can cover in a half-hour session. We go over meds, but most of the time is spent asking and answering questions. He asks very good ones—some of which I really have to think about—and listens to me before adding his ideas. (Yes, I know psychiatrists are supposed to do that.) I’ve learned things from him too, like today when we talked about thyroid testing and how the measurement of thyroid hormone can be normal medically, but for psychiatric purposes the range is a lot narrower. I may even have to go on thyroid medicine although my level is within normal limits. Who knew?
We’re back to monthly appointments again. I was able to go six weeks before, but he’s going to watch me a little more closely since I’m a bit unstable. That is comforting in its own way. He has the same theory as I do about medications: they mask the symptoms, but I’m still cycling even if I don’t feel it. Then of course I have grief to deal with on top of my moods, though I don’t know if grief complicates depression or if depression complicates grief.
I guess it’s a little of both. I had a down-and-dirty sob-fest last night in which I cried till I thought I was going to throw up; I was by myself, thank goodness, and I just let it all hang out. I miss Will so much it physically hurts, and apparently the only way I can express it adequately is in tears. I still hate crying, but it must’ve done me good, because I feel somewhat better today. My grief counselor, Ginny, is coming on Friday and I’ve got a lot to tell her…strangely enough, that undignified episode was something of a breakthrough. I realized that although I have a long way to go before I’m through the worst of it, I am healing. And that is encouraging.
I was looking back over my blog posts from a year ago, and I could have written those entries today. It was the same setup—winter was in full swing, and so were my moods. Like Dr. G said, it’s classic SAD and I can probably look forward to some elevation once the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
I can’t wait. 🙂
I’m a little scattered and screw-loosey again. Up and down, up and down, sometimes in the same day. It’s not as bad as it was a few weeks ago, and I’m able to hide it for the most part, but I’ve got to watch it lest it turn on me and become a full-blown mixed episode. Those are hell on Earth and if I never have another one, it’ll still be too soon.
I’ve been thinking about Will a lot lately, and doing quite a bit of crying even when the memories are sweet or funny. The feeling of profound loss is pervasive and haunts me in my dreams as well as during my waking hours. All the dreams in which he makes an appearance are good ones—he always looks healthy and happy—but then I wake up and see the empty recliner next to mine, and it all comes rushing back. Especially that last night, when he suffered so much before we got him to the hospice house. In my mind’s eye I still see him as he lay comatose; hear the priest giving him the last rites; watch him slip away right before my eyes.
Thank God I have a wonderful grief counselor from hospice. They give you 13 months of aftercare, and I decided early on to take advantage of their services. My counselor is named “Ginny”, and she’s better than a therapist (she makes home visits too). She knows how to elicit gut-level feelings without manipulating, and we have grown quite fond of each other during the past few months. On this most recent visit, I was encouraged to share memories of my marriage—how we met, what the early years were like, and so on. I felt a lot better after that. She calls me every other week or so, and we make arrangements for the next session. She also reads this blog, so if you’re out there, Ginny, thank you for everything!
On a happier note, I’m getting excited about the next vacation even though it’s still 10 1/2 months away. Especially the Disney World part. My son-in-law is a HUGE Mickey Mouse fan, and his enthusiasm and love for all things Disney is infectious. We’re going to be there on Christmas Day, and it’s supposed to be full of lights, fireworks, and amazing decorations…to say nothing of what else the park has to offer.
This boggles my mind. I’ve been to Disneyland, but never Disney World, which Clark says is so full of wonders that it totally eclipses the California version. (He’s been to both parks, so he knows.) I hope I’ll be up to the challenge, because we’re going to be there for seven days after the cruise and I imagine I’ll be exhausted at least some of the time. The cruise itself is eight days and goes to the southern part of the Caribbean, where islands such as Curacao, Grand Turk, La Romana and Aruba await. I’ve never even heard of three of those islands, but I’m sure I’ll have a good time exploring them…or at least shopping and dipping my toes in the sea. In December.
I just went back over this post to polish it and make it presentable for publication (how do you like that bit of alliteration?), and gosh, I really AM all over the map. Literally. Oh well, this too shall pass, and if it doesn’t I’ve got an appointment with Dr. Goodenough next week. It’s all good.