Life With Bipolar Disorder: What It’s Like To Love In A World Of Fire And Ice
Most people suffering from bipolar disorder think we’re fine — better than fine, super fine.
Most people don’t know I’m bipolar. After years of loving kindness shown to me by my wife, therapy with a caring and skilling therapist, and medications to help keep me in balance, my illness is in remission. Even if you had known me when I was the most out-of-control and crazy you probably wouldn’t have been aware that anything was wrong.
No one likes to be seen as “mentally ill”. Even with our more enlightened understanding of mental illness, there is still a significant stigma attached to mental illness as opposed to physical illness. We talk more easily about heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. It isn’t so easy to talk about depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety.
Let me take you back to March 1998, the year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. If you had seen me in my community in Willits, you would have observed a 55-year-old man who seemed to be living the perfect life.
Carlin and I had been happily married for 18 years. Our children were grown and we were living in our dream home in the country. I had a successful psychotherapy practice and my fourth book, Male Menopause, was well on its way to becoming an international best-seller. I was involved in a men’s group and was active in our community.
I was joyful and exuberant most of the time and got more work done than most people. I could talk up a storm and if there was any complaint about me, it was that at times I was a bit over the top emotionally, with new ideas for striking it rich and changing the world coming one on top of the other.
But Carlin lived with a more painful reality. In a letter she wrote to my doctor she said:
“Jed has rapid mood changes. He’s angry, accusing, argumentative and blaming one moment. The next he’s buying me flowers, cards, and love notes. He’s smiling and enthusiastic. He’s inconsistent in many areas of his life. He’s very picky about some things and sloppy about others. He will spend time arranging scotch tape, scissors, etc. on the top of a shelf, marking each one’s place carefully with a piece of tape so he can return it to it’s designated place. At the same time, he can have papers around him ankle deep on the floor or piled on top of counters. It has become tiring arguing with him. Nothing seems to get resolved. He seems to thrive on the intensity of the argument.”
For more than four years, Carlin tried to convince me that I needed help. I resisted. I avoided. I blamed her for not supporting and loving me the way I needed. She hung in, persisted. I finally agreed to see a doctor, mostly to get her off my back, not because I really thought I needed help.
Most people suffering from bipolar disorder think we’re fine — better than fine, super fine. Others seem slower, less alive, less interesting. We’re sure they are just trying to hold us back, close us down, change us into ordinary people, diminish the extraordinary beings we know we are.
The truth of my own bipolar disorder dawned on me slowly. Carlin’s quiet insistence that I get help and her unconditional love and support began to sink into my defended psyche.
I also read a book by one of the most respected experts on bipolar disorders in the world, Kay Redfield Jamison. In her book, An Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness, she helped me see that even a professional, with a world-wide reputation in the mental health field, can suffer from mental illness and live to talk about it. In the book’s prologue she offers this revealing portrait of her illness against the background of her professional life:
“Within a month of signing my appointment papers to become an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, I was well on my way to madness. Within three months I was manic beyond recognition and just beginning a long, costly personal war against a medication that I would, in a few years’ time, be strongly encouraging others to take. My illness, and my struggles against the drug that ultimately saved my life and restored my sanity had been years in the making.”
I knew this was a book I needed to read from a doctor I knew could help me. As I read more about her experiences I began to see myself. There was one description that ripped me apart. In the epilogue she sums up her experiences in a way that gave me the push I needed to get past my resistance to get the help I so desperately needed:
“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed.”
With the following words, she absolutely nailed what was going on inside me. She was speaking my truth in a way I had never been able to articulate or share:
“You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”
All these words resonated with me. I was irritable, paranoid, humorless, lifeless, critical, and demanding. No matter what my wife, Carlin, did to show me she loved me, it was never enough. I knew I was frightened inside, but I had to admit I was frightening to the people who loved me the most.
I was prescribed a medication, Depakote, to deal with the out-of-control “ups” that would have me doing one project after another without needing to sleep. I was also prescribed an anti-depressant, Zoloft, to deal with the subsequent “downs” when things would eventually crash and I would become irritable, angry, and depressed.
Within three weeks my bipolar illness was beginning to come under control. It took more than seven years before my illness was fully in remission.
Like Dr. Jamison, at first, I fought staying on the medications. I was afraid I would lose my creative edge, that my feelings would be blunted, and I would be sentenced to a life without any real highs. I found that wasn’t true.
On medications, I was just as emotional and creative and I actually got more done, wrote more books, and did more work. When you don’t have to deal with the emotional crashes that follow the highs, life is much more enjoyable, stable, and fulfilling.
But it wasn’t just the medications that saved my marriage and likely saved my life, though they certainly helped. The psychotherapy I did with my doctor allowed me to explore the roots of my problems and to track the day-to-day triggers that would set me off.
Ultimately, the greatest healing comes from learning to love more deeply and to be loved in return.
I learned that it’s almost impossible to love a person who is in the throes of bipolar disorder. Our lives are too chaotic and our emotional edges can cut deeply and hurt those we love the most. It’s also impossible to love ourselves.
There’s a fragility to our lives that keeps us in constant terror that our world will collapse, even as we spend more and more energy putting on the mask of jovial well-being.
Healing from bipolar disorder takes 3 elements:
- People who love you and give you the “tough love” necessary for you to get help.
- A good doctor who can evaluate your need for medications.
- A psychotherapist (I was lucky that my doctor also did therapy) who can help you understand the stresses that trigger your ups and downs and help heal the wounds from the past that feed your present illness.
It’s not an easy journey for the person going through it, for the family and friends who want to support their loved ones, or for the professionals who work with us. But it can be done and lives are saved every day by those with the courage to deal with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.
Image via tumblr.com.
If you liked this story, read more like it on Yourtango.com: