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Living La Vida Loca (What's a Bi-Polar to do?)

The sun rises and the sun sets, but before it sets, the shadows start out ahead of her sneaking across the land, falling upon every plant and tree limb, every building, every face. Sometimes the full moon rises and brings back some light to make the night less foreboding, but mostly the night is dark, the only signs of hope, stars. But, then, there are the moonless nights shrouded in clouds.

My depressions start like that, slow and insidious even when I feel like the sun is still shining. Like a prowler, that shadow spirit haunts me. I feel uneasy, have trouble sleeping. Sometimes there are nightmares, grotesque faces, angry voices, and the moaning of pain. I toss and turn. I awaken exhausted, dreading another day. The sun hurts my eyes. I seek the shade of the trees. I stay indoors, close myself off from the world, sadness and grief my companions. There is no comfort.

Friends say, "Call me when you get to feeling blue. You can lean on me. I'll be there for you." That's the last thing on my mind. Reaching out is not part of shadow self.

"Just think happy thoughts. Watch funny movies. Focus on the positive," well meaning acquaintances say. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it all before. But find myself not reaching out. Who can reach out when curled into fetal position?

It's brain chemistry. It would be like telling a diabetic to produce his own pancreatic hormone by magically inducing healing insulin. Mind over matter stuff only works so far. Ordinary depression that everyone feels at some point in their lives is not a mental illness. It's not the kind of depression that takes over my life like an unwelcome overbearing relative. I was so grateful to science when I learned that I was not to blame for being crazy. It’s brain chemistry! Too bad I didn't know that back then.

Doing without medication to fix my brain chemistry is a big mistake, like an asthmatic doing without an inhaler. Things just get worse. Lives are in danger without psychiatric medication… especially my own. I’ve learned that the hard way.

Though, over the years I’ve also learned, if I can manage to pay attention and focus my awareness. I can remind myself that it's not permanent, that it will eventually go away. Everything changes. Rivers flow. Winter changes into spring. The sun rises and sets. But I need the help of brain chemistry changers to help me get through. Otherwise I'd be dead now. I would have continued to make attempts to end my life. Science. I love science!

Of course medication is not the be all, end all of the problem. Pop a pill and your well? Not exactly. But, at least life is more tolerable and can be productive. With bipolar disorder, which is what I have, one must learn to recognize the mania. By definition mania is "a state of abnormally elevated or irritable mood, arousal, and/ or energy levels". That's saying it mildly.

I like the elevated moods… feeling happy, especially the ones of my youth. I could go on for weeks like that, loving myself and everyone I met. Smiling and showering those smiles upon the world. Truly everyone loves me when I'm like that. I believe I can do anything I want. I succeed and accomplish whatever I set out to do. My brain is my high caliber engine, racing along, multi-tasking with perfection. I get things done. I am artiste extraordinaire! I paint pictures that sell. I am a genealogy researcher, I speak to large groups and teach history. I'm a musician, entertaining Saturday night clubs and blessing Sunday morning churches with my voice. That was me in my thirties and forties.

I'm also a bitch on edge, fighting off anxiety attacks, sweating and palpitating, afraid my heart will explode. A powerful desperate energy runs through me. I argue heatedly with my spouse. I criticize my kids, frightening the B‘Jesus out of them. I yell at strangers, that woman who took the last purple shirt during the sale, that young gangster guy who bumped into my car. I threatened him with my fist and flipped his hat back off his head. He could have killed me if he wanted. Even when manic, I challenge life to leave me, the Angel of Death grinning hopefully at my side.

I should count myself lucky, I guess. I've got what they call hypomania (Bipolar II). It’s not as obvious as full blown mania, exhibited on a grander scale than what I experience. That's why it took five decades before a qualified psychiatrist properly diagnosed me. I never saw a shrink when I was feeling manic. I thought I was well. I wasn't depressed. Why would I think otherwise?

True Bipolar I patients are a different story. I've seen them in the hospital those times I was there for depression and suicidal ideation. They pace. They cannot sit or stand still. They are not able to stop talking, changing the subject as though someone was constantly switching channels on a TV. Whenever I could catch what was being said by a fully manic person, their intelligence left me breathless.

For example: there was Irene. She had just returned from an exorbitant trip to China and gave me an valuable jade bracelet as a gift because I was her room mate in the mental ward we shared. She thought we were soul sisters within five minutes of meeting me. She knew that for sure. She had been looking for me all her life. She knew we would find others like us and begin our own community on an Island in the Pacific. Her whole trip to China and back, she had charged to her credit cards with no money to pay. When I met her, she was coming down off her expansive high.

Before I left the hospital I didn't recognize her. She had been given a drug called Lithium. We were no longer soul sisters. She was extremely calm. Her eyes were blank. She no longer had a personality. I was a stranger to her. When I tried to give her back the jade bracelet, she didn't recognize it as hers. At the time I didn't know I was a Bipolar, but I swore if anyone ever prescribed Lithium for me I would never take it and I’ve kept my promise to myself.

They used to say that the diagnosis of manic depressive illness was Schizophrenia because there was no medication to control it. That was the doctor told me when I first went for help after my second suicide attempt, at the age of twenty in 1965. He gave me that diagnosis because of the white light I saw when I had a near death experience during the birth of my daughter. It continued to manifest itself for a few months after. Hallucinations… he called them. I called them Visitations, yes, with a capital V. They were the only peaceful place in my life and I wanted badly to be with that light permanently. That’s the dichotomy!

Being the dutiful patient I took the two kinds of sleeping pills he gave me back then, and the tranquilizers, and the uppers to wake me up and get me going through the day. Truly I felt crazier than ever, and eventually flushed them down the toilet. I needed to tend to the needs of both my girls. I needed to hear my three month old baby, if she cried. I needed to know what my older girl was doing. A toddler climbing out of her crib, wandering about the house by herself, opening the door, going down the outside is not something any mother wants to experience!

With today’s medical wisdom we now know my diagnosis was partly post-partum depression. Maybe not the Visitations, though. I still think they were real. That Spirit Light is not something of this earth.

Flushing those drugs… that was a mistake. I didn't know you needed to go off those medications slowly. The mania came upon me then. I cleaned house from top to bottom, took my babies out for rides, buying and selling antiques. I packed up the house and drove 3,000 miles with my husband and kids. We made the trip in record time. He slept while I drove. I needed no sleep.

A few months later in the dead of winter, I was back to being immobilized, unable to take care of myself, let alone the girls. Arguing with my husband ended that day in the car when I opened the door and jumped out. Needless to say, that led to another hospitalization. That doctor said I was in no way a Schizophrenic. I was only despondent and suppressed by a bad marriage. "Get out of the marriage and your life will improve." He was right.

All the anger and irritation that had built up, dissapated and I was energized again, ready to take on the world. Splitting up was easy. Just like sweeping dirt into a dustpan and tossing it in the trash. I never looked back, got a job in a luggage factory sewing seams and zippers. I drove my car too fast, played the radio too loud, left the kids at the babysitters and went out and danced to Motown every weekend. Sleep? I didn't need it. Sitting at those heavy duty sewing machines was enough to put anyone to sleep.

Again there was that wonderful honey flavored life where I was the center of attention. I loved everyone and they loved me. It's not just an imaginary feeling. Studies show there's something about being manic that creates some charisma. People like a happy, magnanimous manic person. Even when irritable a manic can be quite convincing as to the reasons why. People easily overlook those outbursts as long as they are not with that person all the time.

During lunch breaks at the luggage factory, my co-workers would gather around me to have their fortunes told. In my teens I had read a book on palmistry once belonging to my grandmother. Suddenly it all came back to me with clarity as I pointed at lines on palms, the shapes of hands, noting their meaning and told people how many marriages and children they had, what their health and finances were, and even when they would die. I had full confidence I was right, and so did those whose palms I read, especially the woman who had four marriages and seven kids, three boys one girl, the one that had not survived her birth. I had gotten it right. They called me Gypsy.

One can only go sleepless for so many weeks playing the wise woman and  happy Motown dancing girl before one gets into trouble. I hadn't bother to pay bills, except for the babysitter, and before you know it I was evicted. I sold my furnishings, packed what I could in the car. I drove myself and my girls a thousand miles to live with my parents. That was a really big mistake.

A workaholic Dad, an alcoholic mom, a divorced older brother and two unhappy teenagers (my siblings) and a crazy woman with kids is a bad recipe for a healthy relationship.