It's been a long time, in bipolar terms, since I experienced a real depressive episode. But I remember all too well that depression sometimes presents as organic illness. I start to feel sick. Feeling sick is not my normal state. This feeling sick sends me to my internist. And in the early phase I might have some mild and transient bug that can either be treated or waited out. But I don't bounce back. Feeling ill lingers. Not sick enough to simply stay in bed, but not well enough to want to do much of anything. It's a headache that's hard to get rid of, or a bowel disturbance, or low grade fever, or a slow, creeping stupidity that scares me more than anything. It's the transitions from one pole to the other that are the most dangerous. It's when we, the bipolar, realize depression is bearing down on us and we still have the energy to do something about it, that we know we can't stand it again. That's when we think about suicide. If I were suicidal, I would not be talking about it, so relax. I'm not suicidal at the moment. But I have been there many times. It's why I don't fear death by cancer or heart disease or a fatal car accident.
In Salt Lake, under the umbrella of Medicare, we have Valley Mental Health. And within Valley Mental Health is a group called The Master's Program. You have to be bipolar and over fifty to qualify. I think calling a program for the old bipolar patients "The Masters Program" is both funny and apt. If you've lived past fifty and you are bipolar, you're damn special. You have survived a very difficult life. And I'm always amazed how many of us there are. We are often treated for substance abuse(self medicating) which might result in a bit of trouble with the law, especially for men. Men are more likely to be incarcerated than women, since men are more likely to be violent against others, whereas women are more likely to be self destructive.
We can be extremely charming, and we can be horrid. I would not choose a bipolar friend to hang around with. In my opinion many of us are more trouble than we're worth. In transition we can be seething with barely suppressed rage. In a manic phase we can seem as if we're taking large doses of amphetamines--motor-mouthed and loud. I sure wouldn't choose to spend my time with anyone like me. But for the person experiencing a bit of mania it's damn fun. We all live for the hypomanic phase of the illness. But, like the way down, the way up is also dangerous.
I have over the course of my life dealing with this monster illness found that not that many of the drugs to control my illness are tolerable to me. They all have some side effects, most commonly weight gain, which makes it hard for a lot of women to stay with on them. And some side effects are worse than others. One drug gives you tremors and one drug makes you fat, one drug makes you stupid and one drug steals your dreams. Go ask Alice. I'm guessing she was bipolar.
There are bipolar drugs I am frankly afraid of. I know that if the constellation of side effects is both weight gain and an inability to create I will not take the drug. I can tollerate the weight gain but not the inability to write. And like all medications not all people react the same way to the same drug. The drugs I hate the most are those used to treat mania. In the first place mania is fun and you have enough energy to clean your house, do the laundry, carry on loud long conversations while you bake a cake and paint the ceiling red. Most of the really hard outdoor work done on this piece of property, was done by me working round the clock making stone pathways and patios in the middle of the night with outside lights on.
The dangers of mania are an expansiveness that makes casual sex easy and fun, it makes shopping sprees with a new credit card seem like the best of ideas. It makes an already mercurial personality, capable of inflicting whiplash injury to loved ones with the harsh word and the hot temper more intensely painful to those close to you. Tears flow easily. You feel everything more intensely, like you were on a great high. But the drugs to bring you back to earth are harsh. The are deadening. I've had a major psychosis which is the real danger of uncontrolled mania. It takes at least a two week hospitalization in a psych ward to get that under control. And the drugs to stop the hallucinations left me feeling lobotomized. I remembered nothing much, not even my way home. I lost my way within a few blocks of my house. And I had tremors that were so bad I had trouble drinking coffee. To my friends, my affect was pretty flat. But I've lived to tell you about the dangers of the journey.
If you have one family member with bipolar disorder, chances are there have been many others in your genetic pool. I was doubly cursed in that both my mother and father were bipolar. This is an illness with two genetic markers, not the usual one. So it's a mighty potent gene.
My father was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1940s. I'm told by my psychiatrist that most bipolar patients were diagnosed schizophrenic in those days. He was hospitalized twice that I know of. I knew him as a rage-aholic. He was mean and abusive to me and my mother. Maggy, my mother, was the more manic type of bipolar personality. She always saw my depression and tendency to isolate as being lazy and too sensitive. She would never admit that there was anything wrong with her. She was critical and disapproving of almost everyone else but especially me. She was known to her siblings as the mean one in her family, bordering on sadistic. She was the classic narcissist. She was perfect and everybody else was fucked. Life in my home was hell for me. And I was given the advise by three separate therapists to vanish and never contact her again, to move and leave no forwarding address. But she was my first unrequited love. I never was good enough for her but I kept trying like a woman in an abusive marriage.