by michele sprague
w r i t e s t y l i n g s
first published in
my life with bipolar disorder
The million dollar smile
He said my smile was worth a million bucks, or was it that I had a million-dollar smile?
I remember when smiling was foreign to me. I’d wake in the morning feeling great for a few minutes, and then the dark clouds came, weighing in on my body, pressing down on me. Depression overwhelmed me, so much so that my entire body ached. I felt empty, hopeless, sad beyond belief, and exhausted.
An emotional black hole
It was another day filled with mental and physical pain…another day spent looking for ways to make the pain stop. I sought help from the big one – God. I was in the early stages of finding Him. I also saw a psychologist for therapy, joined a support group, and listened to Melanie Beattie healing tapes. I read books like Happiness Is a Choice and joined a running club. Nothing worked. I sank deeper and deeper into an emotional black hole.
I wondered how I could enjoy my new relationship with God, love Him, and still feel this intense pain. It was like nothing I ever experienced. I began to understand why people kill themselves, they want to stop the pain. So did I, and I entertained thoughts of committing suicide. Once when running, I visualized doing the deed. It felt real. I sobbed and limped home.
Even in my desperate search for help, my suicidal thoughts were a closely-kept secret. I was afraid that if I revealed them to anyone I would be admitted to a hospital – maybe locked up forever.
My life was spiraling down fast. Scared, I called my therapist. He referred me to a psychiatrist who focuses on chemical imbalances.
The psychiatrist listened to me and asked me a series of questions. He seemed to know the symptoms I experienced without me telling him. Our session ended when he diagnosed me as bipolar 2. He said after six weeks of taking the medication he prescribed, a lot of those symptoms would disappear. I left his office feeling optimistic. Maybe this was the help I needed.
A real smile
Six weeks later, something wonderful happened. I was in my car and heard something funny on the radio. I smiled – something I hadn’t done in a long time. It felt so good that I pulled the car over and looked at my smile in the mirror.
It was as if the sun burst out from behind the dark clouds, gobbling each one up. The cobwebs in my brain cleared, and I was smiling – even laughing. The medication wasn’t a miracle worker, but it squelched my black depression and left me with the ability to deal with my problems.
That was nearly 20 years ago. I don’t remember what it felt like to live with intense mental and physical pain for no apparent reason, and I don’t want to go there again. So, I take my medication and see my psychiatrist regularly. The dark clouds came back to haunt me once in the last 20 years, and I immediately saw my psychiatrist for help and got back on track.
The big secret
For the most part, I prefer to keep my bipolar status under wraps. I guess it’s out of the bag now with this story. There’s stigma and prejudice against people who are bipolar. Most people don’t know much about people with mental illness and expect us behave in negative, sometimes scary ways. Some of the most common beliefs are that we have wide mood swings, engage in manic behavior, and that we’re promiscuous, wild spenders, and we can’t sustain relationships or jobs. Even worse, some people, including the media, promote characteristics that bipolar people have tendencies to be violent.
Sometimes the media reports a story about a criminal or murderer, adding that the person is bipolar. This makes me cringe. They don’t comment if a person has asthma, hypertension, allergies, or was overlooked for a promotion. Labeling these people as bipolar compounds the negative stereotype of violence. People with bipolar disorders don’t come in one category, and most of us, like the general population, do not have violent tendencies.
Should I tell him?
Because of the negative stigma and prejudice, I’m careful about who I share my diagnosis with and when. I decided 10 months into a relationship would be a good time for this revelation. By that time, the person I’m in a relationship with would know what I’m typically like. I’m an okay, normal person who gets sad when the situation merits it – like when my boyfriend died from cancer or my job was eliminated.
Things moved fast when I met my husband. We started falling in love on our first date, so I felt he should know that I’m bipolar 2 sooner rather than 10 months later. Three months into the relationship, I told Larry about my diagnosis. I remember that nerve-wracking evening. When I tried to speak, the words stuck in my throat. It seemed to take hours before I had the courage to tell him. During this time, Larry grew nervous and wondered if I was going to break up with him. After I told him about my diagnosis, Larry acted like I told him about the weather – not anything serious like being bipolar 2.
At my suggestion, Larry came with me to the psychiatrist so that my doctor could tell him about my case and answer his questions. Again, I was nervous. I believe I’m okay, but what will my psychiatrist say? What if I’m a nutcase in denial? My psychiatrist of 17 years told Larry that I have a mild case and will be okay as long as I continue taking my meds regularly and get enough sleep.
Larry and I have been married for three years. As I expected, there haven’t been any crazy episodes or depressions.
I feel very lucky that I’m getting the treatment I need. I started seeing my psychiatrist four times a year; now I see him twice a year. When I asked him if I could get off the meds, he said it’s not a good idea. I’m fine because I take the medicine.
There are a lot of us
As many as 60 million people worldwide have bipolar disorder. Many of those people, like me, lead productive, happy lives. Some articles state that our 16th U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, had bipolar disorder. Other people with this diagnosis include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Oscar-winning actress; Mariah Carey, singer; Jean-Claude Van Damme, an actor; Ted Turner, media businessman and founder of CNN; Patricia Cornwell, crime writer; Patrick J. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Lynn Rivers, former members of the U.S. House of Representatives; Jane Pauley, a television journalist; maybe your colleague, sibling or neighbor…and me, a corporate communications and freelance writer.
Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with no cure, but it can be managed with psychiatric medication and psychotherapy. I’ve been doing it for nearly 20 years and plan to do that for the rest of my life. Being free of bipolar symptoms enables me to smile…and mean it.
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