I learned a valuable lesson in retrospect. Looking back on my initial diagnosis and hospitalization with bipolar, I guess I was in no condition to make a sound determination on my own treatment. To be honest, I didn’t realize there was a problem.
I was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and had just recently gotten married. My first child was born, I had changed jobs and there were a plethora of other life changes happening simultaneously. After a few weeks of some odd symptoms, I headed to sickbay one morning. The thing that triggered my move to action was my memory. I had always prided myself on it and it had started slipping, mainly, facial recognition. Friends of mine I had served with for quite some time would approach me and I kind of knew them, but simply couldn’t place them. Additionally, my sleep was a wreck, mostly non-existent — and there were the taco salads. Yes, taco salads. It’s the only thing I would eat or had any appetite for eating. Anything else just seemed to turn my stomach when I considered them.
So here I was at sick call. I laid out my perceived issues in the same manner I just did here. That’s when the doctor shifted his attention to my left arm.
“How’d you get those cuts?” the doctor asked.
“Oh those? I sit in the window at night and look over downtown Washington D.C. and cut myself with an X-Acto blade. It helps to ground me. The pain sort of takes away the numbness,” I responded without a second thought that this behavior was anything except normal.
It was at this point that the doctor rose and asked me to take a walk with him down the hall. He led me through a set of double doors that locked from the inside. He told me to take a seat in what appeared to be a makeshift lounge. I waited. When he returned, there were two others with him. They sat down and asked what number they could reach my wife. I was a bit confused at this turn of event and running rampant through my mind were a hundred different scenarios, the most prevalent, that I was in trouble for destruction of government property because of the cuts to my arm. Was I headed to the brig or worse? The one thing that was not in that typhoon of scenarios however, was that I was mentally ill and about to be hospitalized because of this condition I had never heard of prior to this visit.
I did my three weeks in the rapid treatment unit. That was the unit I was in. It was for people who were not yet suicidal or a harm to the public, but there were some behavioral markers that indicated that I just may be. During those three weeks, I learned about occupational and recreational therapy and took whatever meds they handed me without knowing what they were. In group, we talked about this thing called bipolar disorder and how I was categorized as rapid-cycling.
I was no longer numb. I was scared and just wanted to go home. The day of my release, I was happy to get out and eat with regular metal utensils again. Unfortunately, of all the things I learned, I wasn’t proactive in pressing for ongoing treatment and medication. I assumed, at the time, I was “cured.”
Twenty-five years would pass for me before I had a total relapse, although is there such a thing? Basically I spent those years oblivious to the new behaviors I had developed. The hyper-sexuality, the risky behavior, the manic and depressive episodes, the anxiety, fear and anger. Because I assumed I was cured, I shrugged them off to being moody and overly ambitious with possibly an overactive sex drive. Wow, I was more lost than when I first sought help for a taco salad problem.
After getting myself back in to treatment, real treatment, a little over two years ago, I started to sift through those years, realizing the damage I had caused. From disposable relationships, to behavior I am not very proud of, an additional memory surfaced.
About 18 months prior to that visit that landed me in the hospital, I sat in a bar one night with a friend. We rolled lit cigarettes in between our forearms until they snuffed out. I still remember that pain. If you’ve ever done this, the ember doesn’t die right away. Of course the following morning, I headed to sickbay as my arm was a charred, weepy mess.
This doctor asked no questions, if he did, I don’t recall the lie I told. Following a clean-up of my arm, I was sent back to the barracks with a week supply of iodine swaps, gauze pads and bandages. That was that.
Why that incident surfaced was that who knows how very different my life may have been if I would have been diagnosed and treated a year and a half earlier. The memory of my hospitalization taught me I am the one that has to be proactive in my treatment and not to just accept what is or isn’t being offered to me.
It’s a bit painful and shameful to share some of this as I was a Marine, served with distinction and even promoted meritoriously to Sergeant. However, this disorder has a way of bringing even the most prideful and squeaky clean people to their knees, and I for one am responsible for these wrinkles in my character.
I hope that through this public sharing and acceptance, the importance of seeking out and maintaining the best possible mental health care and treatment reaches at least one person.
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Thinkstock photo via jhack