May 1st. May Day. A day that, for some, marks the start of a real spring and happy weather. It’s often a day to turn over a new leaf; wash your screens or put away the winter blankets. But for me, it’s the anniversary of a day that changed my life. A horrible day that I can barely think of without feeling a familiar and unwanted tightening in my chest. A speeding up of the thoughts in my brain. A heartbreaking remembrance of what was, but could never again be. Because twenty years ago on May 1, my older brother was killed in a plane crash.
While thinking about him today, and examining my life before, during and following that horrific event, I’ve tried to assign a timeframe to when I first noticed my symptoms of bipolar. And I’ve stumbled onto a question that begs an answer: Is my bipolar disorder based primarily on genetics, or can environmental factors play a role? That’s my query for the day.
My brother was the family treasure. He was in his mid 20’s when he was killed, and I had idolized him. He was the perfect child to my parents: an excellent student who received a full-ride scholarship to college; athletic and artistic, and as an adult he was extremely caring and kind. He married his high school sweetheart and got his dream job as a pilot. He did everything right, and he never disappointed. I am younger than him by three years, and had such admiration for my only older sibling. When my mom called to tell me he had died, I felt like my mind had floated away from my body temporarily, just to be able to bear and process the news. It was weeks before I felt my brain reconnect with my person, and allow me to function again, although I don’t know if “function” really applied to how I was getting through my days. I remember little of it.
I never resumed my “normal” life. I had my first panic attack during that time. I experienced deep and crippling depression, situational and circumstantial and perhaps unrelated to bipolar disorder, but depression nonetheless. And my behavior became erratic and unpredictable. It was within a year of my brother’s death that I experienced my first major manic episode.
So, was I already genetically predisposed to my fate long before my brother was killed, and perhaps the stress of his death brought those emotions to the surface? Would I be experiencing this disease to its very fullest had it not been for this life-altering occurrence that shook my world and changed my entire outlook on life? Or would I have merely been dealing with a mild and manageable “case” of bipolar disorder if my brother was still here? Would the disease eventually have surfaced at all?
I do believe I would have exhibited symptoms of bipolar eventually, but I don’t know to what extent. And the “woe is me” feelings of zero self-worth might not be so strong had my brother remained in my life for the past twenty years. Less reason to feel sorry for myself, more familial support. Therefore, maybe less serious bouts with the disease. Do I believe I was going to “be” bipolar as an adult regardless of his fate? Yes. Do I believe his death and my reaction exacerbated my symptoms? Definitely.
Ironically, I want to share with you that “May Day” is not only the name given to celebrations of May 1st, but it is also the call of distress that a pilot uses when his plane is crashing:
I miss you, big brother.