On March 5, 2005, I was diagnosed with Bipolar and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by a staff psychiatrist in my first, and what I hope will be my last, mental hospital. This diagnosis was the beginning of my real life, a life of freedom I never knew existed. Of course, it didn’t feel like it at the time.
The question is how did I end up on a seventy-two hour hold with seven years of sobriety and a seemingly perfect life? Stigma, ignorance, and my overwhelming need for acceptance.
I fell into an unrelenting five-month depression after graduate school. I went on an antidepressant my fifth week of grad school after ending up in the ER with an eight-hour panic attack and was misdiagnosed with Panic Disorder. I’d suffered panic attacks since I was a little girl so this made sense. I planned to take it for the two years of school because it was such a high-stress time and then wean off after graduation. And I did. I weaned off the med as directed by my school psychiatrist and threw myself into my twelve-step program. I also got a new sponsor – one who I knew was anti-medication. I was going to work a perfect program and live happily ever after. What I was really doing was setting myself up for failure by signing on the dotted line to feel inferior and misunderstood.
I graduated in June. By August, I was med-free and by September, I was suicidal. I told myself everyday that I should be happy. I had a husband, a master’s degree, a house, an amazing dog, and I’d just landed a paying directing gig. I had seven-years of recovery from drugs and alcohol and was very active in my twelve-step program. I sponsored women, had a sponsor, and worked my steps everyday, but everyday it got worse, heavier. I cried for hours. I’d call my sponsor sobbing and she’d tell me to pray. To turn it over. To surrender. I tried church, meditating, retreats, spas, massages, more service work, journaling, more step work, and nothing, not one thing, even held it at bay. The blackness was all around me and pushing me under.
There was no reason for me to feel this way. I mean, there were starving people all over the world with real problems, people without running water or electricity - how dare I feel sorry for myself? I was crying in my BMW and wiping my tears with a hand with a big diamond ring on it. I felt like a piece of crap for the feelings I was having, which only made me feel worse. I screamed at myself in my head all day long.
I woke up each morning hoping that this was the day the fog would lift. It always had before, and usually for no reason whatsoever, and I’d return to my happy life by working feverishly to make up for the time lost. But that old energy I counted on to get me through the play, the project, the homework, couldn’t be tapped because it was nowhere to be found.
I went to four to five twelve-step meetings a week where I’d hear people share from the podium that people who took antidepressants weren’t sober. That we all were crazy from alcoholism and that only God could restore us to sanity. But I was meditating twenty minutes a day, doing yoga, praying all day long. And I believed in God.
I was told to try harder. That I must not really have faith. That I was doing something wrong. I needed to stop thinking about myself and throw myself into service even more. So I started doing outreach with a local rehab and took on more sponsees.
And I got sicker and sicker and sicker.
After five unrelenting months of the darkest depression I’d ever experienced, I called my sponsor and told her that I was going to go back on my antidepressant, that I couldn’t take any more pain. She laughed at me on the other end of the phone. Yes, she laughed. I was being dramatic. I was being weak. I needed to do more.
My only option left was suicide.
And then I was in an ambulance, which seemed very dramatic. I didn’t try to kill myself. I had a plan to kill myself and was ready to act on it, but I finally told an old friend about my plan and she actually listened. She didn’t think I was being dramatic. She called the cops.
The staff psychiatrist looked like one of the inmates with wild eyes and Einstein hair. As he described Bipolar Disorder to me, there were some facts of my life I couldn’t deny. My happy attacks, my uncontrollable frolicking-in-fields-of-flowers extravaganzas, my loves of sugar and cocaine and driving really, really fast – maybe these weren’t normal. I thought when humans got happy, we all got overwhelmed with the feeling we may spontaneously combust. I would laugh and laugh and shake and tremble and then end up raging on my nearest victim. I also thought it was normal to work very focused for days or weeks on end until hitting the wall so hard that sleeping for nineteen hours was a necessity for the return of sanity. I thought these were all simply part of the human experience because I had never known life differently. My nervous breakdowns, the drug and alcohol abuse, all of my horrible behavior coupled with overachievement and the ability to do all these things at the same time started to really make sense. I started to make sense.
Doc told me that Lithium would help bring my mania down and the antidepressant would help keep my depression up and that I’d take low doses as to not lose my personality and flat line. That brought me some relief. Losing my personality was such a huge fear, but at this point, I had actually already lost my personality and was fighting to get back to being me – whoever that was. He also told me that panic attacks last fifteen minutes and that my anxiety was from PTSD because the acute periods lasted so long. That was news to me. From 2000 to 2002, I had four-hour long panic attacks everyday. The antidepressant would help with my PTSD, but I really had to start therapy as soon as possible for both of my disorders.
I’d heard people bashing therapy for seven years in the twelve-step meetings I attended and the last thing I wanted to do was discuss my childhood. I felt I’d already worked all of this stuff out because I could talk about it without crying. And I didn’t want to pay someone to dredge up the worst years of my life.
That night, a nurse gave me Lithium in a paper cup and made sure I swallowed it. I was really scared of what the medicine would do to me. And I was convinced that I would no longer be considered sober. The doctor assured me that these meds wouldn’t affect my sobriety because they wouldn’t make me high, they would just make me normal. He told me that many Bipolar people become alcoholics because we were self-medicating our illness. I was very easy to diagnose because I’d been sober so long.
I woke up four hours later to go pee and had my first lucid thought in months. Maybe this diagnosis has nothing to do with my alcoholism. Maybe it’s a separate issue.
The next three weeks, my mom nursed me through the drug stabilization. Her husband made me smoothies every morning and I took long hikes in the woods and read lots of books. It sounds like a great time, like a vacation, but it was torturous. I had terrible nightmares and getting used to the meds was really hard physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Week four, I returned home to my husband and doggie. The adjustment period was rough and it was a long road to rebuild our marriage, but we were both willing to do the work and learned a lot about ourselves and each other in the process.
Week five, I started interviewing therapists through personal referrals. I think it was the fact that he wrote “go to therapy” on a prescription pad and I’ve always done what I’m told got me to go. The second analyst I met with was the one – there was no question in my mind.
I returned to my twelve-step meetings at the urging of my therapist. She told me that sobriety was a precious gift that I should hold onto with dear life. I knew this – my father died as a direct result of his alcoholism. I felt like I’d jump out of my skin knowing people believed me not to be sober because I was taking psychiatric medication, but I sat in those meetings across from that ex-sponsor and continued to show up. I saw my part in the debacle – I placed myself in a position to be harmed. I slowly learned what people think of me wasn’t my business. I also found compassion for those people because the idea that taking a mood-stabilizer and an antidepressant will affect sobriety was clearly ignorance.
A man I’d been friends with for years gave me a long hug and told me that his best friend killed himself with ten years of sobriety because he followed the direction of ignorant people.
For the past five plus years, my therapist has guided me through layer upon layer of my psyche that was terribly damaged by my early childhood. She has helped me do the work that has saved my life, along with my renewed willingness to continue to work for my recovery from alcoholism a day at a time.
It took me six months to find a good psychiatrist. He’s one of the most progressive and fabulous doctors in my universe. I’m forever indebted to his wisdom, knowledge, compassion, and late night and weekend phone calls. The only negative affect Lithium had on me was exhaustion, so we added another antidepressant to the mix about three years ago and the cocktail has kept me stable. That along with therapy, of course.
Once I stabilized, my inner world was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I felt so good. I had peace, finally. And then I got mad. I wasted decades suffering. There was a long grieving process ahead. I continued going to therapy twice a week and twelve-step meetings three times a week. I started speaking a lot in the program, but was directed by my new sponsor not to share about my mental illness because it was an outside issue. I continue to keep my recovery from mental illness and alcoholism separate, but it’s frustrating. I recovered from addiction by sharing my story and helping others and I’ve longed for something like my program for my mental illness. Bipolar is so lonely for me. I know a few other Bipolar people, but they’re untreated so they trigger me. Not to mention that they’re not living in the solution so I can’t be of service to them.
I had a baby almost three months ago, something I thought I’d never be able to do. It’s been really hard. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve been manic. I’m finally stabilizing again. And again I went through it with no one who could relate to what I was going through. A sponsee of mine learned of Bring Change 2 Mind on Extreme Makeover and directed me to this website. I’ve read all of the stories and feel like there’s a whole world of people like me out there. I have hope again. I could write pages and pages more and I want to start advocacy work. I’m thirteen years sober now, but I feel new in my recovery from mental illness, especially since my recent relapse of postpartum mania.
I need people to heal. I think I finally found them. Most importantly, I’ve found hope.