July 31, 2008

Accepting Bipolar: Join the Club

They tell us that one in every hundred people has some form of manic-depressive illness.  My question is where are all these people?  The gays have come out of the closet, those with physical disabilities have the American Disabilities Act, but where the hell are all the basket cases?  Frequently, we're hiding it from the rest of the world. But on the other hand, many people just don't know why, or in some cases notice, a massive change in personality has happened.  To realize you have a mood disorder is tricky, to accept it is a struggle.  My struggle towards acceptance was probably a typical one, presenting challenges that most people with bipolar disorder (BPD) face, but it definitely is worth telling.

I was a pretty normal 12 year old boy; curious, hyper, unattentive, always looking to make a joke.  If you saw me at that age you wouldn't have concerned yourself much with my mental health future.  You would have seen a straight A student who was active in sports, had plenty of friends, was well-spoken to adults, and very independent.  What you wouldn't have seen were the subtle signs and the changes I was going to go through. 

I had a tenuous relationship with my father, he had lived 6 hours away from me since I was 3 and our interactions were limited to holidays and summer.  No matter the circumstances between us, I had a strong bond with my Dad which originated deep in my DNA.  Somewhere around the age of 12 my father and I lost contact, the particulars are rather unimportant, but what was important was the effect this had on me.  I thought I was strong and would be ok, so what if my father didn't want me, I didn't need his approval to feel good about myself.  But somewhere deep in my brain, forged through generations of fathers and sons, a disturbance happened.  Abandonment became my issue, one that follows me around to this day.  The knowledge that someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally has rejected you weighs heavily on the mind.  A boy searching for a father's love and coming to terms with his sexuality and transition into adulthood is not a pretty sight.

The changes weren't noticeable right away, the evolution towards recognizable bipolar disorder was a slow process which seemed to keep encroaching deeper and deeper into my life.  And although the trajectory of my life was changing I was blind to the process.  One person who did notice a change in me was my mother.  By age 17 she had seen enough of the inflated self-importance, high irratibility, striking independence, and disregard for consequences to understand that something was going on.  She took me to a psychologist who I met a total of one time.  As I walked out of the office I decided I would never see a mental health professional again.  I felt attacked, scared, insecure, and exposed.  How could this person observe me for one hour and pin me into this group of highly affected people?  Why didn't anyone else say anything?  The truth is that they either couldn't see it or if they could were scared to approach me.  How is it that you tell a friend/relative/co-worker that they need mental help without them feeling betrayed and judged?  Even having gone through the process I don't know that I can tell you a good way to go about it.  But regardless of my feelings about that meeting with the psychologist I walked away with a very important step, realization.

I may have fought it and not wanted to believe it, but I realized after a time that maybe the psychologist was right, everything I could put my hands on about bipolar disorder seemed to be a reading of my biography and inner thoughts.  But this didn't precipitate me doing anything about my disorder.  As with many people diagnosed with a mental health issue I thought I could control the effects on my own.  I simply would not accept that my brain did not function correctly in certain situations.  This was magnified by awareness of how intelligent I was.  I hate to blow my own horn, but I did very well in school and stood out in all subjects, competed for the top of my class, and was active outside the classroom.  How was it that the brain which breezed me through calculus had a problem?  Wouldn't I be a little dumber if my brain had a malfunction?  The answer was obviously no, and I learned over time that intelligence and mental health do not follow along the same path, many of the greatest thinkers of our time dealt with severe mental health issues.

So I began to believe that I had bipolar disorder at the age of 18, but still had not come to accept it.  This started to change my freshman year of college.  Two aspects of college life brough about a dramatic change in my bipolar disorder; freedom of schedule, and the escalation of relationships outside the boundaries of parents.  Suffice to say that my freshman year was a roller coaster in which I balanced the stressors of college life but also those of relationships.  I became very serious with a girl that lived in my dorm which brought me to the heights of ecstasy, a placed I relished and thrived in.  When things started to sour though I would deny and pretend everything was going to be ok just to get back to that mania, a short shot of that drug.  Eventually that plan won't work in a relationship and of course it failed.  Things got hard and the stress for both of us was continually mounting. 

One morning I sat on the fountain that had become my morning retreat, waiting for the bus to arrive so I could start my day of classes.  Suddenly an impressively clear thought crossed mine, "just walk out in the front of the bus, simple solution."  This image has stuck with me for over 7 years, and not just the vagaries.  I was wearing a yellow Brisbane rugby shirt as well as the Ralph Lauren jeans I hated, Ocean Pacific sandles were firmly glued to my feet and in my hand a blue folder with my research articles for my class.  The bus driver had very short blonde hair, a girl I hadn't seen drive the bus before, the number 7 seemed to be dominated by male drivers (possibly due to the fact it was the busiest busline and sometimes it became a little disorderly), she had on her 2001 Maroon Out shirt and a smile that doesn't belong on someone at work. 

Two people sat next to me on the fountain, regulars at the fountain who shared the same class with me.  I had introduced myself to them a week earlier which suddenly weighed heavily on my conscience.  If I step out in front of this bus these two people are going to see someone they know and had met commit the ultimate of mistakes.  Perhaps if I hadn't spoken with them earlier that apprehension to hurt those around me would have never stopped me.  I would have simply been a troubled stranger who they were unconnected to and could go on about there lives without wondering what they did or didn't do that caused my rash decision making.  As it was I stood up and froze, suddenly acutely aware of the thoughts running through my head.  An immediate rush of adrenaline shot through my body, my senses heightened, a light coat of perspiration seeped onto my skin and the urge to run came over me. 

My dorm was only 50 yards away but it seemed like an eternity, by the time I reached the door my excitement had turned into nausea.  Although the story ends with me vomiting in my bathroom and calling my girlfriend it could have easily ended with me flattened on the pavement and having the coroner visit a place I'm sure he would rather avoid.  I was lucky the way it turned out, a single thought had scared me, almost to death.  Acceptance became very much easier after that, a simple turning point with profound and eternal consequences convinced me that something needed to be done.

The next time I went to the psychiatrist I didn't feel attacked or insecure, but the feelings of being exposed and scared were still there.  But this was enough to establish a relationship with the psychiatrist and eventually my negative feelings towards the visits evaporated.  I learned a little then but was still rather arrogant about my situation.  My father came back into my life and I allowed this lull in tension to catch me off guard, and when he left again I had not prepared myself for a shock like that.  The depressive and manic issues I dealt with through that situation claimed another one of my relationships as I again buried myself deep in denial, far away from the acceptance that had brought me such progress.

Now the story is different, after sacrificing two different relationships due to my inability to accept my disorder I am facing it full force.  The pain of losing those close to you far exceeds that of personal deficiency.  Admitting and accepting those things that come with a mental health issue is a painful experience that leaves one feeling alone, stigmatized and exposed.  But this is a far cry from the pain of losing family, friends and significant others because you're scared to face your own problems.

So come on, join the club, I promise there are a few of us here that you wouldn't expect.  The club offers you peace for what is by definition an unpeaceful existence, but you have to want to join, you need to accept what qualifies you entry into the club.  Doing that is the only way you'll solve all of those other problems you have running through your mind.

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