For as long as I can remember, most of my days were filled with an overwhelming sense of dread and hopelessness. I don’t ever remember being happy. The prospect of doing my homework, playing with friends, going to a birthday party or having dinner with my in-laws was just too overwhelming to bear. I remember obsessing over what it would be like to cease to exist. I never considered suicide but I really couldn’t see a reason to live. Living just wasn’t fun. It was, in fact, miserable. I had no idea life wasn’t like this for everyone.
When I was 16 I discovered a way to ease that sense of dread. Shots of vodka right out of the bottle and having sex with lots of boys allowed me a bit of oblivion. By college I was a full-blown alcoholic, drinking seven nights a week. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to be up all night, doing cocaine, and then standing at the convenience store door in the morning, waiting for it to open so that I could buy beer. One night I was run over by my own car and ended up in the hospital. I was very lucky that I never ended up in jail.
No one knew that I was suffering, not even me. I had lots of friends and a great job. I presented a strong face to the world every day. I met a man, got married and had kids and I stopped drinking. Instead of getting drunk I got involved in every school activity I could, taking a leadership role in most of them. Life was really busy. Just the way I liked it. No time to think. And then one day I found myself in a closet, banging my head against the wall. I had no idea what was happening to me.
I called a friend who came and scooped me up off the floor and took me to see a psychiatrist. It took that doctor approximately 20 minutes to diagnose me with bipolar II disorder. I went home and called my mother.
She said two things:
- Well that explains why I never knew who was coming down the stairs in the morning.
- Your grandfather and great grandfather were both bipolar. Your great grandfather was institutionalized for 40 years and your grandfather was lobotomized and died of an epileptic fit at 50.
For me it was a huge relief to have a name for what I was feeling. I set out to learn everything that I could about my condition. I also shared with my friends and family what I had discovered. Their love and support and my newfound understanding of what had caused my suffering allowed me to accept who I was and move forward with my life.
To help me deal with my disorder my doctor put me on two medications, an anti-psychotic lp me sleep and a mood stabilizer to prevent my mood swings. For the first time in my life I wasn’t depressed. They changed my life, those meds.
Ironically while people are very accepting of my diagnosis, many people are not accepting of the fact that I take mood-altering drugs. They have no problem with my thyroid meds but they don’t accept my mood stabilizers. They ask me why I just can’t deal with my emotions, why I can’t just snap out of it. For me, my meds serve to raise the bottom of the pool so I can just touch my toes and not drown. They allow me to use my coping skills to live with this disorder.
In my life now I make it a priority to take care of myself. I do yoga, I hike, I have a healthy diet and I get plenty of sleep. I have a plan in place, created when I was well, for when I get manic or depressed. I tell someone I am in crisis and then make a plan to do what I need to do to get through the episode. Puzzles, hiking, TV or a few days’ nap works for me. I don’t always know when an episode will hit so being prepared is key to getting through it. Also, knowing that family and friends are nearby if needed gives me a safety net.
Today I see myself as living in recovery. I am not cured but neither am I ruled by my disease. Over the last three years I survived an ugly divorce and cared for my mother during her slow death from pancreatic cancer. I moved across country, bought a house and successfully guided my kids through those turbulent teenage years. I started a new career as a life coach, one that allows me to help other people. Most importantly, for me, I volunteer at NAMI. I am proud of the way I was and am able to stay strong for myself and for those who need me. And after years of struggle I am so glad to finally be able to give back.