Marcia … I meet James in 1979. James had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; he was 23 years old. We became best friends in a short amount of time. That friendship still exists today. Although we lived far from one another, we stayed in contact throughout the years. It was 17 years before I learned about his diagnosis. Up until then, I had never heard of the illness.
It was 1996 when James and I saw each other again. Six years had passed and he was coming to California for a visit; I was so excited! It was at this time that James shared with me his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Having never heard of the illness, I asked him to define bipolar disorder. His explanation was, “Not a big deal. I get a little depressed sometimes, but I just lay down for a while and it passes. I have insomnia so I drink some to help me sleep. It’s not really a problem.”
James had never given me any reason NOT to trust his explanation. During the years of our friendship, I hadn’t noticed anything that would contradict his statement. Most of our contact has been over the telephone. I knew that he had a problem with relationships, but I figured it was a result of a dysfunctional behavior. As I write this, I have to chuckle. If I only knew then what I know now … James’ explanation of bipolar disorder was a gross understatement!
It did not take long for problems to arise in our relationship. His “drink some to sleep”turned into full-blown alcoholism. It was true that he got “a little depressed sometimes,”but what he neglected to say was that he is manic most of the other times. I didn’t know what mania was; I didn’t know anything about bipolar disorder. When I looked at my best friend James, I saw a kind, gentle, loving man who had been beaten down. I also saw a confused man trying to make sense of his life.
James shared with me what he knew about bipolar disorder. He claimed not to be an alcoholic, but used alcohol with his medication to help him sleep. At that time, he was taking another medication to manage his moods. He had no knowledge of what medications were available, nor was he aware of how mania was affecting his life. Bipolar disorder became his excuse for everything.
For my own survival, I knew I had to learn all I could about bipolar disorder. I began searching the Internet. I read every book I could find on the disorder and I shared my newly acquired knowledge with James. I found him responsive to some of the material, but he boldly rejected the rest. He said, “You have no idea what it feels like to have bipolar disorder.” He was right — but I was going to find out!
It was then that James decided to start a support group solely for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder which “excluded me.” I didn’t understand. I questioned his motive since he had struggled so much with the information I had shared with him. I didn’t realize that his plan was the result of a mania-grandiose idea. His lack of knowledge never crossed his mind.
James’ excitement about the support group began to mound as he walked through town passing out flyers about the group. He met three individuals also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. James had a wonderful idea to bring people together for support. The only problem was that James had nothing to give them; his understanding of the disorder was limited to a very few answers. One month after the first meeting, James went to a book store to buy a few books; he never returned. Three days later, he telephoned me to say he was in Florida , but wasn’t sure how he got there. He suggested mania had played a part in it, but to be honest, his explanation did not make me feel better, nor did it help me understand his behavior.
For the support group, I was left with the task of telling the individuals that James was gone and the group was cancelled. As I shared this information with them, I saw disappointment and fear in their eyes. I found myself saying to them, “I will facilitate the group, but I am not bipolar” (this was before I understood you are NOT bipolar, you HAVE bipolar disorder). I saw their excitement. “That’s alright, yes please,” they said. The following week I became the facilitator.
Facilitator of the group? What was I thinking! I had facilitated groups before and I’ve attended many support groups myself (that’s another story), but I had no idea what to say or how to handle a mental illness support group. I was afraid I would say or do something wrong. For the next month I was panicked. I sat and listened to the group laugh together as they exchanged stories about when they were in mania, how they hated the system, how they hated the doctors, the hospitals, family, and anyone that didn’t understand how hard it is to be bipolar. After one particular meeting, I walked to my car, got in, held the steering wheel, and began to bang my head against it. After three hits, I leaned back in my seat, looked up and said out loud, “Why do they have the right to use bipolar disorder as an excuse. I was not allowed this luxury.” (remembering the support group I attended). They laughed at their behavior while in mania. I didn’t think it was funny, I did not laugh, when James disappeared. I sat staring into the darkness and proclaimed, “Time for a change.”
I continued my research about bipolar disorder and with knowledge in hand, I went to our next meeting and stated: “You are NOT bipolar, you HAVE bipolar disorder. You are not defined by the disorder. You have worth. You have hope. Your lives can be managed. From this moment on, you will be responsible and accountable for yourselves. You will not blame or excuse your behavior. My promise to you is that I will walk this journey with you as we learn together how to accomplish this. Bipolar disorder is not an excuse, it is only an explanation.”
We are now in our 18th year and still learning. This is called life.
James … As a child, my life was filled with loneliness. I always felt “different” and I could never understand why. My life kept me separated from my peers. I was not part of a family where I was loved or accepted.
I learned survival skills at an early age. I learned that running away avoided pain. I didn’t let anyone get close to me. I moved from town to town running from something inside me. At 12 years old, I was introduced to street drugs and found an escape that tortured and haunted me from this unknown turmoil. It took 10 years to recognize the futility of using drugs and that drugs were just a symptom of the pain and illness that raged inside.
I married at the age of 23. After a child and two years of marriage, I had a complete breakdown. My wife was told I might never recover. I was diagnosed with manic depression now known as bipolar disorder. At that time, medication was “one for all” and if information was available, I was unaware. The medications were not enough to keep me balanced. It was two years before I was able to return to work. I felt I didn’t need the medication any longer. For the next seven years, I lived in a world that cycled up and down and all around. I experienced moods that I could never control.
My moods and problems were always the fault of someone else. I left my wife and son and began a relationship with alcohol. For the next 10 years, I stayed drunk, desperately trying to kill the pain and confusion. I went from one relationship to another looking for the something external to fix the internal.
In 1986, I found a psychiatrist who tried to help me. I was put a medication to balance my moods. I continued to drink. It wasn’t long before despair and hopelessness set in. One dark and lonely night, I put a gun to my heart and fired. I survived only to try it again a year later. I survived again; there was nothing to stop this pain.
In 1996, I went to visit my best friend Marcia, in California . This was the beginning of a journey that would fill me with hope, healing, knowledge, and responsibility. I shared with Marcia that I had bipolar disorder. “It’s not a big deal. I take my meds, I drink, I’m happy.” Little did I know, that one day I would learn, there’s more to bipolar disorder than I understood. Bipolar disorder is not an excuse; alcohol and medications do not mix. The road I walked to learn this included a path that hurt and damaged the trust of my best friend.
During one of my manic times in life, I decided to start a support group for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When I started Bipolar Insights, it gave me a sense of belonging to something bigger than this illness or myself. Unfortunately, I knew nothing about the disorder and was not able to pull through what I started. This manic period drove me across the country, running again, from the unknown. Thank God for my best friend Marcia, who stood by my side, to learn everything she could about bipolar disorder, and take what I started and make it into something that I knew was needed. Marcia established an educational support group for those who have bipolar disorder. She later opened the group to include the families who are also affected by the disorder.
I found myself living on the streets in Sacramento, sleeping under trees, eating out of garbage cans. For years, this was the life I led; this was the life of a person suffering from depression to mania and everything in-between. Problems were still the fault of everyone else; everyone was wrong and they didn’t have a clue who I was or what I did. I moved from place to place; I talked with the ability to manipulate others; I was in control. It wasn’t until one day, in my late 40’s, sitting in a park watching a family having a picnic, that I realized “I don’t have a family, I have no friends, my son was far away and hardly spoke to me, I can’t live like this anymore.” For the first time in my life, I saw myself living on the streets and eating garbage from who knows where. I saw myself and I knew I had lost everything.
I once again sought psychiatric help and said, “I don’t want to live like this any longer. What do I have to do to get out of this life?” For those that don’t know me, you must understand, this was the first time I had ever asked anyone for anything. My psychiatrist changed my medications. I took them every day and my life began to change. I started to realize that I was responsible for my own care and I was responsible for my disastrous life. When I feel well, I learned that it’s the medications that are affording me this privilege. I also learned that I don’t have the option to not take my meds. The loneliness and feelings of not being accepted are co-partners with the lack of a family, not being loved as a child and bipolar disorder.
Educating myself about bipolar disorder, along with learning how to deal with a dysfunctional life, has given me the opportunity to understand the struggles in my life. It does not justify or excuse my behavior. I know I am not the only one who lives with a mental illness or dysfunctional behavior. Managing bipolar disorder is a life long journey.
I now work with the illness instead of letting it work me. There is hope for me and to all who read this. I survived by the grace of God. That same God is available for us all. God bless.