I went through nearly 50 years of my life with bipolar 1 disorder — without an accurate diagnosis. I experienced long bouts of depression and mania, resulting in severe mood swings, poor sleep habits, bad financial choices and bursts of sarcasm and anger that drove away people I cared about and ruined countless opportunities. I found myself complaining heatedly that life wasn’t going exactly how I wanted.
Despite sporadically seeing (and then discarding) a variety of therapists over the years, I only was properly diagnosed and was able to take control of my situation when life came crashing down around me. After losing two long-term jobs I loved and visiting four different Los Angeles mental health facilities in 11 days, I knew that something needed to change.
Only when my family came to help move me out of Los Angeles and back to my boyhood home near Little Rock, AR, did the endless merry-go-round finally stop spinning. This allowed me to get the therapeutic and medical help I needed.
Aside from a terrific therapist and a perfect mix of medications, what has gotten me through to the healthier side of life was a combination of faith, family and humor.
Weathering Mental Illness
All my life, I was a magnet for odd incidents and manic misadventures. From getting my nose stuck in a car’s back bumper at age four in front of my entire neighborhood, to my teachers frequently making me stand in the corner to repent for my “class clown” behavior,” I have always had a strong sense of humor and the ability to laugh at myself. Growing up, I had an off-kilter way of looking at the world that helped me turn sad situations into happier ones by always finding the upside of things. I believe it even helped my family and friends laugh their way through the tough times.
However, as an adult living thousands of miles from where I grew up, and where my family remained, my highs went too high and the lows went too low. I cycled through numerous medications trying to find the ones to finally set me right, and this fairly frequent switching (a result of my rash decision-making) produced serious side effects that propelled me further into my depression and suicidal ideation.
I often turned to my core faith in God in these moments, but it felt as though I was simply using Him as a glorified 911 operator for my crises. And when God delivered, my spirits went up, but then they went too high up, sending me into a manic episode.
Finding a Balance
Over the years, I have found a healthy balance of my support systems: faith, therapeutic intervention, family and humor.
God helped me in my worst moments, when I prayed for a light in the darkness, but now, I keep Him my life always — not just in desperate moments. I start and end my day in meditative prayer, always expressing gratitude and remembering to pray for others before asking for anything for myself. That helps avoid the catastrophic thinking that the whole world revolves around me (a notion that was often part of my spiraling depressions).
I also was able to find meaning and a more positive perspective by channeling my roiling thoughts into jokes, essays and stories that I later shared in shows or on the radio. If I could show others that it’s ok to laugh at yourself and the cosmic awfulness we all go through at times, maybe they could find their own brighter take on their lives.
I take my medicines on time and daily, knowing that they, too, are key to my staying the course and keeping an even keel throughout life. I’m happy in a healthy way now.
With time, I have learned to be truly patient with my therapist and tune into the lessons they have to offer. Applying their advice has helped me land the best job I’ve ever had and live in a “normal” career, where I don’t have to be running in place to survive.
My family has been a constant support on this journey. They flew halfway across the country to retrieve me from a mental health facility and help me move home (with almost all my treasured possessions included). I have found a "safe space" living with them, as I navigated job hunting, health setbacks and even learning to drive again. Their patient and loving support, including my dad driving me to all my appointments for over a year, was incredible. I am a better and more stable person, son and brother and our family relationships are better than they ever have been.
Embracing My Progress
Maybe by “normal” standards, I’m a mess. I have bipolar, I am on the autism spectrum, I have diabetes and sleep apnea that was so bad it rendered me virtually narcoleptic for 20 years. I singlehandedly keep the lights on at my local CVS.
However, I can confidently say that I have risen to meet these challenges. I have sought out treatment for my mental and physical illnesses — and I work every day to care for myself and live the best life I can.
With the slower pace of life in a smaller city, surrounded by family and friends I’ve known since high school, I am able to center myself, my actions and my thoughts.
This has all enabled me to take stock of my 25-year career as a performer and writer. Out of all the chaos, I have written a book, “Dozed and Confused: Tales from a Nutty, Narcoleptic Life.”
Despite some painful setbacks, I have found myself and gotten to a place where, hopefully, I can remind others that a little resilience can get you through anything.
Carl Kozlowski is a veteran standup comic who has performed at Laugh Factory and the Comedy Store, among other venues in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. He is also a writer, publishing in Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Esquire and GQ. He won the title of “America’s Funniest Reporter” at the Laugh Factory and has produced and hosted more than 2000 hours of podcasts and Los Angeles radio shows.