Being A Bipolar Husband, Father, And CEO

By Doug Colbeth

I picked this title because the first thing you do after your acceptance of a bipolar condition is to focus on your own treatment (not others). However, after you have developed your own program for managing your condition, it is very worthwhile to reflect on those three critical types of relationships in life. I was not diagnosed until my thirties, but looking back there were clear cut signs of both bipolar disorder and addiction issues as far back as my early teens. In fact, one of my first memories was using alcohol to slow down (numb) a racing mind at the age of twelve. Drinking beer at age twelve in a working class Long Island neighborhood was not rare. In addition, there was no stigma for drinking at age twelve which is both ironic and problematic. In 1967 the topic of bipolar disorder was almost non-existent with the exception of medical professionals.

In my late thirties I was starting to develop better tools and methods for managing my bipolar condition. It was at this point, I began thinking more about making adjustments in my personal and work relationships realizing bipolar disorder is a serious health issue. Developing better relationships with my family, friends, and co-workers has been a journey – and not a quick fix. I often referred to having a “Nascar Race” in my mind – and just finding ways to cope with this challenge took a lot of attention and energy. While this “Nascar Race” may have helped me deal with chaos better than most, I don’t know anyone who would want this symptom for extended periods of time. In addition, the Nascar Race symptom can often help create unnecessary and harmful chaos for those around you.

My first bipolar medication was a bad one. It was alcohol (beer) because that was a very acceptable treatment program for a young male living on Long Island in the 1960’s. The numbness created by consuming large amounts of beer slowed my racing mind down, but it lead to many bad outcomes which are too many to list. As a young husband neither my bipolar or addiction conditions were addressed – which thankfully I had a chance to correct later on in our marriage. I was also a young father – so our children in their youngest years did not see the best of me. I like to say we were able to keep things together with “bailing wire” – but it wasn’t until the last two decades where my family has gotten to experience a better husband and father. Please don’t ask them – they may say only the last decade!

My work relationships have to be bifurcated into two segments. My twenties when I was an employee, and last twenty five years where I was a hi-tech CEO. My bipolar and alcohol abuse conditions had a negative impact at work, but I did perform well enough – often enough. I did experience what I call a major “brown out” in my late twenties, where I missed 90 days of work. The mania was so prolonged I essentially suffered from severe exhaustion. This lead to many other health conditions, not the least of which were panic attacks and other stress related conditions.

At the age of 35 I became a CEO of a start up software company – Spyglass. While I was starting to manage my bipolar condition to a small degree, I was not very far along. I am sure employees got to witness in full living color my extreme impatience for any task not being completed immediately. I am sure some remember emails from me at 2AM in the morning! As a CEO of a small hi-tech company, I probably did not seem much different than other hi-tech CEO’s. The industry is “volatile” and is full of “famous (and infamous) CEO’s”. The difference today is the Board of Directors may step in and ask the CEO to take a leave of absence (temporarily or permanently).

If we flash forward to the past ten years, my life has been tremendously rewarding from a key relationships standpoint. Bipolar patients are often recognized for their bad behavior – but many really care about others. Intensity is another symptom of bipolar, and I believe many bipolar CEO’s intensely care about others and are extremely generous. The difference is when you get on a good treatment program (which in my case involves many elements) – others will get to experience the best you have to offer. In return you will find life much more fulfilling – instead of that Nascar Race sensation – including some occasional crashes!

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