My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – the Genetics of Bipolar Disorder

The risk of having a child with or without bipolar illness was something I contemplated a great deal but did not necessarily pray about.  With my first fiancé I was bound to the idea of adoption – that a diagnosis of bipolar and a diagnosis of clinical depression were too much to hand down to the next generation.  My fiancé at the time did not agree with me and wanted to have a biological child(ren) rather than adopt. 

When I met my soon-to-be husband some seven years later, he also was adamant about having a biological child.  Instead of two clinical diagnoses of depression and/or mania, we each brought to the table a pre-existing condition; I brought the bipolar illness and he brought an alcohol dependency under remission at that time for about 15 years. Somehow in our first year together, my soon to be husband and I settled on the idea of a natural conception.  We were blessed with early success in pregnancy within a couple of months of trying which at 39 (when we conceived without any assistance) is somewhat of a miracle in itself.  My position at the time of carrying my child is that Nurture is a strong proponent in the Nature versus Nurture battle.  If we can avoid a divorce event or something similar such as the abuse I suffered at an early age, perhaps my daughter’s child within will be upright and healthy and right in her relationship with God.  Since my daughter’s birth, we have sought continually to provide for her spiritual development and her spiritual journey.

James and I are open with our daughter who is 16 about Dad’s alcoholism and about my bipolar illness.  We talk about responsible behavior for our family as avoiding alcohol and for engaging in and not avoiding emotionally challenging events.  We accept that to have a meltdown and cry is an important process for growing up and challenges Mom and Dad to listen.  We also talk about the importance of mood recovery.  Once we have cried and released the source of our anxiety or concern, we then try to move on and recover the mood and move onto the next event or challenge.

I am hoping to teach my daughter how to be more fluent in her emotions not just successful in her studies as I have been learning to be in the last several years.  She already is exhibiting signs of emotional maturity that I did not have at that age. She is not obsessed with being the top student in her class.  When she feels upset about something like a misunderstanding with a friend, she is largely able to talk about it and express her feelings.  When she is emotionally or physically tired and ready for bed, she says so.

I feel that with God’s blessing we will move through whatever illness may come our way – this including the current testing for breast cancer.  With God’s help we will manage through any abuse incidents that may have presented in my life so as to avoid the repetition in my daughter’s life as she continues to blossom and to bloom into a beautiful young woman.

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Finding an Illness Mature Mate

I found over the years when I was single that it was very difficult to find a boyfriend who was knowledgeable of bipolar illness or of mental illness in particular.  This changed when I met a man who struggled with clinical depression.  He “got it” while most other boyfriends did not.  We quickly got engaged but within a year’s time found that our illnesses tended to feed upon each other.  It was if we had allergic personalities — our arguments seemed to accentuate our diagnoses and behaviors accordingly.  We did not fight well, but always seemed to end up in the same argument time and time again.   We also did not have a faith in God that bound us. 

That engagement ended favorably with each of us expressing ourselves and our pain and our ability not to master our relationship’s ins and outs.  He initiated the relationship.  He initiated the end of the relationship.  He also wrote to me about 2 to 3 years later to see if I were interested in reconciliation.  At that time, I had moved on emotionally and was not interested.  It was not because I was involved with someone else. It was because I was entering a lengthy period of celibacy that lasted about 7 years. 

During this period of celibacy in my thirties, I began work on what would later become the basis for a big component of my Spiritual journey.  During this period of celibacy, I became interested in Medical Intuition or the use of Spiritual work to help guide illness diagnosis and illness recovery.  During this time, I challenged behaviors in myself such as alcohol use or going to bars as a means of meeting a mate.  Finally one day, my closest friend suggested that I go on-line. This was in the years before on-line dating was prevalent.

In any case, I worked with my friend on an online bio and had a first date with my soon-to-be fiancé at the Starbucks near a local state park.  I prior had resolved that if the coffee date went well, my date and I would go on a walk with my 100 pound black Labrador – half Newfoundland up a nearby mountain.  We met at the coffee shop and soon were walking up that mountain.

It took no brains to determine that I had been looking in all the wrong places for a husband.  In addition, as I got older there were fewer and fewer places to meet someone.  College was out.  Graduate school was out. 

When I met my future husband, there were four key ingredients.  He was aware of mental illness and bipolar in particular. We shared a faith journey in Christ and we fought well together.  Not that we did not have arguments.  It was just that we recovered from those arguments fairly quickly and with some degree of learning or emotional development.     We also shared a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at self and with others.

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.    

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 – Being a Working Mom with Bipolar Illness

Being a working Mom continues to be the most difficult part of my journey.  I am drawn to high- stress and high-pay jobs as this was generally my track before my daughter was born.  However in the last sixteen years I have not been able to work a high paying job for longer than a few months without some sort of bipolar break-through or debilitating anxiety attack.  Usually this involves some sort of high anxiety event where I disclose my health issues to my employers who are invariably not sympathetic and ask me to leave their place of employment. 

My worklife over the past sixteen plus years has gotten more and more difficult as I seek to balance the responsibilities of motherhood and of work.  Again, how potential child abuse issues impact my anxiety levels today is somewhat unknown but something I am working on.

If I want my childcare activities to be front and center or “on,” I need to work at a job that is generally stress free and does not put a priority on a high salary.  I am just coming to terms with this reality and starting to seek jobs that are lower stress and relatively lower pay. This includes looking for work that is part-time, that includes flex-time and/or that is not particularly challenging.    This also includes just doing volunteer work for the time-being.

So far I have not been able to find the balance between motherhood and a job for pay – even if that is a relatively lower paying job.  So I have gravitated toward writing my story with this book / blog series as a way of perhaps finding worklife success in an unconventional manner.

This also includes getting back in touch with the writer in me who attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont some 25 years ago.  But instead of fiction writing, I am focusing on telling people the story of my bipolar illness through this text and perhaps through other texts to come in the near or not so near future.

The ultimate job would allow me to spend time with my daughter and be present for her in her after-school activities like cross country, track and chorus.  The ability to write about my illness, the challenges it presents and my approaches to tackle those challenges may just be the “ultimate job” I am looking for.  Time will tell if my bloglife satisfies my need to work financially or otherwise.

As for the bipolar diagnosis, my husband and I have determined to be relatively transparent to my daughter who is sixteen about mental illness and about addiction issues.  We are betting that Nurture will win out over Nature in the future of her life such that she will be minimally impacted by mood swings and addiction issues.  We talk openly about how we don’t drink alcohol as a family and how we are very sensitive to moods and mood changes.  We have been active in our church and in my daughter’s role as an acolyte as well as a member of the church choir. We hope to be setting the behavioral example that we did not necessarily follow in our growing up years to include marriage at 38 and 42. 

I am hopeful that by providing my daughter with a strong home life and spiritual life, she will muddle through the teen years and twenties without signs of either bipolar illness or addiction.  Invariably, I am aware that these health concerns will probably not hit until her teens and/or twenties if they do occur.  With God’s help, we will steer clear of these obstacles or encounter them in a way that is manageable.  With God’s help, we will also steer clear of any abuse issues that may present during her childhood.

For me, much about being a Mom involves letting go of Ego and embracing God.  While for years my Ego has told me to “follow the money” and jobs that pay high dollar, I am unable to manage these career expectations and still be present in my daughter’s life.  It appears I have “a Mom switch” that it is either on or off with little in between.  This leaves my career choices to be a great deal more restricted than they were before the postpartum period.  Today I seek a job that will provide “a living wage” that will also provide me the opportunity to get my daughter to cross country or track practice or travel to nearby Augusta for an Honors Chorus performance. 

A high-paying job is only feasible for me if I extricate myself from all Mom activities.  That leads to a highly stressful and largely empty lifestyle.  In my current search for work, the pay and the status are taking a back seat to what it is I can do with and for my daughter on a daily and weekly basis. 

I still seek a job that allows a “living wage,” allows meaningful interaction with my daughter and allows ongoing relationship development with my husband.  From what I understand from talking to people with no behavioral health concerns, finding this balance is even a challenge for them.  

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Managing Anxiety Then and Now

My daughter was born 16 years ago when I was 40 years old.  She is the light and the delight of my world, yet her birth marks a turning point in my illness particularly as regards my experiences of anxiety.  As a parent, my experience of anxiety has quadrupled or more over the years of being a parent. 

In years prior to the birth of my daughter, everyday life felt relatively normal between breaks with breaks or mini-breaks coming every six months or so each year.  After the birth of my daughter this scenario was replaced by a low to medium to sometimes high level of generalized anxiety all of the time.  This generalized anxiety now persists as my benchmark or my norm with little or few break-down episodes.

While I no longer have episodes that land me in the hospital or at my sister Jane’s house twice a year, I do maintain and live with a generalized sense of anxiety all the time.  In many ways my illness has migrated from severe to partially severe breaks every six months to living with anxiety on a regular basis.  The anxiety may also be the by-product of mixed moods – or experiencing mania and depression simultaneously.

The good news is I have become better at policing my environment and know those things that trigger my anxiety:   fears of safety, not being sure the house is locked or secure, not knowing the location of important things like documents in the safe or prescription medication, big parties where there is an emphasis on alcohol and drinking…. In many ways it feels like my bipolar illness has migrated toward including a combination of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety. 

But, I am not the doctor and as far as I know I am still diagnosed as having bipolar illness… 

As a parent as discussed, I tend to be hyper-focused on safety concerns for my daughter as well as for my family.  I tend to be extra vigilant about little things like crossing the street or being in a venue where alcohol is served or being aware of predators on the internet or elsewhere.

I also appear to have some short-term memory problems that I associate with a high dosage of meds over the years and/or over-active brain synapses.   These short-term memory issues continue to present challenges to me particularly in the workplace.  At times, I am challenged with finding a place for everyday things like a wallet or keys or cell phone.  It is also difficult for me to keep track of things of my daughter’s like phones, laptops, keys, etc. Each of these things has to have a specific place or I will become anxious in the not knowing.  The not knowing again is tied with the short-term memory challenges. 

These short-term memory issues have turned me into “a checker.”  Before leaving the house, I check routinely that the stove and oven are off and that other appliances are unplugged.  I have developed a checking routine for various appliances and doorways before leaving the house.  This level of “checking” feels important for me because of the memory issues but drives my husband and my daughter crazy.  

In general, I would say that the general anxiety that I experience currently presents my largest challenge in the management of my life including my role as mother to my sixteen-year-old daughter.  The anxiety is something that I face every day.  Being overly sedated so as not to feel the anxiety is one approach.  I am hopeful, however, that the medication I have been taking for the last 10 years will allow me to address that generalized sense of anxiety.  Perhaps also, this anxiety simply is tied with being a parent and all the worrying about things that that role entails.    Perhaps also this anxiety is due to unresolved issues of potential child abuse when I was six.

Prior to my daughter’s birth, I managed my condition with a combination of lithium and tegretol for ten plus years.  This was my regime when I had the mini breaks every six months or so that were treated with Mellaril and Haldol.  Now, I no longer have those mini break-through episodes, but I do have a sense of generalized anxiety a lot of the time.  The generalized anxiety appears for now to be the trade-off for no longer having the mini-breaks.   Managing through this generalized anxiety is my current mental health challenge.     I am hopeful as I get through to the other side of child abuse as a six-year-old, these anxiety symptoms will abate markedly. 

Hitting Rock Bottom in the Days of Covid-19

I believe in my personal journey through bipolar illness that I hit rock bottom about in 2008. This does not mean I have not had issues with my health during this time – to the contrary. But in large part I have been therapeutic on my meds during this time with adjustments here and there. I believe that mental illness recovery requires a hitting of rock bottom much as addictions do. I don’t know if others with mental illness agree with that premise. If you do, please keep reading.

While my regular mental health rock bottom may have been in 2008, during these days of covid-19 a new rock bottom may be needed for myself. I am not talking about those folks who have loved ones taken by this terrible disease. I cannot even begin to speak to that loss. The grieving of others hit hard so hard by this pandemic with deaths is not what I am getting at. What I am trying to express is that the every day person (not with loved ones lost) with every day concerns may need to hit a rock bottom with covid-19 before coming out of it less anxious, less isolated, less depressed, less alone.

What does that rock bottom look like for me? I am not completely sure. Much of it requires me to be honest how I am feeling from day to day. I have been feeling more depressed that usual and I am tying to be honest with myself about that. This honesty is slowly allowing me to come back on the other side of my depression to a more balanced position. I have not yet gotten a great schedule together to orient my days. This is under development but not 100% there. I am trying to reach out to my elderly Mom once a day to chat since social distancing keeps us apart. I am trying to be honest with my psyche doctor and my therapist where I am with my health. I have raised my meds by a slight degree in order to combat the depression. I am trying to have as much meaningful dialogue and contact with my daughter who is 16 and my husband. This includes watching our favorite TV show after dinner and maybe playing a board game. On the non-mental health side of things, I am keeping a temperature log for myself and my family every day and insisting everyone drink lots of water and get a little exercise.

Also, I am trying to be forgiving of myself if there are times that I just can’t get it together to get something done off my todo list. Or if I am a little late in getting something done. I try to count my accomplishments for the day (baby steps mostly) with forgiveness of self in mind.

I am not certain if I am about to hit rock bottom with covid-19 era depression and anxiety, but I believe I am close. Does any body else think rock bottom for mental illness/mental health is relevant in the time of covid-19? If so, how are you doing with that? Well I hope.

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Fear of Flying

Note – several names and places have been changed throughout this text in order to keep my story somewhat private. Thanks for understanding that need. I hope you will tell me what most interests you from my story so I can focus on that moving forward.

Although I had had no prior fear of flying, my first episode of bipolar illness was in a tiny airport near my Ivy League college (hereafter known as Ivy College).  While I was waiting for the plane to get ready to taxi off the runway and take me to my first interview for a job after college in advertising, I was consumed by runaway thoughts.  My thoughts were anywhere but on my interview for an Account Executive position at Chicago Avenue Advertisers.  I had no specific directions for my fears but I took out some papers I was working on for my undergraduate thesis at Ivy College and was writing and writing furiously in and around the margins of the pages of the papers I previously had written.  The thoughts seemed to co-mingle with the characters in the fiction as well as characters or people I knew in real life.  The writing was fast and furious until I finally heard the flight that I was to take to Chicago on the puddle-jumper called.

For some reason I did not feel safe in myself enough to board the plane once the flight was called and I came to the conclusion that the plane was going to crash.  I did not communicate this fear with anyone.  Instead I determined that I did not want to get on a plane that was going to crash, so I got my suitcase together and asked the airplane attendant if I could check my bags on the plane but not board the plane myself.  For some unknown reason, the contents of my suitcase were of paramount importance.  I recall a navy suit that I had packed and feeling like that suit should reach a friend who I was going to see in Chicago.   The label on the suit became extremely important at the time – it was an Evan Picone double-breasted navy wool suit.  The airport personnel immediately got suspicious and asked me why I was putting my suitcase on the plan and asked me to move away from the plane with them.  When I refused, the safety patrol man exerted more force and tried to get me to go with him.  In my fears, I turned to run down the runway away from the scene of the fears and ran completely down the airport runway up into a stand of pines, one shoe flying off in the process and resting in the snowy runway.  I recall exactly what I was wearing – a plaid pleated wool skirt in muted tones, a long sleeve silk blouse and a double breasted woolen gray or taupe sweater.  I don’t recall a coat or over-coat.   The safety patrolmen at the airport followed me into the woods with snow all around and made a chair with their arms for me to sit on.  I was in some stage of delirium and thought they were providing me some sort of throne to safety. 

Instead the next thing I knew I was being handcuffed to the backseat of a patrol car with the patrol lights flashing blue and white and was being escorted to the police station down the road.  When I arrived at the police station I kept telling the police that I was a Senior and straight A student at Ivy College and they must have made some mistake.  On the walls there were pictures of wanted criminals – I kept trying to figure out what the pictures meant.  There were three pictures:  a young woman who I thought looked like Ayn Rand, a man with a long beard who looked in my state to be like a long-haired Jesus and one other picture of a youngish man whose face I cannot recall.  What I do recall is feeling like a criminal and being treated like a criminal until a kind policeman named Michael started to ask me questions.  Once I started to talk with Michael I began to calm down.

After what felt like days of swirling and runaway thoughts and a myriad of questions, the police finally called my family and called the school clinic and I was escorted there.  Soon after, several of my college roommates arrived to be with me while the admission process continued.  After talking briefly with the clinic staff, I was transferred to the local hospital’s Psychiatric Unit. 

Within the next few hours my parents arrived in town and tried to begin to make sense of what had happened.  I recall my parents visiting me in the hospital mostly my Dad whose anxiety I could sense was through the roof.  Within a couple of days, we made arrangements to go back home to Augusta, Georgia.  I unenrolled from classes and moved back home to live with my parents for the spring and summer of 1985.  No one was sure yet if this was a temporary reaction to stress as a Senior and as a Senior thesis writer or the beginning of a lifelong behavioral health diagnosis and challenge.