My Bipolar Life: A Mini-Memoir

My astrologer is in sort of a crisis mode these days, so I don’t really want to bother her with the question: Why is it that I am feeling bombarded by people who feel that bipolar disorder is something to celebrate?  It’s true that if I weren’t bipolar, I couldn’t possibly have accomplished the feat of living several concurrent lives.

I’ve got a lot done.  I’ve created little empires, and lost them.  I’ve made a lot of money, and lost it.  I’ve had bosom friends, and intense relationships, and wonderful marriages–all gone.

I hated being a child.  Children were so…stupid.  Like cattle, running in herds, living their happy little lives, sniveling at trifles, reading Dick and Jane.  Innocent, docile, boring little things.  I refused to associate with them.

I had one friend, and one friend only: Terry Martin, whose father was a carpenter and let Terry use all his hand tools.  There was a creek in the woods behind my house, and Terry and I built bridges over the creek using scrap two-by-fours salvaged from Terry’s father’s scrap pile. We would design a bridge, build it, tear it down, design another one and build it, ad infinitum.  I imagine Terry must have grown up to be a famous architect.  We were seven, eight, nine, in our bridge-building years.

The rest of my childhood was consumed with books.  Grown-up books, not kid books; although I did love Charlotte’s Web and anything else by E. B. White, who is still my literary hero. And of course animals–horses in particular, and any other non-human creature.  I used to take in injured animals, wild bunnies who had been half mangled by the cat, a mouse rescued from the trap, and nurse them back to health.  It was my introduction to healing.

But I suffered terribly from depression–of course it was not known, in the 1950’s and 60’s, that children could be depressed.  But I had frequent bouts of overwhelming sadness and a sense of confusion, not knowing where I was in space or time, dissociation I would call it now.  I would cry for hours over seemingly nothing.  I hated my existence and wanted to be gone.

And then there were episodes of ecstatic heroic fantasy.  Like the time I tied the sleeves of my coat around my neck for a cape, and ran full throttle around the schoolyard shouting that I was going to save the world (it was the Cold War then, and the world needed saving). And the time I lost Terry Martin, by planning out and executing my fantasy of winning his nine-year-old heart to be my forever lover, by singing him a love song I had learned from the radio.  That heralded the end of our bridge-building days, and plunged me into a deep river of remorse.

High school.  Oh dear.  I suppose most high school girls spend their after-school hours writing poetry and drawing diagrams of what would later be called “wave-particle theory.”  It was the 60’s, it was Flower Power, it was Viet Nam, it was smoking pot, it was losing my virginity to a vicious rape and running away from home, all the way from Massachusetts to California. It was wandering, purposeless, homeless, sometimes adventure and sometimes just doing what was necessary to keep alive.

Young adulthood–three different art colleges, no degree, frequent bouts of dissociation, PTSD from the now many rapes and close shaves with abduction and what was then called “White Slavery,” now known as Sex Trafficking.  Paralyzing depressions, then marathon painting sessions, up all night listening to WGBH Boston and working on three or four canvasses at once–hanging them on the otherwise bare walls of my bedroom and moving from one to the other until 3 am when the fishermen’s coffee shop (Mike’s) opened and I could go down the hill for espresso and listen to the hushed conversation of the Gloucester fishermen, getting their coffees and Italian pastries to warm their bellies before heading out on their boats for the day.

And then it was back up the hill for me, to get ready to hitchhike to art school, take my chances with whatever creep pulled over to pick me up–would he be manageable or would I have a fight on my hands first thing in the morning–who knew? Left art school one quarter shy of graduating–I had to go play in my boyfriend’s band.  Granted, it was a good Irish band but couldn’t I have just stuck it out three more months and graduated?  No.

Everything was a blur.  I could not concentrate.  They told me I was good, if I could only get it together–but I couldn’t get it together, because I didn’t know what together was.  So I quit to join the band. We had a good roll with the band, and I was painfully in love.  He told me flat out he wished he could tell me that he loved me, but he didn’t.  I kept on hoping…and lapsing into states where I would go far, far away and no one could reach me, so they just went on and left me to my own devices, and I would wake up crying, feeling lost and abandoned.

Decided I’d better be a doctor, because that’s where my heart was–and is.  Talked my way into University of Chicago without a high school diploma–how did I do that?  I was on a high and nothing could stop me.  I blazed through the interview, charmed the interviewers, and got in.

My parents had had enough of paying for schools, so they refused to help with this one.  So I worked three jobs–from 6 am to 8 am blood rounds as a phlebotomist at the hospital.  Ten to three, classes.  Three to eight, nap and homework.  Nine pm to 2 am, cocktail waitress at a downtown disco.  3 am to 6 am, lab tech.  On nights I didn’t work the disco, I went out Latin dancing with the South American grad student crowd.  And at 9 am I ran three miles with Sunny, the girl I was in love with and didn’t find out she was also bi until after college. Sure I got depressed.  I just thought that was normal, since I’d always felt that way.

Let’s fast forward, because this is a blog post and not a book.  This is the interesting part anyway. After a dual degree in medicine and Medical Anthropology, I went on to a residency in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.  I was a very poor resident, partly because I had begun to have episodes of deep depression triggered by sleep deprivation.  Instead of recognizing that I was having a health problem, the administration punished me for my lethargy and crying spells by assigning me to more and more rigorous rotations–extra stints in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which I loathed, and extra time in the Pediatric Emergency Department in the Gulag, which is what we called the hospital in the northern reaches of Rochester, NY, also fondly known as the Knife-and-Gun Club, since it was situated in the heart of Gang War Territory.

I loved the Gulag, for some reason.  It was rough and tough and you never knew when there was going to be a lockdown because some gangs got in and were shooting it out in the stairwell.  It was my kind of  place. I ended up working nights there and becoming the Acting Director when the previous one quit.  I took the place from being a skunk works with one intern to a fully-staffed professional department.

Then the boss hired an old girlfriend over me.  She had no emergency medicine experience, was a developmental pediatrician.  I put on my cape and went into Superhero mode and wrote letters to every bigwig in the medical school.  I got fired.

I got a better job, developing a brand new pediatric emergency department in another part of the country.  I used what was turning into boundless energy to create a top-notch state-of-the-art facility. But that wasn’t all. I got married, bought a 32 horse boarding stable with 40 acres of land, 20 acres of prime alfalfa that we baled 5 times a year, and an asphalt hauling business.  We had one employee, a stable girl.  Otherwise, we did it all ourselves: my husband, my son, and his son.  And I worked 60 hours a week at the hospital. Not unpredictably, I got irritable and contentious.  I didn’t get partnership.

I quit and got another job.  I quit and got another job. I quit and went into practice for myself, which was heaven on a stick, except that now I was having to go into my private office between patients to cry. Disaster hit.  A church-based organization bought out my hospital, which owned my building, and I was suddenly practice-less.  The blow was too much.  It sent me to the hospital, the first time out of twice. I have never been the same since.

Yes, I did create mini-empires with my bipolar.  I could never have done all that stuff, and I haven’t even told you the rest.  But the price was too high.  I’m totally disabled now.  At sixty, I have little to look forward to. I think now, in these days, when there is so much more consciousness about mental health in general and bipolar in particular, there might be hope for consciously channeling that super-hero energy while somehow mitigating the crushing depressions.  I certainly hope so.

For me, it’s a day late and a dollar short.

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25 Comments

  1. Terri

     /  November 19, 2013

    I’m right there with you. I look back and I’m amazed at the things I accomplished, but really out of sheer desperation. I have cptsd and thought mass degrees would gain me some respect and get me away from the triggering I was experiencing by dealing with humans. I did it, got them, totally ruined my physical health as well. Now I’m 50, can’t do much of anything, live on disability, constantly weaning off meds, trying others, becoming suicidal. I feel like all that work, all that determination actually contributed to destroying me. I dreaded an old age being dependent on social services for housing, food, etc. Yet here I am, and here is where I’ll remain.
    However, I cherish my back up plan if it all gets too horrible.

    Reply
  2. its never too late (or so i hear). but it certainly is disgusting and disconcerting to see what was and shouldn’t have been and should have been. to know that with some help, well, what could’ve been changed, bettered, stopped. i hear you, i know those cant-stop-me-highs and im-better-off-dead-lows. we burned the wick at both ends to shine so bright and do so much, we turned dark until the candle was almost snuffed. we used ourselves up and have nothing left. and the life we have now is not one we ever figured on having. but as you say, here we are, and so here we stay.

    Reply
  3. How do you deal with the loss of your career?

    Reply
  4. My highs weren’t as high as yours but I, too, went through my share of self-employment escapades as well as an advance degree in the medical field only to find myself overwhelmed to the point of a suicide attempt. Now, disabled and learning how to take care of myself. Funny how I thought that is what I was doing all of those years of making a high dollar living…

    Reply
  5. I don’t know the highs, but am right there with you all in a low presently…very low. Hate it. I’ve taken the back-up plan off the books…thanks to a huge growth in my faith and trust in God that everything is a part of my life’s journey. Been through a great deal but always come out the other side it turns out. Not sure how I’ll do it w/out my soul mate and husband who is terminally ill, but somehow there will be a way. *crying* Peace to your hearts

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry, Sara. ((hugs)) I lost my faith in God, even to the point of doubting that there is any kind of “deity” that looks after us personally…yes, I know that all this stuff, universes etc. had to get here somehow, but otherwise, I’ve run out of faith. I’m glad you’ve kept yours. Hang onto it. Sending love!

      Reply
      • I’m saddened to hear you have lost your faith. Having heard about how many struggles (to put it lightly, I know) you have had to endure, and still do, I can see how your faith would be shaken to the core, and even lost. Oddly enough, it is through my struggles (sometimes that’s putting it lightly) that my faith was strengthened. I haven’t lived nearly what you have, though. I will be praying for you, that your faith be somehow restored, because I know what a blessing my faith is during these dark days and wish that for you. Please, understand that I am not putting you down for having lost your faith because I really am not! You are a remarkable woman, Laura, a survivor to the nth degree and I truly honor whatever way you have to get there. Peace to your heart

        Reply
  6. “The-End-Of-The-Road Club”? Good idea. Maybe with our combined talents and smarts we could come up with a way to make money without endangering anyone’s SS disability status.
    Doc.

    Reply
    • I like that idea. Remember that movie “The Misfits” with Marilyn Monroe? I feel more like that these days (although not as young or good-looking 😉 ). If you come up with any good ideas let me know.

      Reply
  7. Hi Dr. S.,
    Here are a few suggestions for services and products The-End-Of-The-Road Club (TEOTRC) could offer:
    1. TEOTRC drug treatment facilitator – features include: home delivery – to avoid those pesky pharmacy runs, a personalized reminder system for refills and daily administration schedules, a reminder for scheduled shrink appts. to obtain needed Rxs with an automatic 1 week delay and reschedule function for times when it’s too much fucking bother to go.
    2. TEOTRC personal hygiene products: like “Sometime Soon Shampoo”, “Good Enough for Me” toothpaste, “Lasts for Weeks” body wash, and “Oxy(codone)Clean” laundry detergent – designed to get your stains out or help you forget about the pile of laundry all together.
    3. TEOTRC personal food shopper: a service that allows you to order in MUST HAVES such as cereal, T.P., turkey jerkey, and chocolate covered raisins as well as “OK, I might eat that” items like milk and veggies. These items can be delivered to the door or be placed in a metal cabinet (keeps the critters out) at the end of the client’s road where they can be retrieved in privacy and leisure.
    Whatcha think? Doc.

    Reply
  8. Me? Offended? Never! Glad it made you laugh. Doc.

    Reply
  9. Wow, you have hit on all of this in bits and pieces, but to see it all come together….amazing life. You deserve a restful retirement to write and connect and reflect. I am a bit the opposite, I freeze with fear. You seem fearless and leap after what you want. It’s a gift in my eyes.

    Reply
  1. Mental illness – memoirs about healing from PTSD and traumatic events | Trauma and Dissociation

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