Finding the Order in Bipolar Disorder
2020 can be a year of possibilities for all, including those who suffer. There is always A New Hope.
As I state whenever I write a mental health-based article, in disclosure, I am neither a doctor nor a scientist. I am an author, screenwriter, and television producer. I have no special knowledge of bipolar disorder, save for close, personal observations of the difficult experiences of another, and my professional degree as a Special Education teacher with a prerequisite course load in Abnormal Psychology.
One of my dearest friends, who recently relocated overseas to “begin a new life,” as she stated, was diagnosed with the illness just over a decade ago. She felt better, she said, upon the diagnosis.
“Now that there’s an explanation,” she furthered to me. “I can get help … Like Carrie.”
We are both Star Wars fans. Carrie Fisher was my friend’s hero, as the actress refused to allow the illness to mar her creativity. Behind the cameras, Carrie was one of Hollywood’s top script doctors. She was a multi-time bestselling author, widely considered to be highly intelligent … and plagued by mood swings and a fierce drug addiction.
My friend’s professional goals are (still) to become a top author and screenwriter, but her own mood swings and drug addictions had nearly killed her on more than one occasion. Hers was a years-long habit to take amphetamines to finish her writing, and then Valium or muscle relaxers to settle down. She has been driven and talented for as long as I’ve known her.
We met in college and hit it off. Me, the guy who had never so much as toked a joint, or ingested a non-prescribed drug due to a childhood illness and general lack of interest, and her, the troubled artist. I didn’t judge. It was the person who I cared about.
And then, decades later, Carrie Fisher died, her lifestyle having contributed to her early passing.
My friend does not want to die. She has been sober since the day Carrie passed. “I still don’t have my peace, though,” she said to me on a Skype call. “Every day is a fight, but for the first time I think I have a chance of winning.“
My friend granted me permission to tell her story, so long as I do not use her name. Sharing the story, I said, may do others some good.
“Then go for it,” she said, before clicking off to head to a doctor’s appointment. “Just don’t make me look crazy, and be sure to tell them I love to dance.”
My friend was born in 1964. She is the same age as me. We had maintained a When Harry Met Sally relationship to the date of my marriage nearly 20 years ago. That is, everyone thought we should be dating. No one thought we could possibly be platonic.
We were, though, and happily so. She was dating someone when I married, and I believed her when she said she couldn’t be happier for me.
We were also both steadily dating others in college, and we constantly bitched about the “horrible habits” of our partners. We were no bargains either but we were confidantes. We could tell each other anything.
I loved her, but not that way. I love her now; nothing has changed in that regard. I’m happily married. She is divorced, and looking.
When in college, she managed to keep her “demons” at bay. I found out later that she referred to her mood swings, or falls into deep depression, as her “demons“ in an effort to remain aware of the loving person she was (and remains), as opposed to the downbeat depressive she tended towards. She considered many of her days in school as performances.
For me, the first sign of something off occurred one night at her place. We were up late studying for a Philosophy exam, and she appeared very jittery. She was drinking a lot of coffee, we both were, and I said that maybe she should relax on the caffeine a bit. My intention was not to nag, but as the exam was a few hours later I didn’t want her to be overly-nervous as she was taking the test.
She responded by throwing the cup full-force against the wall. Glass shattered everywhere; coffee stained her carpet. I was shocked — now I wanted to dump the rest of the brewing coffee in the sink — but she responded by immediately standing and knocking the coffee-maker onto the floor. She burst into tears, and I embraced her.
That was all I needed.
“Okay,” I said. “We‘re taking a break. We need to talk.”
”I love you,” she said, through sobs. “I’m so sorry. Just hold me … I’ll be okay.”
“I need to be honest with you,” she said, upon calming.
My friend told me that such sudden mood swings were becoming more and more common. She pulled a framed picture off the wall, and showed me a hole that she had punched through the plaster weeks before. She was living in an apartment, and said she’d fix it when she had the money.
”Are you on any medication?” I asked.
“I’ve been afraid to go to the doctor.”
“How long do these … outbursts last, if you don’t mind me asking?”
”Depends.“ I was taken by her very awkward pause at that moment. “I know I need help,” she admitted. “Can you come with me?”
”Just understand,” she said, “that wasn’t me.”
A week later, she scheduled a psychiatrist appointment ... and canceled it the following day. She tried to work on herself organically, but the attacks did not diminish in their frequency. It was not until years later when she worked up the courage to finally get help.
At my urging, she said the same thing to the psychiatrist that she said to me years prior — “Just understand, that wasn’t me” — following a battery of tests a few days before. My friend wrote down everything, believing she could use the experience as fodder for a novel.
”That was you,” the doctor said. ”That is you. Accept the illness, and we can treat it appropriately.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” my friend said.
”Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of extreme depression and periods of mania. We’re unsure of the causes, but heredity and envionronment appear to factor equally. Based on the severity of your attacks, we can medicate. But … you need to be honest with yourself about your moods.”
“Doctor,” I asked, “this is not her fault, right?” I knew the answer, but asked for her benefit.
”Of course not.”
I turned to my friend, who nodded in acceptance. “I actually feel better,”she said, “now that I know what the hell I’m dealing with.”
“I still love you,” I said.
The doctor smirked. “Thank you for accepting my crazy,” my friend said.
“Just keep me away from coffee pots,” I told her.
In short order, she began taking her prescribed meds, which have since been adjusted to a maximally effective balance. That balance, once attained, carried over to every facet of her life. She felt in control, and was able to proceed with her personal and professional goals.
But she had her moments, as expected. There were times during phone calls when she hung up on me without warning. She cried, frequently. She expressed her innermost struggles to me — an inability to be consistently happy (I told her no one is consistently happy, which in hindsight may not have been the smartest thing to say) — overwhelming feelings of guilt, and her concern that she would never meet a man.
Most alarmingly, she expressed to me that she had considered suicide on more than one occasion. She attended my wedding, and though she indeed did appear very happy for my wife and me — and did dance a storm that night — I was concerned about her.
I had no reason to be. She had a great time, and has talked about “that amazing band” ever since.
Her struggles, though, continued. She had attained a greater degree of balance than she had ever anticipated, however, she realized something that was, perhaps, inevitable:
The doctor once said to her that environment likely played a role in the disorder. She told me it was time to move on.
“Where are you planning to go?” I asked.
”France? Why so far? What am I going to do without you — ”
”Shut up,” she said, laughing. “Just shut up. You’re happily married now. You have a great wife. You’ll do fine. I have nothing going on here.”
”You’ll be so far away …”
”That’s what Skype is for.”
I began to notice there was now an order to her struggles. The down periods would last an hour or two. Some were downright scary. If I admitted to you that during her darkest moments she cursed at me like a sailor, that would be an understatement. However, those moments lessened in duration as time went on. She would be very apologetic after, intensely loving, and ask if I was still her friend.
After all, this was the woman who took a chance and moved out to Los Angeles just after I did. I acclimated here; she did not. Decades later, she recognized it was time to do for herself, by herself.
Today, my friend and I speak once a week. She faces her battles bravely, and tells me she’s happier than she’s ever been. She’s writing her novel about bipolar disorder, and works full-time at a shelter for dogs.
And she’s actively looking for a man.
”I love you, but moving here is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” she told me. “When I finish my book I plan on speaking to young people who suffer. I want them to know they’re not alone.”
”You’re the best,“ I said.
“If I can help others like you helped me, maybe I can make a difference.”
”I did nothing. I’m just your friend.”
”Exactly,” she said. “And I was never alone … Think about what you’ve done for me, Joel. That’s what I want to do for others.”
The words penetrated. When we ended the call, I fought tears. I had taken our friendship for granted for so long, I never paused to consider that my acceptance meant so much to her.
No one should ever be alone, I thought. No one should ever be alone …
Thank you for reading.
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