Every man, woman, and child who struggles with bipolar disorder struggles in a different way. That much is obvious from six people's stories that are gathered here.
Over the past 20 years, bipolar disorder has undergone a sea of change. It is more quickly diagnosed; medical knowledge has grown; treatment options have expanded. But one thing hasn't changed: Having bipolar usually means a daily and unending battle to survive for consumers and often for their families as well. Saying "sorry" to a parent or a loved one "doesn't cut it after you've said it for the millionth time," as one young woman knowingly put it.
Talk to a few people who have bipolar and one oft-repeated lament stands out: "I come from a nice family. I wasn't brought up to be like this."
Many are dispirited and at a loss to understand or control their own behavior. Who is this man who treats his wife so shabbily? How did this once upstanding citizen turn into a petty, compulsive shoplifter? What about the once svelte woman who's now suddenly 50 pounds overweight?
Since bp Magazine's inception nearly two years ago, readers have been writing to us with a constant refrain: Write about people like me—not celebrities or people who function just fine—but people who struggle through each day just to stay in control.
This set of personal stories responds to that request.
Of the stories that follow, some consider themselves victims. They hate the illness, resent how it has snuck into their lives, shattering early promises and high expectations. In their minds, it exists within like an omnipresent enemy, ever-evolving, leaving a trail of waste, chaos, and broken relationships.
For Karen Renken, diagnosed when she was all of 13, bipolar disorder is inextricably linked with creativity. "I think of things in a minute flat," she says. "Someone gives me an idea and I have the whole thing planned out right away." She also credits bipolar with making her into a loving, good human being. As she says, "Because of the way I've been judged, I can't knock someone else."
Inevitably, a diagnosis of bipolar means a change in plans. For a young woman in her childbearing years—like Keri Aitken-Toby, who always dreamed of having children—that can be heart-wrenching. She desperately hoped to stop taking her medication, at least long enough to conceive and get through the first trimester of a pregnancy. That plan has changed, however.
Kevin H., just 21 and already a hardened veteran in dealing with bipolar, is newly hopeful. These and three other people have opened their lives for inspection with one reason in mind: to help others cope.
Brian C., Alabama
I could never keep a job. I wasn't lazy. It was just that my mind changed like the wind. You name it, I probablydid it: I worked in a grocery store, a Wal-Mart, a welding shop, a jeans company, a restaurant. I've built houses. I've been to Russia—I got a job setting up townhouses there—I thought it would be really cool. Then I got over to Russia and about a day later I was ready to come home. I stayed about two weeks.
I never really carry out anything—like building an airplane. I planned it a little bit, in my late teens. I welded a couple pieces and then quit. I'm always searching for something. I can't ever live life, I let life "live" me. The worst thing is I have two little girls—that's where it hurts the most. I started leaving my family when my youngest daughter was only a few months old. I was determined that my wife could not make me happy and I was not getting the attention I needed. The first time I told her I didn't love her anymore, she took the girls and went to her mom and dad's. We worked it out. Then I moved out for six months and she took me back again.
Two or three times, I ended up at a motel and my sister or brother would call me up and talk me out of it. And I would go back home because deep down I knew that was the right thing to do. A couple years ago, I got real sick with hydrocephalus and I had to have surgery. My wife was there for me the whole time, but as soon as I got better I left again. And to this day I don't know why. I couldn't control it.
Each time I left I couldn't control it. And each time that would make my depression worse. I think about what I've done and, of course, I would be happy if she took me back. But could I manage it? I don't have a plan. My mind doesn't think that way.
I still don't save money. When I was married, I would always go out and buy a bigger TV, cars, a motorcycle, a boat, a keyboard. And trips! I like to go, go, go, go, go—even when we didn't have the money. I'd like to go each year, somewhere extravagant. I cycle back and forth. For a couple days I'm manic, then depressed. Mostly I'm depressed. I'm 32 years old and looking back I realize I've always been like this. The good part is the mania; some of the racing thoughts aren't that bad, I'm just real high, more flirtatious, touchy-feely. It works in my favor.
Last November, my wife decided she could not take it anymore and filed for a divorce. This hit me hard. I went to a motel and wrote a letter to my wife and took some pills hoping I would just go to sleep forever. Then I called a friend; it was impulsive. My friend took me to the doctor's office and then I went to a hospital where I was finally diagnosed with bipolar.
I will continue to do what I can to have a normal life. I just don't like being depressed. I don't like taking the medications all the time; I can't sleep very well when I take them. I think better when I'm not taking them. I'll usually miss one day a week, then get scared and go back on.
I wish that I could just turn back time and change all the wrongdoing. I have hurt my wife so much. In the back of my mind, I keep hoping that she'll just realize ... I'm hoping that everything will just work out and I can have my family back.
Kevin H., Pennsylvania
Even as a little kid, I was getting into fights. As I grew up, it got progressively worse; I got suspended about five times every year. I basically talked junk to other kids and they would beat me up and I'd fight back. I was cycling back and forth, from depression to mania, as if on a schedule. When I was manic, I was irritable, that's when I had most of my fights.
My whole perception of reality was twisted. When The Matrix came out in 1999, I watched it over and over, more than 30 times. I knew every line in it; I thought about it 24/7. I almost believed that I was Neo [the hero, played by Keanu Reeves, who uncovered the secret, artificial reality of the film's title]. That if I concentrated enough I could break free of the Matrix and get to the next reality.
In high school, I had maybe two friends; pretty much everybody hated me. They saw me as someone who fought, who talked crap. I got kicked out of class for stabbing a kid in the ankle with my pen because he wrote on the back of my neck.
If I felt pain, I could convert the pain to energy, almost like meditation. This happened with cutting myself, for instance, not deep enough to have stitches but I do have scars. I cut so often that my parents had to search my room daily for pins, razors, and anything sharp.
Back then, the world was my enemy and I had a no-care attitude. I was pretty miserable. Even the teachers could see there was something different about me. I saw about five psychiatrists, had tons of tests for learning disabilities, and other stuff. Nothing showed up.
Actually, I was diagnosed with depression in seventh grade and put on medication—I don't know if it really helped. I enjoyed building model rockets and launching them, and gardening. I was a boy scout. Then one day in 2002, when I was 16, I told my parents that when I turned 18 I was going to buy a rifle and commit a crime. I'd heard Wyoming was the most remote state and the way I figured it, if I went to a city there'd be more chance of me being caught. If I hadn't been put into the hospital, I would have done it.
My parents called the police and put me into a children's hospital. I was there for five months and then they put me in KidsPeace [a private foundation for children with severe behavioral and mental health problems]. I really missed home a lot, but you could see your family. I was heavily medicated and I didn't see the point of fighting anymore.
I was in there for three years; I just got out in July 2005. I've been diagnosed with bipolar I, auditory processing disorder, and impulse control disorder. I'm doing alright— I have my own apartment, a job, and I go to college. I take my medication regularly. I cycle, but it's nothing I can't handle.
The last manic episode I had was on a nice day in February. I started off being depressed and went to the mall. I didn't feel like myself. I was getting hot sweats and cold sweats, so I walked the six miles home and I didn't even break a sweat because I was manic. I got home and wrote poetry. Music helps: rock, heavy metal, def metal rap, techno, and trance.
I have a girlfriend—that's pretty good. I tried going off my medication about a month ago. After five days, I almost fell back into my cycling. I considered my options and went back on my meds.
I try to be hopeful. I'm part of a bipolar support group, and a cutters' support group. The blessing is that I can help people. I'm edgy—having bipolar is not fun, let's put it that way. But I just turned 21 and I'm dealing with it.
Keri Aitken-Toby, Ontario
I was diagnosed on October 31, 2000 and it really stunned me—admitting not only that I had this illness, but accepting the label! I grew up under a persona of perfection. Of course, as a nursing student I'd learned about bipolar disorder in school—I'd spent time in psychiatric wards. But I never envisioned that I would have something like that. I told myself, I'm not going to be one of those people—I hate to even say it— who don't work, don't contribute. I've become more open to the idea that this is real since my last relapse.
The reason for the relapse was that I turned 29 in January 2005 and I thought for sure I'd have a couple children by now. When I brought up the idea with my psychiatrist, he didn't seem interested. Reluctantly, he allowed me to come off my medication after three and a half years of stability. After six months off meds, I was doing great and he gave me the green light to try to conceive.
A couple weeks went by and I knew something was wrong. I wasn't sleeping. I was making lists, and in my lists I was speaking my own special language—not gibberish, but symbolic words. I'm a nurse and I remember going to work [at a hospital] and lying down on a stretcher in a fetal position with the lights off; I had ovulation cycles running through my head and one of the docs brought me a pregnancy test. My nursing director came in and I basically spilled the beans: I have bipolar, I'm off my meds, I need some time off. I don't think she was expecting that.
After crawling out of the depths of a mental ICU, I started feeling a lot better. I was working full time, handling the day-to-day stresses. I wanted to try again. Having children is very important to me and my husband. Needless to say, my psychiatrist did not want any part of it. We had an all-out confrontation, which ended up with my crying, "I am not ready to give up yet." I found an expert on pregnancy and women who have bipolar and my psychiatrist agreed to refer me to him.
This was my chance to prove that I could get pregnant, but the doctor didn't really ask any direct questions. I was nervous as hell not knowing what he wanted to hear from me. After an hour of chit-chatting, he said I had a 50-50 chance of going off meds without relapsing. His approach was to have me come off the lithium much more quickly and then, if I got pregnant, reevaluate how I felt after the first trimester.
I was excited that someone was willing to listen to me, but then my husband and I sat down and had a heart-to-heart. We were heading into Christmas, my bad time of year. We decided to get through the winter, to wait until spring.
However, I started exercising and feeling really good by the middle of February. So I started going off my meds and by the time I'd halved my dosage, it just felt like all of a sudden my brain clicked on. The lithium fog was lifting. I was feeling genuine joy and energy, but I was also scared this was the start of something I couldn't handle, like being off the medication. Basically, it scared the crap out of me. I stayed on the half dose a lot longer than the doctor had recommended before I felt safe enough to cut back further. The doctor told me I could start to try to conceive now.
One month later, April 15, 2006: I managed to stay off my meds for five weeks before I noticed that my sleep patterns were again disrupted. I started taking my meds again, but I didn't catch it soon enough and had to be hospitalized. It's really okay. My husband and I are looking at this as a minor setback. I know now that I will have to remain on medication to conceive. My doctor said it will be at least six months before I can try again. But I have time. I'm only 30.
Stewart Hillman, British Columbia
I'm a journeyman carpenter, a computer graphics technician, and a certified blaster. It's part of the bipolar thing. When I'm up, I learn really fast. I didn't know I had bipolar until five years ago when I was 45. I was building a house. Our mobile home got cut in half by a tree in a storm in 1995—we called it Impact Day—and I decided right there that that tree was going to be the beam for my new home. I cut up the tree with an Alaskan mill chainsaw and I built a big frame house—I didn't have a job or any money—4,400 square feet with 39 skylights, right over the top of the mobile home.
I worked on it five years and by the end I was smoking 12 joints a day—and going 14 hours a day on the house. I hammered in every nail by hand. One day, when I was up on the fifth floor, I realized that I had left all my tools on the ground. I decided to build a flat roof so I could jump off with a bungee cord to get my tools. I thought, "This flat roof is going to catch on. Everybody should have one." I was getting delusional.
One morning, I was lighting my second joint with my first, it was —and I said, "I can't do this." I'd had a hallucination: I saw my aura light up like a gas flame. And I thought, "It's daytime and if I can see my aura, then so can the evil spirits. I need to go in the house."
As soon as I got inside, a telemarketer called. I'm sitting there and my aura is growing, flames are coming out of my hands, and I answered the phone and said, "This is not a good time for you to call." Hanging up, I thought that was God calling. I went outside and looked up at the sky and thought, "This is enough." A couple days later I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The doctor gave me medication and I haven't had a joint since. That was 1999. But then my dog died and I got so depressed I lay on the couch for five months. I couldn't eat, I lost 40 pounds, I couldn't look at the house, I couldn't remember the designs because it was all in my head. I wanted to do myself in, but I knew that wasn't the answer. So I sold the house and got a divorce—which didn't have anything to do with my having bipolar. Let's just say my past caught up with me.
I've been stable almost five years, and really good for the past two months. I take my medication religiously. I started taking a pill in January to help me sleep. I have never in my 50 years had three days in a row of good sleep. I get sleepy in the afternoon, especially if I eat. Instead of throwing tools around and being foul, I would have a three-hour nap but then be up all night. For seven weeks now, I have had glorious deep sleep. Each day I get up, usually around , and just start doing what needs to be done. This is not manic behavior. Believe me, I'm looking over my shoulder to make sure.
I just moved to a little town right on the ocean, north of Vancouver, where I can see the glaciers. It's so beautiful up here it hurts.
I am not going to join any support groups up here. I have a direct phone line to Victoria and I'll go to support groups down there. But I don't want anyone here to know about my bipolar disorder. It's a very small town.
Barbara Arner, New Jersey
I always had mood swings. In high school, I would run through the halls, laughing one day, and the next go in and be so sad. Once, I went to the library and took some books out on depression. I read about bipolar disorder and thought, "Oh my God, that's me." It sounded so real and scary, I put the book right back on the shelf.
I went away to university in 1995 and the next year I got very sick. I was 19 when I had my first full-blown manic episode. I stopped eating; I was running all over the place, spending money for no reason. I started acting out in class. The school sent counselors to my dorm room, which made me scared and angry. It happened so suddenly; they sent over an ambulance and broke into my room. There were police officers, trying to get me downstairs. They cornered me, handcuffed me, and suddenly I screamed out, "I know what my problem is! I have bipolar disorder." It was the first time I ever said it.
As the years have progressed, I've become more knowledgeable about myself. But the ailment keeps going on, as if it has a life of its own. I take a lot of medication (five to six different meds a day). I've always had the ability to function. I did not want to go on disability; that would be cheating myself. I looked at my friends graduating from college, getting jobs, and I didn't want to see myself left behind.
Stress is my trigger. In 2002, I had to stop everything. I was working as an assistant in a pottery studio, teaching children's classes. Plus, I had my own interest in ceramics. But it was too stressful. I became manic. In one episode, I thought I was getting married. I had this little pink, fun dress and I called my friend, Lisa, and said, "Meet me on the beach, I'm getting married." My mom drove us and she was looking at me like, "I don't know what's going on!" Then she left us on the beach and got us a sandwich, while I thought I was having my wedding.
The difficulty and challenge of this illness bring sadness and pain into my life every day. I hate it all with a passion. The only thing I love to do is to quietly make art and forget about every single thing that has ever happened in my life and just be at peace with my clay.
In 2004, I had a show at a gallery in New York; it's nice seeing people interested in collecting my work. It's better than being in a mental hospital; I guess I have come a little way. But I do still wake up every day and take medication. I never wake up like other people, saying, "Okay, I have to get up and go to work, plan my life." I see my psychiatrist every two weeks and he keeps an eye on every single symptom. I told him, "I have a deep, physical, almost limbic system, emotional pain." It's as if you cut yourself with a knife inside. I feel like that every couple months and then I call my psychiatrist and he helps me out.
Something like cancer can end your life, so in that sense I'm lucky. You may not live comfortably, but you live. I go to bipolar support group meetings when I'm feeling upset. It helps: I've never walked out of one where I didn't feel better. And making art makes me feel a lot better. When you're working in clay at the potter's wheel, the clay is smooth, it feels good, it's calming.
Karen Renken, New York
I got sick in 1975 and at that time, there were very few drugs for bipolar disorder around and those that did exist were horrible. At first, they said I had depression and they were drugging me with major tranquilizers. I had constant hand tremors. I felt like ants were crawling inside my legs, so I was always shaking my legs. My muscles went stiff. How I stayed alive from age 14 to 32 with no stabilization is amazing.
I was a nice girl, and then suddenly—between the eighth and ninth grades—I went from straight As to Fs. I was lying compulsively about things just to get attention. There were emotional outbursts— my mother would say, "Pick up a towel," and I would shriek like a maniac.
I was getting into a lot of trouble. Basically, I slept with anyone who asked me. And of course everyone knew about it. My high school got to watch Karen fall apart in front of them. I was having tantrums in the hallway, crying jags in the bathroom. I still don't know how I graduated—I think my mom pulled some strings. I went to college and dropped out in my second semester. I married a gambler and alcoholic and that fell apart, too.
I think that being bipolar is hard on relationships. If you came into my house— when I was married—I was into crafting and I had as many supplies as a craft store. I liked to make Victorian baskets and I would stay up all night with a glue gun and make 50 of them and then go out the next morning for more supplies. I sold a few of the baskets. During the Gulf War, I stayed up all night surrounded by tons of baskets, ribbons, and lace, watching the bombs go off.
I had no boundaries. Anybody could take advantage of me—physically, financially, sexually. Once, I bought a car for someone just because they asked me. I sold a family diamond because someone told me about a girl who needed help. One time, I went to the Lancôme counter to buy some makeup and I picked out so much stuff that the saleswoman said, "Do you realize you have over $700 in products?" That annoyed me, so I replied, "I will have more of that and that …" until I walked out with over $1,000 in makeup.
After my divorce, I got involved with another severe alcoholic who was extremely abusive. My father had to end it because I couldn't do it myself. You know, if you look at the rest of my family—I didn't come from this. My sister is a wonderful person, she has a wonderful marriage, wonderful kids. And I have wonderful parents.
Even though I am compulsive with shopping and I have an extreme weight problem, something in me has always known to stay away from drugs and alcohol. I could eat huge amounts. I'd start with a cake and then go to potato chips and other junk food. I would eat and eat, and then, after seven pieces of cake—to stop myself, because, you know, you want to throw up after so much—I'd pour soap over all the food. It was the only way I could stop myself. Then, a couple hours later, I'd go out and buy more.
At one point I became bulimic. Another time, I was on a liquid fast diet and I lost 75 pounds. I'd go get weighed and then go out and binge right after—a big Burger King meal— then not eat for the rest of the week and take a million laxatives. I don't do that anymore.
Now, when I don't sleep for a day or two, I know to call my doctor. Or if my appetite starts getting ridiculously out of control. Or if I have an urge to go shopping.
I still have lots of problems, but the fact that I can get through my days, that's a lot to be grateful for. It took me 35 psychiatrists before I found my current one, whom I've been with for the past 13 years. I was in the midst of a manic episode, flipping through the phone book for a psychiatrist and I said, "Whomever my finger falls on that would be the one." The day I met him he put me in the hospital and that was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I am now in the process of getting off disability after 10 years, which is amazing. I went back to cosmetology school at 44. I wouldn't say I'm the best hairdresser in the class, but I'm tops with theory and I have a B-plus average. And when I graduate, it will feel like I'm graduating from Harvard.
Sara Solovitch is an award-winning magazine writer whose stories have appeared in Esquire, Wired, Outside, and other publications. A native of Canada, she lives in Santa Cruz, California.