“Genie, you’re free” (goodbye to Robin Williams)

Last fall, my daughter’s 5th grade music class decided to put on a musical production of Disney’s “Aladdin”. Like every other ten-year old in the class, she wanted to audition for the role of the Genie. To prepare her for her audition, the two of us sat down in front of the television and watched the DVD of “Aladdin” to help get to know the character of the genie a little better. And while watching, I was reminded of the comic genius of the actor Robin Williams.

The genie in this film had the unique quality of being able to grant wishes to those who found his lamp. He had the ability to make people happy, and he had to do so unselfishly, knowing that he could never have what he truly wanted, which was to have no master. To have freedom from his lamp. To live life on his own terms. The genie made everyone laugh. He was larger than life, fast-talking and quick-witted, but always knowing that at the end of the day, he would have to return to his lamp. He returned depressed with the knowledge that he could help everyone but himself.

Much like the genie, Robin Williams was capable of just about anything. He could make everyone laugh. People clearly loved to be in his presence. Television hosts who had the great pleasure of interviewing him rarely were able to maintain their composures as he sat in chairs across from them, moving quickly from one comedic personality to another, able to imitate anyone, be anyone he wanted, always resulting in laughter. I’m a tough customer when it comes to things that make me laugh, that deep-from-the-belly laughter that hurts my stomach and brings tears to my eyes. But Robin Williams never failed me.

We all know of his accomplishments on screen and on stage. He was a brilliant actor and comedian, and received many awards for his efforts. But in addition to his contributions to the fine arts, he was also a generous philanthropist. A dear friend of mine who worked for MDA had the honor of meeting Mr. Williams at a fundraiser for the organization. She remembers him as being delightful and kind, truly concerned with wanting to promote awareness of the disease. Mr. Williams was involved with many charities and had the great desire to help others.

But what about helping himself? Like the Genie in “Aladdin”, was he only capable of helping others? And like the Genie, he also had a “master” that goes by the name of “depression”. Robin Williams suffered from deep depression, but did he also suffer from bipolar disorder? Was his comedic euphoria simply a well-balanced manic episode? He once told Matt Lauer in a TV interview that he had been advised to take medication for his depression, but that the medication brought him down. He said he didn’t feel like himself when he was on the meds, and he was unable to stay “up”. For myself, my manic episodes typically resulted in violence and not euphoria, and I was happy to find that medication and therapy helped me to avoid mania. But Robin William’s “ups” were what made him so funny, and funny brought success. They defined him. Was he afraid that he would lose his comedic abilities if he suppressed his mania with medication in an attempt to battle his depression?

Actor and producer Garry Marshall recalled his friendship with Robin Williams, saying, “Robin was hands-down a comedy genius and one of the most talented performers I have ever worked with in television or film. To lose him so young at the age of 63 is just a tragedy. I will forever be in awe of his timing, his talent and his pure and golden creativity. He could make everybody happy, but himself.”

“He could make everybody happy, but himself”.

Why didn’t someone step in to help the Genie? Why didn’t someone recognize his depression and help him? If he was afraid to lose his “high” because of meds, didn’t he know that there were other options? Or that there were other medications that could have had different results? He obviously was not afraid to admit that depression was an issue for him. We all know that the first step to wellness is admitting there is a problem to begin with. He didn’t try to hide it; he discussed it openly. He widely acknowledged that he had a problem. And he clearly had the financial resources to seek help, which is not an option for so many people suffering from mental illness. So often, those of us held down by mental incapacitation cannot afford our medications or therapy. And when I hear of someone taking their own life, I automatically want to blame it on a lack of resources. If someone with seemingly endless amounts of money, access to the best doctors and therapists, support from a loving family and community, and more friends than he could count could not overcome his depression, what does that mean for the rest of us? Robin Williams must have known he was loved. Loved by millions. How must that have felt to know that he brought laughter to so many people, but was unable to make himself happy? If someone that remarkable could not find happiness, where does that leave an ordinary me?

When a high-profile death occurs that can be attributed to drugs, alcohol or mental deficiency, there is always the opportunity to shed light on these issues. We sit up and take notice. These unfortunate opportunities perhaps help to reduce the stigmas associated with diseases like mental illness or addiction. We realize that we are not alone in our struggle, that even someone larger than life, someone like Robin Williams, must have at times felt alone and unable to cope with his internal demons. His death makes depression real, and hopefully it will raise awareness of mental illness. But in me, it also elicits fear. Because now I feel that if Robin Williams cannot successfully battle his depression, how will it be possible for me?

In the movie “The Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character told his students, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”. So here are some words and ideas for all of us to ponder: seek help. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, I promise. I have to promise, because I so desperately want to believe it myself. Please don’t let your depression ruin your opportunity for a healthy and happy life. Please think of those people you would leave behind. Is your unhappiness so great that you can disregard the feelings those you love will have after you leave? The devastation and loss they will feel without you in their lives?

Robin Williams had millions of fans. He was surrounded by love and support. But maybe it was the wrong kind of support, or not enough of it because in the end, he died alone in his room. The genie retreated to his bottle one last time.

Following Robin Williams’ death, I have felt a little lost. I want to believe I am strong enough to battle my own depression, but is it true? I want to take my own advice, follow my own “words and ideas”. But I doubt my abilities. I doubt my own strength.

In the movie “Aladdin”, the Genie turns a regular kid into a prince. He had the ability to make a common “street rat” into Prince Ali. But all the Genie wanted was to be happy. He wanted to be released from his bonds that held him down and kept him from being truly happy. And at the end of the film, Prince Ali granted the genie the ultimate wish:

“Genie, you’re free”. And Robin? So are you.

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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.

When it rains, it pours

If you’ve been watching the U.S. national news, you might have heard about the torrential rainstorms that are ravaging Colorado this week. My neighborhood in Boulder County has received the equivalent of one year’s worth of rainfall in three short days. Streets are now rivers, fields are now lakes. It’s as if the heavens opened up and decided to have one big cry.

Which led me to think about how often I’m now having emotional breakdowns. Just yesterday, I completely fell to pieces for really no reason at all.  I just started crying, and the waterworks went on for nearly three hours. The last time I had myself a good cry was months ago. I think it had been early summer since I completely fell apart. I feel a lot like those rainstorms: months of strong emotions with no place to go until suddenly, my brain and my heart simply release, opening the floodgates and allowing all of those tears to pour out.

And the analogy applies not only to hours of crying. It could also be used to describe not just tearful breakdowns, but my history of manic episodes, as well.  My last manic episode was February.  A huge span of time for me, by all accounts.  And before that, it had been 8 or 9 months between complete losses of control.  I can’t help but make comparisons between the weather and my emotional ups and downs.

Like a devastating rainstorm, my breakdowns now only happen on an occasional basis, thanks to a combination of ECT, DBT and medication.  As our weatherman predicted the unavoidable storm, tensions rose among the people living in the areas involved.  Anxiety was high, and people were nervous.  I feel the same when I start to sense an impending manic episode or complete meltdown.  I know it’s coming, but there’s nothing I can do about it.  I feel anxious and I do whatever I can to prevent the inevitable.  But in my case, sandbags bear no assistance.  I might increase my meds, or try to get extra sleep, but there is no way to stop the storm that is brewing in my head.  I become more sensitive to my triggers, and even the slightest annoyance grows into something much greater.

No matter how many warning signals I encounter leading up to the storm, there is never enough time to prepare.  And even if I had the time, what could I possibly do to prevent or dull the onset of the disaster?  Like Mother Nature and her forces, my emotions are completely out of my control.  I can only brace myself for what will likely prove to be disastrous to myself and those around me.

In the event of a manic episode, my family is typically forewarned.  They have witnessed enough of them to recognize the signs and they do what they can to relieve my anxiety and avert disaster, but in the end the best thing they can do is to save themselves and move to higher ground.  They brace themselves for the worst, and hope that their predictions are unwarranted.  But unlike the unpredictable science of determining the weather, I typically never fail to “disappoint”.  When all the signs are there, we are usually doomed.  In the event of a devastating storm in the forecast, we can always hope that the meteorologists are wrong in their predictions of how, when, and to what extent.  Sometimes the storms turn out to be not so violent, and sometimes they don’t occur at all.  They just disperse in the atmosphere and never materialize on the ground.  But with me, there are no mis-predictions.  The episode is on the horizon, but the how, when, and to what extent of it can vary.  I never know how violent my personal storm will be.  I only know that once it starts, it’s unstoppable.

In the wake of a massive storm system like the one that swept through Boulder County this week, there is so much damage, so much confusion and pain.  Some of the damage will take years to repair and recover from, and it is not unlike the hurt I have caused in the midst of a manic episode.  Some of the damage will never be repaired – I can only hope that in time, the people I have hurt will forgive me, or in the least, forget the full extent of the pain.  Repairs can be attempted, but sometimes the damage is permanent.  But I don’t have the assistance of the National Guard to save my friends and family from the worst parts of my storms.  The most I can hope for is that instead of a manic episode, I simply break down and cry for hours.  That’s much easier on everyone, including myself.

But regardless the extent of my own storms, there is always one certainty.  Storms can be very cleansing.  Following my breakdowns, there is always calm.  The calm might last for weeks, or it might last for months.  But I savor it while is lasts.  And I try to use that time to prepare myself for what comes next, and to try to recover from the damage that was done in the midst of the disaster.

The aerial video footage of the flood damage here in Colorado showed entire families being led to safety in big rubber rafts.  My raft is my family.  Regardless of how much I have hurt them, or how much damage I cause, they always seem to be willing to lead me to safety.  They could have given up on me and left me to float out there alone, but they continue to be there for me and lead me toward the healing process that must follow any emotional breakdown.  And for that I am eternally grateful.

I hope that, in the future, meteorologists can more accurately forecast damaging storms so that the public has more time to prepare for what can be devastating and painful.  I hope the same for myself.

The Portal

My daughter, who is a sophomore in high school, introduced me to this great app for my iPhone. It’s called the “Infinite Campus Portal” and it’s basically a tool for parents to use to spy on their kids at school.

The app is awesome. It allows me to see if she gets to school on time or skips out early. I can use it to check attendance or to see what her homework assignments are going to be. Additionally, it sends me these text notifications telling me her scores on tests or recent homework assignments. She’s been back in school for less than a week, and already this app is my new best friend. It allows me to monitor her activities and comings and goings at high school, and provides me with a way to keep tabs on her without nagging.

It also got me thinking: what if my family had a nifty little “portal” into my mentally ill world?  Wouldn’t it be great if my family members could download an app onto their smart phones or tablets that allowed them to see how I’m doing during the day?  For example, if I forget to take my meds, a little text message would come across the screen informing the viewer so he or she could call and remind me.  Or if I skipped an appointment with my psychiatrist or counselor, the app would rat me out.  And if I was feeling particularly depressed or manic?  The portal app would send a quick notification to all interested parties so they knew to steer clear or intervene.  “Big Brother” for the mentally ill?  Maybe.

I wondered why my daughter would share her campus portal app with me.  What teenager wants her parents to know everything she does?  Doesn’t it seem like too much information?   Isn’t she afraid that if she skips a class and I get a message, she’ll get in trouble?  Or if she receives a bad grade or misses an assignment, will I be upset?  She doesn’t have a chance to make amends before the notifications come flashing across my screen – she doesn’t get the chance to make up the assingment before I’m alerted that she did poorly the first time around.  Why would a 15-year old girl ask me to put this app on my phone?  Why would she want me to know everything she’s doing during her school day?

Because she wants accountability.  She wants to feel secure.  She wants me to know that she’s doing OK or not.  She wants me to see what she’s up to during the day when she’s not home with me.  She wants to know that I care, and she wants me to be involved.  And I love that.

Maybe that’s all I want, as well.  Accountability.  Maybe I want my family to have an app, a portal, that allows them to see into my world.  Something that lets them know when I’m down, even when the mask I wear pretends otherwise.  Perhaps I just want to know that someone cares enough to check in on me, to spy on my emotions, without nagging me.  I think I simply want my family to have a head’s up so they know what they can expect from my moods on a daily basis.  I want them to know that I’ve not taken my meds or cancelled a therapy appointment, because those things don’t happen accidentally.  It’s a cry for help without having to reach out to someone.  They would just look at the portal and they would know without asking.  Because I hate communicating with my family about my illness.  I despise discussing my bipolar disorder because it makes me feel weak and unstable.  It makes me feel needy.  And I hate asking for help.

With my daughter, I also know that because she’s an excellent student and a responsible young woman, I will only receive positive messages through the portal.  And she knows that, too.  She realizes that I will be proud when I receive those messages, and that I can then tell her “great job” or “nice work” without her having to feel like she’s soliciting compliments.  She wants to know that I care enough to look for those notifications every day, to verify that she’s doing well and that she’s where she’s supposed to be.

And that’s all I really need, as well.  To know that someone cares enough to check in once in a while to make sure I’m still here and still moving forward, even if I’m moving forward slowly.

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.

Go looking……

Hi, everyone –

Today I am fortunate enough to have my writing posted on an amazing website called Black Box Warnings.  I hope you will look for me there.  Thank you!

http://blackboxwarnings.wordpress.com

My piece is titled:  Much Ado About Nothing

Have a wonderful day.