Personal Stories

The Weather Is Not Bipolar

So many people have equated the weather in my state with bipolar disorder. When it’s a high of 80 one day and snowing the next. I’ve fought this sentiment, because it negates the devastation of this serious illness. But I can see many ways in which extreme weather events are like mental illness.

In my family, stories of severe mental illness—extreme weather—are the norm, not the exception. My mom struggled with bipolar disorder, anorexia, tobacco addiction, and drug abuse. She was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and jail cells. She hid bottles of vodka in the back of her toilet, her chosen medication to shut out the storm. Her afternoon naps timed just right to maintain the façade. Then, after dinner, she’d dust off her sobriety chips, 1, 5 & 10 years sober to attend AA meetings. She gambled with her life and ours. The courts did not grant her custody in the divorce. She was a tornado. A danger to all in her path. There were always warnings, sirens, which served as alerts that she was close to the edge. I had a psychic energy intimately connected to hers. Bad dreams would flood my sleep. Washing terror over me. I was afraid of my own mother. These dreams were vivid, and after a week of night terrors, something bad always happened. The levy that she had carefully built, would break, flooding desperation and confusion. Parts of her that were never meant to be seen would surface. After every storm, there’s the cleanup, the promises for new systems, new ways of dealing with storms. But the next storm is just waiting, and devastates all the same.

She hated the medication, it made her feel flat, she would rather brave these storms than settle for a cold wet gray fog hanging over her. And so, it went on, year after year. Bits of sunshine would shine through the clouds, moments when she’d play the piano and sing “Pennies From Heaven.” If only I could’ve turned my umbrella upside down to capture those moments. But instead, we were left mostly with the wreckage. She died when I was 15. She weighed 85 pounds. The storm swallowed her and left us with just a few washed-out photos.

We knew that bipolar disorder ran in families: my mother, and her mother both had it. It was like there was a gun loaded with a single bullet. A game of Russian roulette my brother, sister and I.

On an ordinary day of 6th grade, on the brink of puberty, an avalanche named bipolar disorder engulfed my brother. For months, he was buried, there was very little sign of the person we knew. The psychosis made him forget how to walk, his brain a blank white sea of heavy wetness. He spent three months at a children’s hospital. His psychiatrist taught us how to respond if my brother got aggressive. My dad was, by now, an old veteran, storm chaser. My brother too hated the medicine, he would rather feel the joy and clarity that comes with boarding the out of bounds, unadulterated powder, and deal with avalanches, then stay grounded altogether. He’s learned from the storms of my mother. Like traveling in a blizzard, he’s cautiously proceeds with patience, experience, and a trust in others around him.

I would say that through this, I tried to maintain a sunny disposition. I have remained a glass-half full kind of person. I always wanted to live a life of purpose and passion.

As a high school student, at the cajoling of my counselor, I got involved in a statewide youth-led movement, connecting with thousands of other youth who, like me, had been devastated by tobacco, one of my mother’s addiction.  I stayed with that youth movement for ten years. I taught youth how to advocate, to create healthier lives and healthier communities. In helping others heal, I too healed from wounds that I didn’t know I had.

When the program lost funding, I started working at a Department of Psychiatry in a large children’s hospital, the same department my brother had been hospitalized in fifteen years earlier. I’ve tried to find ways to infuse mental health advocacy and youth engagement into my paid work. In 2013, I co-created a Mental Health Youth Action Board, the goal of which is to create social action that reduces stigma around teen mental health. While I knew a lot about mental illness, I didn’t truly understand it. Not until, in 2010, did I understand how these storms could shut out the light. My form of illness is like the wind, a little of it helps to pollinate the flowers, too much can knock down power lines and shut down all operations.

The wind was always there, but mostly it just helped me to be successful. I was an “A” student who turned in papers on time, read the rubric, worried about what others thought. But, the wind picked up intensity the day my son was born. There was so much responsibility. I was supposed to differentiate his little incessant, innocent cries. He cried all the time. I hated the nights, when it was my burden to soothe this little person that seemed to hate me. Everyone had so many opinions on how to make him a “happier” baby. “Try this. Try that. It can’t be that bad. All babies cry. Maybe you need to just relax.”

My son’s pediatrician never asked how I was doing, even if I kept making appointments to get to the root of his crying. Most nights, after hours of holding him, my mind would drift to ways I could escape, run away. In the morning, bleary eyed, exhausted, standing at the top of the stairs, I could visualize me falling down the stairs, crushing his little body, so I’d scoot down the stairs with the little bundle snug in my arms. Anything to keep him safe. My mind jumped minute by minute between wanting to run away, to new ways that I might hurt my little prince.

At this point, the wind was howling. I shut the door on the wind as I went to work, but just when I opened the door at the end of the day, the wind would knock me down, into my pillow, tears of pain, worry, hatred for this person I had become. I called my health care provider to “get help.” They told me that I was on the four-month waitlist. I waited and waited, the wind picking up speed. After eight weeks on the waitlist, after four nights of not sleeping, I told my partner “I don’t want to be here anymore” and “I’m having thoughts about driving into ongoing traffic.” Saying those words aloud made me feel so weak. I couldn’t believe that, a professional in the field of mental health, could have these feelings, these thoughts. The wind had knocked out the grid. We drove to the hospital, and I finally got care. I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I went on medication, I went to therapy, I learned meditation. The wind is still there, it sometimes picks up intensity, but I have a windsock now. I also now ask other mothers to tell me how they really feel. I try to be the friend people can share their storms with.

So, I guess, mental health is like the weather. Something that you can prepare for, but hard to predict and sometimes devastating. And like the weather, I would like mental health to be something you can easily talk to people about over the water-cooler.

 


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