My Own Life

In 1996 I went to see a doctor of internal medicine because I was feeling so depressed that I was having trouble functioning.  He talked to me for 10-15 minutes and diagnosed me as bipolar, telling me that I needed to take lithium, which would require blood tests every quarter to make certain that the doses in my bloodstream were therapeutic and not toxic.  Remarkably, I was not overjoyed with that news – any of it, honestly – and as soon as I started to feel a bit better, I stopped taking the medication.

In 1999 I first went out of work on disability for depression.  I was working for Utica Community Action, Inc. – a story in and of itself, trust me – and was married and living in an old Victorian house that we were renovating.  Hmm – or were we living with my in-laws?  It’s impossible to remember – I probably have something that would tell me, but so much of my life back then runs together…  When I came back to work, to “punish” me (and yes, I’m not exaggerating, if you knew my boss, you’d totally understand) the CEO, Ray, gave my position to a woman who’d never done anything like it and gave me hers – teaching adults and kids to pass the GED.  I immediately started looking for a new job.

I took enough courses at the College of St. Rose, driving back and forth between Utica and Albany once a week, to get the coursework completed for a 7-12 English teacher’s license.  I went to work in a one stoplight town in Central New York, Camden, where I was a part of a brand new co-teaching program.  Over the course of that first year, I left my husband because I could feel that black presence of depression gathering steam once more and knew that I would never get tenure if I went out on disability in the first three years of employment.  Unfortunately for me, I was seeing a psychologist in Syracuse who was more interested in hearing himself talk than helping me – and my psychiatrist put me on an antimanic drug called Topamax – the side effects of which are forgetfulness and confusion.  Sounds perfect for a teacher, right?  Needless to say, there are huge gaping holes in my memories of those three years.  I know that I essentially offended or pissed off three co-teachers – two full time and one who subbed in when my regular co-teacher was out on maternity.  I was given a chance to try for one more year…but I decided to relocate instead.

In the three years I was in Camden, though, my mania was almost completely out of control.  Sleepless nights, “poetry” writing that was somehow meaningful to me at the time but then completely senseless the day after, tons and tons of projects that I started and never finished, and so much risky behavior.  Thinking about some of my choices then still makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Moving to Virginia didn’t fix things.  I saw a nice doctor and therapist – they did take me off of the Topamax and Linda, the therapist, informed me that they called that drug “Stupid Max.”  Great!  Linda also introduced me to a book that started a major turn for me – An Unquiet Mind, by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison.  Up until then, I didn’t believe anyone else felt like I did. I thought I was the only one broken and damaged and just fucked up the way I was.  Who else could possibly understand staying up for 2-3 days straight and then sleeping and crying and loathing myself for 2-3 weeks straight?  This memoir of Jamison’s experiences with her own bipolar and a little bit about her dad’s was like a ray of light and a bolt of lightning all in one.  I’m NOT alone!  I discovered this around the same time that I went out on disability again – my first year in Virginia, when I was working in York County.  When the principal found out what my diagnosis was (foolish me), my contract was not renewed.

I then went to grad school.  This was incredible – I did have a brain and, apparently, a good one!  I had to get back into the swing of studying and, well, William and Mary was quite a lot harder than LeMoyne or St. Rose, but I felt GOOD!  I could do this!  My grades were good!  Go Me!  Before I finished my Masters, a fellow classmate told me about a job opening, I applied, and I was hired as a Dozier Dragon, teaching 8th grade English.

That was, unfortunately, not the end.  That doctor gave me a new prescription for every complaint I mentioned until I was taking medicine to wake up, to stay awake, to prevent depression, to prevent mania, to prevent anxiety, to go to sleep, to stay asleep… By the 4th year at Dozier, I was a strung out mess.  Again – there are serious gaps in my memory, which I’m assuming are because of medication and I’m hoping will someday return, but one never knows.  I once again had to go out on disability.  Again, I made the mistake of telling my supervisors – the Reading Specialist who was actually a Math teacher and thought that she could give me mental health advice (based on her experience going through divorce) and the Assistant Principal – that I was dealing with depression.  “Well, work through it.”  I decided to listen to my doctor.

So, here’s the truth – for that year and the better part of the following two school years I was almost always depressed.  I thought about suicide so often that there were nights I wasn’t sure how I’d make it to the morning because I hurt so badly.  I have attempted to hurt myself more times than I can count – but I started to dream about knives and cutting myself and just making the pain stop.  Surely it would be a blessing to my family and the people who had to deal with me every day.  Surely everyone would be relieved – as I would – to not deal with me any more.  You should have heard the way I talked to myself then – so hurtful – and I would cry and cry and then lambaste myself for being so weak as to cry.

I finally asked a counselor for help – seeing myself entering one of those lovely spa type places for a week of yoga and art therapy and dog petting and lots of therapy and a doctor to straighten out my medications.  I called a hospital – a treatment center called Poplars, I think, just outside of Richmond, Virginia.  The outer office, where I checked in, met with an intake worker, etc. – very nice, newly refurbished – very comfortable.  But then I was taken behind the locked doors.  No rugs, old beat-to-hell furniture, old t.v. hung high on the wall, no sharp anything, no shower curtains, no shoes, no laces or belts, they took all of my medications, my journal and pens, smoke breaks every hour for those who smoked, designated meal times – make it or miss out, period, no caffeine, no chocolate, nothing addictive in any way.  I attempted to leave – but though I could check myself in, I could not as easily check myself out.

I was stupid enough to check in on a Friday evening.  Therefore, there were no social workers or therapists all weekend.  Also, the doctor only did the minimal in terms of looking at your meds and talking to you.  He immediately halved one of my meds saying that I was at the overdose level and he couldn’t imagine why it had been prescribed that way.  Yay.  The yoga and art therapy?  Not on the weekend.  I had a roommate – she had been there before, so she was able to tell me what to expect and how I should act.  I did a lot of reading, called my poor parents collect so that we could arrange for them to meet me at the clinic on Tuesday and officially break me out – though I could have been released on my own.  They had already planned to come down for Thanksgiving, so they just left a day early.  To say that our holiday celebration was quiet is an understatement.

The following May I moved home.  I couldn’t pull myself back together to work full time and I couldn’t afford to live in Williamsburg without a full-time job.  As much as I didn’t want to move home and I’m sure my parents weren’t thrilled with the idea of their mentally ill daughter moving in with them, it’s worked out remarkably well.  I’ve found a great therapist here, am finally on the right medications, and am actually working on other things – like my physical health and how to manage the bipolar beyond just the medication (because I get thrown off by things like bad weather, lack of sunlight, stress, etc.).  I’m still working on figuring out where I should be and what I should be doing – what I can manage as a full-time job so that I have insurance and am making payments into a retirement account, but in the meantime, I’m tutoring, I’m making art, I’m making connections, and I’m telling more and more people about being bipolar so that maybe – maybe someday – people will stop believing that it’s shameful to be bipolar or depressed or anxious.  People will not see mental illness as a character weakness, but the genetic condition or situational reaction that it is – neither of which is something that can be controlled.  I got bipolar because it runs in my family.  There are people who get PTSD, anxiety, bulimia nervosa, etc. because of trauma, stress, abuse… No one, NO ONE, would ever choose to be depressed or suicidal.

More and more I see articles about young people committing suicide.  There was something on Facebook tonight about these parents from Scranton, PA who wrote their daughter’s obituary to try to reach others and prevent suicides like hers.  A friend told me she was recently at a funeral for her daughter’s classmate whose mode of death is “unsure.”

This week my writing group’s Wednesday prompt (which is our “long” prompt each week) was as follows:

If you found out that you had a few months to live, looked back upon your life, and decided to write your own essay called “My Own Life,” what would you write? What details would become essential to record? How would you describe your purpose or define yourself as a human being? What would you discern as having mattered to you the most?

So what can I write?  I am not married, have no children, no house, no full-time job.  I haven’t published anything, do not have art in museums, have not won awards.  I don’t even have any real assets or investments.

But, my purpose?  To make a difference.  I need to make a difference.  I’ve been a case manager, for HIV/AIDS patients, drug addicts, pregnant teens, those affected by domestic violence, refugees, people simply struggling with poverty.  I’ve worked with teens as peer educators to teach others about media literacy and sex ed/abstinence.  I’ve taught kids in alternative programs, helped children improve their reading and writing skills, taught them about famous African Americans, engaged them in poetry, taught some elementary art skills.  I’ve tutored kids in reading, writing, math, and studying.  I’ve planted a couple of garden beds.  I’ve created some volunteer programs that still seem to be going strong.  I’ve made connections, painted art that still exists in public (though I’m devastated my NDHS Crusader was completely destroyed), and am working on writing – which people have told me that they’ve connected with (sorry for the dangling preposition).  I’ve loved family and friends and children, plus my crazy students.  I’ve spoiled lots of adorable pets and even those not so adorable (can you say “rat”?).  I’ve learned, prayed, and stayed open to learning more.  I’m not done yet – I’m still working on me – but I’ve been blessed and I try to be a blessing.

No one will write obituaries about me that will grace the NY Times or the Washington Post, but if, when I die, people legitimately mourn my loss because I’ve made a difference to them – even if just because my face painting brought them joy – then I will have succeeded.  (Props to Ralph Waldo Emerson – he keeps me humble, but reminds me that the little things mean a lot.)

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4 thoughts on “My Own Life

  1. wonderful write, Jennifer—first of all, I’m a retired social worker and you have done amazing and important things to help people and you should be proud of this and all of it can go on a very long obituary or tombstone (oh, so morbid!) second, being a manic-depressive myself and working 20 years in a mental health clinic, I can say that lithium is a hell of a drug to take–terrible side effects and only should be used if nothing else works (my opinion but backed up by a lot of experience in the clinic). Topamax will work but has a near lethal side effect, not the greatest—-I have been helped with Depakote—-some people need a combination of meds to calm the mania or hypomania including the new group of anti-psychotics and Klonopin always seems to help…..okay, enough with the technical stuff. An Unquiet Mind, by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison has helped a lot of people—why is it so hard for doctors to reveal their own experiences? Why do they have to be so darn patriarchal? I greatly admire you as a survivor who keeps going forward, while helping a lot of people to live their lives. This is deeply spiritual work, I feel. When you deal with helpless people and are there to help them, that is a wonder. You are like a sun shining on them (or the kindest mother). I know I value knowing you so much. And think your writing will extend you forward to more peace, basic needs met and a social future that is very rewarding…..it just takes time to come. Thank you deeply for writing this. It is so important to show how this illness is like any other and deeply, scientifically a brain chemical disorder, not a problem of personality. It is so hard to break the prejudice of people who would shun those who suffer…..

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