‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Bah! Humbug!’ Mental illness robs many of holiday joy
LIVING IN THE SHADOWS — Those with bipolar disorder, like Lee, can only enjoy the beauty of the sunlight while in their manic stages. Most of their lives are spent living emotionally in the shadows, holding on to life as well as they can through medication, therapy, and understanding loved ones. Photo by Helen Barrett
Holidays are a time of happiness for most people.
For the mentally ill, it can be a time of deep depression and/or wild spending sprees, especially if one suffers from bipolar disorder.
The condition often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years . . . even a lifetime.
As just a lad with blonde hair and crystal blue eyes the boy known as Lee struggled to keep up with the thoughts racing through his mind.
He sought refuge on the basketball courts or the baseball fields, throwing himself into the games for hours until his body ached from lack of sleep.
“For someone who hasn’t experienced that on an ongoing basis, it’s real uncomfortable,” he said. “You don’t do that well in school. You can’t sleep. You try to burn off energy.”
Still the thoughts kept spinning.
“It’s like you’re on a merry-go-round that goes faster and faster,” he said. “The outside world becomes a blur. You can’t concentrate. You’ve got to get off somehow.”
Without warning, the merry-go-round would jerk to a halt plummeting him into a crevasse of depression so deep he only wanted to sleep and shut out the world.
For days on end he stayed in his room, avoiding any human contact.
TRYING TO SHUT OFF THE THOUGHTS
As he grew older, Lee turned to alcohol to try to medicate the pain and slow the maddening thoughts. Drinking himself to the point of blackouts as early as age 18 only provided temporary relief from his agony.
“At first I thought everybody had blackouts when they were drinking,” he said. “I began to discover it wasn’t normal. I couldn’t understand that. I kept drinking until my mind wouldn’t function anymore.” Lee joined the Army planning on making it a career. When it came time to reenlist, his restlessness, which was still undiagnosed, won out and he decided to try something else.
Over the years he held an administrative job with the state where he lived. He worked twice as hard as all the other workers because he was driven.
He married, had children, but the disease – still undiagnosed and untreated – caused him to walk away from his life.
“I was in no condition to be a parent, a husband, a worker or anything,” he said. “I was becoming less able to function.”
A second marriage to a beautiful Italian trophy wife also failed.
For awhile he held a dream job in the Caribbean working at Club Med, at a place most would describe as paradise. He met interesting, wonderful people.
His dissatisfaction with life continued to spiral downward.
Each night he would crawl on his hands and knees to his room, too drunk to stand up.
“I said to myself ‘this isn’t paradise, this is hell.”
CRIES FOR HELP
As the disease progressed, he became more self-destructive.
“It’s a spiral that gets tighter and tighter because you seem like you’re running out of options,” he said. “Nothing seems ok. Nothing seems to matter. You never feel at peace . . . never feel a sense of accomplishment.”
For two years he lived on the streets of Santa Monica, Calif., no income, showering and eating in shelters, carrying all of his belongings in one small bag.
“You wondered every day if you were going to be beaten up, jumped, raped or whatever,” he said.
He survived primarily because he stood 6’ 3” tall and weighed 250 pounds, and because he stayed away from people.
When changes in jobs, relationships and locations failed to make any difference in his life, the suicide attempts began.
Mental health data shows bipolar people are seven times more likely to attempt suicide, and five times more likely to succeed.
Lee took that route . . . repeatedly.
“I lost track,” he said of his number of attempts. “Probably 10 times.”
At first they were just kind of cries for help.
Once while with a therapist, Lee threatened to kill himself. He was not taken seriously.
“I went over to the top of the administration building which was six stories high and started throwing these big potted plants off the building trying to hit people,” he said. “It was my way of saying come on guys, I’m really serious here.”
He doesn’t know if he’d really have jumped or not. He did try other methods.
He tried more than 15 rehabilitation programs – federal, local, private and those provided by the Veterans Affairs. An Alcoholics Anonymous director suggested he become a counselor since he knew the steps so well.
All were unsuccessful because they were treating his symptoms – the alcoholism – not his real disease.
His last suicide attempt almost succeeded.
“Life had just gotten too painful to go on,” he said. “I had the perfect plan. I would go down to San Diego, check into a hotel, then go into Mexico and get some valium, come back to San Diego and take all the pills and fall blissfully to sleep.”
“Everything went as planned except for the part where I woke up a week later in a hospital mad as hell.”
The pills he purchased in Mexico were muscle relaxant capsules, not valium.
The doctor told him the only reason he survived was probably due to his being such a big guy. “Just my luck! Now what to do?” he thought.
Then someone reached out and literally saved his life.
This man at the Veterans’ Affairs hospital in Los Angeles confirmed what Lee knew all along – “I was crazy after all.”
This case worker realized there was more to the problem than alcohol. He became Lee’s advocate.
“He decided I wasn’t going to die and he took me on his back to make sure.”
Tests were ordered resulting in the bipolar diagnosis, and the struggle to find the correct combination of medications began.
“It took several changes in medication to find one that works for me,” he said.
The case worker helped him get government income assistance to get off the streets and steered him to places to get help with other issues.
AN ENDLESS BATTLE
Every day, he takes medication to help control the swings from manic to depression. There is no cure . . . not yet.
“By and large the swings are not as bad as they used to be,” he said. “It’s not like going from the top of Mt. Everest to the Grand Canyon. It’s more like the rolling hills of West Virginia.”
And he’s no longer alone. His companion is a registered nurse with extensive experience in the psychological fields.
She knows how to recognize the upcoming mood changes. More importantly, she knows when to confront, and when to leave him alone.
Being aware of the disease and its effects helps both of them cope with the situation. Some things, like appointments, etc., she makes sure he keeps.
It’s important for people to realize that the average person can do a lot to help a person with bipolar disorder. Make sure they take their medicines. Do not let them be alone for long periods of time. Don’t shun them because they’re different.
“Being able to have a support system is a big factor,” he said. “People that have these feelings and thoughts shouldn’t be alone.”
By Hleen Barrett
Lynn Martin Photography