My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Ego versus Spirit

My therapist tells me there are two ways of being – through the Ego or through Spirit or God.  The Ego is all about me and what I have accomplished with little glory to God.  The Spirit is all about what can I do to be useful with all the glory for accomplishments to God.  Like most people, I struggle with this dichotomy.  I would like to use that big Ivy League brain graduated magna cum laude for some great invention or some great medical break-through like the cure for HIV/AIDs or the cure for cancer.  At the same time I am increasingly aware that my Spirit self seeks to be in situations or in jobs where I can serve the Will of God no matter how great or how small the accomplishment.    It is my Spirit self who finds solace in cleaning up the kitchen after Wednesday Night Supper or feeding the homeless.  It is my Spirit self who finds comfort and a sense of self in providing a healthy meal to my family.  It is my Spirit self who can stop and acknowledge the efforts of my husband toward the goings and comings of our everyday household.  In short, my Spirit self is thankful and mindful of others including God.

 I am at a cross-roads right now in this journey to find God or Spirit as evident in my work life.  I have not found that place yet, what it looks like or what it will become.  I do know that I have an Ego that tends to get in the way much like that person who was arguing with Einstein in the dream I wrote about in the letter to David Bohm.  I also wonder out loud if writing about my illness might be the best way to serve others.  If I can share my experience of bipolar illness in a way that is helpful to others, maybe I am finding God in my work (or He is finding me).   

Since the time of writing that letter to David Bohm in or about 1995 or 1996 (see prior post), my Ego has gone through what I call a shredding machine.  I feel 150% less sure of myself in terms of the kinds of jobs I can hold and keep.  At the same time I feel that my Spiritual self is more and more in control as I seek God in daily or even mundane interactions.  The satisfaction I gain through clean-up activities at my Church on Wednesdays or after feeding the homeless is real.  Right now I am feeling my way through the process of having very little Ego to fall back on which means more “pressure” or maybe better stated more “room” for God to step in and be in control.  Perhaps this letting go for God is also responsible for my drafting this text and for deciding to share its contents with others struggling for stability. 

Just as an update, my church-related activities largely have been suspended due to covid-19 and due to a situation at my place of worship.  I continue to pray on a regular basis, but could definitely improve in the area of giving thanks to God.    

Stigma delay or not?

What strikes me as poignant is that the stigma/judgment/prejudice associated with mental illness is less visible or more delayed while the stigma/judgment/prejudice associated with darker skin seems more immediate.  To the average Joe, I look like a white housewife with no major troubles.  It is not until my mental health behavior gets in the way that someone might recognize me as having a behavioral health disorder and therefore might judge me as less than.  Behavioral health stigma is not generally associated with the way a person looks right off the bat unless that person shares that information upfront.  Whereas, with black and brown skinned people, it seems to me (from the outside looking in) there may be no such “delay” or “invisibility.” Someone with brown or black skin appears to be judged even before any behavioral questions good or bad emerge just because of how he or she looks on the spectrum of dark skin to light skin.

I hope I have not offended anyone of color with this comparison or that you think I think I can comprehend what it is like to be black or brown and to be judged by your appearance alone. 

I do not make the comparison to mental health above because I know how it feels to be judged by the color of my skin.  I don’t.  I have not experienced that.  But I would like someone of color to know that I do understand very well what it is like to be judged for something I was just born with. Perhaps I am not at liberty to make that comparison because I am not dark-skinned.  But I do think part of the solution in the Black Lives Matter movement is that we become unafraid to talk about our perceptions of race and racial stigma.

From here the conversation atrophies into the question: why make a comparison between skin color and a disability?  It is not a good comparison to make.  Yes, I agree a disability is not the same as skin color.  The whole “Black is Beautiful” movement underscores that. 

Then the conversation atrophies again, as a person with a disability, I am supposed to think of myself as a person WITH bipolar illness not that I AM bipolar.  I am not my illness.  I am supposed to not let that “label” define me.  Should we in turn say someone of African American heritage is a person with black skin rather that black?  Probably not.  For the behavioral health person, we typically don’t want labels to define us.  But for those with black and brown skin, the difference may be in embracing that difference and celebrating it along the lines of “Black (or Brown) is Beautiful” from the 1960s or 1970s.

Somewhere also in the midst of this conversation is the reality that up until the 1950s people with behavioral health problems were locked up in institutions largely for life.  Families sent them away to institutions where they were often forgotten and buried as a number in a mass cemetery for the mentally ill rather than by name.

So all in all, the parallel between having a disability and having darker skin has limits.  Perhaps this is just an ice breaker into a conversation of what can be and what we want to be different for those experiencing racial pain and stigma and those experiencing mental pain and stigma.

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Life before Anxiety

I have limited or very limited memories of what life was like for me as a child and/or a teen before bipolar illness hit me in my twenties as a college student.   This is particularly true of my early childhood years before middle school. These memories before middle school are largely blank. They are not bad memories, per say, they are just not memories at all. Like a blank screen on a TV set — all images gone with little sound either. I am seeking to explore the lack of early memories as time moves forward and as my therapy progresses.

In high school, I was a typical over-achiever and straight A student.  I graduated at the top of my high school class and was voted by high school peers to be “the most likely to succeed.”  I had a steady high school boyfriend for my Junior and Senior years in high school.  My study peers were the Advanced Placement teens while my social peers were “the in-crowd.”  Somehow it was important for me to feel that I was part of “the in-crowd” rather than just being satisfied with my academic peer group. Most of my memories of high school are very strong as I was able to hold onto this vision of myself as “successful.” These memories are much more vigorous than memories from the years before middle school.

Most of my memory absence appears to be before middle school years. When I was in sixth grade, my parents divorced.  I tended to manage what I now recognize as what may have been anxiety and feelings of depression by becoming a great student and high achiever.  I felt somehow if I could be a straight A student, there was no wrong happening in my life and all was right with the world. 

My Dad remarried a short time after I transferred in sixth grade to a private school. When I was a Sophomore in high school, my Mom also remarried.   With both parents happily remarried, I continued to live life relatively anxiety-free or so it seemed.  I was a super student and a valued member of the cheerleading squad, the track team and the student council.  I was the top student in my Senior class and voted in as “the May Queen” by my Senior class peers. 

It was not until I arrived at Ivy College that I first experienced anxiety that I was aware of.  Suddenly everybody was as smart as I was.  Suddenly my coping mechanisms for stress – being the top in my class – seemed very very far away.  I took to studying all the time to keep my grade point average in the “A” zone rather than adopting an acceptance for “B” work.  This preponderance for “A” work I think was a factor in my inability to distance myself from the come-on’s and other subpar behaviors of my college thesis professor–  Professor Flannigan — during my Senior year.   The coping mechanisms I had adopted in my middle school and upper school years were inadequate for coping with the challenges in college days, particularly those challenges of my late Junior and early Senior year days.  Perhaps unlike many college students, in college I did not appear to grow out of or beyond coping mechanisms that were helpful in my younger years in middle and high school.    

In addition, it may have been that Professor Flannigan, untrained therapist that he was, was somehow trespassing dangerously into the “safe world” of that six-year-old child while that six-year-old child was striving desperately to stay on course.  Once again, Flannigan’s assuming to be a trained therapist or acting like one was likely very, very dangerous for me particularly if sexual or other abuse was present for me as a young child.

What has changed since college days? There is still a blank screen there where there should be early memories, but at least now I am in a place to work through those voids with a trained therapist rather than an emotionally immature egotist.

What Makes a Marriage Work?

This is a reworking of a comment I left on a prior blogpost I read and commented on….

I did not meet my husband (one and only) until I was 38 years old. Before then I had been in a series of relationships, some lasting a while (almost three years) and some not lasting long at all. I seemed for years to go back and forth between men who were like my father and men who were like my step-father. This yoyoing back in forth consumed all of my twenties and some of my early thirties. I was engaged to be married to someone before my current husband arrived on the scene.

I learned from that failed engagement that a couple does well to share a belief in God and to argue well. My fiance had clinical depression so on that level we understood each other’s behavioral health challenges. I have bipolar illness. But our relationship was toxic. We always had the same argument over and over. Why aren’t you opening up? Why aren’t you letting me in? Eventually he would call off the engagement, but it was a friendly parting. Years later he wrote and seemed to wonder about our getting back together. I had already moved on.

After the engagement broke off, I began a period of celibacy. This lasted for almost 7 years. During that time I stopped with the yoyo dating and focused inward on myself and my job. It was very important for me to validate myself during those years with something other than a relationship (short-term or otherwise) with a man. I did not even kiss a man for this 7 year period before I met my soon-to-be husband.

I met my current husband (one and only) at an online data service in 2001- this was very early in the web dating sphere. That is a story in and of itself. The first thing I noticed was that our mutual faith in God seemed to make things easier. I also noticed a couple of other characteristics of our relationship as it started to grow and mature. These are my insights into what has made my marriage a successful endeavor for someone with bipolar illness and someone with addiction issues.

For me there are three keys that help my marriage work – though I cannot guarantee these will work for everyone. Hold some sort of faith belief in common. It helps me through the darkest hour if that is not a topic that I argue about with my spouse but one that grounds me in that relationship. Second, be able to argue well. I try not to always go back to the I told you so’s. I try to make each argument have a beginning, middle and end. I try to learn from it once it’s over instead of drudging it up over and over. Finally, a sense of humor goes a very long way. I find it important to be able to laugh at myself and with my partner. It is amazing how a good laugh clears the air.

In addition to these three items, I am adding the ability to be thankful to God for people who are helpful in my life’s journey. I am still working on being thankful every day instead of always asking God for something. There is so much to be thankful for. So here is my two moments of marriage wisdom. Took me until I was 38 to figure it out – still figuring it out at 56. Oh well, later is better than never. 🙂

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Rock Bottom

That said, it is not unusual for medications to become ineffective or non-therapeutic after a certain point in time.  It is also true that as a patient I have had to participate in the “laboratory rat syndrome” and try different medications by trial and error and see what works and what doesn’t.  This ‘laboratory rat syndrome” is described later in the text. 

But what is most important to convey about this time period in my life is that I made a conscious decision to be transparent to my health team including my doctor, my therapist and my family. 

It was at this time that I hit rock bottom.  As they say in many recovery programs, you don’t really ever reach sobriety or true healing until after you hit rock bottom.  This period of three to four years after my daughter’s birth is my rock bottom.  I tried several doctors.  I tried several therapists.  I tried several new types of meds.  But none of these worked. At the root of what was going on in hindsight is that I was not being honest or truthful to myself and my support team.  I would schedule doctors’ visits every three to four months as compared to once a month so as to “prove” to myself I was healthy and not in need of help.  There were times when I felt the drugs weren’t working and I stopped taking them. 

This period of sheer and utter chaos in my life finally came to a close when I decided to put my health first.  After the lengthy hospital stay, I stopped working altogether and began weekly sessions with my new therapist and monthly sessions with my new doctor.  I communicated openly to my husband James, my mother and sister Jane about my health and how I was doing.  I became transparent in my place of worship and informed my clergy of my condition.  Basically, I decided at this critical juncture in my life that I was not going to lie to myself or to any other person close to me about how I feel.  Further, I determined that I am not going to hide my condition from myself or from my support team. 

Slowly and very very slowly, after this lengthy hospitalization and move to Clozaril or Clozapine, I began to gain more stability.  This I believe is equally due to the meds, my work with my doctor, my work with my therapist and my dedication to illness transparency in my place of worship and in my family and extended family.  I do not believe the end of the rock bottom period would have occurred without any one of these four developments: meds, doctor, therapist and transparency. 

Further, the end of the rock bottom period did not occur suddenly.  There was no silver bullet toward health.  But rather, this time of reparation was marked by gradual developments in learning to express my fears for safety, learning to address these thoughts of safety before they developed into full-blown paranoia, learning how to be a mother to my child which was preceded by my developing ability to be a parent to myself.  This journey was to take not just weeks or months but years of work. 

Initially, my therapist and I met weekly to work through issues of abandonment and replacement child concerns.  But what was a complete turnaround for me was when I began to talk openly to my therapist about how I perceive the world. It was at this time that I started talking more openly about how I am drawn toward coincidences, patterns and pattern-recognition.  We talked about my fears for safety for my family, my nation and my world.   These fears continued to haunt me throughout the process of climbing out of the hole at rock bottom, but somehow just knowing that another person understood what it meant to see the world in terms of patterns was a huge relief and an even more huge release.

For the first time in my life (literally) there was a person who understood my train of thought.  I no longer felt that my thought processes were singular and inexplicable and inaccessible.  By somehow working with my therapist and my doctor on the intricacies of how my mind worked and how my feelings had been somewhat left behind in the process, the fear that had consumed me for the first three to four years of my daughter’s life was released.  Not cured however but released.

By talking about the patterns that I saw, I no longer felt isolated in my existence.   Without the isolation, the fears of safety seemed to become more and more manageable.  In those years that followed rock bottom, my therapist and I were working on releasing the fear that had been mounting for me as a person not just from the point of birth of my daughter but from a point all the way back to college days at Ivy College where I first discovered my chemical imbalance.  We talked a lot about Professor Flannigan but mostly we talked about how I was intellectually a star student but not so much in touch with my emotions.  Someone more centered in his or her emotions would have been able to tell Professor Flannigan to “go to hell.”  From here, we spent several years looking at my propensity to approach life from my head rather than from my heart.      

In addition to this work with my therapist, I developed a huge amount of trust and respect for my doctor.  We talked about the fact that for the four years’ preceding my work with him, I had not found any sort of solace in my meds.  This doctor seemed to understand that prescribing me an anti-depressant as doctors had been doing since my postpartum period was a huge problem and something to avoid.  This doctor realized that anti-depressants that had been prescribed had been catapulting me into mania off and on for four years prior. 

Perhaps in writing this book or blog, I am encountering a new aspect of the rock bottom experience.  Perhaps the chapter of my life that includes potential abuse as a six-year-old is now sitting on the desk awaiting work.  Working through these details surely will help enable my security and my feelings of security and well-being both for myself but also for my daughter and for my family in general.

My Sojourn thru Bipolar Illness – Nothing in Common

My postpartum depression was off the charts.  It is impossible to relay in this text the gamut of emotional experiences I endured during the first four years’ of my daughter’s life.  Whatever you have heard about postpartum depression stop and multiply by ten.  My meds after fifteen years of being pretty therapeutic stopped working.  I was put on several new meds one after another with no clinical break-throughs. I would later come to understand that the anti-depressants that were augmenting my other meds were causing me to revert into full mania in a repeat pattern every four to six months.  The anti-depressant rather than helping me with the postpartum was catapulting me to the opposite extreme of mania.  This was mania like I had never before experienced.  There were times I felt that my medication had been laced with an illicit substance.  There were times when I felt like all members of my family were dead or in comas and on some sort of life support system overseas at the Swiss Hotel.  There were times when I was prompted to act in manners unsafe for my own well-being. 

Besides the anti-depressant issue which was huge and impactful to me on a daily basis, the overall upshot of this postpartum period was a huge sense of isolation and of fear.  How on earth could I carry on a discussion with other mothers about their child’s potty training or their child’s teething or their child’s pre-school years when I was obsessed by potential terrorist take-overs in the Himalayas? 

With a child in diapers, I and my thoughts were focused on the threat of a nuclear meltdown over the existing power grid, and the threat of nuclear water contamination east of the Mississippi and the threat of terrorists living their daily lives among us.  Thoughts of national security consumed me on a daily basis.  What’s more is that these thoughts of national security also prevented me from being a Mom and talking to other Moms about their kid or their kids.

I felt unable to connect with other young mothers largely because my thoughts continued to soar toward global safety and security in full-blown paranoia.   At one point, I imagined that the United States was undergoing a Civil War and had to address some Constitutionality gap and it was up to me to help do that.  At another instance, I believed that my husband was being cloned at his place of work and it was up to me to stop the cloning.  At another instance, I believed that I or friends and relatives were being cloned at the hand of terrorists.  At another instance, I believed that Lithium was the cure for HIV/AIDS.  At another instance, I believed my brain was implanted with a computer device that was controlled by terrorists or those who were seeking vengeance on me and my family.  At another instance, I believed that I was engaged in some sort of computer “fight-off” where I had to survive some form of computerized attack.  At another instance, I believed that my sister (and not myself) had brain damage from an accident sustained as a child and this somehow made her, and not myself, responsible for my symptoms.  These thoughts and obsessions and paranoid delusions made it nearly impossible to maintain family relations or to develop peer connections surrounding motherhood and being a Mom.  It also kept me feeling isolated in relationships including my relationships with my husband, my rapidly growing up daughter and just about every other person in my family.

In many ways all these fears left me unable to connect to my daughter’s peers and peers’ parents in the first 2 to 4 years of my daughter’s life.  Even today, I have to remind myself of the role of un-therapeutic meds during this extremely vulnerable time.  The use of anti-depressants given my bipolar condition was a huge mistake and one for which my family and I paid the price.