This is the story of how I entered the bipolar tunnel and emerged from the other end.
I used to be mentally ill, now I’m mentally fit.
We’ll cover to that “used to be” in a bit. First let me share the beginnings of my fall into bipolar madness.
In 1992, while living in Los Angeles, a depression appeared in my life. Without expecting it and without knowing why, I would cry. It happened most frequently during my morning commute. Then in the parking lot outside my job, I would push it down and go in to work. One particular life event triggered the emotional fits: my thirtieth birthday. Turning 30 meant real adulthood. But I didn’t feel grown. I still felt like a baby. I yearned for parenting from a father who had never taken care of me (and never would).
Two options came to mind as curative measures: check into a hospital, or move back to New York City. I chose the latter. In New York my family and friends, i.e. my support system, would sustain me.
That cure included an extraordinarily therapeutic cross-country road trip with my mother. She flew to L.A. and helped me pack my apartment, then we hit the road for home.
Ten days driving across the United States gave us unlimited quality time to talk about everything that bothered me. I backed myself away from the ledge.
Fast forward a few years. I had relocated toBarcelona. The crying spells returned. My girlfriend had broken up with me. Heartbreak equals sadness equals tears.
But what stands out most to me about my five years in Spain isthe fun: becoming fluent in Spanish and dancing salsa. The first time in what would become my favorite Barcelona salsa club, the music, the vibe penetrated and took up residence in my soul. When I danced, my mind turned off and I focused on the music and my dance partner, instead of on the fact that I didn’t work regularly and didn’t eat enough.
I mention all this to paint a picture. I wasn’tjust home alone slumped on the living room floor crying over lost love. A lot of good and a bit of bad filled those years. I just didn’t know where the bad came from or what it meant. At the time, I dismissed it as relationship woes.
I characterize those isolated depressive episodes as slides down the hill.
In 2001 I fell off the cliff.
My Bipolar Side
A suicide attempt got me hospitalized and officially diagnosed bipolar. Now, I know what triggered it. My mother had recently died and, much more subtly, a relationship that on the surface had rescued me in Spain, turned out to be unhealthy. It was pushing all my buttons. I felt trapped. But not just trapped in the relationship, trapped in life. At the time, I didn’t (consciously) identify the root cause of the problem, and even if I had, I didn’t have the life-management skills to rectify the situation.
My diagnosis marked the official start of my journey through bipolar. From then until I declared myself cured in 2013 I experienced subsequent suicide attempts and hospital stays, job firings, an eviction, a divorce (which ultimately may have been positive, but nonetheless is disruptive) and many other jolts. Bipolar illness is characterized by extreme emotional ups and downs. The downs obviously mean depression. The ups don’t necessarily mean happy. The mania at the opposite end from depression is closer to a super-sizzle rush of emotions, too much and too strong to be considered positive. That’s bipolar illness: ups and downs to the extreme. Sometimes all in a month, week or day.
Fortunately, through that entire period, I also had the steady thread of a great support system, good fortune with varying regimens of medications, and years’ worth of quality therapy.
Mental Health Support Services
Part of that support entailed attending a weekly support group. A mental health nonprofit in Lancaster held a free bipolar support meeting where participants could talk about our experiences that week in particular or in general without fear of reprisals. No one gave us advice about what to do or not do, we just talked and shared. That process of talking and listening was therapeutic. We connected and learned that we weren’t alone, that we were unique and not just statistics or undistinguished patients undergoing cookie cutter treatment modalities. Together, group members discovered coping strategies and formed a supportive community of friends. Ten years after having participated in those weekly sessions, I’m still friends and in touch with group members.
My Personal Bipolar Cure
By 2011 I had improved to where I no longer needed meds. Then in 2013 I moved to Colombia. And kept getting better until mental illness ceased to be an active concern in my life. I left bipolar behind. How?
The primary impetus behind regaining my health grew out of an unforeseen consequence of the illness itself. Getting fired from a number of jobs caused financial instability. Lack of cash meant I couldn’t keep my car in optimal working shape. When registration renewal rolled around, the car needed repairs and maintenance beyond my sparse means. I sold it and became a pedestrian. There were buses, but we’re talking Lancaster, PA, not New York City. Sometimes the next bus wouldn’t be for another two hours, or four hours, or until the next morning. I gave up my car, I didn’t give up my life. When there wasn’t a bus, I walked. I walked in good weather. I walked in bad weather. Sometimes I would walk as many as eight miles in a day. Wash, rinse, repeat, day after day for months.
Consistent exercise outdoors stimulated my body to produce the chemicals necessary for balanced, healthy brain functioning. Mood-stabilizing medication and anti-depressants stopped being necessary.
Those healthy practices stayed with me in my life in Colombia. I continued to progress to the point where therapy could also be eliminated.
Now, almost at the end of 2018, by all accounts I’m thriving. That might not be the exact right word to use. I’ve had ups and downs, but nothing compared to that experienced at the peak (or valley!) of my grapplings with bipolar.AmI always happy? No. But who is?! Don’t we all have down days? Tough days? Mondays? My ups and downs arethose normal to any 21st century human, and I’ve moved through them without medication, therapy, hospitalization, and even without stopping the day-to-day hustle called life. Hmmm, maybe thriving is the right word.
I haven’t written about bipolar in nearly all my five years in Colombia. Bipolar is my past and these days I get to focus on my present: living in and traveling around a beautiful, South American country.
That’s it. The story ends with me smiling and happy. My life isbalanced. That sounds like cured to me. It certainly feels like cured.