One time, I thought I was clinically depressed and my mother cajoled me into driving an hour to her house. I hadn’t showered for several days, relying instead on a “European” bath of baby wipes and wet washcloths. I hadn’t spoken to her in weeks (!).
I stripped out of the sleep pants and tee-shirt I had worn in my bout of hiding. I showered and hated every minute of it. Even this small act exhausted me. I almost called her to cancel. Guilt and love motivated me. I couldn’t let her see me like this.
We went shopping. I spent money I didn’t have. I kept on a smiling face because her problems (cancer) were so much graver than mine. But it crumbled after lunch. I lay on her couch and watched TV (I despise TV). Like a zombie.
She called me the next day and asked me to get help. “I’ve never seen you like that before.” Oops. My mask had slipped. The one thing I didn’t want to do, worry my mother, had been done. I went to the doctor and was misdiagnosed. Again.
Your spouse might leave you. It’s a rare person who can tolerate the deleterious effect of Bipolar. A shout out to those who believe the idea of in-sickness-and-in-health. I have the utmost respect for the support and love you give to your Bipolar partner.
I know my illness helped destroy my marriage. Between financial pressures and strange bouts of activity in the middle of the night, my husband watched me become a shell of what I once was. When asked why he wouldn’t leave the woman who was “just a friend,” he told me that “she reminds me of you when we first started dating.” Ouch. They were married last December.
Your children watch as you shut yourself away in your bedroom and sleep. Chores go undone and discipline is sporadic. They are left to fend for themselves in school. They learn how to cook their own meals, do their own laundry, and nag until you do what they cannot.
Your friends expect to be disappointed. You make plans and most times, you don’t show. You make excuses. You outright lie about an emergency that came up so you can feel better about letting everyone down.
You show up for the important things like weddings, birthdays, holidays, and graduations and often are the life of the party (hypomania). Alcohol helps temporarily, but the next day you feel like complete and utter shit. Without a hangover(!).
At work, you might have outbursts of extreme irritability from time to time. Otherwise, you are perceived as bright and friendly. Every effort to appear normal is to make sure you don’t get fired. Not every sufferer is lucky enough to keep a job because it’s so damn exhausting to wear a happy face when you feel so miserable. Your employer might see a dip in productivity or a string of “no shows.”
Everything that you once enjoyed becomes a shadow that must be avoided. Your light is focused on whatever is most important to you and cannot be aimed at the reality of your illness. As I spiraled downward into the abyss, I stopped reading books(!). I stopped writing. I stopped listening to music (!). I stopped going to metal shows. All my efforts were directed to succeeding at work.
My world became so narrow and joyless that my goal was to see my children off into the world and force a sleep from which I would never wake. As I pondered this, I started arranging my affairs. I couldn’t let whatever monster was devouring me steal another joy from my life.
Antidepressants did not help completely. My anxiety disappeared but the cycling and mixed states became almost unbearable. I had a full-on mania in the middle of ritual and I was one of the lead officiants.
I scared the shit out of everyone. I was asked to leave the group with the accusation of: “You stopped taking your medication.” Which I hadn’t, but the anti-depressant made things worse instead of better.
I remember when one of the Senior Crew came to our daily coffee klatch to report that his son had committed suicide. His pain was so deep that he seemed defeated. How could he not have known that his son was so unhappy? I didn’t know what to tell him. The cause was unknown.
A few years later, a couple months after I had been diagnosed properly, I returned to the the daily coffee klatch after struggling with my own bout of illness. “I want to tell you something, but it may illuminate why your son committed suicide. You have the choice to hear it or request my silence.”
I watched him silently debate the offer but finally he nodded. “Go ahead.” Brave man.
As I explained my experience, my pain, his head lifted. His eyes widened. “That’s just like my son. He’d do great at work and then his housemates noticed he wouldn’t come up for dinner as much. When he came over for holidays, he’d lie around and watch TV. He used to be so full of life and before he left us, he was only a shell of who he had been.”
“You couldn’t have known.” I hated what I had to tell him. “Most doctors refuse to believe Bipolar is a spectrum. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t his fault.” I gave him a place to shift the blame with the hope that he advocates for those who suffered like his son.
I asked my sons, “Did you know I was ill?” Both nodded. “Why didn’t you tell me?” My older son shrugged. “How do you tell your mother something like that? I didn’t even know where to begin. I just knew that something was wrong because you faded over the years.”
This is what untreated Bipolar II looks like to your loved ones. They don’t understand what has happened to the person they knew. You become a stranger to them.
Mental illness is such a taboo subject that few people discuss the feelings that are trapped inside. The condition runs in families because it is a wiring in the brain, not a weakness. You can’t help this any more than someone who has a heart attack and discovers they have a disease. Sometimes it’s too late.
Don’t be ashamed. Don’t give up hope. Do the research when you have the energy. Find a doctor who specializes in mood disorders. Get help. If you need resources, hit me up in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to tell me where you’re from, and I’ll find possible matches with physicians.
Ultimately, it’s up to you. You can remain in hell or you can return to being the person you used to be. The people who love you will thank you for getting well.
Stay tuned for the next installment: How Treated Bipolar II Presents to Those Who Love You
©2017. I.O. Kirkwood. All Rights Reserved.