Several women sat in straight rows at the church waiting for the meeting to begin. My friend, Joann, introduced me, “We just had to ask Patricia to come and speak with us tonight because she is so experienced in depression.” This brought a chuckle to the group as I stood to share my story.
My first dysfunctional depression hit when I was in my mid-twenties. I was pregnant with my third daughter when one evening after surviving a hard day with our 2 and 4 year old and with the preschool and daycare kids my husband pointed out a few more things that hadn’t been done around the house. “You’re right. I’m a terrible wife and a horrible mother.” He shook his head and decided I needed some time to myself so he took the girls downstairs. It was then that something broke inside of me. Suddenly I realized that no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make everyone happy. I decided they would be better off without me and ran away from home.
Three days later I returned, but I wasn’t the same person. My zest for life was gone. I was deflated, dejected and vacant. During the next three months I stayed in bed often wishing I could die and sometimes praying for that release. This was to be my first and longest depression. I turned to a trusted therapist to help guide me and teach me what to do step by step as I walked through it. I also received a lot of help from my family and church.
Five years later I was diagnosed with bipolar illness. I felt grateful for this discovery because I finally had a reason for my irrational, manic behavior. Like the day I ran around the house obsessed with the need to swat flies, or the time I stayed up all night typing bylaws for a handful of women I was sure would become an international presence in the world. The diagnosis also explained why I sometimes plunged into deep depression at the drop of a word and why I would stay there for days, weeks, and months.
My diagnosis came as the result of a friend who was bipolar and recognized my symptoms and urged me to go for help. When my psychiatrist confirmed her suspicion the diagnosis gave me something to work on. Like my daughter said of her Lupus “When I didn’t know what I had, I felt like I was fighting in the dark. Now with this ray of light I have a better chance of victory.”
By the time I was stabilized on medication and I finished seeing my therapist, I had learned and created many helpful ideas that seemed to gather to my heart like moths to a light. If my illness had been diabetes I would have learned all I could, then changed my life so I could live the most normal life I could within the requirements and limitation of my illness. I followed the same plan with my bipolar diagnosis.
I recognize that this disease gives me certain limitations, such as the need to get a certain amount of sleep at night. One requirement for managing my illness, my psychiatrist explained, was that I needed at least 7 hours of sleep at night. My family and friends know this and understand when I head for bed earlier than others do.
I soon learned, however, that being “bipolar” could be perceived as negative and consequently embarrassing. When I went to my regular doctor for a physical I had to admit that I was taking bipolar medication and that I had been diagnosed as bipolar. I was afraid that he would look at me differently after learning I was bipolar. Once when I was in a church women’s meeting I was not paying a lot of attention until the discussion turned to mental illness. Unexpectedly I thought “Share your experience with them.” Then, just as quickly came the thought “but then they will know I’m crazy. They will look at me differently and avoid me or be afraid of me.”
In the end, I did lean forward and share a bit of my story before sitting back, noticing that my hands were trembling. After the meeting I appreciated several knowing smiles and even a few kind comments about my choice to be a survivor and have the courage to share.
In time, I developed a desire to share my stories and ideas with others. I wanted them to benefit from my experiences in hopes that they might implement some of the answers I had found for recovery from bipolar illness. Christopher Reeves once said of his disability, “I had to make sense of it,” and he chose to be a “poster-child” for spinal-cord-injury victims. Chris wore his label courageously and made the best of it, helping others along the way. I wanted to be like him.
Nearly 30 years have come and gone since I was diagnosed with Bipolar illness. Although I have relapsed twice and had plenty of minor ups and downs, I have written two books about recovery, created a web site, spoken at many places, and been grateful for opportunities I have had to help others.
I am proud to be bipolar. I have faith that through prayer and the tools of recovery I can live a “normal life despite my abnormal diagnosis.” After all, as one Facebook caption declared, “the only true disability in life is a bad attitude.”
I want to have a good attitude and qualify as a functioning member of the elite group of bipolar survivors. We are creative, sensitive people who can make a difference in the world as we learn to manage and embrace our illness. We can be proud to be bipolar and help others do so as well.
During the next few months I will be sharing with you tools that have made a big difference in my continued recovery.