I remember when I couldn’t hold the letters of a word together long enough to make sense of them. They flew off in all directions or got all jumbled up. I simply could not read no matter how hard I tried. Even if I forced myself to concentrate, to focus, to glue one letter to the next until I could put them together to form a word and then to make sense of that one word, it’s meaning was lost before I got on to the next. The letters would not hold together to form words, the words would not hold together to form sentences. Their meaning was completely lost on me. That is the brain FUCKED UP royally. No doubt about it.
This is My Brave as I write these words. This is My Brave as I blog about living with bipolar disorder. This is My Brave as I use social media to advocate for mental health. This is My Brave as I train to volunteer educating others about my experience living with mental illness. This Brave enables me to stand up and speak out against mental health stigma and discrimination. Fellow mental health advocates have emboldened me. Together we are braver than we are apart. This Brave connects me to others. This Brave breaks down walls I constructed to protect myself. This Brave breaks down walls others construct to protect themselves from their fear of mental illness and of those living with mental illness.
For years I disguised depressive symptoms behind a mask of high achievement and perfectionism. As a college freshman, I grappled with suicidal thoughts, believing that the world would be better off without me. I did not tell my parents, for I did not want to disappoint them. I did not tell my college acquaintances. I kept my secret. Those friends I did tell made me promise to get help, which I did. The psychologist I saw practiced cognitive behavioral therapy which helped me to distance myself from my suicidal thoughts.
Finding my brave over the course of my life since then has been a gradual process. I spent my twenties in and out of therapy. By the time I was thirty years old, I had undergone years of psychotherapy, gotten a masters in psychology, became a licensed marriage and family therapist, worked at a battered women’s shelter, treated children and adolescents in day treatment, and adolescent girls in residential treatment, and counseled pregnant and parenting adolescents. As you can see, I was pretty deeply involved in the mental health field. Until one day I just could not, for the life of me, get out of bed. Not at all. This time, I called my parents and asked for their help. Crying over the phone, I told them that I just couldn’t do it anymore.
My parents flew up to help. All I had to do was ask. For the first time, I sought medical help for my depression. No longer did I try to tough it out using only psychotherapy, now I added psychiatric treatment and antidepressants to my arsenal. Unfortunately, tricyclic antidepressants triggered a week-long manic psychotic break, during which I did not sleep and thoughts raced through my mind faster than I could comprehend them. Since this break occurred in response to medication, I was not diagnosed bipolar at the time.
Recovery from this break involved moving back in with my parents. I took a temporary position with a commercial real estate firm that began a decade-long career in commercial real estate, a field not as emotionally demanding as psychology, but that took advantage of my still undiagnosed hypomanic symptoms.
My hypomanic symptoms were not yet included in the DSM diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder. Instead, I was an overachiever diagnosed with chronic depression. I would tell doctors that I was at the very least cyclothymic, for I achieved more and produced more – way more – than others. I was a full-on workaholic. At work and in my personal life, I was honest and open about my diagnosis of depression. When undergoing dosage or medication changes, I informed my supervisors, for such changes often temporarily affected my behavior at the office.
At the age of thirty-nine, I began once again experiencing the euphoric sensation that God was calling me to do something. I recognized the symptom as mania and called the advice nurse, who recommended that I see a psychiatrist or go to the emergency room immediately. Upon receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder type II, I again openly shared my diagnosis with my employer.
In the workplace, with friends, and with acquaintances, I always found it more natural to be open and honest about my diagnosis. Having once been a mental health professional, I long had a passion for mental health. I knew that others could not see my illness. I knew that by sharing this fact I would challenge their assumptions.
Secrets are more damaging than openly being yourself. Once I hid behind perfectionism. As I became more accepting and forgiving of my own imperfection, of my humanity, as I showed myself the same compassion I once showed my clients, My Brave grew, grew to what it is today. This is My Brave now.
Today’s post is about my psychotic break at the age of thirty and the mystic and religious thoughts racing through my mind in the midst of my breakdown. Flying through my mind at a speed that made it impossible for me to understand or process the content, I had simultaneous thoughts in binary, about Christian mystic saints, and about chaos theory. At the time, I had the ability to observe the thoughts and wonder as to their meaning. I remember thinking, “Wow, if only I could record these thoughts and try to decipher their meaning later when I’m able to think clearly. I’m no computer, so I have no idea what, if anything, the zeroes and ones mean.” I had the sensation that I was simply channeling knowledge, that somehow I had tapped into a vein of mystical wisdom, but had no way of knowing whether the thoughts were wise or whether they were nonsense. I was familiar with the Christian mystics, having studied them and identifying with their experiences. At only the most rudimentary level, I was also familiar with the work of physicists and theologians linking chaos theory with theology. I knew the ones and zeroes represented binary code, but had no way of reading or unlocking the code.
As a freshman at UCLA, I fell into a deep depression, believing that my parents, my sister, the whole world would be better off without me alive. I saw a UCLA psychologist whose cognitive therapy helped me with my suicidal thoughts. Still, my underlying mental illness remained, and I ended up quitting UCLA. Eventually I transferred to UC Berkeley. During my junior year at Berkeley, my mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and my maternal grandfather died. I was devastated.
The death of my grandfather hit me particularly hard. On my way home from his funeral while driving over the Bay Bridge, I fell into a trance state and had an out-of-body experience, which in retrospect I understand as the beginning of a manic episode. Given my history of depression, I knew if I went to a mental health professional and described my experiences, which I considered mystic, they would diagnose me with a mental illness. But I found them spiritually meaningful and did not want the meaning dismissed. I interpreted them as God calling me to the ordained ministry.
Years later, at the age of thirty I had a complete psychiatric breakdown. I was literally unable to get up out of bed and had to stop working. I turned for the first time to my medical doctor for medication, up until then I had managed my depression with psychotherapy. First my internist prescribed Prozac which overstimulated me and made me want to jump out of my skin. Then my doctor added Trazodone to take the edge off the Prozac side effects. I sought a second opinion from a psychiatrist who put me on a tricyclic antidepressant which led to manic ramping and rapid cycling. I ended up spending a week awake, thinking simultaneously at rapid speed in binary (in zeroes and ones), about chaos theory (which I had never studied), and about Christian mystics, with whom I still strongly identify. At the time, I wished that there had been a way to record my thoughts so that later I (and a computer) could decipher them and see if any made sense. The content involved topics with which I had some basic knowledge and interest, but the experience was that of channeling information beyond my comprehension.
That week of mania was my first and only full-blown psychotic episode. I wasn’t sure whether I was bipolar, for the episode was likely precipitated by the tricyclic. I was not put on a mood stabilizer. My psychiatrist prescribed a three-day regime of antipsychotics which stopped the racing thoughts in their tracks and allowed me to sleep. At that point, I simply couldn’t function on my own. I would fall asleep driving to my temporary job. When at the job, I couldn’t even read. The words were all jumbled. I appeared competent. No one could see that I, a highly educated and articulate former professional woman, COULD NOT EVEN READ A SENTENCE.
So I returned to my parents’ home. They were tremendously supportive and encouraged my recovery by giving me work to do and charging me room and board. Once I was up for it, I got outside employment, starting as a temporary file clerk. I continued my pattern of overdoing it, working long hours and neglecting myself, leading to repeated burn out and cyclical depression. As a result, my résumé which you can find on LinkedIn lists numerous short stints at various jobs and in multiple career areas.
Soon after moving back in with my parents, I met my future husband, a civil engineer who didn’t own a car, just three motorcycles and a small plane. Not your average engineer. Interesting. Complex. He even spoke Mandarin. Three years after we met, we married and later had a son. Since both my son and husband are very private, I hesitate to write much of my life as wife and mother. I can say, though, that I found being home with an infant difficult. At the same time, I found being at work, away from my son, heart-breaking. After childbirth and a pregnancy that kept me bedridden for five weeks, I returned to the workplace on a part-time basis. My job, as always, grew, consuming more and more of me, while my son needed me home with him. When I worked first two then three days a week, my sister and my husband would care for my son. By the time that my responsibilities demanded that I work four days a week until 7pm, I put my son in a loving home-based childcare setting. Every time I would leave my son at childcare, he would cry for a good one and a half hours. I visited him during my lunch hour, which meant that he we would cry again after lunch. It broke my heart. Finally I decided to quit work and stay home with him full-time.
Finally, at the age of thirty-nine, I realized that once again I was experiencing the symptoms of mania. I sought psychiatric treatment and medication for bipolar disorder, put my son in daycare where I thought he would receive better care than at home with me, and I returned to work part-time. Working part-time while struggling with cycling moods didn’t last long. Eventually I had myself voluntarily hospitalized, spent two weeks in the hospital and months in partial hospitalization. Since then, I’ve been home full-time on disability. I look much like the other mothers in the neighborhood, but life remains a precarious balancing act. I can get easily overwhelmed. My moods shift given change in weather, season, and life events.
Now fifty years old, as I write this blog, meet with other writers, communicate with mental health bloggers, advocates, poets, and other writers, I have overcome my self-imposed isolation. I reclaim my life. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a writer, a blogger. I live with bipolar disorder type II. I do my best. Who knows what the future has in store for me.