I find people generally have three reactions when I tell them I am a recovered alcoholic with Bipolar II. They either tell me that they or a loved one has struggled with a mental illness, begin talking about the weather or look at me like I just told them I have a stripper pole in my bedroom – which I don’t.
I can pretty much tell how they feel about mental illness by their reaction. When someone responds with their own experience, I listen. It’s such a comfort to have someone else willing to share their own experience. As for the weather response, I chime in with my own thoughts about the weather.
The last thing I want to do is make someone uncomfortable discussing mental illness. I figure I’ve planted a little seed in their mind that it’s okay to talk about mental illness. It’s their responsibility to let it grow – or die.
The stripper-pole response? Well, that’s a little trickier. I take into consideration the context in which the topic arose during our conversation and the person’s attitude before I made my revelation.
If they were being a smart-ass about someone else’s mental illness or treatment, I throw it right back at them. I’ve always been what my father called a weisenheimer, (think Curly in the Three Stooges.)
I am a newspaper reporter. In the 30 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve seen some horrific stuff – crimes and atrocities that grab headlines and break hearts. Last week I covered a case that knocked the emotional wind out of me.
I am hoping that my editors don’t read this. If they do, I’m afraid they will say I’m too weak to cover these kinds of stories – which I am not. Just the opposite.
Anyone who is regularly exposed to grisly violence and depravity and tells you it doesn’t affect them is either a liar or a sociopath. Yes, you can train yourself to disregard emotions and focus on your responsibilities – your job. You can wear emotional oven mitts when you have to reach in and touch the searing reality of what has happened.
But you cannot stuff your feelings or bury them forever. They are there, waiting to be acknowledged. If you ignore and deny them long enough, they will haunt you and stalk you until you either give in or become a mean, nasty, sarcastic and heartless son-of-a bitch.
It’s your choice – and it is a choice. I learned that lesson the hard way. Some people will drink or take drugs to take the edge off what they have seen or heard or smelled or touched. Some will become violent themselves. Many will become depressed.
I covered criminal courts for 12 years, which meant I hunted down the by-product of rage, terror and inexplicable tragedy every day. I trolled the hallways of the courthouse every morning in search of the saddest, most horrific, bizarre and violent stories on display that day.
In south Florida, where I have worked for most of my career, that’s saying something.
My mother, who lived her life in the midwest, would read my stories and say, “Things like this just don’t happen in Grand Rapids.” In my head I responded, “No shit.”
Fifteen years ago tonight I got very, very drunk. I don’t remember much of that night and what I do remember sickens me. I really hope that if my life flashes before me as I’m dying, this night is left out. I don’t really want to know what else happened that night.
Nothing has been the same since that night, August 27, 1998. It was simultaneously the worst and best night of my life. I hit bottom. I surrendered and started a new life- without drugs or alcohol. That night the first domino fell and since then I have learned that alcoholism is not my only mental illness. I also have hypomania – a kind of bipolar disorder with less dramatic and violent mood swings that bipolar I but my tendency is towards depression.
Getting sober was the beginning of my life making sense to me. If you do not have a mental illness, you may not understand how important it is for your life to make sense. Your life has probably always made sense to you.
My life was a disaster. I wasn’t even 40-years-old and I had already been through two marriages. I was a bitch. I had a lot of anger and spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. Removing the alcohol made life even more raw – like someone had taken a potato peeler to my soul. I not only had to learn how to live without alcohol, I had to learn to live. Period.
Having grown up in an alcoholic household and starting my own drinking/drugging career at 14, my social skills were a little lacking. I had to learn how to play well with others instead of conquering others. I had to learn to do things like apologize and mean it, tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and learn how to dance without a dozen Coronas in me.
Let me just start by saying I was not a touchy-feely, self-help-book kind of girl. I was more of a You-want-a-piece-of-me? kind of gal. Comes with the profession – journalism – and the more time you spend in a newsroom, the more refined your sass. So, when I came out of my last major depression and my therapist suggested I do some “Inner Child” work I rolled my eyes, thanked God for our confidentiality agreement. No one would find out about my “Inner Child.”
It seemed really silly at first. REALLY silly. I drew pictures, wrote letters with my left hand from my “Inner Child,” went through boxes of old picture and visualized my “Inner Child.” I have very few memories of my childhood. But after a couple of months of working with my “Inner Child” weird stuff started happening. Memories struck like lightening – totally out of the blue. I could suddenly recall the tile and and door knob at the swimming pool. I could see myself as a 6-year-old with long pig-tails, ridiculously short bangs and my favorite red check dress with the black velvet ribbon around the waist. My sister helped me remember the library with the creepy stuffed bald eagle.
Four years ago when I was diagnosed with depression and then bipolar disorder, the clouds parted and my life finally made sense. I did a timeline of my life with my therapist and bingo, there it was — my alcoholism, depression and mania had been singing in perfect harmony as I plowed through the chaos that I had called my life.
The amazing thing is how far back we were able to trace the illnesses. I started swimming competitively when I was 7. I swam hard and fast. I liked the way it made me feel. My coach and parents and teammates cheered me on. Swimming made me feel part of something — and I finally fit in with the other kids. At 14-years-old, I had had enough of swimming back and forth, staring at a black line on the bottom of the pool. I slid into a teenage wasteland and the endorphins stopped working.
I want the dreams to stop. They are not nightmares. They are bad dreams. Years of therapy have given me an explanation, but no solution. It seems to come down to this: I cannot control my subconscious, which really sucks.
I have these kinds of dreams over and over, year after year.
You can read a lot into these dreams. They are kind of no-brainers. I just want them to stop. I have had only two happy dreams that I can remember. One involved me, George Clooney, and the privacy of a tent. In the other I was Lance Armstrong’s girlfriend and he wanted my opinion of his training regimen. Exciting, huh?
I have made so much progress in the last three years of therapy, medication tinkering and sobriety. My life is good, stable and consistent. I can trust myself and my feelings. But I can’t seem to do a damn thing …
“Okay” is not a feeling.
“Fine” is not a feeling.
“Alright” is not a feeling.
“So-so” is not a feeling.
“Just peachy” is not a feeling.
“With my hands” is not a feeling.
These are the responses I give when someone asks “How ya feeling?” I have designed my life to avoid feelings. I hate feelings. They scare me. In my family we did not “do” feelings. When I came out of my last depression I learned that I needed to start “feeling my feelings.”
“Oh, great!,” I thought. “Psycho-babble. And how much am I paying you an hour to tell me this?”
Problem was, I could only name three feelings: happy, sad, mad. That was my life. You were either happy, sad or mad. I began going to a group and we started every session with a go round, announcing – in one word – how we were feeling. I had to get a list of feelings to learn the others besides my three. I had to really think about it when we started to go-round. “How am I feeling? Hmmmm?”
Of course I lost the list but I learned a lot of them. Nowadays I feel them all: Scared; anxious; embarrassed; silly; brave; cocky; lonely; overwhelmed; timid; uncertain; aggressive; confident; humble; and a bunch more. Who woulda thought there could be so many feelings?
What I have learned about feelings is that they are very valuable. I still don’t like them, but I appreciate their worth. When I have identified my feeling, I ask myself “Why?” Very often it has little to do with what is happening NOW but what happened THEN.
Unfelt feelings do not hibernate. They marinate. When something happens NOW that triggers an unfelt feeling from THEN, all hell can break lose. If I let that happen I risk a depression or a manic tirade. That’s what has been going on with me for the last week.
My therapist explained to me that when you have worked for a company for nearly half your life – 24 years – and you really love your job and the company – you begin to look at the company as a parent – taking care …
Yesterday was my anniversary. I am not married and I was not celebrating another year of sobriety.
April 27 is the anniversary of my last clinical depression. It was one of the worst days of my life. That was three years ago – April 27, 2006. I got up sometime between 4 and 5 am. I hadn’t slept much. I walked the dog to the park, sat on a picnic table and cried. I just wanted some relief. I slogged down to my gym, got on a stationery bike and rode until I foamed the mouth. Nothing. No endorphins.
I got dressed and went to work. I walked in and felt that I was not in my body. I sat at my desk with my back to the newsroom. I was weary. I could not stitch my thoughts together. I was barely eating or sleeping and smothered by anxiety and desperation. I walked out.
I went home and sent a text to my boss. I couldn’t talk to her. I didn’t know what to say. I called a friend who has depression. She told me I must see a doctor immediately – or go to a hospital emergency room. I found a nurse practitioner who specializes in working with addicts and alcoholics. She saw me that afternoon – probably saving me from relapse. She started me on antidepressants and a mild anti-psychotic to help me sleep.
After six weeks of hell and progress measured in little baby steps I returned to work. I gradually slid back into a new life – A.D. – After Depression. Nothing is the same. I can go weeks now – actually months – on terra firma. No crashes. No blasts offs. It is so amazing. I am still in awe of how stable my life is today – even when things around me fall apart. This is what it must feel like to have a healthy brain.
I used to wonder how long this would last. I don’t anymore. This is my new life. If I get sick again I will know what to expect and what to do. There is a floor beneath me …