You either like me or you don’t…..

I just saw this quote posted by my friend on Facebook. I couldn’t resist sharing it, as I feel like it sums up my recent life:

“You either like me or you don’t. It took me twenty-something years to learn how to love myself. I don’t have that kind of time to convince somebody else……” (Daniel Franzese)

Of course, in my case, it’s more like forty-something years….

(Thanks, M.)

The Train Wreck

Trouble was brewing. I could sense it days ahead of time. My 10-year old daughter was headed for a major meltdown and although I could see it coming, there was no stopping it. And it was like knowing ahead of time there was going to be a terrible train wreck but also knowing I was helpless to prevent it. I knew people would get hurt, and I knew it would be a horrific mess, but the train wreck was destined to occur regardless of how hard I tried to prevent it.

My little girl has been “diagnosed” with a variety of mental shortcomings, among them ADHD and “oppositional defiance disorder”. It has also been suggested that she may have or eventually develop bipolar disorder. As a sufferer of the disease myself, I pray she’s not bipolar. It’s extremely difficult to diagnose in a child, and she does not exhibit signs of deep depression. But her “train wrecks” bear striking similarities to manic episodes and have definite cause for concern.

My daughter gets very anxious when there is a big event on the horizon, like a ceremony or school deadline or, in this case, a vacation. She is traveling tomorrow by plane, without me but in the company of her older siblings, to visit her grandma in California for a week. Although she is happy and excited to go, and although she is a very well-traveled young lady, the anxiety involved in preparing for the trip has left her nervous and short-tempered. I can sympathize with her, because getting ready to go away always caused many of the same feelings for me in the past.

The past couple of days I felt like I was tip-toeing around her, sensing her anxiety and trying to avoid confrontation of any kind. In these situations, when she is snappy and quick-tempered, it’s usually best to leave her alone. But today I needed her assistance in preparing for her big adventure and I asked her to put down her iPod in five minutes and help me get packed.

“No”, she replied.

Wrong answer.

I have tolerance for a great deal of her behavior. Those of you who are familiar with ADHD and ODD will understand that tolerance is a necessity when dealing with these children, but often they cross the line of respect and obedience. I had told her she could play for five more minutes because I’ve learned that spontaneity is not a strong suit with her – she needs advanced warning before we can switch gears. But this time she simply refused to comply, so I threatened to take the iPod and keep the device until she returned from her vacation if she did not go along with my request.

She again refused.

So I took the toy.

One thing I have always found astounding is how quickly my child can crumple. To say that she can collapse into a screaming, writhing heap on the floor in less than five seconds is no overstatement. Now, I know what you’re thinking: what a spoiled rotten brat. And believe me, I have thought the same thing on many occasions. But those of you who have experience with kids who are bipolar or who have ODD will recognize that in the middle of a tantrum or manic episode, their emotions are totally out of their control. There are no brakes on that train.

My daughter’s tantrum evolved quickly from sobbing to hysterical screaming, with my older children running through the house shutting the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear the hysterics and call Social Services. When she falls to pieces, we’ve learned that she doesn’t want comfort. She doesn’t want distractions. She doesn’t want to listen to reason. She simply wants the bloody iPod and she wants to get her way. But as a parent, no matter how hard I want to hold her and try to calm her, and no matter how much I want to scream back at her, or to give in and return the stupid toy just to shut her up, the only thing I can do is disengage. I walk away, leaving her in a screaming heap on the floor of the kitchen and I go to my “quiet place” and pray she exhausts herself. Typically, she cries herself out, then switches gears and lies on her bed, sobbing softly, “Why do I do this? Why can’t I stop myself? Why am I like this?” This is often followed by profuse apologies to anyone who witnessed the tantrum, and over-the-top exemplary behavior, trying to make up for her irrational antics for the rest of the day. Her remorse is heartfelt and genuine.

But this train wreck was a real doozy. She simply could not pull it together. First of all, she hates to be ignored and when we all walk away, it infuriates her. That is typically what leads to a manic-like episode during which she doesn’t even know why she’s upset any longer. She’s just beside herself with screaming and hysteria and cannot recover.

And then comes the hurt. My sweet, beautiful and kind daughter evolved into this hurtful, hateful monster. Paranoid and delusional, she screamed “I hate you!” over and over. It was like a dagger through my heart, which she then twisted around inside me when she yelled, “You are a horrible mother!” through the closed doors of my bedroom. She then went off on a tangent and accused us all of lying to her and stealing her things, and then she put the icing on the cake when she screamed, “YOU are the reason I’m like this”. A hateful blow from a 10-year old girl who knows exactly what button to push on her bipolar mother to drive her to tears of her own.

And then, just like the snap of fingers, her train came to an immediate stop. After crashing through all of her anxieties and steamrolling across my heart, her episode was over. She lay outside my door panting from exhaustion and wiping her tears, and then came the whispered apologies. 27 minutes of screaming had finally come to an end. She asked to come in, and stood hesitantly at the foot of my bed, watching me dry tears of my own. She said she understood when I told her she would not be getting back the iPod for a while, following such horrific behavior. And I struggled, as I always do, with whether this IS my fault. Did she inherit my bipolar? Are her meltdowns a result of the biological or behavioral forces at work? Is my little girl a manic mess with genetics working against her, or is she just a brat? Maybe a little of both? Nobody seems to know for certain. And my biggest fear is that she’s going to grow up to be just like her mom.

But there is a difference between our separate train rides. My life was a series of wrecks that eventually caused my husband to leave me. He couldn’t deal with my behavior any longer, so he got off the ride. He just could not love me anymore. And although he makes allowances for our daughter’s behavior that he never made for mine, allowances for which I am envious because he loves her unconditionally and could not do the same for me, I recognize myself in her behavior. And I cry because she says such hurtful and mean things when she is out if control, and I realize that I have said those same hateful things to my husband. Things that can never be taken back because my train doesn’t do reverse.

But I can’t divorce my daughter, no matter how bad things get. And I’m angry with her father because he gave up on me. He didn’t want to stick around to see if my train slowed down. I love my daughter so very much, and her behavior hurts me and it hurts her but it doesn’t in any way lessen my love for her, and I’m angry with her father because I wonder why he couldn’t love me in the same way. Why did he give up on me when I know he has the strength to not give up on her? We are both committed to helping her get better, but I wish every day that he could see my potential for mental well-being as he sees hers.

So, to my little girl, I can only say that I will never give up on you. Not ever. Even if I have to throw myself in front of your train to prove it.

In Control

I like to feel sorry for myself.  I like hearing a “woe is me” story from a friend, knowing I can outdo her on any level of sadness.  No matter what bad thing has happened to someone else, should she choose to share it with me I can usually top it with some horror story from my past.  It’s a pretty selfish personality trait, one from which I derive almost no sympathy.  But it’s taken me years to realize I’m not doing it for the sympathy, or empathy of others.  I’m doing it because I like to believe my sorrowful past and present is a direct result of my bipolar disorder, and that gives me something on which to blame it all.

To shed some light on my past, I should give you a few examples of what I consider to be a life full of unfortunate happenings.  For starters, my sister died before I was born.  I never met her – I just like to tell people I lost a sister because it gives me an excuse to be sad.  Additionally, my older brother died in a plane crash when I was 23 and my father died of a heart attack on the floor of my children’s playroom while I stood and watched because I couldn’t remember how to do CPR.  My only surviving sibling doesn’t much like me or my disease and therefore doesn’t speak to me, my husband left me after 17 years of marriage, and I cannot find a full-time job to help pay my mounting pile of bills.  In addition, my non-smoking mom was just diagnosed with lung cancer and my 10-year old daughter has Oppositional Defiance Disorder and is likely also bipolar.

Yeah, yeah – I realize that my problems are trivial in comparison to what is going on in the world around me.  Wars and global warming and starving children.  I am aware of all that, and yet the selfish person who I am refuses to recognize that there is anything wrong with any part of the world that does not directly concern me.  It’s like I’m oblivious to anything or anyone other than myself and my problems.  Selfish?  You bet.  Incredibly, ridiculously selfish.  But it’s as if I can’t help myself.

I often refer to a great book called, “Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder” by Julie A. Fast.  The book was intended for the spouse or partner of someone suffering from bipolar, but I don’t have a spouse or a partner anymore so I read it hoping to learn to love myself.  The book repeatedly references the selfishness of those suffering from bipolar disorder.  They can only think of themselves.  They think they are the only ones with real problems.  They believe their lives are worse than anyone’s around them.  I recognize that I am incredibly selfish, and it’s not a trait I’m proud of.  But as I mentioned earlier, I can’t seem to focus on any problems but mine.

In addition, bipolar people are often narcissists.  I believe there is a direct link between believing yourself to be better than everyone else and wanting everyone to feel sorry for you.  Part of being a narcissist is believing that you have control over the world and what happens in it.  For example, if only I had known CPR, perhaps my father would still be alive.  Control.  If only I had recognized my bipolar disorder earlier, then I could have sought treatment before my behavior became so intolerable that my husband could no longer remain with me.  Control.  If I had known that I was bipolar and that my future children had a 20% increased chance of becoming bipolar as a result of genetics, I could have prevented my young daughter from possibly developing the disorder by simply not having children.  Control.  Ridiculous and unrealistic expectations of control.

I also feel like my bad luck is contagious.  Don’t get too close, it might rub off on you.  Sometimes I believe my bad luck extends to the outcome of my son’s baseball game; I’ve had a rough day, so I shouldn’t attend or he will surely lose.  I probably shouldn’t go to the picnic or it might rain because of me.  Bad luck follows me around so be sure to keep your distance.  A pathetic state of mind, don’t you think?  My therapist thinks so.  Once, in the middle of a tirade about how I was directly or indirectly the cause of all bad things that had happened in my life or in the lives of those around me, she stopped me to declare, “My goodness.  I wish I had that kind of power.  Imagine what I could use it for.  The power to control people’s lives and the events of your own.  I would love being that powerful”

I felt like an idiot.

But she was right.  Who was I to think I had the kind of power to control whether or not someone dies, or someone’s team wins or loses, or whether my child develops bipolar or not?  My perception was that I was in control of all of these things, when the truth is that I am only in control of what happens to my own person on a day-to-day basis.  And what happens to me each day is largely dependent on my mood, which is largely dependent on the current state of my disorder.  I’m not really in control of my illness, even though my doctors assure me I should be.  Sure, I can do DBT and ECT and take medication to help control it, but the true reality is that it controls me.  My bipolar determines, indirectly, how I spend my days and whether I’m happy or sad.  It decides if I’m feeling up to going to the movies, or prefer to stay within the confines of my safe, warm bed all day.  It determines whether I yell at my kids or shower them with indulgences.  When it gets bad, it decides that I will undergo ECT with the hope that voluntary electrocution will set me straight, buying me a few more weeks of relative sanity.  My bipolar disorder defines me, because I let it.  Because it gives me an excuse to be pathetic.  Because it allows me to fall back on my stories of sorrow and woe.  My disorder allows me to be the “winner” of the “who has a more terrible life” competition.  At least I get to win at something.

Do I hope that someday I will be in completely in control of my bipolar disorder, instead of it being in control of me?  You betcha.  I’m just not there yet.

Play With Me

I’ve just been watching my 10-year old daughter play with our new neighbor, also a 10-year old little girl.  Her family just moved in next door a few weeks ago, and my daughter was delighted that the new family included a same-age girl.  They’ve been tossing a softball back and forth for twenty minutes now, exchanging casual banter and discussing which of them is more likely to grow up and marry Justin Bieber.

This impromptu playdate brought tears to my eyes, for two reasons.  The first is because I am so unbelievably happy to see my daughter making a new friend.  The second is because I am worried it won’t last.

My 10-year old daughter is bipolar, or at least is believed to be (since bipolar disorder is extremely hard to diagnose in young children).  As a result, her life (and that of her family) is very hard.  Too hard for such a young girl, in my opinion.

My baby’s mood disorder makes it nearly impossible for her to maintain friendships.  As I watch my two older children decide with whom they want to hang out on any given day, I realize how fortunate they are to have such a large circle of friends from whom to choose.  They take for granted their friendships, because they each have so many.  But my youngest?  Her personality makes it very difficult for her to keep friends.  She makes friends very easily – upon meeting her, you see that she is personable and friendly, pretty and sweet.  She is compassionate and helpful, thoughtful and well-spoken.  She loves American Girl dolls and One Direction.  All things other little girls might find attractive in a new friend.  But sadly, her friendships do not last.  At some point, my daughter becomes jealous of “third parties”, her feelings are easily bruised, and she is possessive with her friends.  She also has to be in charge, a trait not popular with the pre-teen group.  She is hypersensitive.  She becomes bossy and irrational when she doesn’t get her way, and cries easily because she believes that she is always being treated unfairly.  Eventually, the friendships end.  Nearly every one. My daughter hasn’t been invited to a birthday party in 7 months, and in this neighborhood when there are parties nearly every weekend, that is a true slap in the face for her.  She is very, very rarely asked to a friend’s house to play.  She eats lunch alone at school most days of the week, and teachers have to assign a partner to her when students are asked to work on a project together because nobody volunteers to work with her.

The worst part?  My little girl is fully aware of all of this.  And it kills me to know how much it hurts her.

My daughter does a lot of therapy with a fabulous counselor who teaches her skills and tools to deal with her strong emotions.  She is trying to teach my baby how to be a good friend, how to maintain friendships and how to control her feelings when she notices things going south.  But because the other little girls in her class are vaguely aware of her mental shortcomings, they have very little tolerance for her behavior.  They don’t know how to deal with her intense feelings.  They treat her as if she’s defective.  I notice the same fate occurring with the children in my daughter’s class who suffer from autism or severe ADHD.  Ignorance and intolerance toward anyone who is different.

My child has two friends who she plays with, off and on, once or twice a month.  Both little girls have been her friends since they were toddlers, and their parents are aware that my daughter can be emotionally unstable, and have explained in their own words that instability to their girls.  For that I am thankful, because although those two little girls frequently take “breaks” from playing with my daughter just to avoid tiring of her, they are still her friends.  But they are the only two she has, and we purposely limit their exposure to each other in order to preserve the friendship.

And as I watch my daughter play with our new neighbor, who is still largely oblivious to my little girl’s intense emotions, I have begun to think about my own friendships, or lack thereof.  And I wonder if my dwindling number of true friendships is a direct result of my bipolar disorder.  I started to recognize that I had lost friends last year when my husband and I separated.  I wrote about it in a recent post called “Who Gets What”, discussing how many of our mutual friends somehow felt the need to choose between my husband and myself, perhaps not believing that they could maintain friendships with both of us separately.  For the most part, our mutual friends chose him.  But as I think back to when many of my friendships started to wane, I realize that their demise coincides largely with when I started to “come out” and disclose my mental illness to my acquaintances, a couple of years prior to my separation.

I initially began telling people I am bipolar partially to help explain my occasional erratic behavior and moodiness, and perhaps partially because I needed a little sympathy.  Unlike cancer or heart disease, mental illness does not elicit much sympathy.  And although I believe bipolar disorder to be more of a curse than many other life-threatening diseases, it is always surprising to me that nobody else seems to agree.  At least, nobody who isn’t mentally ill agrees.  And even though mental illness indirectly claims as many lives as several “mainstream” diseases on a yearly basis, it doesn’t receive enough attention or the compassion that I believe it deserves.

Like my daughter, I feel as if I make a good first impression.  I think that, initially, people like me.  And then they learn about my mental illness, and I feel them backing off.  The invitations for coffee or neighborhood walks or book clubs taper, and eventually my “new” friendships fade and disappear.  Sure, people are friendly at the grocery store and chat with me by the sidelines of kids’ sporting events, but I am rarely invited to “play”.  I haven’t been asked to participate in clubs or gatherings by the neighborhood women in many, many months.  And before I stepped forward with my disclosure of bipolar disorder, I had something to do and someplace to go a couple of times a week.

Not anymore.

So although I can blame some of these lost friendships on my marital devastation, I truly believe that people prefer to leave me alone mostly because they are ignorant and uninformed, intolerant of anything that isn’t “normal”, and unwilling to do the work that is required to be the friend of someone with a mental illness.  Because as many of you know, it definitely is a lot of work.

However, like my daughter, I have a couple of friends who are well aware of my situation, and who have continued to love and support me, regardless of my diagnosis.  And for them, I am unbelievably, truly, blissfully thankful.  They stepped forward when my best friend, my husband, stepped back.  Without them, my sweet friends, I would be a lonely disaster.  And although I recognize that they, too, might occasionally need to take breaks from me, I know with certainty that they will always be back.  They check in on me often, they listen to me cry on their shoulders (sometimes every day for weeks), they offer advice and tolerate my outbursts.  They are my true and lifelong friends, and I love them.  When I count my blessings, they are among them.

You know who you are, and without you, I would be lost.

Thank you for playing with me.

Checkmate

My 10-year old daughter and 12-year old son are sitting at the table behind me, playing a game of chess.  They are surprisingly strategic, and actually more likely to get through a game of chess without coming to blows than they would a game of Monopoly.  I try to pretend that I’m interested in their game, but to be perfectly honest, I’m too dumb for chess.  I can’t keep up with each piece and their various abilities.  So I sit by and occasionally throw out a “Good move, honey!” or “ooooh, you really got him there……”.

I can hear my son’s running commentary on the moves of his Queen.  He has had his sister’s King in “check” half a dozen times since they started, but she always manages to wiggle out of her predicament.  I’m fascinated by the way the Queen is the only piece allowed to move wherever she wants, as near or as far, backward or forward.  Yet as crafty as she is, she is often captured (at least the way my kids play).

Sometimes I feel like I have a lot in common with the Queen.  I can go anywhere, do anything, at whatever pace I like.  I can be powerful.  I have the widest range of abilities of any piece.  I can even survive (although barely…..) without my knight in shining armor on the board with me.  But I can be taken out of the game pretty easily if I’m not careful.  All I have to do is let down my guard and I’m a goner.  It’s flattering that the captured Queen is the first piece taken back when the pawn reaches the other side of the board, although that doesn’t happen very often.

But the Queen is feared.  I don’t want to be feared.  I want to be liked, plain and simple.  And nobody likes the Queen.  She’s conceived as manipulative and crafty, only interested in winning.  And that’s just not me.  It used to be me.  My life used to be about trying to get away with one trick or another, trying to think ahead and manipulate the actions of those around me.  But that’s not fun any more.  It’s hurtful.  And I don’t want to be that person.

I don’t want to be a pawn, either.  I don’t want to be the one taken advantage of, disposable and the always first piece sacrificed during play.   However, the pawn doesn’t ever move backward, only forward.  And in that regard, maybe being the pawn isn’t so bad.  I’ve spent the last year trying to move forward, instead of dwelling in the past and continually looking backward.

There has to be a happy medium in the game of life.  And I intend to find it.  I’m moving my piece forward, little by little, day by day.  I wish I could look into the future to see if I end up a winner.  But for now, I need to be content just moving my piece one space at a time, never backward, always forward.

Checkmate.

Fractured Fairy Tales

My 4th grade daughter is writing a fairy tale for class, but the students have been instructed not to create a story in the traditional “happily ever after…..” manner. Instead, they’ve been asked to compose a “fractured fairy tale”. The teacher cited some examples: Cinderella gets a blister from the glass slippers, the gingerbread man is not gluten-free, and Jack falls from the beanstalk and needs a hip replacement. And then there’s the princess who kisses the slimy frog after he promises he’ll turn into a handsome prince, but after receiving the kiss, the frog tells the princess she’s a sucker and hops away laughing.

Fractured fairy tales. What a concept. As a little girl, fairy tales were wonderful to hear. I based my future dreams on the outcomes of these short stories: the sad princess discovers her handsome prince, he saves her from the terrible ogre and he whisks her away to his beautiful castle where they live happily ever after.

Up until a year ago, that was my life. I met my knight in shining armor shortly after losing my brother, and he saved me from the terrible ogre that was depression and heartache. We bought a castle together and filled it with two beautiful princesses and a darling prince. We had dreams of “happily ever after” in which we would spend the rest of our lives together, as happy as was humanly possible. People were envious of our beautiful life. They commented on how our little family “had it all”.

But “all” included a queen with a terrible secret. My secret was my bipolar disorder. I hid it from everyone, including myself. When I was “officially” diagnosed a few years ago, my handsome prince begged me to seek help. He read books on the subject and sought out the best doctors for my care. He tried to slay the dragons for me. But I refused his help because I didn’t want to admit that I was sick. And I let my disease rule my life. And I chased away my shining knight. My shame and denial helped me ruin my fairy tale life.

My life will never be a fairy tale again. My children wish for an “intact” family that will never again be together. My dreams of growing old happily with my husband by my side will never be realized. I cannot afford my castle. I pray every day that this is not my life, that a kind sorceress will wave her magic wand and make everything okay again. But I don’t know any good witches with magic spells that can fix my story or its ending.

My life is a fractured fairy tale. But that doesn’t mean I can’t create my own “happily ever after”. My story is just going to have to take on a new look, and my future will be going in a different direction than I had originally planned. But I vow to still be happy. Even if I can’t use pixie dust to help me get there.

The End.