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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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.

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Understanding the Inner Child

As discussed in a prior post, my inner child is like two very different people simultaneously.  There is that child who feels hugely responsible for every negative event that occurs going back to my parents’ divorce.  This child is about ten years of age.  Then there is that child of say maybe six who is seemingly ahead of the curve of regular events in time who may see things more in terms of circular time.   I continue to seek to find this six-year-old child within and nurture her.  My goal in seeking to find this child within is that by understanding her and nurturing her and her relationship to the ten-year-old worrier, I will have much less anxiety when there are situations outside of my control.

Over the years, I have been in the process of discussing this six-year-old child within with my therapist.  I am not sure technically what it might mean if I have a six-year-old and a ten-year-old child within.

I have spent years focusing on the ten-year-old child within who is often consumed with worries for the future.  I have focused on the typical feelings that the child within may feel responsible for negative events like my parents’ divorce and that this may translate some 20 years of illness forward to feelings of responsibility for terrorist threats (real or imagined).

Only since my daughter turned ten have I begun to focus on that six-year-old child.  Until now, the six-year-old child within has remained relatively undisclosed.  I am currently mid-process in finding out about her and what she is concerned about.  So far, what I feel is true is that the six-year-old child within is not plagued by high anxiety and is very carefree.  She believes in “magical outcomes” much like any child of six years.  She loves to think about match-making for people who are alone or appear to be alone.  She loves to think about patterns and how numbers and colors organize themselves in and around patterns.  She is generally a happy child and does not feel abandoned by divorce since the divorce “has not yet occurred.” 

How this six-year-old child relates to the ten-year-old child within will be a designated focus for me in my on-going spiritual journey.  My goal will be to honor that younger child within so as to perhaps relinquish the feelings of blame and responsibility for all things negative held tight by the older child.  I am not yet sure if this approach is supported by current therapy directions but I will plan to review in the months ahead.  Perhaps the reconciliation of the six-year-old and the ten-year-old will be the focus of a next text I will write.

Ironically, the ten-year-old child within likely has the ability to “tell time” in the linear and logical sense of the phrase.  The six-year-old child appears not to be able to “tell time” but experiences time more in terms of circular time or dream time and appears to be largely unconstrained by the realities of linear time and linear events.   

More recently (in the past two years) I have come to believe that there is a reason for the child within at age 6 and at age 10.  I am convinced some fifty years after the fact that I was sexually or otherwise abused as a child of about 6 years old.  I believe I was targeted by one or another neighbors.  My memories of this experience are largely blank, yet I feel that I endured something terrible at that age.  I will continue to explore feelings of abuse as time progresses.  This may help to explain the split between the child of 6 and the child of 10.  The six-year-old exists prior to the time of abuse.  The ten-year-old somehow feels responsible for that abuse as well as other painful events including happenings such as my parents’ divorce.