Flying high (…with nowhere to land): my struggles with inheriting the bipolar disorder gene

Karen JumpingWritten by: Karen

I’m 28.
I’m bipolar.
I was diagnosed a few months ago.

I cried at the news…
I don’t want to be on medication for life;
I don’t want to have a stigma following me around;

I don’t want to have the same things happen to me that happened to my dad.

 

A familiar territory

Dad was bipolar too. All he had to do was take medication once a day and he would’ve been fine.

But he was a pilot.  And back then, pilots weren’t able to fly planes while on meds.

He couldn’t do his job – a job he LOVED – because of his bipolar disorder.  That’s the strangest thing for me to understand – his medication made him feel great! Perfectly capable of leading a “normal” life! But his life was flying.

So, technically, if he didn’t take care of his health through medication, he was safe to fly aircraft.

I recently learned from another family member that Mom was really scared of Dad.  Scared that he would hurt her. So Mom, my sister and I moved provinces, partially because Mom was offered a great job (she’s a pilot too), and partially to get away from Dad.

I was allowed to talk to Dad on the phone, and I even went to visit him the summer after our move. He hanged himself the following January.

And it’s been taboo to talk about him or his death for the past 18 years. I think this hurts the most. I’m not sure why, but it seems like it was a chapter in my mom’s life that she doesn’t want to be associated with anymore.

Replacements

After Dad died, I immediately became a tomboy: baggy sports clothes; pretending that I didn’t have a crush on any guy; eventually not wanting to wear a bra or shave my legs…

I could understand that Mom wanted to be in a loving relationship again. I wanted that for her too. I love Mom so very much. But meeting my step-dad, moving provinces to live with him, the engagement, and eventual marriage – all within 1 ½ years of Dad’s death – hit me really hard. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually felt comfortable hugging my step-dad. Of course I love him, but for years it was very tough for me to show it.

The feeling of loving a parent who chose not to watch me grow up, and the feeling of a replacement being forced upon me, really made me subconsciously doubt my own self-worth.

And this may be why I have been single pretty much my entire life.

The only relationship I’ve been in was 7 years ago. It was more off than on for over a year, but I ended up ruining it because I wasn’t medicated. I cared too much about myself, yet I neglected myself at the same time.

Operating in overdrive

Looking back, it was around the time I began university that I started to show signs of bipolar disorder:

  • I made lists upon lists of things I had to accomplish that hour, day and week.
  • I felt like I let myself down if I didn’t accomplish EVERYTHING, so I would never reward myself for the accomplishments I did make.
  • I took on FOUR jobs to fill every last minute of the day, yet I was still able to work out intensely at the gym 6 times/week.
  • I slept 4 hours a night.
  • I trained and ran a marathon.
  • I was constantly alert.
  • I would talk and talk and talk and talk.
  • I was always smiling.
  • I felt awesome.

But for every 8 months of awesomeness, came 2 weeks of crash:

  • I would get pneumonia and lose 15 lbs in a few days.
  • I would cry so loud and not know how to stop. It was more a howl than a cry.
  • I would feel like a rubber band was wrapping around my brain so tightly. I’d brace myself, waiting for it to snap.
  • I would neglect my appearance and my hygiene.
  • I would get extremely irritated with others over little things.
  • I couldn’t understand how others failed to accomplish as much as I could.

The wrong diagnosis

A year before my bipolar disorder diagnosis, I had another big crash. I was living with my aunt and uncle – they obviously knew of Dad’s condition – so they sat me down and told me I needed help. I took their advice, visited my doctor, and he immediately put me on antidepressants.

But here’s the thing – no one sat me down and told me they were worried about me when I was extremely happy and excited. And why would they? Apparently, it’s OK to be really happy, but it’s not OK to be really sad.

So the mania side of my bipolar disorder went untreated.

And this athletic, drug-free sports nut began smoking weed 2-3 times a day just to calm down.  Everything had to be done now, Now, NOW. My mind would race with crazy, creative ideas and I couldn’t shut it off at bedtime. Nothing was impossible for me!! And if I ever felt upset, I would double my dosage, thinking this would numb my emotions.

One year later, I finally got to see a psychiatrist. And when he told me I was “without a doubt” bipolar, I initially refused the medication.

I thought that taking away my mania would be like taking away a part of me.  [Tweet this!]

I loved always being the smiley girl who infected others with happiness. I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to accept the fact that what happened to Dad was happening to me.

When people are diagnosed with cancer, break a leg, or have the flu, loved ones show their support through get well cards, flowers, spending time with them – that’s not really the case with bipolar disorder.

I was told, “I’m not going to give you any sympathy” because I was acting strange during my withdrawal from the antidepressants and adjustment to my new medication.

My psychiatrist told me not to tell anyone of my condition – it wasn’t their business. But I felt that I had to tell my family and close friends. They had to know that I was getting help.

Guilt

I think the hardest part of all this was the realization that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees until I was properly medicated.

But with this realization came the overwhelming feeling that I owe people apologies for my actions:

I’m sorry I didn’t show that I cared enough about others, and I only focused on myself.

I’m sorry for snapping at you about miniscule things.

I’m sorry for acting crazy and reckless.

I’m sorry for going to work high.

The list goes on…

But I shouldn’t care what others think of me, because they’re going to think whatever they want to anyways.

I’ve kept a diary for almost 20 years. And reading what I had written a few years ago, it was astonishing to see all the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder, yet not know I had it.

The one boyfriend that I had had told me that I wasn’t taking care of my appearance and I needed to get help. But I didn’t.

Six months in

Now:

  • I miss the euphoria very much.
  • I gained almost 20 lbs because I’m not swinging from the ceilings anymore. (I have since lost some of that).
  • I have yet to accept that what happened to Dad will not necessarily happen to me.

But I am also much more stabilized…

  • I feel focused.
  • I finally realize the benefits of rest.
  • I switched careers to one that has a regular schedule, allowing time for social activities and providing more financial security.

I’m still working on rewarding myself for accomplishments. It’s difficult for me to understand why I should be proud of my current successes when I was able to do so much more during my untreated manic periods.

But I’m only six months into treatment – everything doesn’t fall into place at once.

I’m happier with myself, but I know it’s going to take time to realize that my medication makes me be “the real me”, rather than masking who I really am.

 

Photo Courtesy: Karen

 

Karen has always had a strong independency. After ten years in the sports broadcasting industry, she moved to Australia to receive her Masters Degree in Teaching. She has also explored South East Asia, the UK and many parts of North America. Since relocating to Ottawa, Karen has worked on numerous film and television productions. Her long-time plan to bicycle across Canada in support of mental health has found new life after her own diagnosis with bipolar disorder. 


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Comments

  • The Bipolar Project

    Karen, I really enjoyed your post.

    I am glad my mania was taken away from me. Who I become when manic is so completely opposite to the real me that I dislike that person intensely…I am glad that “me” has been taken away.

    It’s interesting I think, because I feel taking away the highs and lows of bipolar disorder means the real me can shine through. I don’t want to be a disordered mind, no matter how productive, or sexy or fabulous that person may be.

    I don’t know if I’ve always felt this way. It’s just how I feel now, four years since my diagnosis. I wish you all the best for the future.

    Sara

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