Despite knowing something has been off for the last 30 years or so, I was surprised to hear the diagnosis. The day after we returned from the Holy Land last year, a doctor told me I had type 2 bipolar disorder. For the uninitiated, this is the type of bipolar disorder where you get all of the depression and none of the shoes. Let me clarify; my “manic” episodes are not characterized by daring adventures or shopping sprees, but by intense periods of hyper-focused activity. Think Carrie Mathison off her meds in Homeland, but not as smart. Anyone who has ever gotten an e-mail from me at three in the morning knows this.
Another surprise was accepting the physical part of this disease. Blood tests before all my doctor visits reveal a shifting landscape of brain chemistry that requires constant adjustment. I love how my doctor puts it: “We’re just trying to find a way to stop those losses in cabin pressure.” In the last year alone, I have been on nine different medications for various symptoms as we strive to find the best balance. I find myself freezing with each new attempt, wondering what this month’s side effects will be. My doctor has also seen a link between brain trauma and the physical manifestation of the disease. In my case, a bout with viral meningitis that landed me in the hospital at nineteen might be a factor. My first self-destructive episode happened about a year later.
Strangely enough, I didn’t feel any embarrassment over my diagnosis, just relief. Many of my friends and family don’t know what to do with me, though. I feel their unease. I can’t just “snap out of it.” It is a MOOD disorder. Those brain chemicals have a mind of their own. (Hee.) In some ways, it would have been much easier to have a broken leg or a disease they know how to respond to. No one brings you a casserole for bi-polar disorder. The fact is, the reason I finally pressed for help is that when I went into crisis this last time, I saw that it could be life-threatening. As life threatening as any other potentially fatal disease.
My kids get it better than anyone else. I have a profound solidarity with my son and his autism. I share some of his sensory and obsessive issues. I am more socially awkward than he is. My daughter was so relieved to have a reason for my blow-ups, really understanding that they are not her fault. She is the primary person who checks to see if I have taken my meds. She is on the front line.
Chemistry helps, but it is not a cure. During a particularly tough time last fall, one of my friends counseled me that I can’t rely on medication to do it all. Around the same time, I saw a feature on an actress who lives with MS. She spoke eloquently about changing her schedule so that she can continue to take care of her family and herself. “I have a disease,” I thought, “Maybe I should try that.” Seems obvious, huh? I have tried to do a better job of figuring out what my triggers are, what I need to function smoothly. For me, routine and schedules help. Then, there is the issue of saying “No”. Contrary to popular belief, I do say “No” a lot, it just seems that no one hears me. This is why we have a lab puppy. (Ironically, she was born on Valentine’s Day. This will make sense later).
My doctor tells me that many high-functioning people find themselves in this position. They can say “No” all they want and nobody really believes them. This phenomenon was the subject of a recent article on The Mighty website, “When You’re ‘Too Functional’ to Have Your Mental Illness Taken Seriously,” which discusses the pitfalls of having an “invisible illness.” People tend to question the validity of your condition. I am not being modest or self-deprecating when I say I can’t do something. Just because I am good at acting fine doesn’t mean it isn’t work, “a cognitive process.”
My faith has helped me survive these last 30 years in a way nothing else has. First, I am still here. I have been broken over this disease and have found a blessed dependence on God. Some people can help regulate themselves with meditation or yoga, but this affliction has caused me to go on my knees in a way nothing else has. Prayer has kept me from feeling alone when no one else around me understands my demons.
My husband, God bless him, has probably had the worst of it. I can see his frustration. He has had to alter his schedule to accommodate me and widen his understanding. It is so hard for any man to be told he can’t fix something. The best support he has given me are those times he has shown me solidarity. He has let me know that, even though he really doesn’t understand anything I am going through, he is not going anywhere.
The week after my diagnosis, it was Valentine’s Day. As you know, Ted is a big gift-giver. It was that day he gave me the most romantic gift I have ever received. There, in the middle of my flowers and chocolate, were two little stuffed polar bears. It was the first thing that had made me smile all week. Talk about a love that defies all understanding. My bi-polar bears let me know that he was in this for the long haul. This would not break us.
Wishing you your own true love story this Valentine’s Day,