My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Family Then (part one)

There had been no prior established case of bipolar illness in my family before 1985 when I was diagnosed.  There was an isolated incident of an uncle who wanted to drop out of college and sail a boat around the world, though this incident was not widely discussed then or now.  The uncle with the sailing fantasy never was treated for a mental illness though he continued and continues to be highly religious in his outlook and in his behaviors. 

So, like for many families, this incident of bipolar illness was unprecedented at that time in February of 1985.  Upon return from Ivy College my parents placed me in a local psychiatric hospital.  Within a number of weeks from the episode on the runway of the airport near Ivy College, I was diagnosed with bipolar illness.  This was about in July 1985.  The relay of the diagnosis was less than spectacular.  I was in session with the psychiatrist whose name for the sake of this text is Dr. Hamilton.  At the end of the session Dr. Hamilton informed me that I was bipolar and left little to no time in the session to talk about what that meant or how it impacted me and my family. 

As with any developmental story after being diagnosed, I had issues with my parents that would consume a portion of my therapy early on in the years following college.  A lot of this therapy focused on the death of my older brother John who was an infant when he died of spinal meningitis.  He would have been 2 years older than me.  Through extended therapy in the early years, I pieced together memories that would allow me to see that much of my parents’ separation and divorce could be seen in the light of John’s early and tragic death.  Few parents I learned survive in marriage the deaths of their children.  And so it was with my parents.  Once I understood more about John’s death and its impact on my parents I could begin to process my place in the family as “the replacement child” or not. This seemed to be a place in which my parents diverged.

My childhood appears to have been largely uneventful with the exception of this divorce, which included happy re-marriages for both parents.  But as we have seen time and time again, that may not be the case.  On the one hand, I later began to believe that these two second marriages provided me the opportunity to have two examples of working parents but with two very different sets of role models.  My Dad and stepmother lived a very quiet life with few outside stimuli. My Dad was a minister yet he preferred to be working in the garden on his rose bushes rather than leading a congregation.  This was probably due to the stress of stigma that at the time accompanied the divorce of a member “of the cloth.”  My Mom and step-dad were both very involved career people and active in the church where our family attended.  They married when I was 15.  We had the typical turmoils of a mixed family particularly since there were four teens in the combined family.  The remarriage was more difficult for my stepbrother and stepsister.  Just months before they had been with their mother who was blind from diabetes as she was killed in a car collision.  In hindsight, my parents agreed that this might have been handled differently. 

What I am mostly trying to express about family is that my childhood originally seems to have relatively very little trauma or negligence or abuse.  I was raised by caring parents whose marriage did not work out for reasons beyond my control and theirs.  I continued to claim responsibility for that divorce well into my twenties as most adult children of divorce do.  But overall, it appears at first blush that I had very little trauma compared to others with a similar diagnosis.  Oftentimes, I tell myself I did not have a particularly difficult upbringing.

However, with the benefit and hindsight of a few more years of emotional work and discovery, I am coming to terms with the fact that I likely sustained substantial abuse at about the age of six.  This abuse was likely at the hand of a neighbor.  Regarding this potential abuse, I have deep pockets of black-out symptoms.   I also recall certain images (not exactly memories) of sexual assault but they are very unclear and very murky. Abuse at the age of six remains relatively unexplored territory at this time and will continue to be a focus of work with my therapist going further. 

(To be continued.)

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