Bill Lee’s Story for IBPF
I was born with a defective heart and was raised by my biological parents. I mention this because my mother and father attempted a medical abortion while I was in utero and subsequently entered negotiations to sell me. These events provide a glimpse of the environment I was born into and how it may have contributed to the onset and progression of my mood disorders. There appears to be a genetic connection as well.
Mental illness runs in my family – on both sides – and it goes back at least two generations before me. As a second generation Chinese American, one of the first nonverbal cues I picked up as a child was that being mentally unstable is disgraceful; it brings shame to one’s family and community. So in my home we just downplayed the dramas or pretended that they never happened. My mother’s numerous suicide attempts were dismissed as manifestations of exhaustion, while my father’s nightly drunken stupors and his gambling addiction were condoned as minor character flaws. His deviant sexual behavior was a figment of our imagination until one of my sisters had the courage to expose him. I learned to anticipate my parents’ mercurial temperament, and to repress any thoughts or feelings that could dishonor them. Numerous therapists have asked me if I recall ever feeling physically or emotionally safe in my home. My reflexive response the first time was, “No…was I supposed to?”
By the age of eight, I was already exhibiting symptoms of manic depression. I was hyper, irritable, easily agitated, had little need or desire for sleep, and was a chronic school truant. I contended with racing thoughts, worried obsessively, and exhibited high-risk, aggressive, and hostile behavior. I got into fistfights almost daily, stole, robbed other kids, scaled buildings, climbed rooftops, and played cat-and-mouse with the police like it was a game. I was on guard, twenty-four seven – always expecting the worst to happen.
I became involved with gangs and started gambling while I was still in grammar (parochial) school. The violence and out-of-control wagering provided a respite from my symptoms but created more traumas, which increased my nightmares, flashbacks, and ruminations. I was suffering from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Gambling for me wasn’t about having fun and doing it to feel good; I was self-medicating and doing it to not feel bad or to not feel anything. But losing my prized baseball cards and marbles just added fuel to my deep emotional pain, which reinforced my self-perception of being unwanted, a burden, and good for nothing. This deepened my anguish, which drove me to commit crimes in order to feed my addiction. A relentless cycle of extreme highs and lows followed. I learned much later that my behavior and mood swings were symptoms of hypomania and mania.
I majored in psychology in college. There was definitely an underlying desire to unravel the traumas and crises I experienced, both at home and in the streets. At the time, I convinced myself that my motive was to help others. The experiential counseling courses propelled me to seek individual therapy for myself, which would serve as an anchor throughout my adult life. Being in therapy didn’t halt all my manic and depressive symptoms, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the combined effort I put into those sessions prevented me from physically hurting myself and others, and also kept me out of prison.
As the years passed, I contended with death, divorce, career problems, and other crises by resuming my modus operandi; playing blackjack, day trading in the stock market, and working hundred-plus hours every week had replaced shooting marbles and flipping baseball cards. Of course, the big win eluded me and the numbness always wore off. Instead, my maladaptive coping mechanism, which also entailed staying awake for days on end – repeatedly triggered rapid cycling and mixed episodes, which led to recurring suicidal ideation.
After decades of treatment involving different modalities of psychotherapy, of being prescribed powerful psychotropic medications, as well as active participation in 12-Step fellowships, I discovered a more-effective protocol for treating my co-occurring disorders. This happened after I adopted a spiritual practice. By integrating mindfulness meditation and other Buddhist practices with psychotherapy, I noticed that my mood became more stable, I gained firmer control of my thoughts and emotions, and I experienced less anxiety. I also developed a powerful coping mechanism. The frequencies of my nightmares, flashbacks, and ruminations lessened considerably – some ceased altogether. All of this was done under the guidance of my psychiatrist. I have been weaned off of all medications and my manic depression is in remission. My spiritual practice has enabled me to cultivate compassion for my past enemies and to forgive my parents. This is all detailed in my latest book, "Born-Again Buddhist: My Path to Living Mindfully and Compassionately with Mood Disorders," (http://amzn.to/1ChW6qt) which I wrote to provide guidance and support to others who suffer from bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses.