I’m back….. (and I’m a little upset)

Hi, everyone –

My friend called me a few weeks ago asking why I hadn’t posted anything to my blog in a while.  I gave her the usual excuses:  no time, writer’s block, I didn’t think anyone was reading me, etc.  Well, I realize that none of that really is true.  In fact, I think the only reason I haven’t written in so many months is simply because I’m feeling slumpy (is that even a word?).  I’m not depressed, clinically, and I’m not manic.  I’m just feeling blah.  I’ve been spending the last six months running kids to their activities, cleaning the house, working and trying to be better about volunteering and being an asset to my community.  And by the end of the day, I never wanted to write and share my feelings with the public.  I just wanted to crash in front of “Game of Thrones” and be drawn away by a fantasy life that is nothing like my own.  Again, not depressed.  Just not anything.  What I needed was a kick in the bottom to get me writing again.

Then, last week, someone who is very, very dear to me posted a link on Facebook that talked about all of the recent school violence that had occurred over the years.  The article discussed how each of the shooters had been on some kind of prescription medication.  And the title of the article read, “Facts Don’t Lie”.  I suddenly woke up.  I was hurt and amazed that the writer of this article could so easily place blame on medication as the reason that these young men went on shooting rampages in their own schools and in others.  I was also hurt to learn that this person who shared the link seemed to agree with its content.  It was hurtful because he knows my situation and that of my daughter.  We are both on a lot of medication to treat our variety of mental issues, including bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADHD and ODD.  These medications have been absolute lifesavers for us, and allow us to function like “normal” people in society.

I read through the article, and its basis was that all of these young men must have been spurned to violence because of the cocktail of prescribed medication in their bodies, something each “boy” had in common.  What about the other things they had in common?  They all had easy access to weapons, they were all caucasian, they all came from middle- to upper-middle class families.  Perhaps they all loved the color blue, or maybe they were all right-handed?  Do any of those shared traits and lifestyles point to violence?  Of course not.   Then why blame the medication?  Isn’t it possible that the kids weren’t taking enough medication, or the correct medication and that’s why they went on their shooting sprees?  I’m guessing the article’s author doesn’t have anyone in his family who suffers – truly suffers – from mental illness, and takes medication to keep them sane.  I’m going out on a limb here and will assume that this writer has never watched his child suffer in school, unable to function in public, unable to sleep, crying incessantly.  He has never seen his little girl throw uncontrollable tantrums over how a tag itches the back of her neck, or how her brain “talks to her at night” and keeps her from being able to sleep.  He probably has never had a wife who tried to kill herself because she was in such despair over the mental pain she was suffering.  He, himself, has probably never been unhappy and miserable for no reason, and unable to get out of bed for days at a time and unable to concentrate or focus on anything in his life, distraught over a mental illness that is not his fault.  How dare he blame the murders of so many innocent people on medication?

True, medication is not for everyone.  I live in Boulder County, Colorado, where a lot of illnesses are treated herbally or holistically.  There are hundreds of families who do not vaccinate their children, or give them cough syrup or even a Tylenol.  Do you have any idea how much I wish I could be those people, who don’t rely on prescription medication to keep them happy and healthy?  Sadly, I’m not one of them.  I tried the “no-meds” route for years, and it simply didn’t work for me.  If it were not for medication, my daughter probably would not be allowed to attend public school, and she’d be unable to function as part of her softball team.  She would not have any friends, and she wouldn’t be able to sleep.  She would cry incessantly over nothing, then sob in the corner of her room, rocking and asking us, “Why am I like this?  I hate myself!”  I am so thankful for the availability of certain prescription medications because they have helped to save my family.  But of course I agree that they are not suitable for all people.  Some people have been blessed with perfect mental health.  I’m just not one of them.

In addition, who’s to say that medication for diabetes or cancer or Alzheimer’s won’t have dangerous long-term effects?  Everyone seems to be so concerned with the medications prescribed to children and adults for mental illnesses because we don’t know how they will play out years from now.  There is not enough research or history to know exactly how these medications will effect us later in life.  But that is a chance I am willing to take to live my life with health and happiness in this moment.  Bipolar disorder is a debilitating, life-threatening disease much like diabetes or cancer of Alzheimer’s.  None of those diseases can be cured.  We are stuck with them forever.  And medication can provide longevity and mental and physical security to those who truly need it.

So, getting back to “Facts Don’t Lie”.  The “facts” are probably yes, those boys had mental issues that needed help.  But don’t blame the medications.  Perhaps the blame is on the doctors for not prescribing the correct medications.  Maybe the boys were prescribed drugs, but didn’t take them as directed.  Maybe they were not taking advantage of medication’s essential partner, which is therapy.  Anyone taking prescription medication for mental illness should also be in some sort of therapy and seeing his or her psychiatrist regularly.  Can we blame the parents for looking the other way?  Probably not.  I know from experience that there are times when you have done so much to help your child and nothing works, and it is easy to turn away and hope the problem resolves itself.  Hopefully they believed they were doing everything they could for their children.  Can we blame society and the media?  Absolutely.  Violent video games and movies?  Possibly.  Lenient gun laws and easy access to weapons?  Sure.  These boys were all bullied at school, treated badly for being “weird” or “geeky”.  Their crimes were all sensationalized on television, practically encouraging that if they’re going to go out, they should go “big” so they can have their legacy live on with TV, magazines and big-selling biographies.  But I emphatically do not believe that we can solely blame the prescription medications.  These drugs are meant to help people with mental illnesses.  And if the boys had been diagnosed correctly, prescribed the correct medications, were monitored by their doctors and encouraged to attend therapy, then I do not think it’s fair to blame the drugs.  Just like it’s unfair to blame the lack of security at the schools or the parents for leaving gun cabinets unlocked.  It was a tragedy.  And we can blame the shooters.  But there are simply too many factors and too much is unknown about these boys to simply blame the meds exclusively for their actions.

My dear friend who shared the article with me, and who appeared to be in agreement with its content, said in a later post that there is simply too much not known about the long-term effects of these medications.  But these shooters, these children themselves, could not have possibly been on medication long enough to suffer yet any “long-term” effects.  They were teenagers.  Babies, really.  In my opinion, “long-term effects” pertains to what these drugs might do to us twenty or thirty or forty years down the road.  And we don’t have those answers.  But in my situation, I would much rather have happiness and sanity right now, when I’m raising my children and trying to contribute to society, and suffer side-effects later.  If they kill me dead after thirty years of taking them, at least I know I had those thirty happy years.

 

On a separate note:  one of my recent readers commented that “this blog does seem like a drug company website”.  I can assure you, it is not.  Blogs are a way for people to express their opinions and share their thoughts and feelings.  I have had success with certain medications and I share those successes with my readers because I want them to know what else is available to them.  Many of you haven’t heard of certain medications, or combinations of medications, that have proved helpful.  I myself learned of my current drug combination from someone’s personal website and asked my doctor about it, tried it and found it was the right mixture for me.  I am, in no way, promoting medications on behalf of any drug company, and never will.  I do this simply because I want to share my positive experience with anyone willing to read about them.  Thank you.

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Like father, like daughter

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental illness and genetics, and how disorders like bipolar can “run in the family”. I have posted before about how I knew something was mentally wrong with my paternal grandmother, but not having a name for it until the illness was afflicting me, as well. And I have also mentioned in previous posts that it is believed my daughter may also be suffering from bipolar disorder. But one person I really haven’t discussed, until now, is my dad.

Growing up, my brothers and I knew that my father had a bad temper. He was notorious for occasional violent verbal outbursts in the privacy of our home, but he could also be gentle and compassionate. He was well-liked by my friends and their parents, and was an influential member of our little community. People respected my father, if not feared him a bit. Standing 6’4″ tall and with a deep booming voice, he was intimidating upon first impression. And although for the most part he was able to control his temper in public, I think most people knew not to cross him.

I remember that my Dad would often “sweat the small stuff”. He had major issues with minor occurrences that at the time I didn’t recognize as “triggers”. For example, my father traveled extensively throughout my teen years. He was often overseas with his job, and when he went away, it was for several weeks at a time. The periods leading up to those travels were always times of high anxiety in our household. Getting ready to be away from his family for a month or two was very stressful for both he and my mother, but especially for my dad. He was often very short-tempered and anxious, and was very critical of my mom as she prepared for his departure. I remember that she always seemed a bit relieved when he left.

My parent’s relationship was one of mutual respect and love, but my father was very tough on my mom. He had high expectations for his children, and in his absence he had to trust my mom to hold down the fort. He was of above-average intelligence and although my mom was “situationally-smart”, she was not on the same educational level as my father. I think he worried that she could not handle us in his absence, and he didn’t like not having a firm hold on the reigns of fatherhood. In the decades prior to conveniences such as cell phones and email, it was nearly impossible to communicate with a family in the States from such places as China and Thailand, and the other countries in which my father worked for extended periods of time. Phone calls were very expensive, and mail from him often arrived after he’d already come back home. When he did return, there was a great deal of anxiety involved in the re-settling process, getting used to being a family again after such long absences. Although my parents argued infrequently, there was definite tension between them following the return from a long trip.

When my father was at home, he was often under a tremendous amount of self-induced stress. He was a perfectionist, very clean and neat, and always working on a project. He built the home we occupied, and there was always something new he wanted to add. He could never just sit still and read the newspaper or watch TV. He was always moving, always fidgeting. As I look back now on his behavior, I believe that, like myself and my young daughter, my dad also suffered from ADHD. He could focus only on those things that entirely held his interest. Activities not to his liking simply could not be tolerated. He could not sit still in church or at school meetings, much like a small boy with “ants in his pants”. But he could spend endless hours in his workshop or in the garage, tinkering with his tools or repairing his father’s antique tractor. But as soon as one project was complete, always with perfect and flawless results, he was immediately on to the next distraction.
One of the only times he actually sat down and sat still was to complete the New York Times crossword, which he worked in ink and all capital letters (to understand the importance of this ritual, please read my earlier post, “The Crossword” at https://crazyaboutbipolar.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/the-crossword/

Then there were the times when he lost his temper. And it happened quickly. There was no “warm-up” period of silent fuming and then gradual release of his anger. Instead, I believe (again, like me), that my dad was a rapid-cycler. He could move in and out of a fury several times in a week, and then it might be months before his anger released again. One day, my father came home and my mom immediately set in on him with her frustrations about how she couldn’t convince my brothers and me to keep our rooms clean. She felt like she had no authority over her three teenagers, and asked my father to please intervene. My dad replied, “I’ve just walked in the door and you’re already nagging me about the kids. I can’t even sit down for five God-damned minutes before you start in on me”. She continued to complain that our rooms looked like a pig sty, and we wouldn’t put away our laundry or make our beds. I was sitting on the bed in my room, reading, when I heard him throw down his briefcase and slam behind him the French doors that separated the kitchen from the hallway leading to our bedrooms. He transitioned from fine to furious in a matter of moments, and by the time I realized that he had launched into one of his “moods”, it was too late. He pushed through the door of my room, and threw open the closet doors. He started grabbing hangers of clothing from the rod and throwing them on the floor, saying nothing. But the look that had come over him scared me, and I remember being speechless, as well. He then pulled me from my bed and for a moment I thought he might hit me, even though he’d never laid a hand on me before. Instead, he ripped the sheets and blankets from my bed, adding to the pile that had accumulated on the floor of my bedroom. He then proceeded to do the same in my brothers’ rooms, as we gathered in the hall together, too stunned to respond. And then he turned and yelled, “I want everything off these floors before dinner”. And that was it. He stormed down the hallway to his own room and slammed the door behind him. An hour later, when my mother called us to dinner, our bedrooms were clean and my father assumed his place at the head of the table and asked us about our days, as if nothing had happened. This kind of random, manic outburst was not uncommon. He never physically harmed us, and the moment would pass without comment or reflection. Those episodes were never to be mentioned again. It was as if he needed get something out of his system before resuming his more typical calm and quiet behavior. “Jekyll and Hyde”, we called him behind his back.

I recall the night my dad learned his own father had passed away. He received a phone call after returning home from my brother’s high school band concert. He listened quietly to the speaker on the other end, telling him his father had suffered cardiac arrest a few hours earlier and died. He wrote down the details on a yellow legal pad. And then he hurled the phone across the room. This was the ’80s, and the phone was a wall model, a “harvest gold”-colored receiver at the end of a spiral cord that stretched 20 feet. My dad screamed as he threw it, and the phone flew the full distance of the cord before retracting and flying back across the kitchen. But not before hitting the picture window in our living room and shattering it. My mother never told anyone how it really happened; the man who came to replace the glass believes to this day that her ficus tree tipped over into it.

Another time, I asked for help with my math homework. My dad was an electrical engineer, and his brain worked numbers in a way I simply could not understand. I was not mathmatically inclined, nor did I inherit my dad’s aptitude for equations and I struggled to understand the subject. My father was excited to help me, because I so seldom asked for his assistance. He pulled out a bag of M&Ms to help me with the fractions, separating the colored candies on the kitchen table to help demonstrate the lesson. But when he wasn’t looking, I kept sneaking the candies and eating them. When he finally noticed what I was doing, he simply fell apart. He went from calm and helpful to completely without control in a matter of moments. He yelled at me, “I’m trying to HELP you and all you can do is disrespect me! I can’t believe you can’t get this – we’ve been working on this for an hour and you still don’t understand! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?????” And with his large hand, he swept the book, papers and remaining candies onto the floor with one motion. But strangely enough, even though I should have felt humiliated, I felt nothing. No disappointment, no resentment for being yelled at, no nothing. We were all used to these random outbursts and we all knew not to let them bother us because we knew that within an hour or so, he’d be back to his “normal” self and the episode would never be discussed again.

Once, following a day of skiing, my father was unloading the equipment from the back of our Ford Bronco. We had thrown the skis and poles unmethodically into the rear of the vehicle, and when he tried to remove one of the ski poles from the pile of equipment, the wrist strap became tangled around one of the skis. Although he was in a great mood all the way down the mountain following a fun day with his kids, the scene in the trunk of the vehicle unnerved him. He fell apart quickly, tugging and pulling on the guilty ski pole until finally, with one great yank, the pole finally released from the rest of the messy pile. With it came some of the other equipment, and several skis and poles tumbled onto the floor of the garage. He kicked the pieces that were on the floor, then hit the offending ski pole against the door of the garage with such force that he bent it in half. He threw the now broken pole into the heap with the other skis and stormed into the house. My brothers and I quietly unloaded the rest of the trunk and put away our equipment. And, as usual, by the time we got inside the house, he had calmed down and said nothing of the incident. The broken pole was hung on a peg in the garage, where it remained as a reminder of his temper for the next twenty years. My dad never threw it away, and we didn’t dare.

Some of his mania bubbled to the surface not always in the form of anger, but as euphoria or high-energy playfulness. One night, he and my mom were preparing to attend a holiday party and my brothers and I were promised the special and rare treat of a visit to McDonald’s drive-thru. As we approached the window, my father asked for our orders so he could relay the information to the young woman taking the orders through the microphone. I remember that my dad was in a particularly good mood that evening, almost hyperactive. He repeated our orders back to us before delivering them to the McDonald’s employee, and he started to laugh and told us, “That reminds me of a song!”. When it was his turn to order, he sang our requests into the microphone to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas”: “Three chocolate shakes, two Big Macs, one Filet of Fish, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree……”. The order taker started to giggle and said she’d see what she could do. When we got to the window, our meals were delivered to our car but alas, there was no “partridge”. My father turned on his charm, winking to the teenager working the window and asked, “What about my partridge?” The young woman shuffled around for a few moments and when she reappeared at the window, she had fashioned a “partridge” out of a cardboard drink carrier, complete with eyes and a beak scribbled on with a pen. My father was delighted. He sang loudly all the way home, then recounted the story to my mother with a great deal of animation. My mom was worried that everyone at McDonald’s would think my father was drunk, which he was not. He was simply “up”.

That is not to say, however, that my father did not drink. But he was never, that I can recall, drunk. As a large man, he could handle his alcohol, and as a large man living in the ’70s and ’80s, alcohol was part of his daily life. As I think about it now, I believe it’s safe to assume that he was self-medicating with alcohol and his other vice, cigars. But despite his size, he limited himself to one drink per day. Not unusual by any standards during that time. He drank a martini every weeknight with dinner, but substituted it on the weekends with one cold beer. He would drink more at public functions, but at home it was always only one cocktail. In fact, he even taught me how to make his drink so that it would be waiting for him when he got home from work: always the same glass, filled with ice. Pour the gin until it covered the cubes, then top it off with vermouth. Two green olives on a toothpick and the cocktail was complete. I mixed my first gin martini when I was eight years old. My mother would not allow him to smoke his cigars in the house, so he took them outside after dinner. Even on freezing Vermont evenings, my father could be found outside on the patio, quietly staring at the sky and smoking his cigar. He continued this ritual well into his 50s, when his doctor finally told him those cigars would kill him. He traded his cocktails for an occasional Budweiser, and gave up the cigars completely.

My father died 6 years ago. He was visiting my home in Colorado with my mother. He spent the day playing with my three children, his only grandchildren and the loves of his life. He watched a hockey game, ate pizza and drank his one cold beer. He went to bed and never regained consciousness. I wish I could say he died quietly. He started to breathe with difficulty in his sleep, and my mother called to me to try to wake him. Even though he never again opened his eyes, it took him several long and violent minutes to die of a heart attack on the floor of my children’s playroom, where the paramedics laid him to perform CPR. My 8-year old daughter had woken when the ambulance arrived, and stood screaming and crying at the sight of her strong, robust grandpa lying lifeless on the floor of her home. She never knew his anger, she never experienced his outbursts. He had learned to quiet his temper around my children and left this world a peaceful man. Did he simply outgrow his rage? Did his mind grow quiet as he grew older? Because we never gave his “condition” a name, there is no way to know.

Had I known then that there was a name for his mood swings, it might have helped me prepare for an illness that was possibly part of my future. I inherited his strong profile and long limbs. My youngest daughter inherited his clear blue eyes and his fine hair. But we both inherited his tendency toward angry outbursts and the inability to calm our strong emotions. Will we “outgrow” our tempers as he seemed to do? Or will we balance them with medication and therapy, two things he never made available to himself? When I was young and I exhibited the same stubborn streak as my dad, my mom used to shake her head and say, “Like father, like daughter”. If only I knew then what I know now.

Like father, like daughter. A grand understatement.

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.

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.

Chute Me Now

My 10-year old daughter sees a therapist to help deal with her bipolar disorder.  Although she adores her therapist, her favorite part of each session is the time spent in the waiting room prior to each appointment.  She begs to go early so she can check out the “old fashioned” board games on the shelf in the lobby, hoping to coerce me into losing to her at a game of “Battleship”, “Connect Four”, “Clue” or maybe Jenga.  She is intrigued by the lack of batteries or electricity required to play these games, and treats them like relics at a museum.  Her favorite game to play with me while we wait for her appointment to begin is “Chutes and Ladders”.

Have you ever played this game?  Each player has a “guy” who makes his or her way up the game board space by space, the object being the first to reach space #100.  There is no pair of dice, but instead you choose how far your player moves by spinning a “spinny wheel”, as my daughter calls it.  On the road to space #100, there are a variety of ladders and chutes (which resemble the tubed slides on a playground).  If your player lands on a ladder, he climbs up to a higher level; it’s like cheating, in my mind.  You get a shortcut from space #7 to space #29.  Totally unfair, of course, because in all the time I’ve been playing this stupid game with my daughter, I have never once, not ever climbed a ladder.

I am the queen of the chutes.

Should you spin the “spinny wheel” and move your player forward and land on a chute, you are immediately sent down the chute and you lose several, if not dozens, of spaces.  Just as you make progress, you hit a chute and lose all of the momentum you had gained.

Even more aggravating than the chutes are the pictures of the children drawn on the game board.  At the bottom of each ladder is a happy child.  At the top of the ladder is an ecstatic child.  At the top of the chute is a tentative-looking child, but the child at the bottom of the chute looks devastated and depressed.  Clearly that cartoon child recognizes that being sent down the chute stinks.

Today, we were at the therapist’s office and my daughter, of course, was winning at “Chutes and Ladders”.   She “climbed” so many ladders, I’d lost count.   But she noticed that I hit the top of the exact same chute three times in a row.  And after the third slide down the chute of shame, she asked me, “Mommy, doesn’t it bother you that you have slid down that same chute three times?  Aren’t you upset?”  Oh, how I wanted to answer her truthfully.  That my entire life seems to have been a series of “chutes” that I have barely climbed to the top of before I plummet down again, only to have to start over.  Again and again and again.  I wanted to tell her that my life has been a game of “Chutes”, but with very few ladders.  I can never seem to get ahead.  I had the ladder of a beautiful marriage which rescued me from a deep depression and shot me to the top of my game where I remained happy and continuously climbing with the addition of my three beautiful children on their subsequent ladders.

But then I started hitting the squares with the chutes.  My dad’s death, my diagnoses of bipolar, my husband leaving me – those were the long chutes, but there were many shorter chutes in between.  Just when the “spinny wheel” got me a few spaces ahead, I would land on another chute.  Just as I thought I was crawling out of my hole, I was sliding – no, plummeting – back down another chute, landing at the bottom next to the cartoon drawing of a miserable-looking child.

But I can’t say that to a 10-year old.  Instead, I tell my beautiful daughter, “No, honey, it doesn’t bother me at all that I keep hitting the same chute over and over.  Because as long as you keep climbing the ladders, that’s all I need to be happy”.

And that’s the God’s honest truth.

Mayday

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:

“Mayday! Mayday!”

I miss you, big brother.

The Crossword

The other day I was going through some papers in my nightstand drawer, and I found a small glossy blue and white folded paper that I’d come across many times in the last few years and done nothing with. I recognized the paper as a folded crossword given to me by my dad several years ago. I had been saving it. For what, I didn’t know.

I live in the Rocky Mountains and my father lived in California. Being his only daughter and the mother to his only grandchildren, he visited often. And my dad only flew here on United Airlines. I used to joke with him that I don’t think he chose that airline because of the prices or his growing Mileage Plus account. It wasn’t for the (at the time) free cocktails or the Priority Seating that he got for being 6’4″ tall. I swear he flew United and no other airline strictly because of the crossword puzzles.

From an early age, I could remember my father doing the NY Times Crossword Puzzle on a daily basis. He always did it in pen. He used either a fine-point Sharpie or a felt-tip pen of another brand, never ever a ball-point pen. And when he started the crossword he might use one color, but if he put it down and had to return to finish it at a later time, he always used a different color ink. In addition, he always used all capital letters to fill in his answers. Everything was always done the same way: the way he folded the paper, where he sat when he worked on the puzzle (outside on the patio in good weather, at the kitchen table in bad), the colors of the ink and the capital letters. I thought it was tradition, or perhaps even superstition. I know now it probably had to do with his bipolar disease. It goes hand-in-hand with OCD and he likely worried that if he changed anything around, the outcome would be different. And his outcome was always the same: that man never failed to complete a NY Times crossword puzzle, even the harder Friday versions. It might take him several days, and several colors of Sharpie, but he always finished. That crossword puzzle was his peace. His quiet retreat. His “time-out”.

When my father would fly to see me, he would reach into the seatback pocket of his airplane seat and find the United Airlines magazine with an “undone” puzzle. And he would very, very carefully remove the puzzle page from the magazine. Then he would fold it in half, then in half again, and again and again until the clean, unsolved page measured about 2″x 3″. Then he would put it in his dress shirt pocket (where he kept his Sharpie) and remove the United Airlines magazine from the seatback pocket of his yet unseated neighbor, hoping for another blank puzzle. If he found one, he would not remove that one from the magazine. That magazine he would keep for himself and that puzzle he would start before the plane lifted off, and he would usually finish it before the flight attendant came around with that first free cocktail.

When my dad arrived at my home, he typically had gifts for my three children. Stuffed animals or handknit sweaters from my mom, or other fun trinkets. And there was always a gift for me: a small, glossy, folded white magazine page with blue squares and tiny blue typing. My United crossword. He brought one every time. And I would wait until my children were in bed before sitting at the kitchen table, trying to solve my puzzle, my simple gift from my dad.

My father died in my home during one such visit. Cardiac arrest. They claim he died in his sleep, but I saw him as he left this world, and his eyes were open. And he was scared. And I could not save him. And as my mom and I were going through his clothing the following day, I found my crossword. Shiny and small, folded with perfect right angles and even corners. I put it in my nightstand drawer and never opened it. Since my dad’s death 6 years ago last week, I never once opened that puzzle. I never unfolded its perfect page. I never looked at the theme. But in the corner, without having to open it, I could see the date. And it is dated for the month of his death. April 2007.

Well, here it is now, April 2013. My life, in many ways, is worse. Since that time, I have been given a name for what troubled me for so many years: bipolar disorder. I have learned that my daughter suffers from the same illness. My children are growing and no longer need me as they used to, my husband has left me, friends have abandoned me, my only brother no longer speaks to me, and of course, my father is dead. And there is nothing I can do to fix any of it.

My life is a bit of a puzzle itself, but with no “answer key” at the back of the magazine. My dad didn’t remove that page, only the crossword. The answers I will have to come up with on my own. I can use as many colors of ink as I want, and I can fold it back up and put it away in my drawer if I can’t bring myself to solve it all at once. Or if I simply don’t have the answers. It will never be as neat as when my father first tore it from the magazine. It has been bent and crumpled around the corners, and the ink has faded near the folds. But it’s still my puzzle. And I’m pretty sure I can do it. I might have to ask for help, because I don’t know all the answers. But I can complete it. I may have to put it down and return to it later, with a different color Sharpie, but I will finish it eventually. I may not finish it the way I originally planned, but it will get done and my answers will be correct.

And in honor of Earth Day, I think I’ll start with green.