2016 was especially interesting for me as I realized that it had been 20 years since I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Now, don’t misread that as being a seminal moment, because it took me years before I’d really accept that this was to be forever a label that I would wear, years before my doctors finally agreed that this really was bipolar and not their diagnosis of choice, years and years before I decided that this was not a death sentence.
At the beginning, I took the medicine and when I felt better, I threw the medicine away and told myself that I was fixed – like taking antibiotics. But, the bouts of depression, with accompanying times of mania prior, just kept returning and getting worse, so I gave in and decided to look at this like diabetes. I needed to take medicine to keep me balanced.
Well, I lost jobs, got divorced, attempted suicide more times than I can recall, put myself at risk in the midst of the manias (the medicine I took was relatively ineffective against the manic episodes) over the years and finally decided that I needed a new location. I moved in with my uncle, Matt, in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was especially understanding as his former girlfriend’s daughter had been living with schizophrenia for many years. In fact, he helped me to find a doctor and therapist in Williamsburg.
When I got through my spiel with the new therapist, Linda, telling her all about myself and my needs and wants, et al, she said, “Ok, so you have Type 1 Bipolar Disorder.” I asked her how she could be so sure, and she pulled a book from her shelves and gave it to me. “Read this,” she said, “and then tell me what you think.”
The book that Linda had given me – which I’ve given others and own again now – was called The Unquiet Mind by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, co-director of the Mood Disorders Center at Johns-Hopkins Medical Center. But, her job had nothing to do with it – it was that she, herself, had bipolar disorder. The story begins with her father committing suicide, and then evolves as she does – talking about her manic episodes, how she’d run for miles at night while in grad school, her experiences at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, her struggle with winters and joy with summers, where her energy would abound. It was like someone had just started to speak my language. I finally felt understood and could start to better understand myself and the diagnosis.
If you’re wondering why this was such a seminal moment, understand that I had never met anyone with the same diagnosis as I’d been labelled with at the age of 24. Although it was good to have an “answer” to what was wrong with me, why I was always screwing things up, it still didn’t feel fully real. Of course, part of that might be the medicine that they’d given me which had as side effects – mental confusion, and loss of memories. Perfect for an 8th grade English teacher. In hindsight, it’s no wonder that I failed at that teaching job. There were experiences I truly couldn’t understand because I couldn’t remember them!
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison has become one of my very favorite people and biggest heroes because she has written about her experiences. In learning from her, I decided that I, too, would write about and share my own. If my experiences and the fact that I survived, can help even one other, then it’s worth any discomfort I might feel. I had to move home to get myself on my feet, but I’ve finally got a really good care team and I have been more stable these past three years than I have in the twenty before them. Also, I’m finally doing what I really love, even if it’s not a full-time job and not traditional. I’m a tutor to kids in grades 2-11 currently, and also a Masters’ student working on her thesis. I’m a writer, and I’m an artist. I paint all kinds of objects, but my passion is face and body painting. I had fallen off of practicing my art – thought I just couldn’t make a living that way. It turns out that I was wrong! So, thank you Kay Redfield Jamison – you helped to save my life and turn the corner to figuring out who I am. And, twenty years after my initial diagnosis, I’m finally ok with my unquiet mind.