Bipolar Disorder: A Personal Story of Triumph
Like in Alcoholics Anonymous, I sometimes wanted to shout to the world, “I am a Bipolar.” Why? Because I was desperate for help when I first contracted Bipolar Disease, but help was not forthcoming. Oh yes, there were the electroshock treatments that in 1991 made me a blithering idiot or in 1995 temporarily lifted my agitated clinical depression for one whole week before submerging me again in drudgery. During this week of freedom, I was so elated that my misery had lifted that I stupidly gave up my long term disability and returned to my professorial duties at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. When the misery returned, all of a sudden I was gone from the university for a period that lasted five years. I had to reapply and get reapproved for my long term disability. The paperwork should have taken me at most a couple of hours. Instead like my original application, it took me three weeks. That’s how hard it was for me to do anything. It would be three years later before the shame of this illness allowed me to once more face my university colleagues through attending my friend and colleague Bill’s retirement party.
From 1991 through 1995, I was hospitalized four to five times, each time for several weeks in three different hospitals on Long island. I hated it each time. I couldn’t wear my hairpiece and when that door locked me in the psychiatric ward, I knew I was trapped in a world I detested. Oftentimes, I would plan my escape in that I would bolt out the door with visitors after visiting hours, but I never found the courage to do so. Had I tried and failed, I envisioned being placed in a straightjacket like in the movies. I had sunk pretty low from being an intelligent scientist who now accepted his lot that this is the way his lost life would be from here on in. In March of 1995, I planned my suicide. I had spoken to a patient in one of my hospital visits who described her suicide attempt with an overdose of pills. She sighed when she told me that her experience was not a good one, but I wasn’t listening. I had been a pill taker all my life, so I believed I finally had found a way out of a world that was telling me that there was no way out. Only through Divine Providence of God coming to my wife Marcia am I alive today. And I’m so sad now that Marcia passed on March 18, 2011. She saved my life but I wasn’t able to save hers.
I took drugs for the voices I heard in my head and for the psychosis that accompanied my mania. The side effects of the drugs were involuntary twitching of the lips, brain fog, and tremors to the point that I could not sign my name. The antidepressant drugs that I tried never worked and only months of the passage of time brought me out of my episodes of severe clinical depression. My only respite was the two hours of sleep that I got from sheer exhaustion each night. I’ve never figured out why sleep was able to provide that relief but in retrospect, the doctors should have heavily sedated me with the most powerful sleeping pills. After all, isn’t that what they do, administer drugs? The three different psychiatrists that I had during this time period never really talked to me, never got at what I was feeling. Their role was to provide their patients with pharmaceuticals regardless of drug side effects.
When all else failed, I resorted to suicide by swallowing 200 aspirin and codeine pills that my mother had brought me from Toronto. At the time, my wife Marcia and my youngest daughter Erin were shopping forty-five minutes away from our home. They had no idea about what I had planned. I opened the two bottles of pills and took one or two pills at first, followed by four then six then eight. I was a pro at taking pills and the two hundred pills disappeared into my stomach in just fifteen or twenty minutes. I went to lie down and finally after months of finding it impossible to find a place for myself, I felt at peace. It was too late to reverse the process and I was waiting to see that light that people who have survived near death experiences talk about. Oops, I realized that I hadn’t written a suicide note to Marcia and the family. Nor had I recorded the date for posterity. I was certain, however, that I was going to die.
Meanwhile a miraculous intervention was occurring at the diner 45 minutes away by car. Erin and Marcia had just ordered lunch when Marcia said to Erin, “We have to go. Something’s wrong with dad.” When they showed up back at the house and woke me up, I blurted out what I had done. Marcia immediately called 911 and the Nesconset, Long Island, NY Fire Department responded within minutes. I initially refused to be taken to the emergency room, but Marcia pleaded with them and me. The sadness and desperation on her face changed my mind and all of a sudden I was being lifted off our king-size bed onto a stretcher. With sirens blasting, I found myself in a surreal state. There were no beds at the emergency room, only an uncomfortable short stretcher in an air conditioned room with glaring overhead fluorescent lights. I was freezing and had to pee. An unkind nurse provided a metal urinal and I missed and urine was all over the sheet covering the stretcher. The nurse was less than compassionate. I felt humiliated and embarrassed, and within minutes someone placed a catheter into my penis. The catheter was painful and never should have been inserted.
The worse was yet to come as doctors and nurses stood over me while they pumped my stomach. They kept inserting this stinking tube through my nose. I was wishing it was over and finally for what seemed like forever, it was over, as everyone left. After more time had elapsed, of which I have no account, I remember finally being transferred to a bed that actually accommodated my 6 foot 2 inch height. That was the last thing I remembered as I was in and out and mostly out sleeping for the next 48 to 72 hours. The caring doctor on duty had told Marcia that they didn’t know whether I was going to make it. I had fallen down a bottomless pit and finally hit bottom. I was embarrassed and ashamed but didn’t know how I would continue to face this agitated clinical depression. Days later, I made a second feeble try at suicide with sixteen pills, still considered an overdose, and had my stomach pumped again. Marcia was fed up and dumped me without a kiss goodbye on the steps of the admissions office of the South Oaks Psychiatric Hospital. I dreaded returning and felt that this was the end of the line and the end of my freedom. This is where I would remain for the end of my days. I had hallucinated and seen my hairdressers with orange and purple hair and seen evil in paintings and people. I had delusions of grandeur thinking I was the Messiah. In my 1991 episode, I played chess with Saddam Hussein as we strategized during the first Gulf War. Ironically, I didn’t play chess. I even called the White House to speak to Barbara Bush to give her my advice for ending the war. I had experienced psychosis at the height of my mania and I had crashed to severe depression to the ultimate bottom, suicide.
Several months later when I had recovered from my suicide attempt and agitated depression, I found myself at a mental illness support group. The meeting was attended by parents of children who had the illness and I qualified because in August of 1994 and June of 1995, my twin sons had their first bouts respectively of Bipolar Disorder. I always felt that I was destined to have the illness at age 50 so I could understand what they were and are still going through. I was the first to have Bipolar Disorder in the family. My father suffered from depression but never experienced mania. My psychiatrist felt that the mania probably came from my mother who he suggested was hypomanic. Identical twin studies have shown that Bipolar Disorder, or Manic Depression as the illness used to be called, is genetic in about half the cases. That means that half the time only one identical twin has the illness. Where both twins are sick, you sometimes see one with Bipolar Disorder and the second with Schizoaffective Disorder or Schizophrenia. The “schizo” attachment signifies an additional thought disorder that can accompany the same mania and psychosis as seen in Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar as its name implies is different than the “schizo” disorders in that it is a mood disorder with swings from the high of mania to the low of depression. All types of mental illness are chemical imbalances in the brain and are not the fault of the unfortunate and often surprised recipient who is diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.
No one knows the cause of Bipolar Disorder and after doing regressive therapy back to my mothers womb, I am not at all convinced that a genetic explanation in families such as mine is the cause for transmission to descendants like my sons. There is so much bioelectric activity occurring in the womb, especially in the birth canal prior to birth, that may change the neurotransmitters’ and hormones’ amounts and actions to set the stage later for the onset of the disease. Often the disease is not diagnosed for years because it seems that inability to do homework or focus in school can be explained by other problems such as attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactive disorder. The textbooks talk about Bipolar Disorder being diagnosed in children as early as age 8 but my wife Marcia was a special education teacher and she noted the mood swings of the mania and depression of Bipolar Disorder or Manic Depression in some of her 4 year olds. Most individuals are diagnosed in their teens or twenties like my sons. There is a smaller group who come down with the disease at about age 40. Rarely does one see anyone like myself at age 50. A young doctor, a pediatrician, in his late forties once stopped by my office at the university just to meet me and know that there was someone else like him who had the illness at such an older age in life. He too was the first in his family and had to give up his medical practice. I hope that I gave him hope. I was out of the university for five years on a long term disability and had just returned to Stony Brook to once again take up my professorial duties when this fine young man stopped by.
It’s a shame that mental illness still has the stigma attached to it although with more celebrities talking about the diseases, we are seeing more awareness and understanding from the public. I often think that the mentally ill are part of a group forgotten by society. Young people in particular think that you can just will yourself back to health. You cannot. You won’t go into remission from a particular episode of Bipolar Disorder until the chemical imbalance is restored in your brain to some fashion we might call normalcy. After years of taking drugs, that state of normalcy may not be the same as your brain was before you ever acquired the disease. Bipolar Disorder is like a tree stump. It stumps your life. Some people never work again and those that do are hampered. Rare ones like myself are blessed to return to a higher level of occupation. The illness is often the cause of job loss, marital tension and divorce, and addiction to mind altering drugs and alcohol. All the Bipolars I met in the hospital for some reason that I cannot comprehend smoked. Traditional Bipolar is diagnosed by mania followed by depression, but the disease takes on different forms with specific medical terminology. The latter is important but what’s more important is to realize that Bipolar Disorder is different for everyone and each individual episode can be different with common patterns. My illness is different from my twin sons, and theirs is different from each other. How would genetics explain their differences unless influenced also by environment?
There are a lot of misconceptions out there, but when people get past their fears and ignorance, they will sometimes ask me what is the difference between hypomania and mania. From my perspective, mania is a more extreme form of brain activity. In hypomania, you may still be able to reach the individual and get him help before he has a full blown episode. In mania, the person hears your voice but he or she is really not listening to you. You can’t reach a person in their manic state unless they finally calm down with the assistance of drugs of they somehow realize themselves, like I did, that it’s time to seek help or you will lose your mind. People also sheepishly ask me what my suicide attempt was like. Bloody awful and demeaning I answer. I remember at that support group the social worker asking for someone to begin. Immediately, a woman sitting beside me jumped at the chance and said something I had never heard before. “Bipolar Disorder is a terminal illness.” No psychiatrist had ever expressed these words and they seemed to be floating in the air as I tried to grasp onto them and internalize them in my brain. The woman, whose husband was sitting solemnly beside her, was somber as she spoke lovingly about her son who blew his brains out with a gun. Thank God I took pills or that could have been me. The woman told of her son’s countless cries for help that went unanswered. When the coordinator of the group asked me to speak next, I wanted this woman to understand that I understood, so I described my suicide attempt. This story has always struck a sad chord in me and makes me grateful that I am still here. It brings up such mixed emotions in me.
There is still much to understand about Bipolar Disorder and lest people think I am anti-drug, I am not. You need to take your drugs and build up your spirituality. In the old days without mood stabilizers such as lithium and the neuroleptics (anti-psychotics), they threw you into the loony bin and you never came out. It’s still a crapshoot in the case of the antidepressants. However, if you find the right one you will kiss the earth and thank God every day. You can have clinical depression without Bipolar Disorder and it is similar. In my case, the depression was mixed with an unyielding agitation of the mania part of my illness. I was given nothing for the Akithisia as the doctors refer to it and I could sit still for just a few seconds. It was horrific and that’s when I decided to finally end it all. Thank God for God coming to Marcia. I would never have known that I would have ever come up had I not survived. I hope that my story gives hope to people who are struggling today that every descent is part of an ascent to follow.
During those five years of long term disability, I was blessed with spiritual experiences of an incredible nature. The psychiatrists speak about 25 % or so of Bipolars going into remission. I have not had an episode in seventeen years. I would like to believe that it’s because I have strengthened myself spiritually for the last thirteen years. Usually a person who doesn’t get enough sleep will trip into mania. I survive on very little sleep. These days I work hard on helping the Creator but I also want to help the forgotten members of our society, the mentally ill. While I was still a Professor at Stony Brook, I ran an ad in the university paper and offered my help to anyone with Bipolar Disorder. I do so now, so please contact me if you need help. You can email email@example.com Thank you for listening
Jerry Pollock, Ph.D..