“How was the class trip to the aquarium?” asked my husband Steve at dinner that night. “The bus ride was crappy, with all the loudmouthed kids screaming their freaking heads off,” I replied, casually. “But when we got to Baltimore it was better. I was in a small group with one of the dads, and at least he kept his goddamned mouth shut.”
I still remember the variety of reactions around the table. Julie, my fifth grader, who had actually been there with me, looked scared. High schooler PJ barely glanced up from his plate. Our Swiss exchange student, Maurus, looked puzzled. (A lot of things about the US puzzled him. Maybe he thought all American moms swore like sailors.) Steve looked sad, and resigned. Throughout the rest of the meal, my frequent comments were shot through with profanity and negativity—in other words, the new normal for me.
A year ago, I never, EVER cursed, especially not in front of my children. I was such a prude that I blushed at even PG-rated love scenes in movies. I could get angry–I am Irish, after all–but my anger was never loud, and it never lasted. I had always been a high energy type, and at times over the decades I’d had stretches of feeling unusually revved up, but never remotely like this. If you asked my family to describe me, you’d have heard about a warm, loving wife and mother with a strong sense of loyalty and a good sense of humor. I was not impulsive, nor did I spend any money on myself, wearing things until they fell apart. But now, things were… different.
Cutting through Bloomingdale’s on the way to the mall parking lot, I passed the shoe department and of course had to stop. There was a pair of four inch heels in a wild floral pattern, wildly beyond my budget. So of course I had to try them on! I swiped my credit card and they were mine. As I drove home, I planned my stealthy entrance to the house. How could I spirit the Bloomie’s bag upstairs without being noticed? As luck would have it, everyone was out, so I was able to stash the shoebox deep in my closet. I really couldn’t risk Steve finding out that I had spent $180 on footwear (third pair this month). There would be time to explain things when the American Express bill came in.
Our Evan was at the Naval Academy, and played keyboard in a band. One Saturday morning he called, and mentioned that their drummer couldn’t make a gig they had scheduled that night in DC. He didn’t expect me to solve the problem, but I tried to anyway. It was so simple! Maurus played the drums! I would just drive to Annapolis so they could rehearse, then to Washington for the concert, then drive home! It would only be a seven hour round trip! I recall the concern in Evan’s voice as I breathlessly explained my genius plan. “Mom? Mom!” he interrupted. “That’s crazy. You can’t do that. We’ll figure it out.” “But—no!” I shouted, suddenly in tears. “Let me do this for you. Please! I can do this!” Back and forth we went, until Evan finally wore me down and I agreed not to go. I hung up, shaking with emotion and a rush of adrenaline.
It took a year for me to find the courage to google “bipolar disorder.” I had seen a glossy ad for Abilify in a magazine, but I didn’t have the heart to do more than skim it. Later that day, I finally did the computer search. The results were so quick and so clear. True to form (I never do things halfway), I had every single symptom. Months before, I had realized something was different, and wrong, but I believed I could handle it by myself. Now, with my moods cycling closer and closer together, I was not so sure.
On some level, I knew I needed professional help, but there was a lot at risk. Was it worth possibly losing my job at church if anyone found out? Mind you, I was behaving very erratically at work, almost daily closing my office door to cry. I had also impulsively decided to take forty teenagers on a summer mission trip to Alaska. But I had convinced myself that no one had a clue that I was troubled.
My friends, like my family, had tip-toed around me for quite a while, but one afternoon I was having tea with a good friend, and she broached the subject of my mental health, gently suggesting that I talk with a therapist she knew. I barely concealed my anger, and left quickly. Once in my front door, I launched a tirade: Everyone has issues! How dare she hint that my issues might be impacting my life? Some friend she is!
But I held onto the therapist’s phone number, and, after much deliberation, I called. I left a message saying there was no hurry, she could call me back whenever. To my amazement, she returned the call within an hour, saying that the sound of my voice had told her it was an emergency. And at that point, I guess it was.
What is it like, the minute you first swallow something that you know will alter your brain chemistry? SO scary. If we are what we think and feel, would I lose myself by taking meds? There was a panicked backpedaling in my head: It’s not too late! I’m not that bad off! At my first appointment, the therapist sent me to a psychiatrist, and I was prescribed Lithium. Within the week, the side effects became apparent. I was sweaty, and dizzy, and thirsty. I would line up multiple water bottles on my bedside table each night and guzzle my way through every one.
After a couple of months with no improvement, I started taking Seroquel. Then came what I call the Seroquel Summer, and the ill-advised Alaska mission trip. Turns out nineteen hours of sunlight every day really does a number on your circadian rhythms. And the less sleep I got, the more manic AND depressed I felt. Thank God we had other great chaperones along, because I was still weeping several times a day, talking a mile a minute and not really paying very much attention to my charges.
Seroquel’s side effects were very upsetting. One night I got out of bed and walked into a wall. Another night, I almost drank a lit candle in a glass container. I poured my angst into writing, a series of poems about the terribly sad life I was now living. I wrote a poem about my iPod, blasting music into my ears so that I didn’t have to talk to people, and another poem about my overflowing makeup drawer, how I daily painted my anguish on my face with globs of mascara and lipstick. The poetry helped some, but what I wrote scared me.
When I complained about my medication, the psychiatrist upped my dose, saying that the worst of the side effects would level off. But they didn’t. And I was rapidly gaining weight. The worst part was the feeling that no one was listening to me.
At that point, I needed to part company with this treatment team. I heard about a very well-regarded psychiatrist who did both: meds and talk therapy. So again I found myself on a couch in an office, telling my strange tale. I was still so uncomfortable sharing my illness with someone new. Even though I knew it was his job to not be shocked, I shocked myself when I remembered my risky, addictive, unsteady behavior.
But then, something miraculous happened. One morning I woke up without regret for what I had said or done the day before—because I hadn’t said or done anything TO regret. One amazing morning, I realized my new meds (Wellbutrin and—yes—Abilify) were working.
Here were the side effects: I stopped crying, completely. I felt calm, and centered and even, at moments, happy. I cleaned up my language. The extra weight fell off. Eventually, I was able to go from weekly hour-long therapy appointments, to a twice-yearly, twenty minute check-in.
Nine years down the road, the pills are still working for me. Oh, I’ve had some ups and downs for sure.
About a year ago, I was feeling particularly good, and decided I no longer needed to take any meds. Besides, I kind of missed my mania, because I could accomplish so very much. For the first week I noticed no change. But then came the tears, and the trembling, and the bottomless blues. No euphoria, no wild productivity—just profound sadness. It wasn’t long before I went back to the doctor, and back on my meds. I am grateful he didn’t berate me for my disastrous decision—I was blaming myself enough. I was afraid that, having gone off them so abruptly, the Wellbutrin and Abilify would no longer affect me. What had I done?
Luckily, I soon stabilized, and now I know enough to never, ever do that again. I will probably need meds for the rest of my life, and you know what? I’ve made my peace with that. Every morning I take my pills with gratitude for all the good they do me.
I decided to go public with my condition, because I was so tired of the way mental illness was misunderstood. I wrote a letter to my church, then took a deep breath. Thankfully, the only comments I have ever heard have been loving and supportive. Many people have shared that they, or someone they love, are bipolar too. Right now, several of our young people at church are struggling with mental health issues, and we are forming a support group for their parents. I am hopeful that, because I am honest, they will feel freer to talk about what their children (and they) are going through.
I know that I have not fully recovered, and probably never will. There are still rough days when I am not sure I am even in recovery. But what I do know is this: I am in discovery. I have discovered that “normal” people can fall apart very quickly. I have discovered that putting me back together the way I used to be is impossible. I can never go back to being who I was before I got sick. I have lived through too much for that. It is still hard to talk with my children about my disease, but it is vital that I do share how I’m feeling with them. I cannot be the mom they thought they knew so well, but I am the best mom I know how to be, and to my greatest relief, that seems to be good enough for them. I am afraid they may suffer like this someday. Unfortunately, this runs in my family, but I am discovering that we can deal with it, together.
Most importantly, I have discovered that the people who are closest to me—Steve, my kids, my sister, my friends—did not abandon me. Not even when I was spending money my family didn’t have. Not even when I shrieked at them and called them names. Even when I purposely tried to push them away, they didn’t go. Without their steadfast love and support, I truly don’t know where I would be today.
Diagnosis or not, I have come to realize that there is no “normal” person. We all have our issues; we are all constantly in recovery—and discovery. So let’s be gentle with another; and kind. And, when we fall apart, which we all sometimes do, let’s help put each other back together again.