Not For The Faint of Heart: Recovering From Co-Occurring Illnesses
Living with bipolar disorder is not for the faint-hearted. It’s exhausting, and your will to live must be strong. You must win the same battle over and over again. The thing is, it doesn’t get easier. The brain is cunning. It turns right where it once went left. It’s slippery, elusive, and difficult to pin down. As soon as you think you’ve mastered it, the cycle repeats itself. Of course, I’m talking about when my bipolar is treated and well-managed. Undiagnosed bipolar disorder is a monster in its own right. It causes pain, destruction, and chaos. It rips apart families and it can be lethal. Frankly, I’m lucky to be alive.
Intense childhood panic attacks mark the beginning of my story. My family would push me out the front door toward the school bus as I would hysterically cry and push back. “Oh she’ll outgrow them,” my pediatrician said. So, instead of therapeutic intervention, spankings answered my literal cries for help.
Middle school brought with it depression and self-harm, which were also minimized. I believe that’s when I “toughened-up.” That is, I began wearing a figurative mask and learned to act as if nothing was wrong.
But it was in adulthood that living undiagnosed became most problematic.
Not even my mask could hide the madness within me.
After the birth of my second daughter, a switch flipped within me. My mind began to unravel, taking with it my life and everyone in it. Initially, my family and I thought it was postpartum depression, so I visited my OB-GYN. She referred me to a therapist but I told them both the same thing:“I think I’m going crazy.” She assured me that crazy people don’t think they’re crazy. And, like a mantra, those words replayed in my head…
“Crazy people don’t think they’re crazy. Crazy people don’t think they’re crazy.”
At first, those words soothed me. Blissfully, I lived in denial. I allowed myself to believe in the simplicity of that sentence. I wasn’t crazy, a doctor told me so! But soon that statement became more of a question in my mind, one that became more and more difficult to answer. Until eventually, I quit trying to answer it altogether.
I began to self-medicate heavily with alcohol, and I returned to self-harm as a secondary coping tool. Receiving my bipolar disorder diagnosis was almost irrelevant, as I’d already become a full-blown alcoholic. Because substances like alcohol trigger and perpetuate bipolar symptoms, my mental stability was dependent on me sobering up. But sobriety wasn’t an option for me at that time. Instead, I plunged into a vicious cycle that fed off itself. Bipolar disorder pushed me to drink, and the drink worsened my bipolar disorder.
My mind toyed with me, conning me into believing its every false notion. My loved ones’ concerns felt like abandonment. So I downplayed them and trusted my faulty brain instead.
My body ached with the desire to be understood. I began seeking this understanding from outside my marriage. But understanding was nowhere to be found, and the men I sought it from expected something in return for their bended ears. My sick brain thought I owed it to them.
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But I learned something on my fruitless quest for understanding. Promiscuity silenced the noise in my head, if only for a short while. And so I’d found another coping tool, one I’d use dangerously over the next year or so.
Hypersexuality is a common symptom of bipolar mania. Though, for obvious reasons, it’s not a symptom many people are quick to discuss. Mania produces a grandiosity complex, loss of inhibition, and impulsivity. Combine those symptoms with hypersexuality and you have the perfect formula for promiscuity, even when it goes against your character. In fact, that’s something psychiatrists look for when considering bipolar disorder as a diagnosis; behavior that’s out of line with an individual’s normal character. Bipolar mania doesn’t care about your morals. However, promiscuity is only one of many high-risk behaviors commonly associated with mania: spending sprees, gambling, alcohol and drug use are other common perpetrators. I also partook in spending sprees, ultimately bankrupting us.
Eventually, my husband reached his capacity, and he finally kicked me out of our house, but not before I accumulated a long list of dishonorable achievements: a suicide attempt, multiple institutionalizations, E.R. visits, and an arrest in front of our daughter’s elementary school.
As a result, I only saw our two daughters a couple times a week which, of course, gave me more reason to drink. I was always running from myself, looking for the next distraction.
I would have rather died than sit alone and soberly face myself.
Eventually a one night stand turned into a “relationship,” yet even he required a nightly rent payment. But I didn’t care. I was just grateful to be in a place that allowed me to drink the way I wanted to drink. The way I needed to drink.
But soon that place became its own nightmare. I felt trapped. And “trapped” has proven to be a dangerous emotion for me. Already intoxicated, I washed down an unknown quantity of heavily sedating, antipsychotic medication. I awoke in the hospital to talk of brain damage and kidney failure. Somehow, I escaped unscathed.
The first thing I did when I arrived “home?” Took a shot of vodka, straight-up. But slowly, the fog began to lift. I began to notice my surroundings and the people in them.
“Gross! What am I doing here?”
It’s true, what they say of addiction. It takes you to places and puts you in the company of people you would never be in otherwise. I realized it was all coming to an end, one way or another. I had to change or I was going to die.
Sensing my desire to change, my husband moved me back home. But inspiration soon faded and, with it, went hope. Impulsively, I attempted suicide one last time. This led to a stay in my usual psych ward.
I desperately wanted to change. But I was exhausted and defeated. I didn’t know how or where to start.
But now I know, you start where you are.
For me that was a psych ward. That’s where I regained hope. Hope came in the form of a pamphlet for an expensive looking, co-occurring illnesses rehab facility. Out of desperation I asked the attending psychiatrist about it. His reply stung.
“I just don’t see the point. There’s an extremely low chance of efficacy.”
His bedside manner was always lacking, but you have to appreciate his honesty. Still, I’m glad I didn’t listen to the bastard!
One random day, a beautiful moment of clarity struck me from out of nowhere. Well, it feels beautiful now. But I assure you, there was nothing beautiful about the actual moment. Unbathed, I reeked of whiskey, cigarettes, and God knows what else. . . possibly vomit. I was fear-filled. I sat straight-up in my bed as if compelled to do so. And the realization that I had lost all control washed over me in such a way that I could no longer deny it.
There was no more excusing my random bloody noses, mysterious bruises, swollen ankles, pancreatitis or high blood pressure. I could no longer ignore the fact that my red blood cells had changed shape or that my muscles were deteriorating at 30 years old. And not even alcohol could drown out what a horrible mother I’d become. I missed my family. They were right within reach but I could not touch them.
So I asked for help.
My family came running. They had me on a plane the next morning to that same co-occurring illnesses rehab facility in the pamphlet. I stayed 41 days, as long as insurance would pay. I came home and went to 90 12-step recovery meetings in 90 days; and then 90 more.
I learned that we can start over at any time, so I did. For the first time in over five years, I felt alive. I was thriving without alcohol, something I never thought possible.
Under the guidance of my recovery sponsor, I strung together days and weeks of sobriety. I began to diligently work the 12-steps. I fell in love with self-growth and the principles in 12-step recovery. I learned about humility, gratitude, and the value of taking self-inventory. This gained me my family back. And eventually, I was able to let go of my victim mentality. That set me free.
Yes, I was sick, undiagnosed, and untreated. And perhaps some of my needs were neglected during childhood. But my illness and I did irreparable damage in the present. We broke the same hearts, over and over again. I just don’t understand how someone can say, “It wasn’t me. It was my illness, and not take some kind of accountability.” To me that’s denial and a sign that one’s still sick.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to be the picture of health. Because believe me, I’m not! But I’ve done serious self-work that’s allowed me to forgive myself. That same self-work has allowed me to forgive others, including the ones I used to blame.
Still, I have to take accountability or I run the risk of repeating those behaviors next time I’m in a manic state. And there will be a next time. That’s the nature of my disorder.
My husband has the green light to call my psychiatrist at anytime he feels the need to. This arrangement may not work for everyone. But, for us, this extra safety precaution puts our minds at ease.
My treatment plan consists of psychiatric medications and psychotherapy. I cannot convey how important psychotherapy is to mental health recovery. Of course, I likely had the best psychotherapist on the planet for thirteen years. So I may be a little biased. Unfortunately, she closed her practice and now I’m reluctantly in the market for a new psychotherapist. She helped me build a coping toolbox full of coping tools. Journaling is my “go-to” coping tool. But I turn to exercise when anxiety strikes. I also try to practice mindfulness throughout my everyday activities. Bipolar disorder has a way of making you more self-aware anyhow. Most people don’t have to stop and analyze every single good day. They don’t have to question whether or not they’re getting hypomanic or just having a good day like “normal” people.
That part of me that craved understanding no longer exists. Today I only seek to bring awareness and help eradicate mental health stigma. There is no way to understand the depths of mental illness unless you experience it. It breaks my heart when I think of other people going through what my family and I went through, the pain I suffered. Actually, my wish is for fewer and fewer people to understand it every damn day. But for that to be a possibility, we have to raise awareness and end stigma.
The sad thing is, I’m not unique. I’ve heard my story many times. But that’s precisely why it’s important that I, and others, continue to share our stories. Until one day, mental illness is treated the same as physical illness, with no stigma attached to it. I realize that I’m just one person with a little mental health blog. But I’m another voice trying to prevent others from experiencing my nightmare. My hope is that one day soon, awareness and education will help people recognize symptoms early on. And with less stigma attached to mental health, people will seek help sooner. It’s worth fighting for. That’s why I share my story.