What I Learned After Being Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder in the Marine Corps

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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.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Bipolar Is Not My Friend, but I Can’t Ignore It

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I have struggled with bipolar all my life, but was only diagnosed a few years ago. I never went to consult a doctor out of shame to have to put my thoughts and problems on the table, although I knew something was wrong.

One moment on top of the world, the other wanting to disappear. For many years I survived by putting up a mask. Smiling from the outside and burning and crying from the inside. Feeling very lonely and searching for a bit of happiness. A few years ago I could’t deal anymore with my problems and wanted to step out of life and die by suicide. While making plans, I thought that I couldn’t step out because of my wife and children and decided to dial the helpline to prevent suicide.

They made me go to my family doctor. Talking and putting everything on the table was a big relief. They understood the seriousness of my situation and opened the door to a psychiatrist. Since then I am being treated at a specialized mental illness clinic for bipolar. Sessions, medication and light therapy help me to stay within my safe range. The disadvantage is having to deal with the side effects from medication: loss of memory, problems with concentration and trembling hands.

I am self-employed and plan my own days. Some days I do a lot of work and other days nothing, and I don’t feel guilty about it. As I said, bipolar is not my friend, but I can’t ignore it. The hardest thing is the stigma and not being able to talk about it. People think those with a mental illness are scary and a bit “crazy.” I stopped fighting and live my life, and try not to sink back into a serious depression. Bipolar is and will always be my challenge.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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To My Co-Workers Who Don't See the Shame Within My Shadow

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To my co-workers,

I realize morning comes early for us regardless of when we actually wake up. I’m still deciding whether I’m a day person or night person. A host of things contribute to this including inspirations, anxiety, mood, etc.

But that’s not an excuse for my obvious erratic, questionable behavior. Deep in the framework of my body, to the flowing marrow, shame and sadness consume me. The most stressful part of the day is my commute to work. While commuting the thoughts and sensations race towards me making me fight the internal along with external traffic. This is a time for me to figure out a way to present myself, a new persona, but subliminally a method to regress.

I can’t express enough how sorry I am for the witticisms, sarcasm and put-downs toward you all. I’m scared the façade will drip away, resulting in the arm’s length becoming an impassable bridge between you and me. The bridge becomes longer and narrower the more of you all’s weaknesses I expose to everyone. I understand if you think I’m a heartless person, but believe me, I reinforce that character trait within myself constantly. Relationships are something I genuinely want. My incessant attention seeking-behavior, I will admit in hindsight, masks my craving for belonging.

The result of my variable behavior more often than not is me being apathetic. The apathetic mindset contributes to my self-loathing, beating myself up and retreating to the solace of my own room.

Despite the solace and freedom I feel in my room, it conversely fuels any chance of belonging and identity. Ultimately the climax of most days is the breaking of the levees and emotions rushing through creating an overwhelming sense of sadness and the shadow of shame becoming larger than me.

Please find it in your hearts to forgive me. If forgiveness is not an option, I hope that whatever glimpses of me you glean and the picture you paint is one of a confused, scared, shameful person who is trying. What you’re seeing is someone in the face of adverse situations, trying to come to terms of the maddening voices combating each other in the battlefield of my mind. Glimpses are what I see of myself daily, to the point where I don’t even know who I really am, or who I’m striving to be. What I’m trying to express to you all, friends, is how much shame is in my shadow.

One of my greatest desires is for some of you to see the river of tears flowing up inside me, and the waterfalls of insecurities splashing down. These waterfalls flood my mind reinforcing what could and should be. Help me understand myself, by you all understanding me.

Thank you.

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When My 16-Year-Old Son Spoke Out About Bipolar on the News

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One day, my son’s psychiatric doctor contacted me with a special invitation that may never come along again.

“How would you both like to attend a movie screening and panel discussion for a new movie coming out about bipolar disorder, and be interviewed on the radio?”

“Ummm….yeah.”

“The movie is called ‘Touched With Fire.’ Katie Holmes is in it. The director, Paul Dalio, has bipolar disorder.”

“I will check with him, but I’m sure he would want to do it!”

My son is a movie fanatic. He knows the names of nearly every director, and can speak intelligently about intricate plots and multi-faceted characters.

His doctor appreciates that about him, and they enjoy talking about movies and music.

She knew that not only would he jump at this chance, but he isn’t afraid to speak openly about his bipolar disorder.

The radio interview would feature his doctor and the child and adolescent mood disorders clinic where she works. She was asked to choose a patient to be interviewed.

“Naturally, I thought of our guy,” she said. “It will be a great experience for him. I’m excited for you both to join us on this journey.”

I was thrilled and touched that of all the teens she works with, she chose him.

She referred us to the clinic’s public relations director, and we made plans for the big day. The interview would take place at their office before the movie screening. After the screening, clinic doctors, the “Touched With Fire” director and actors from the movie would be part of a panel discussion about bipolar disorder.

Would Katie Holmes be there? 

The day finally arrived. It meant an absence from school for my son, which of course he was ecstatic about.

We met his doctor and the public relations director in the office. I was relieved when they told me they would only be interviewing him, and not me.

“Sit down and relax. The people from WBBM will be arriving soon.”

The camera crew and interviewer arrived.

The interviewer had dark hair tinged with gray. He had a calm demeanor and a warm personality.

He introduced himself and shook our hands. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot of good things about you. Go ahead and make yourselves comfortable while they set up the cameras.”

Why are there so many cameras being set up for a radio interview?

The interviewer chatted with my son, and told him about his brother, who has bipolar disorder. The focus of the movie is the astounding creativity associated with bipolar disorder, he noted. There are so many talented people diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

He asked about his interests, and my son told him about his interest in film, his work at the radio station at school and his writing projects. He told him about a poem he had written about his struggles with bipolar disorder.

Do you have a copy of the poem, or can you get one?” he asked me.

“No, but I can get one.”

I left the room and phoned my husband to send a copy of the poem.

The interview began, lights on, cameras focused on the interviewer and my son.

He’s a natural. He doesn’t even look nervous. I would be a wreck!

They talked about how it feels to have bipolar disorder, his creativity and his current stability in comparison to when he wrote the poem.

My son read his poem, “Twister,” which compares his bipolar disorder to a storm that sweeps in quickly and leaves all its wreckage behind.

I’m so proud of him.

The interviewer asked him how his illness feels. He described it: “You can either be amazingly happy….or really angry…..or you can be really depressed and feel like you want to die.”

The cameras paused.

“Do you mind if we go outside?” the interviewer asked me, and my son.

“Sure!”

They went for a walk outside, wrapping up the interview.

The interviewer invited us to come to the news station anytime for a tour. He definitely had a soft spot for my son.

Who doesn’t? He’s a great kid.

After the interview was over, my son’s doctor and the public relations director pulled us aside.

The interview would be on the Chicago evening news in a matter of hours, they told us.

The news! I knew it wasn’t a radio station with all those cameras!

As a person who doesn’t enjoy much attention, my son sure was smiling broadly, and his eyes were bright.

They told us he would have a chance to meet the director at the screening.

Wow!

When we left, my son and I were practically jumping out of our skins with excitement. The news, tonight! We phoned my husband immediately.

“Oh wow, I have to tell everyone! Post it on Facebook!” he exclaimed.

Later, waiting in line for the movie, my cell phone began to blow up with messages. The news broadcast must have just aired!

I checked my messages.

“I saw him on the news! He was amazing!”

“He’s so brave….” I heard over and over.

I never really thought of it that way, him being brave. It just seemed so natural, so him, talking about how having bipolar disorder feels. He really was speaking out for himself and for others. An advocate.

By the time the movie started, my son was exhausted. It was a long, exciting day, starting early that morning when we woke up and drove to the city.

His anxiety was kicking in. I hoped he would be OK. He asked for an extra large soda for the movie.

“I need it,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll make it.” I understood. That happens.

I hoped he would make it to meet the director afterward.

The movie was incredible. Yellows and bright colors of mania, blues of depression. The leading characters, a couple with bipolar disorder played by Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby, nailed it. I glanced over at my son a couple of times, worriedly. This sure hit close to home. I was nervous it would be a trigger for him because it was so true-to-life.

He just stared, quiet, sipping his drink through a long straw.

“How’d you like it?” I whispered to my son after the movie ended.

“It was really good.”

Katie wasn’t there for the discussion following the movie, but actor Luke Kirby was a thoughtful, intelligent spokesperson. He discussed his and Katie’s intensive research into bipolar disorder for their roles. He talked about method acting. I was impressed.

When the discussion ended, my son’s doctor ushered us over so he could meet the director.

I saw them talk for a few minutes, and then my son came back.

“I’m ready to go home.”

“That was quick! How did it go?” I asked.

“Fine.”

And that was that.

Afterward, watching the news interview, it was even more impressive when it was all put together on television. My son was so composed. I may be biased, but this was a comment often made by people outside the family, too.

“You must be so proud of him,” they said.

I was so darn proud of him and his moment in the spotlight. He deserves this, and so does every person out there living with bipolar disorder. They are beautiful souls.

Thank you, Paul Dalio, for bringing this true-to-life portrayal of your illness to the screen. Thank you, Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby, for doing your research on bipolar disorder and working with Paul Dalio to create characters as realistic as possible, and putting your hearts into the role. And most of all, thank you to my son’s doctor for giving him this amazing experience to speak out about his bipolar disorder, and for always being there for our family.

There is hope. My son’s doctor is a shining example of someone who fights for these kids every single day.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

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Screenshot via Vince Gerasole’s YouTube Channel

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Why Do I Write About Mental Illness?

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I have bipolar disorder, but that by itself isn’t the answer. Here’s why I write about mental illness and mental health:

It’s what I do. I’m a writer. It’s what I would be, bipolar disorder or not. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and writing and editing professionally for decades. But that isn’t the whole answer either.

It’s what I have to do. I have plenty of topics to write about besides mental illness. Over the years I have written poetry; a few children’s stories; and articles about martial arts, religion, cats, education and teachers, technology, architecture and other subjects. In addition to this blog, I have another in which I write about whatever crosses my mind or my path – books, news, humor and the things that made me name my blog Et Cetera, etc.

But this blog is the one I have to write. It started as journaling but quickly – in a matter of weeks – became more.

It’s what I am. Mentally ill, that is. A lifelong acquaintance with – or rather, experience of – a mental illness makes the subject one that goes to the bone. I can’t call up a memory from my childhood that doesn’t involve desperation, sobbing and disaffection, or fragile, giggling glee at things no one else noticed or cared about. My college years were marred by distress, anxiety and apathy. My adulthood has been marked by breakdowns, immobility and psychotropics. I can’t get away from the subject, even if I try.

I have the skills for it. I have read a lot about mental illness and bipolar disorder, in self-help books, more scholarly works, memoirs and even fiction. I have an academic background and an intelligent layperson’s knowledge of science and psychology. I can share that perspective with others.

It helps me and others understand. Examining aspects of bipolar disorder necessitates I learn more about it – and therefore about myself. Planning, writing and editing posts help me clarify my thinking about this illness I live with every day. Sometimes I am just too close to it until I step back and look at it from a different or even new perspective. That’s one of the benefits for me.

The feedback I get – comments from readers and other bloggers – leads me to believe what I write has value for them too.

It needs to be talked about. The general public – society at large – sometimes doesn’t understand mental illness. There are widespread jokes, misunderstandings and inaccurate media portrayals. Above all, there is discrimination – in jobs, housing, medical treatment, the legal system and more. There is more trash talked about mental illness and psychotropics every time there is a mass shooting incident or a domestic terrorist bombing.

One of the solutions to these problems is education. Most of the writing I’ve done in my life has been on (or near) the subject of education. I consider myself an advocate for education, and now I am an advocate for education about mental illness. That education should start in public and private school health or social sciences classes. It should continue into adulthood for those who never learned it in school.

Celebrities like Glenn Close and Richard Dreyfuss have big names and big audiences and a vital message to spread about mental illness. I don’t have the big name or the big audience, but I do what I can.

Because the people — including me — who live with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses every day need messages of hope and sympathy and experience and activism and explanation and thought and outrage and kindness.

And that’s why I write about mental illness.

Follow this journey on Et Cetera, etc.

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What I'm Grateful for on World Bipolar Day

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I roll over lazily and look at the time on the alarm clock: 1:30 a.m.

“Ugh.”

I had only been asleep for an hour, yet surprisingly, feel I am ready to get up and start my day. I fight this energetic high and snuggle back into my sheets. My mind races with everything under the sun from my recent breakup with a boyfriend, to what I would want to name a fish if I got one, to how terrible of a person I am.

Gently, after about an hour of this, my eyes flutter closed and drift me back to a land where my thoughts can’t reach me. When I awake I think I surely slept through the rest of the night. Roll over. Clock. 3:30 a.m.

“Great.”

“What is wrong with you?” hisses the dark, black voice in the depths of my being. “You’re pathetic.”

This time I give in and get up to do my morning routine. Makeup complete with sparkles and blue lipstick to match my mood, shine on my face. Satisfied with the spunky look, I glance towards the clock again: 4:30 a.m.

There is nothing open or fun to do at this time in the morning so I float towards the kitchen to do some cleaning. I find that almost everything is spotless from the energy I had the night before. Time: 5:15 a.m. Ah! Finally! My favorite coffee shop down the road is opening in 15 minutes! Tiredness from the lack of sleep the night before never fills my chest. I am wide awake.

Dr. B., as I fondly referrer to him, looks at me over his clipboard that holds all of my medical records.

“How are you?” he begins.

“Oh! Good! I feel really good,” I assure him.

“Liz, I notice you haven’t been reporting much sleep. Tell me about that.”

“Well, I just don’t feel tired,” I shrug.

He nods then scribbles a few more things on the board.

“Liz, I’m going to diagnosis you,” he states matter-of-factly.

“Oh. Uh. Well, I feel fine, Dr. B.”

“I know, and that’s what I am concerned about. It seems you have been especially hyper and this is curious to me. I have seen no other emotion from you except cheerfulness. You seem to get along with everyone very well, and when you talk to me you are almost tripping over your words you talk so fast. Would you agree with me?” he asks.

“Well, yes,” I start, “But I don’t really feel like that’s a problem. I like feeling this way.”

“Liz, I know that you are bipolar,” he says boldly. “Have you ever heard of that? I very much believe you are hypomanic right now and that explains all the symptoms I just stated,” he continues.

“Bipolar? Manic? Those are crazy words! You are crazy,” yells the voice in my head.

I don’t want to admit that it very much describes me. Can I really be these things he is diagnosing me with? Only out of control people have bipolar disorder, I think. Only “crazy” people are manic. What is hypomania anyway? This is a big scary word. Surely it doesn’t portray who I am. …Right?

World Bipolar Day has inched its way into my heart and created a passion that I must share with the world. I bought into the stereotypes surrounding bipolar disorder when I was first diagnosed, but have come to realize how liberating the diagnosis is. No longer do I have wild highs or deep lows, but rather have a name for my mood swings. And because of this I have been given the right medication and treatment. Bipolar disorder doesn’t have to be a life sentence: there is help and relief. Today especially I am grateful for those who have supported me along my journey and for the professionals who have worked diligently to help me get better.

Today is a wonderful day to fight stigmas and the marginalization of fellow people. We are not crazy or to be feared: we are loving human beings learning to navigate the world through a lens of mental illness. I will keep fighting and hope you will, too.

Happy World Bipolar Day, friends.

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