Successfully Navigating Life with Bipolar Disorder

Mary - 65 - USA

I watched my mother suffer crippling depression throughout her adult life, yet I did not recognize it when my own mental illness first appeared. Born and raised in Australia, I relocated to the U.S.A. for work reasons when I was 27. It was a difficult adjustment for me. I was undertaking postdoctoral training in scientific research at the National Institutes of Health, and suddenly found myself immersed in a sea of ultra-competitive self-centered young scientists prepared to step all over each other to curry favor with the Lab Head. I am a typically laid back, teasing, egalitarian Aussie. My ardent attempts to blend in failed miserably, and at 6 months, the 12 other post-docs informed the Lab Head they could not tolerate having me in the lab any longer. He moved me by myself into a tiny lab about the size of two toilet cubicles. I was devastated.
This cruel rejection pushed me into the deep black hole of clinical depression. I could not get out of bed for weeks, crying for long periods each day.  Hard to believe now, but I had no idea I was suffering depression, in fact I seemed incapable of any rational thought. I just lay in bed feeling an amorphous desperate sadness, and the unbearable horror that I would never feel normal again.  It was the most painful and terrifying experience I had ever had.  It was relentless and unbearable. Suddenly I could understand why people commit suicide… to escape the unbearable pain of emotional torture. In fact the only thing that provided me any relief at all was planning in great detail how I would kill myself, and reliving the idea again and again and again in my head.

Speed forward over many years of psychotherapy, and intermittent crippling depression episodes. I eventually ended up on anti-depression medication. At the age of 42, an initial tiny dose (12.5mg) of Zoloft, a SSRI, permanently uplifted my baseline mood level to significantly happier. I now realize I had suffered chronic dysthymia (chronic slightly depressed mood) throughout my life til that point.  My overt affect was unchanged, but internally it was as if a black mesh veil had been lifted from me, and for the first time I could see color. The psychiatrist gradually increased my Zoloft to a final dose of 50 mg. Late one night at 4am I left an answering machine message for my psychiatrist cancelling the next day’s appointment. When my next visit did happen, she asked me why I had called her so late. I innocently responded that I could frequently stay awake all night and work. To my horror, she would no longer prescribe me Zoloft, and sent me to be evaluated for bipolar disorder.

After a 4-hour evaluation by a leading Bipolar Disorder psychiatrist, Dr S, I was crushed to receive the positive diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I’m ashamed to say this, but I recall thinking in complete horror  ‘everyone will think I’m an axe murderer if they know I have bipolar disorder’.  I quickly went from “I can’t believe I have bipolar disorder” to “I definitely do not have bipolar disorder, this is just a fad diagnosis over-used in California”. But Dr S was absolutely certain, and wanted me to take lithium.  I refused, explaining that only nut cases take lithium.  I reasoned that even if I did have “a touch of bipolar disorder”, I never wanted to give up my hypomanias as I would become bland and boring, and unable to succeed in science. As I write all this I feel ashamed of my discriminatory thoughts when first told I had bipolar disorder.

I know I am luckier than most who suffer mental illnesses, but I am not alone. There are many others with bipolar disorder who achieve fulfilling lives.

As Dr S and I agreed to continue to work together, I assured him I would be the least sick bipolar patient he had ever treated. In fact it was just 3 weeks later that I called him on a pay phone from India in a manic state explaining that the lithium had paralysed me, it did not seem to occur to me that walking to the phone booth somewhat undermined my claim. I was simply certain I was paralysed. much had happened in the intervening 3 weeks. The biotech company where I was V.P. of Research collapsed abruptly (long story), and I had to immediately fire the 60 people in my department. This was so traumatic for me that I drifted into a clear episode of mania afterwards. For several hours I sat at my computer and raced at hyper speed through a series of tasks, each of them only partially completed before I frantically jumped to the next, then the next, then the next, then repeating the same cycle again and again and again. In a total frenzy I was making lists of people I could call seeking jobs for my ex-employees, then starting to write reference letters for my ex-employees, then searching job lists on the websites of other biotech companies in the area, then making lists of low income ex-employees I would give my own money to so they would be OK, then more writing of reference letters, then drafting angry letters to our board members, then letters to local venture capital firms seeking money to resurrect the company, then searching for grants that would enable me to pay the ex-employees, then more letters of reference. I remember the snippets of unfinished writings were whizzing across my eyes, my brain moved outside my body to get a clearer look at the dozens of lists, while I at the same time was feverishly making more and more lists.  The ideas were flooding into my head ultra-quickly, then more ultra-quickly, then even more ultra-quickly. Soon they came so quickly I couldn’t decipher them, but I still wrote them down. After 2 hours of this, my body and mind suddenly shut down completely and for a very long time. I was unable to move or think. I wasn’t worried about my state because I was not conscious about anything.  It was as if I was in a coma with my eyes open.
Many hours later I called Dr S.  He immediately put me back on lithium. The next day I had to fly off to India to attend another major scientific conference there. 
I have lived a lucky life, with a successful career in biomedical research, 35 years of marriage, and 3 wonderful children.  I have travelled the world. I suffered debilitating depressions along the way, but did not know until the age of 42 that I had bipolar disorder. In retrospect I can see that the latter illness caused problems throughout my entire adult life mainly in the area of interpersonal relationships. I know I am luckier than most who suffer mental illnesses, but I am not alone. There are many others with bipolar disorder who achieve fulfilling lives. So if you receive the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, realize you are starting a journey directed towards disease control, and you don’t know where it will take you. Most importantly, don’t give up hope.