Months ago my friend, Linea Johnson, asked me to write about how it feels to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder so late in life. I was 49 years old when I went to McLean Hospital near Boston and was put on several medications that finally began to bring me some relief from depression and mania.
My immediate reaction to Linea’s request was, “oh, I can write that easily and quickly!” The opposite has been true. When I explored my feelings about how my bipolar behavior kept me from so much, I felt such angst, such sadness, that I became overwhelmed and unable to write about it. But I persevered. These are not questions I hadn’t thought about over the years. They are questions that stay with me.
Linea’s request brought a lot into focus and caused me to realize that I have spent the last seven years learning how to listen to myself. The medications I take are an integral part of self-discovery. I lived many years without medication, then I was put on the wrong medication, and I drank alcohol even with medications on board. Self-discovery began happening when I finally began to feel normal: not manic, not depressed, not anything but me. And sobriety. Then, further down the road, I crashed up against a wall of shame and disappointment. When I began thinking about it I realized how many careers I’d run away from, how many wonderful opportunities I had thrown away because of either being manic on the job or depressed into a stand still. When depressed I usually quit whatever it was I was trying to do, when manic I alienated people with my loud and energetic, inappropriate self.
I walked away from a career in radio because of depression and attempted suicide. I walked away from a possible career in television because I was too afraid that my mood would change and I’d be incapable of doing what the job called for. I didn’t know what I was dealing with, just that I “switched”. I ran away from a career in journalism because I drank so much one night that I didn’t show up the next morning for an important interview, with Rosalyn Carter of all people. I was fired. And yes, several years ago I wrote her an amends.
When I thought about the past, which I have done for years now, I suffered all that I’d done to the people I love, from affairs to pretending I was sick when hung-over or depressed. I would see myself in my mind’s eye, see that I was a nothing, a nobody, a person deserving of contempt. But then, because of medication, I couldn’t run away anymore. I couldn’t lie down with shame. I wasn’t depressed so I became productive. I wasn’t manic and could no longer blame a happy mood or overly long work hours on mania. I was forced to take stock of myself but it became inherently clear that I didn’t know how.
I was lost in a lifetime of conflicting reasons, moods, real sadness and clinical depression. How was I ever going to figure out what had been real sadness, depression, real happiness, mania, and all the vagaries in between? And drinking made it all the more complicated. I remember vividly, when I quit drinking, standing outside my house screaming “I don’t know how to be angry! I don’t know how to be sad!” “I don’t know how to be anything!”
Even now, seven years later, I search my mind and body when I’m feeling up or down. I search for indicators of mania or depression. If the feeling is uncomfortable for too long I call my psychopharmacologist and we do a few tweaks on my medication. I’m usually feeling better in a short while.
I do believe that without living so many years with untreated bipolar disorder I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time with focusing on what’s real and what isn’t. I think all of us who suffer from bipolar disorder wonder when our mood shifts dramatically; we question whether it’s the disability or situational. It’s taken me many years now to figure out those parameters but I’m getting pretty good at it.