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.

You either like me or you don’t…..

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

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

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

(Thanks, M.)

The Train Wreck

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

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

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

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

“No”, she replied.

Wrong answer.

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

She again refused.

So I took the toy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

In Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt like an idiot.

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

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

Morning Prayer for my Healthy Brain

I recently came across some writing called “Morning Prayer”. I read it, then I read it again. And I loved it, thinking how directly it applies to me, but not for the reasons one might think.

I am trying hard to be a good Christian, and I have recently allowed religion back into my life, hoping it will guide me through my pain and misery. So please excuse the fact that while I’m going to share this prayer with you, I’m going to change it a little so that it applies more closely to my situation. I hope I will not offend any believers or better Christians than I.

Where the original prayer uses the phrase, “O Lord”, please allow me to substitute it instead with “My Healthy Brain”:

“Morning Prayer for my Healthy Brain”

My Healthy Brain, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings me with tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to your good will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to your will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is under your care.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

My Healthy Brain, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.”

Amen