Coming Out of the Shadows
Fighting Stigma: Mental disorders are caused organically within the body. It isn’t any different than cancer or heart disease. Thinking positively will not make mental disorders disappear. It is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. It is YOU!
Revealing my secret wasn’t an easy decision. I hid it for years. In fact, I hid it from myself. I knew I was different. When I was diagnosed three years ago with bipolar disorder, it didn’t come as a shock. Unfortunately, I believed it was in my best interest to keep it under wraps. What would people say about me? Probably what they’ve been saying all along: That girl is quirky. I kept my secret because of the stigma attached to mental illness. After some soul searching and openness to a few people, I decided it was time to generate conversation. People I worked with, friends I went to church with and family I lived with needed an understanding of what it meant to be bipolar.
Anxiety Disorder: Bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder often coexist with the development of symptoms as a child or young adult.
My first anxiety attack occurred at age eleven. I ran through the house screaming, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” My mother responded, “You must be breathing by the way you are running around this house.” Not wanting to be a negligent mother, especially since she wasn’t a professional, she took me to my pediatrician. His response gave both of us reassurance, but now that I look back on it he totally missed the mark. He diagnosed me with having gas that pushed against my diaphragm. I learned an explanation for something not understood can be easily explained away.
Running Away: One of the symptoms of adolescents with bipolar disorder is running away or threats of running away from home.
By age twelve, the seeds of bipolar disorder started to peek through the shallow yet fertile soil of my psyche. I ran away and, as much as I hate to admit it, it wasn’t my first time. My first journey started in front of the local library when I was nine years old. My overdue books pushed the picture of my mother’s disapproving face to the forefront of my young mind. I couldn’t face her. I hopped a bus not knowing where it would take me. After a few blocks, panic set in and tears slid down my face unto my tattered t-shirt. Fortunately, two old ladies with cinched in dresses around their robust waists took me home and bribed me with milk and cookies to tell them my phone number. The second time, once again I hopped a bus to the other side of the city. I hid at the foster home of my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend until my father hauled my little butt home. My parents took me to a psychiatrist. This time it was their fault because they weren’t paying enough attention to me. My father was a traveling salesmen and my mother’s life focused on my younger sister who had cerebral palsy and was profoundly mentally challenged. Again, they explained away the core of my issues.
Shortly after I turned fourteen, I ran away again. This time my little escapade took me eighty miles away from home. My parents freaked out, but they never called the cops. They rummaged through my desk and dresser drawers looking for evidence of my whereabouts. They found letters to a boy in Tonawanda, NY, a boy I met while camping. My father played detective and when he found me, he hauled me into a police station and told them to lock me up. Maybe they should have, but not in a jail cell. At least I would have had answers and thwarted years of fear and uncertainty.
Hypersexuality: People with bipolar disorder experiencing hypersexuality may engage in sex early, have many partners and have several one night stands.
At age thirteen, in the bushes behind the Highland Bowl in Rochester, NY, I lost my virginity to a boy I thought I loved, a boy I will never forget because he was my first. My hypersexuality crept in like a ping rapture driving iron seeking optimal control. I wanted to control men and I did it well. When I was fifteen, I met my first husband and married him at seventeen. It was a shotgun wedding. I was pregnant. Three months after the birth of my daughter, I had my first affair. Names and faces during the eight years of my marriage are muddled into one obvious truth: I was a scandalous mess. My world became a vicious cycle of mood swings followed by damage control. The mania caused me to fall prey to my bad behaviors. Once I committed the immoral acts, anxiety set in. Next, I would feel guilty and fall into depression. To get out of my pit of despair, I would seek out opportunities to feel the high again. No one recognized my cycles as a mental illness. The diagnosis that nearly destroyed me didn’t come from a doctor. It came from the church. Demon possession. Yes, demon possession. One problem remained. No amount of exorcism would deliver me from my bipolar disorder. In fact, the church fueled my paranoia.
My first sign of strength came when I decided to leave my first husband. The catalyst for my departure occurred on a Sunday morning when I refused to go to church because I went to a work party the night before. Two elder’s wives came into my bedroom, tore the blankets off my bed, and told me I was going to hell. I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt abused by the church rather than helped. They threw me into the fire versus snatching me out of it. Hypocrisy was not something I sported. In fact, I let the world see my sin in all its glory. So they gave me up to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Sounds like a perfect solution for a bipolar woman. Burn her at the stake.
When I decided to divorce my husband, both my father and father-in-law came to the house to reason with me. No good Christian woman should ever divorce her husband. However, I made up my mind before they ever walked in the door. When they realized their counsel was in vain, my father-in-law took my husband up stairs to console him. My father pushed me down on the couch, sat on top of me, and tried to strangle me into submission. He threatened to have me committed to a mental institution. I refused to react. If I cried or lost control, I feared he would carry out his threat. Hindsight – maybe the mental institution would have finally given me the answers I wanted.
Three months after my husband and I separated I met my current husband. Things went well for a long time. I was finally happy and stable until something triggered my anxiety. I blew it again. I became pregnant with another man’s child. It wasn’t an affair in every sense of the word. It was more coercion than anything else. He claimed to be in the Mafia, admitted to killing seven men, and said he slashed girl’s faces for disrespecting him. But I am to blame for lacking the common sense to stay away and flirting with danger, which is a symptom of being bipolar.
Suicidal ideations: According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), an estimated three to twenty percent of persons diagnosed and hospitalized with bipolar disorder die by suicide.
After I found out I was pregnant, my husband sent me away and my anxiety kicked into high gear. During our separation, I contemplated suicide for the first time. My unborn child kept me from taking my life. Killing me meant killing my baby. I couldn’t do it.
I went to a psychiatrist during my pregnancy; he didn’t see into the realm of my disorder. He attributed everything to guilt. Another explanation.
Depression: During a depressive episode, you may be too tired to get out of bed and are full of self-loathing and hopelessness.
After the birth of my son, I lived with anxiety for years. I counseled with my pastor and I did everything I could do to feel better. When I left my church because of an inappropriate action by my pastor, I went into one of the most frightening episodes of depression since my pregnancy. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t function.
The Wrong Drugs: Antidepressant medications are not recommended for people with bipolar disorder.
During the depressive episode I went to my doctor and she sent me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with clinical depression. She put me on Paxil, which made me feel like I was tripping and caused anxiety and paranoia. I was convinced my coworkers were trying to drug me. Once again I dealt with a clueless professional.
Drugs: Gabapentin is sometimes considered an experimental treatment in bipolar disorder. Lorazepam is used to alleviate anxiety in bipolar patients.
When we started going to another church, things turned around for me. A year later I was diagnosed with Stage 3 borderline ovarian cancer. Everything changed after I had a radical hysterectomy and chemotherapy, especially when they gave me gabapentin for the neuropathy caused by the chemotherapy drug Cisplatin and they prescribed Lorazepam for anxiety. I was on an even keel for the first time in my life. Even when our lives turned upside down when we moved back to New York, I could handle everything until the worst of my fears came into being.
Triggers: Catastrophic events can have a profound effect on day-to-day living. Once the damage is done, it may take years to feel normal again.
My husband and I made the decision not to tell my son about his biological father. He found out by our vindictive daughter-in-law because he refused to have sex with her because she was his brother’s wife. Hell’s doors opened and secrets and lies rolled through the doors like a venomous vapor. It was the night the rubber band snapped in my brain. It was the night I learned what it meant to live in the dark night of the soul. It was the night my son put a gun to my head and called me a whore. It was the night I lost all reality.
I sought help again. My new therapist understood bipolar disorder. She sent me to a psychiatrist and together they helped me work through some of the issues. One thing they both agreed up. I was an extremely strong woman because I lived so many years without medication. I began to read books and articles by other people with bipolar disorder like Kay Redfield Jamison’s book An Unquiet Mind.
Know Thyself: Recognizing your own behaviors and becoming familiar with the illness helps with recovery.
I now understand my inferiority complex comes from my bipolar disorder. I struggle to go out and do things with people when I used to be such a socialite. My paranoia often slips in and suggests people don’t like me or they think I am incapable of doing my job, which is also a symptom. My impulsive behavior can be attributed to my illness. I lack a sensor button, so I am always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Or I react before I think. The depression and anxiety I still experience now and then is no longer explained away. It is part of who I am. Somehow knowledge is power. Understanding it makes it easier to bear.
The Bipolar Muse: Bipolar people are often pulled toward the arts or the arts are driven by them. Even though some would argue this is not true.
What I love most about my being bipolar is how my creativity is fueled by a bipolar muse. It is my therapy when I am down. It is full of life and energy when I am feeling good about myself. It is cathartic. It is my dynamite.
The Bipolar Christian: In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1:11)
My faith in God is restored. I now know if I am fearfully and wonderfully made by Him, he must have designed me this way. How can I ever say God made a mistake? Some say sin in the world made me this way, if so, I accept it as being the journey God wants to take me on to bring me closer to him.
Telling Others About the Disorder: Having a support system is critical in successfully managing bipolar disorder.
I am no longer in the shadows. I am standing in the bright sunlight exposing my vulnerability for the world to see. All I ask: please do not throw stones. It is crucial to my sanity. Thank you.
About the author:
Kathy Buckert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College’s low-residency program in Plainfield, Vermont. Her work has appeared in Riverlit, The Blue Hour, Black Mirror Magazine, Electric Rather, Silver Birch Press, Cheap Pop and other publications. She is an adjunct assistant professor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York and is currently working on her memoir Reckless Grace.