In his own words: living with bipolar disorder
Jim, a 65-year-old Floridian, has battled bipolar disorder for more than two decades. He raised a family and owned a successful business. He is now retired and spends his time reaching out to others with mental illnesses.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
I had my first episode of bipolar illness in 1979. I was visiting my parents in Florida and started talking constantly. I couldn’t sleep. I ended up in the emergency room with a diagnosis of manic-depression. I stayed with my parents for about a month and didn’t discuss the illness. When I returned home to Illinois, I flushed the pills down the toilet.
During the next two years, I did pretty well, even though I kept having mood swings. Then in 1981 after being promoted to vice president of the company, I started to unravel. I was traveling to a conference with several associates and made a fool of myself on the airplane. I became loud and shoulder-blocked a copilot. When I reached the hotel, I came unglued again, sitting on the floor, drinking scotch and refusing to let anyone in the room. The paramedics came, put me in a straight jacket and took me away on a stretcher. It was humiliating. At the hospital, I stayed locked in a quiet room for three days. I remember praying a lot. I gained a lot of humility during those three days.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
I dismissed the first doctor’s diagnosis. When I got home, I went to my general practitioner, who referred me to a psychiatrist. But I didn’t want therapy. I denied my illness. By the time I needed help again, I was an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital, where I received counseling and drugs.
I became manic and depressed again after surgery for cancer in 1986 and after back surgery in 1991. In 1993, I became extremely depressed. The antidepressant medications couldn’t pull me up. I seriously considered suicide and admitted myself to the hospital. The doctors gave me so many medications; I had a manic episode. Eventually, the doctors were able to stabilize me.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
I didn’t believe the first emergency room doctor. It’s easy to blame bipolar episodes on something else and not the fact that your mind is not perfect. I was afraid if anyone found out about the diagnosis, my career would be down the toilet. Depression and mental illness carried such a stigma back then.
When I look back, I realize bipolar illness has been with me all my life. I’d have active episodes then down periods. Now, I try to chart my moods. I know I will have more episodes, even with the medication I take. Overall, I maintain a good, positive attitude. People have to take responsibility for this illness. Everyone gets something at sometime. What matters is how we deal with what we are dealt.
How is your disease treated?
I take medication to control manic episodes and depression. I also take a sleeping pill when I cannot fall asleep. I’ve been to counselors and therapists, who have helped me work through my issues.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to your illness?
No. I can’t do anything physical for any length of time. It’s demoralizing. I’d like to exercise more, but the cancer surgery left me with little leg muscle. I watch what I eat and avoid putting on weight.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
I wanted to meet people like me. In Illinois, the closest group met 45 miles away and was very secretive. When I moved to Florida, I worked with a psychiatrist to start a local support group, and I began speaking to groups. If I can light one candle, it is better than the curse of darkness. I still participate in support groups. Groups bring people together. It’s a way of coping.
Did/does your condition have any impact on your family?
My second wife has lived through this illness with me. Without her, I don’t know where I would be today. My parents didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t realize I was depressed while married to my first wife, but the disease probably contributed to our marital problems.
What advice would you give to anyone living with this disease?
When you need help, reach out. Get counseling. Contact the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association for information and lists of support groups. Folks with bipolar and depression have an excellent chance of living with a stable condition, returning to work, and enjoying life. A lot has to do with your attitude toward the illness.