My Big Fat Bipolar Life
One thing about losing my husband, it’s made me reflective of the years we spent together. This coming Tuesday would have been our 36th wedding anniversary and I’m prepared to have a difficult day, although I don’t intend to wallow in it. I’m ever-so-slightly hypomanic now that one of my favorite times of the year has arrived, so it might not be as bad as I fear. I hope.
Having had a lot of time to look back over my life in recent months, I’ve also come to realize that despite not being diagnosed until age 53, I’ve had bipolar disorder for most, if not all of my life. I think it started with the night terrors, which came about after a traumatic family crisis when I was only five. They were so frequent that my parents took me to a child psychiatrist, who told them he thought there was something wrong with me; naturally they dismissed it and never took me back. Of course, doctors weren’t diagnosing little kids with what was called manic-depressive illness back then, and perhaps I didn’t have it at that point.
But something was definitely not right, and by age 10 I had developed full-blown depression. I distinctly remember feeling awful about myself and wanting my life to be over; what I don’t recall is how it was triggered, or even if it was triggered by life events. I used to sit out in the cold rain, hoping I’d catch pneumonia and die. Then when I was 13 and my wonderful grandmother died, I fell into a year-long depression that was resistant to all efforts to dispel it. I was trotted around to several doctors and nurse practitioners, who examined me for all sorts of medical problems and found nothing. However, I always came home with medications which I now believe were antidepressants. I remember being jerked around by the different drugs—the blue pills made me sleepy, the yellow ones made me throw up. the green ones made me crazy. Eventually, however, the depression went away on its own and I was back to being a “normal” teenager.
I’ve also realized that many, if not most of my “high” times—when I had abundant energy, felt FABULOUS and talked people’s ears off—were hypomania or mania. I can recall one whole summer when I did nothing but work because I was so keyed-up that I couldn’t relax, let alone sleep; and it seemed like I was always in trouble because my co-workers couldn’t deal with my constant chatter. One supervisor even sent me home for disrupting the workflow with nonstop tales of my childhood through my young-adult years, which is something I don’t remember doing. (It was probably one of my manic blackouts.)
Then there were the times I was so full of rage I made everyone’s lives miserable, including my own. I went after a couple of people who pissed me off with garden tools, and screamed at my husband and children for hours on end. I drank like a fish and behaved even worse when I was hammered. Obviously, I always felt guilty after these incidents, but I couldn’t seem to help myself…or stop.
Years later, when I actually had stopped and been sober for awhile, I happened to pick up a book at Costco that opened the door to the possibility that I might have something more serious than recurring bouts of depression and times of increased energy. It was Jane Pauley’s book Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue, about her life as a newswoman and her experiences with bipolar 2. My sister was also leafing through a copy, then she looked over at me and said “I think you might have that”. I couldn’t disagree. But I promptly dismissed the idea because I didn’t want to take lithium, which was all I knew then about the treatment of bipolar disorder. I didn’t know anyone with the disease either, so I had no frame of reference.
It wasn’t until another 10 or 12 years after this that I was finally forced into a psych eval and received my initial bipolar diagnosis. And you know the rest.