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Stairway to Madness
My Life With Bipolar Disorder
Balboa PressCopyright © 2016 angelica
All rights reserved.
LIVING WITH BIPOLAR
In 1994, at the age of 25, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is also known as manic-depressive illness. It is a form of mental illness.
Unfortunately, even today in the 21st century, there remains a stigma attached to mental illness. Those who suffer are sometimes dismissed as "crazy" by people who do not understand what it means to have a mental illness.
That's one of the reasons I chose to write this book: to help people understand how and why someone like me is different. To simply slap a label like "crazy" on someone with a mental illness without making any effort to understand them is just an easy way of sweeping a problem under the rug.
I used to be afraid of my illness. I knew something was wrong, but I did not know how to deal with it or how to stop it from affecting my thoughts and behavior. Worst of all, I was afraid it would drive away all the people I cared about, so that I would end up alone and unloved.
Having lived with bipolar for over 20 years now, I have revised my thinking about my illness. It is part of who I am, and therefore it is something that I have learned to love and accept.
Rather than feeling shame, I see myself as privileged, in a way. This is how God made me. When you love somebody (including yourself), you accept the bad along with the good. But here's the important thing: living with bipolar does not necessarily have to be a bad experience.
If your attitude toward it is bad (if you choose not to take your medications or maintain regular doctor visits), then your experience will be bad. But if you embrace it as part of who you are, then it is possible to come to view bipolar as something of a blessing in your life, especially if it brings you closer to your family and loved ones.
Living with bipolar has not been easy. You have to be constantly alert as to how you are feeling inside, which is something only you can truly know. In this sense, you can feel very alone, and that is scary. Loved ones who are close to you can sense when your behavior isn't right, and they can probably tell when something is off, but they cannot know what thoughts are going through your head if you do not share them.
In a way, this places much of the burden on you, which can feel very isolating. And it is something no one can really understand unless they have experienced it themselves.
For many years after my initial diagnosis, I heard loud noises and masculine voices that constantly put me down. My self-esteem was shot and I lost hope until years later, when certain medicines such as Risperdal, lithium and clozeral were prescribed by various psychiatrists.
Some professionals diagnose my illness as schizo-affective disorder because of the auditory hallucinations I have endured in addition to manic depression. Out of frustration and hope, I decided that I would take another approach – a sort of mental trick -- to try to make peace with the ramifications of bipolar disorder.
I realized through spiritual direction and insight that some people believe in a psychic gift called clairaudience. This means the "characters" in my head can be thought of as "angels" of light and love, instead of nasty, demeaning "voices" that would try to undermine my efforts to take care of myself. In other words, if I "hear" something nasty, it's tough love in the spirit of trying to help me identify an area for improvement, rather than an insult intended to hurt me. "You're too fat" becomes a message that I need to work on weight loss and exercise.
I now choose to welcome these "angels" into my life; they ground and protect me and keep me healthy. Put another way, it's all in how you choose to view your illness, as a blessing or a burden. I choose the former.
There are nearly 6 million adults in the United States who are diagnosed with some form of mental illness within a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health as documented in the 2004 U.S. Census. Of that amount of people, nearly 3 percent have bipolar disorder.
I am not a doctor, and so I cannot speak to the medical side of dealing with bipolar beyond my own experiences, which would not be the same for every individual. What I can speak to is the human impact of the disorder.
I want to provide some kind of insight, reassurance and hope to those dealing with bipolar, as well as their family members and loved ones. You don't have to feel like you're alone. You can live with this illness, and have a meaningful, fulfilling and productive life.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines bipolar disorder as "a chronic illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last anywhere from a day to several months or years."
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6% of the adult population, have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. It is possible that more suffer but have been diagnosed incorrectly or go undiagnosed due to the underreporting of mental illness. Other studies demonstrate that 4.5% of the general population have bipolar disorder (C Alexander Simpkins, PhD & Annellen M. Simpkins, PhD. 2013)
According to NAMI, "Bipolar disorder causes extreme mood swings that go from high and energized (manic) to low and lethargic (depression)." That may last from several days to months or even years.CHAPTER 2
I grew up near the shore, and for much of my childhood we lived in an area near the water. My father served in the U.S. Coast Guard at a nearby base. My mother stayed home to take care of me and my older sister. We lived along a winding road that went right down to the beach. Although it was like paradise during summer, the winters could be fantastically cruel and cold.
Growing up was a wonderful experience. Over the years, we lived in four different houses along that winding road. The summers were filled with sunny, breezy days. Dad painted murals in our bedrooms and put up a swing for us to play outdoors.
We were never wealthy, but it was still a terrific place for a kid to grow up. We would buy fish for dinner from our neighbor, who worked on the bay. Mom made delicious, healthy meals, always being sure that we had a balanced, nutritious diet.
In fourth grade, I left public school and began attending Catholic school, mainly to escape bullying I had experienced.
I spent two years in Catholic school. One interesting experience came when all the students, faculty and staff gathered to form the shape of a human rosary. To me, it was a very spiritual exercise.
Many years later, my mom and I completed a rosary together, but our intentions were different. Mom dedicated the prayer to angels of light. I was thinking something entirely different.
I felt that the angels of light didn't need help as much as the fallen angels did, but it really wasn't that simple. I knew that, ultimately, God is in charge and what "Popsy" (as I think of God) decides is what happens. He's the big boss.
These were all part of the grandiose ideas I dwelled on, which were a sign that something in my mind was not right, even at that young age.
I became so obsessed with the idea of bringing about a reconciliation between God and fallen angels that I wound up in mental hospitals many times. I experienced more fear from this whole train of thought than from anything else that has ever happened to me.CHAPTER 3
A MONSTROUS VIOLATION
The day that changed my life happened when I was 5. While my parents were at work and my sister was at school, a man named Joe – who at the time was a friend of my parents – was babysitting me. He obviously must have seemed trustworthy to my mom and dad, but what happened that day robbed me of my innocence in a way that no child should ever have to endure.
Joe sexually assaulted me while my parents were not at home. Even now, all these years later, it is difficult to fully describe how this monstrous violation affected me. A 5-year-old girl should not have to struggle with confusion over why an adult would do something like this.
Several months later, I suffered another sexual assault. My parents had rented out our house for the summer, to make some extra income. As a result, we were living at a nearby campground.
I remember taking a walk one night with Dad and my sister, when some noise in the woods startled me. Dad let go of my hand. I think he assumed I was going back to our campsite, but by now it was dark and I could not see very well.
Three young men called to me from the foliage. They lured me into the woods and sexually assaulted me.
About an hour later, a family friend found me crying in the bushes, by myself. I was confused, very frightened and very, very sad.
She brought me back to our campsite. I told my mom what had happened. My parents called the police. Dad and I rode around the campground with them, trying to find the perpetrators, but we were unsuccessful.
My mother later put me to bed, and I only started to feel safe after she held me tightly in her arms for a long time.
The sexual abuse had a bizarre effect on my early ideas about religion and spirituality, as well. During the summer of the campground assault, my parents decided that our family would start attending church regularly. We tried a variety of different Christian churches.
One clear memory I have is of going to a Christian church, and one of the church officials showed us a movie that depicted some sort of futuristic story about the end of time.
For some reason, I don't know why, they separated me from my parents and my sister. A 5-year-old should not be separated from her family and shown a frightening depiction of the future.
This scared the hell out of me because I felt dirty and used up and cheated of a safe childhood. I thought God would not forgive me and would punish me for what had happened. Talk about scary.
The film was obviously intended as a scare tactic to make people afraid of going to hell. It showed Christians being made into martyrs, with their heads being severed and falling into baskets.
But all I could think of was that this meant God would punish me for what had happened to me. I felt, deep down, like I had done something wrong, and what had happened was my fault.
I felt ashamed. Without counseling, I began developing ideas that I was a bad person, that I had sinned, that God could not love me. I can see, now, that I was not to blame for anything that had happened. Nonetheless, it left scars that would affect me for years to come.
I never told my parents about the incident with Joe until I was 10. One day, I brought in the mail, and there was a letter from Joe addressed to my parents. He had sent them a photo of him with his new wife. I was the one who opened the envelope, and after I saw what was inside, I started screaming.
I told my mom about what had happened, but I do not believe she told Dad. Later on, my dad took a cross-country trip with a friend and actually saw Joe, who appeared to have some sort of lesions on his face and body. At this point, Dad didn't know what had happened – he would not learn that until my diagnosis in 1994. I think Mom did not know how to deal with telling him.
In any event, my parents never confronted Joe, who has since died.
For a long time, I was very angry that my parents didn't protect me from Joe. I was also angry that they had passed on the genes that gave me bipolar disorder -- an illness that I felt had come to define my life.
After many years of intensive therapy, I now know that my parents did the best they could, and I love them for that. They also took good care of me during the darkest days of my life, especially in my twenties. God bless them for that. I thank them for making such a difference in my life.CHAPTER 4
TROUBLED TEEN YEARS
My mom earned her degree in public health and began working, so our family had a bit more money. But it also meant she was not home as much anymore, to supervise. By this time, I was entering my early teens. My life began to change.
My parents became the legal guardians of other children over the years. It was very generous of my parents to welcome these girls into our family -- yet at the time, all I could see were my feelings of anger that these other girls were "usurping" my role as the baby of the family.
I started smoking cigarettes and watching MTV against the wishes of my parents. Since they both had jobs, they were not around to see what we were doing. In general, we were lazy, slept late during the summers, and did whatever we wanted without regard for anyone else.
My parents did try to keep us in line; for instance, one time when I bought a Led Zeppelin album against my mother's wishes, she took it away from me and threw it out. But they were not always around to catch us misbehaving.
I was probably the worst. I was a very high-maintenance kid. In fact, I was the only one who had her own bedroom, probably because I was such a difficult child. My dad often said I was extremely self-centered. It would be roughly another decade before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But the signs were clearly there that something was wrong.
I tried to apply myself at school, in my own way. In junior high, I joined the choir, which I stayed with all through high school. But the wild side of me was coming into full bloom.
By the time I was in eighth grade, I was sneaking out the window at night to hang out with older boys. I would drink, and then go to school the next day hung over. I did not have a lot of what I would consider to be normal friends.
Much of the time I felt lonely, and ugly – one of the worst things a girl at that age can feel. I always felt like I was overweight, although that would not become a really serious problem for me until years later – ironically, in part because of the bipolar medications.
By the time I was 13, it was never hard for us to find alcohol. Sometimes, a neighbor would buy us liquor. My parents would go away during the weekends and leave us alone at the house. We would party on the beach.
One time, my eighth-grade biology teacher noticed I was sleeping in class, and after he called me on it – rightly – I was embarrassed. But this made the emotional roller coaster I was on worse. I kept sneaking out at night. My parents never knew.
I had a friend whose parents both worked night shifts at the local hospital. So her house became a sort of safe haven for us to party. As long as we were home and in bed by 6 a.m., we usually got away with it. My mom would believe the lies I told her. Maybe it was easier than facing the truth.
When I was in eighth grade, we would sometimes hang out at nearby campgrounds. I met a guy who was 17. The relationship was not really serious, but I did go with him to his senior prom.
At one point, I was in the bathroom and some other girls asked what grade I was in. I told them I was graduating – true enough, even if it was eighth grade.
Another sign of the sexual abuse also manifested itself during these years of my life – bed-wetting.
Once, I went to an amusement park with my family and my best friend, whom I have known since age 6. On the way home, we were sleeping in the back of the pickup truck and I peed on the mattress in my sleep. I blamed it on one of my sisters.
The bed-wetting continued. It got to the point where, if I was visiting my grandmother, she would come into the bedroom and check the mattress. She did not understand why I did it.
My parents never realized what was going on and it would take many years to start to deal with the effects of being molested as a child that never healed from being abused at a young age.
Later on, my first therapist told me that it was an expression of anger at Joe, who had molested me. In fact, shortly after the molestation happened, one day while Joe was playing with me, I urinated on him. Everyone looked at me, wondering why I did it.CHAPTER 5
DEVELOPING LOW SELF-ESTEEM
I was always jealous of my sister Rose, because she was stunningly beautiful. By contrast, I felt like the ugly duckling. Rose always had boyfriends and was usually in a healthy dating relationship throughout high school. All I did was continue to drink, and I made a lot of poor choices when I drank.
These incidents occur often because of poor insight and judgment that most young children experience when their brains are still developing. Some scientists say that when a person is having a manic episode that it affects the frontal lobe of the brain, which affects the ability to make good decisions.
One day, after a night of partying, a friend named Jeannine and I decided to cut school. However, it was a cold, snowy day and both my parents were home. So Jeannine and I decided to break into a house down the street. In fact, I still have a scar on one of my fingers from breaking a window.
Excerpted from Stairway to Madness by Angelica. Copyright © 2016 angelica. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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