MY BI-POLAR DISORDER--A 60 YEAR STORY IN CONTEXT: 1947-2007
My experience both long and short term with manic-depression, or bi-polar illness as it has come to be called in recent years, and with other maladies; as well as my personal circumstances at home in relation to my wife’s illness in recent years should provide mental health consumers, as they are often called these days, with an adequate information base to evaluate their situation, make relevant comparisons and contrasts to their own predicament whatever it may be and thereby gain some helpful knowledge or understandings which may be of use to them in personal terms. There are still many who do not feel comfortable seeking medical support and this account may help such people obtain appropriate treatment and, as a result, dramatically improve their quality of life. I think, too, that this essay is part of my own small part in reducing the damaging stigma associated with bi-polar disorder.
The wider context of my experience which I outline here is intended to place my bi-polar disorder in context and should provide others with what I hope is a helpful perspective on their own condition and situation. This essay of more than 5000 words and more than six A-4 pages is primarily written for internet sites on mental health, especially as manifested in depression and the bi-polar disorder. I also write this essay, this reflection, for my own satisfaction, to put into words something that has influenced my life for over half a century. Originally written in 2003, this piece of writing has been revised many times after my own introspections and the feedback from various internet respondents
1. Manic-Depression: Preamble
After half a dozen episodes, varying in length from several days to several months, and many experiences on the fringe of normality, the fringe of manic-depressive symptoms, and the heart of manic-depression between 1946 and 1980, I was treated with lithium carbonate in Launceston by a psychiatrist and officially diagnosed as manic-depressive. My history to that point had been far from smooth and linear, but periodically bisected, polarized and traumatized.
In some ways the inclusion of the names of those doctors who treated me over the years would personalize this account, but names are not that important and to include them here in this narrative causes confidentiality problems to some readers and at some websites--and so I leave names out. Those whose names I could mention would not be troubled by their inclusion here. I certainly appreciate the clinical work of several of the psychiatrists as well as several of the individuals I have known personally over the years. Their professional work and personal assistance has been invaluable and I want readers to recognize the primacy I give to the work of these specialized doctors and friends for their help and assistance, their saving me from what in any previous age and time period would have been a horrific, virtually end-of-normal-life experience.
I sojourned in a public and private world, from time to time, no less strange to me than if I had been among an exotic jungle tribe in Africa. It is the duty of all anthropologists to report on their exotic travels and field trips, whether to the Earth’s antipodes or to equally remote recesses of human experience, this is my accounting. I came, insensibly over several decades, to associate the extremes of my bi-polar disorder with the role of shamans among tribal, third world, animistic communities, people who relate their myths and their meanings my means of emotionally laden ecstatic visions. On the personal level, I discovered in myself unexpected patience, humility and hope. I learned to treat life as the most precious of gifts, infinitely vulnerable and precarious, to be infinitely prized and cherished. I had not become a saint, though; I still suffered; I was still impatient; I did not always appreciate life; I still got depressed. I had journeyed with my soul into an underworld and come back. It was a spiritual drama—on a psycho-neurological, a psycho-pharmacological, a schizo-affective level. I could narrate this drama in religious terms and describe it as a purgatorial dark night.
Stories in life are chaotic in the absence of narrative order. And so I tell my story here as briefly as possible to help establish, for me, a sense of order. I tell of these events, as a storyteller, my experience of life, to some extent without sequence or discernible causality. Life has an element of mystery no matter how much knowledge and understanding we bring to the problem. I claim that chaos narratives are incompatible with writing or with telling. Those who are truly living a chaos cannot tell of it in words except in the most bizarre fashion. The chaos that I describe in the distant past is told here in a story-form. I now reflect on that experience retrospectively. Lived chaos makes reflection, and consequently story-telling, impossible when one is in the midst of the experience. Telling, and even more so writing, it seems, is a way of taking control, creating order, thus keeping that once experienced chaos at bay.
2. Enter: Lithium
Lithium is, arguably, the central pivot in this whole story. I have been on lithium now for twenty-seven years, about half of the total time I have experienced this significantly/partially genetic disorder. My mood swings, now in 2007, take place, for the most part, late in the evening and after midnight with the death wish still part of the experience, but none of the intensity that my mood swings had for many years, at least until 2001 when fluvoxamine was added to my medication package. The symptoms that affect my daily working capacity are fatigue and psychological weariness, sometimes after a night of light sleeping, tossing and turning and/or sometimes late at night after many hours of intellectual activity. Dryness of the mouth and short term memory loss also seem to affect my daily life as a result of (a) lithium treatment and (b), in the case of memory loss, perhaps due to the eight ECT treatments I had as far back as the late 1960s. My current psychiatrist who specializes in treating people with bi-polar disorder, has been providing his professional advice for the last five years, after a series of psychiatrists I have had going back to 1968.3
It seemed appropriate to outline this detailed statement for several purposes since the issue of the nature of my problem and what I have called manic-depression/bi-polar disorder is a complex one, varies from person to person and has been of concern over the sixty years that I have had to deal with its symptoms in my personal and working life-as have others involved with me. It is difficult to characterize my condition and it is for this reason that I have written what some may find to be a somewhat long statement for both my satisfaction and use by others. I hope the account below, in both long and short term contexts, will explain adequately my reasons for not wanting to work in any employment position or participate in any demanding social context. This account may also provide those interested with some useful information for dealing with their particular problems.