I was recently sitting at a diner with my siblings. All of us have reached our fifties, and I had to laugh out loud when the conversation almost immediately turned to our ailments and our doctors’ appointments. I remember being younger and thinking that this was all that “old people” talked about. And there I was.
I have rapid-cycling mixed-episode bipolar disorder 1, and this year I will turn 56.
According to many actuarial tables, that’s the longevity for a male with my diagnosis. I take a couple of medications for the disorder, and for years have dealt with the side effects and disappointments of powerful medicine. I also have some physical health challenges that are co-morbid with bipolar disorder. So I had a lot to contribute to the discussion that morning. But I manage the challenges of mental illness well, so in the end the mood was upbeat and positive.
It wasn’t always that way, and my siblings were there during some very difficult times.
They visited during most of my hospitalizations, and they, and my parents, offered a place to stay when I was nearly out on the street. They learned about mental illness, and remained somewhat non- judgmental as I repeated mistakes that set me back during my long recovery. They also didn’t take any B.S. when I was manic and manipulative, and they, and my parents, made me take responsibility for my recovery.
For all of this I am lucky. Not everyone who faces a mental illness has such family support. That support enabled me to learn a lot about how to live with bipolar disorder. In this blog, I’d like to pass along some of those lessons.
While the emotional and physical health issues are most pressing (that’s why they always come up when “old people” get together), there’s a lot more to deal with.
At our breakfast the conversation turned to money and financial planning. I had a career in insurance and investments that was obliterated by repeated episodes of mania and depression. Since then I have spent time on disability, and held jobs ranging from barista to direct support for others with mental illness.
My siblings and I talked about careers winding down, estate planning, life insurance, and long-term care coverage. Here, too, I face some unique issues, as no one will write me a life insurance or long-term care policy because of my diagnosis and the medicines I take to manage it. I have the expertise to figure it out and understand it, and know the stark reality of what may happen moneywise as I get older.
This matters a lot, because next on the docket as the plates were scraped clean and the coffee ran out were relationship issues.
I am married and have a young daughter, so planning is key. But so is holding it together and being compassionate as the shifting moods of bipolar disorder rock the security on which I depend. My siblings all have long-standing marriages and much to say about how to keep things going. My marriage is much more recent and comes after years of ripping up relationships and partners as mental illness asserted itself and I managed it poorly.
So here, in this blog, I can work out some information on relationships and children, and how my wife and daughter deal with a father who is not always as dependable as they’d like him to be. Plus, our parents are still alive, and facing a slew of challenges of their own. So this space can be used for investigating mental illness in the face of aging on several levels: the individual, their immediate family, their parents, and their extended family.
I also plan to draw on my experience to begin a conversation about getting older with bipolar disorder, or any mental illness. I’m learning that aging is tough and unexpected, so I’d like to reserve this space for sharing stories and methods of getting along well in the face of great mental, physical, financial, and relationship challenges.
All too soon the check came and our breakfast was over.
We grabbed our coats and stood in the parking lot and promised another time together. Back inside the diner the table was cleared and soon there was no sign that anyone had even sat there. But we had shared some information and created a memory. All our lives we’ve left marks on one another, most of them good one.
According to those actuarial tables, every year I live from now on is better than some average. And I want to go on. Life is all about the love you leave behind after every encounter.
As I drove home, I looked forward to many more encounters and much more love and mental health. I’m glad to have you on the journey with me.