Remembering Tom on World Bipolar Day

Author: Kim Joy Barnett


In my early 20’s, almost 20 years ago, I was nearing the end of my 5 year college journey to obtain my Bachelors Degree in Sociology at Cal State University, Northridge. What should have taken me 4 years to complete, according to my academic advisors, took me an additional year, due to unexplained mental health challenges and certain choices I made as a result of these challenges.


Some of these choices I mentioned were choosing to party with friends, most nights of the week, regardless of whether or not I had an early class the next day. I absolutely loved music, dancing and drinking at clubs in West Hollywood, California, which has a large LGBTQIA+ population. These people were my kind of people and I always felt largely accepted there no matter my skin color. I’m African American and grew up in a predominantly Caucasian and Hispanic community, so the acceptance feeling was something I was always yearning for, and I found this acceptance with the connections I made in West Hollywood. 


During one of my drinking and dancing nights at a club in West Hollywood, I met a man named Tom. Tom was a successful registered nurse, who was gay. We quickly began to talk, dance and drink together that night and as weeks went by, we frequently went to the various clubs in West Hollywood together. He became one of my best friends. 


One day, I discussed with Tom that I had been recently diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I, which was something at the time that was shameful for me to tell people. To my surprise, Tom was extremely receptive and shared with me that he shared the same exact diagnosis and had been living with it for years. I was floored and actually excited that we shared the diagnosis! This bonded our friendship even more. 


Throughout the next year, Tom and I would go out to the clubs constantly and drink and dance the nights away. I knew personally that I was drinking too much and not being totally responsible with school and neglecting my bipolar management. Out of fear, I would skip taking my medication, because I would get so drunk and didn’t want the meds to mix with the alcohol and cause an overdose and death. So I wouldn’t take them most nights. Little did I know that Tom may have been going through something similar. 


One Saturday morning, I got a phone call from a number I did not recognize. I answered and the person explained in a sullen voice that they were Tom’s sibling. They proceeded to tell me that Tom did not show up at the hospital where he worked as a nurse, for a couple days that he was scheduled to work. The authorities did a welfare check on him at his loft and found him dead. It was later discovered that he died from drinking too much alcohol. He had gone to sleep drunk and never woke up. He was 38 years old. 


I was completely devastated for years over Tom’s death and it prompted me to stop drinking for the next year. His death showed me that the way I was living my life could potentially take me down the same path. So I changed my ways. I may no longer have Tom in my life, but I learned so many things from our time together. We had a deep connection because we were both challenged with the same disorder and because we lived similar lifestyles. I learned that the lifestyle we chose comes with consequences. Unfortunately I lost a few friends because of my behavior, who did not want to be around someone constantly drinking. And even more unfortunate, is that Tom lost his life. 


On this World Bipolar Day, I remember Tom and all others who are challenged with this disorder and other afflictions. May we learn from their and Tom’s story that bipolar disorder management and healthier choices are crucial to maintaining stability. Tom was my good friend and he saved me from going down a path I may not have ever recovered from. I will always love you Tom and wish you were here to experience this World Bipolar Day with me. 


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