Suddenly, the mania and depression crossed and I fell into an agitated pit and just didn’t want to go on anymore.
It came after one of the happiest weeks of my life.
The cruel thing about the stress response is that, physiologically, positive stress can affect the body the same way negative stress does. And that stress can bring on mood changes and dangerous episodes in people with bipolar disorder.
My wife, daughter and I had spent several days in Puerto Rico with friends. We flew kites at El Morro, swam under a waterfall in El Yunque, and jumped into the surf off San Juan. It was all a little too busy to be relaxing, but it was a vacation full of joy.
I was out of my routine and didn’t meditate at all. Daily cups of coffee were replaced by drinks at the pool bar, and the food from roadside stands was less than healthy.
Many of the things that keep me stable were left at home, and the stress of difference, good stress, but still stress, took its toll. By the end of the trip my sleep was disturbed and I couldn’t sit still.
Then we got home and it all caved in.
The positive stress of vacation was almost immediately replaced by a wave of things gone wrong.
My daughter’s stuffed dog Coco was left on the plane. Frantic calls to the airline have not brought back the toy my daughter has slept with every night but one for eight years, and for a few nights she cried herself to sleep.
Before we left for the trip one of our dogs, Alma, was acting lethargic and eating very little. I thought she’d get over it and didn’t take her to the vet. When we returned home she wasn’t eating at all and laid on the floor barely moving.
She ended up in the emergency center where the doctor removed a two and one-half pound tumor from her abdomen. We nearly lost her.
The breezy peace of the beach was replaced by the humid crush of life back in Philadelphia, and after a couple of days, blaming myself for all of it, I broke down.
It was a bad day to lose it, for that afternoon was our annual block party. The street was full of people, friends came over, and I could barely get out of bed, let alone out of the house. I surrounded myself with those closest to me and held on.
But the self-neglect and self-hate of mixed-mania and depression had taken hold and the worst of impulses, those that bend one toward self-destruction, emerged. I hadn’t felt this way for years. I hadn’t cried in ages. The stoic front I so easily put up betrayed itself as false.
But I was lucky. My wife both held on to me and gave me the room I needed to get back into practice with my meditation and work. My daughter, just a child but an old soul, sensed my terror and made me smile again with her antics.
I got out and moved, stopped thinking about ending it all, and turned back to a place of security. And that was just it. The security.
Because of the blessing of my family and friends, and because of the stability of my meditation practice, I have the security to fully experience and safely encounter the brutality of mixed episodes.
The onslaught of symptoms during an episode, the world negating pull toward suicide and the energy to do it, can result in panic and full surrender. I’ve been through this a lot in my years with bipolar disorder, and the impulse has landed me in the hospital several times.
Anyone feeling this way without the full support of tuned-in, close-living people, and without major coping skills, should immediately call a crisis hotline and get to a hospital. The number of people who commit suicide on impulse is staggering.
But through a life of encountering such emotions, and through a well-established meditation practice, I’ve developed skills and a support network to keep me level when things go awry.
It all came from staying tuned-in during episodes and noting what hurt, and what helped, as I moved to get better. Meditation can help one predict when an episode is coming, and it can help the same person reveal what thoughts are erroneous and self-defeating during an episode.
It takes facing the terror of an episode with some measure of balance, and it takes a lot of experience to pull it off. But only by staying aware during minor episodes and noting the changes that transpire as I get sick can I use the skills developed to head-off a major crisis.
This episode was a surprise, for I’ve lived a long time without being so terribly rocked as I was often years ago. Knowing what was coming and how to act against it kept the episode, as intense as it was, short and managed after a few days of disruption and pain.
It takes fully experiencing suffering to learn how to suffer less. It takes being aware of the changes that rise up as an episode takes hold to learn how to act to avoid the worst each episode presents us.
For episodes still hit. When they do, it takes confidence to cope. It takes practice to be well. For me, it takes loving people and meditation, as well as medication and therapy, to manage or avoid the worst of it all.
The satisfaction of being on the beach passed into the horror of bipolar disorder at its worst, but those close to me and some well-practiced coping skills have helped return me to stability. Hopefully, there I’ll spend the rest of the summer.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255