Guest Post: A Bipolar Diagnosis is Not a Death Sentence by Carrie Cantwell

biopicI can’t believe I ever wanted to die. But then again, things right now are really good. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it felt like to be so hopeless I was willing to end my own life. But that’s why the saying “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” makes so much sense. Just because one day, one week, even one year or more of your life is rough, that doesn’t mean things will be that way forever. Death is forever. And you can’t take it back.

I have bipolar disorder, which means I’m vulnerable to emotional stresses that can trigger a manic or depressive episode. My dad—who also had bipolar disorder—committed suicide in 1998. I remember when he started getting really sick. My senior year of college, my mom had left him. He’d been buying guns and shooting holes into the ground. He’d driven hours away to cheap motels and called her threatening suicide. He washed and dried my mom’s work suits in the washing machine, shrinking them and hanging them back up on the same hangers. I imagined little doll-sized suits wrinkled and mangled beyond recognition, and my dad—a deranged lunatic—standing over them.

I was working at my punk clothing store salesgirl job when my mom showed up to tell me my dad had just killed himself. I was numb until four years after his death, when I crashed, suffering my first major depressive episode. I felt like I was encased in a black slimy ooze that slowed my mind and body. I cried constantly. Completely unable to function, I went on disability from work. My mom (who is a therapist) sent me for a psychological evaluation and after six hours of testing, I was given a nine-page document. Laid out in black and white, there it was: I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I was horrified to learn I had the same disease that killed my dad. Would I end up committing suicide too? At that moment, a bipolar diagnosis seemed like a death sentence. I started seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist. I tried antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants and mood stabilizers. The struggle for chemical equilibrium in my brain was grueling, but I finally found a cocktail of medications that helped even out the intensity of my moods.

In 2012, I was married to a controlling, verbally abusive man. My husband had convinced me that everything wrong with our marriage was my fault. It was my second marriage and I wrongly thought I’d be a failure if I got another divorce. My self-esteem was so low I felt worthless. We were renovating our condo, and I’d been demolishing the kitchen and bathroom, hauling loads of concrete and cast iron, and meeting with dozens of contractors. It was incredibly stressful. I was agitated and irritable, and my racing mind was catastrophizing everything that went slightly awry. After a nasty argument with my husband, I took a bunch of pills with a balloon glass full of $7 gas station Merlot.

So, there I was, thirty-eight, bipolar, and trying to kill myself, just like my bipolar dad had done when he was fifty-five. What the hell was I thinking? I know what it feels like to lose someone to suicide. My mom and I have gone through so much pain because of what he did. This would destroy my mom. I was her only child. My friends and family would be devastated. But I was under the spell of mania. I wasn’t thinking about any of that.

I ended up in the emergency room, strapped to a gurney and having seizures every half hour or so. I was in and out of consciousness, being violently thrown into and out of reality as I pulled and kicked against my restraints. I was then transferred to an in-patient mental hospital. I was admitted late at night and shown to the room I’d be sharing with my just-got-out-of-jail roommate. The next two nights, I was kept awake by the all the lights constantly being on, and the schizophrenic woman down the hall. During the day, she was a kleptomaniac who stole everyone’s jeans and kept them in a pile in her closet. At night, she’d walk up and down the echoing hallway, screaming both sides of an unintelligible argument to herself. I was terrified, but I held it together and proved I was well enough to be let out after three days. I promised myself I’d never go back.

I can’t forget the look on my mom’s face in the emergency room. I’d put her through what my dad had, and even though I knew better, I did it anyway. That’s what bipolar disorder does. It makes you lose insight, narrowing your focus to a needle point, and everything and everyone else gets lost in the periphery. It’s total self-absorption.

As I began my recovery, I finally understood the gravity of my illness. This mood disorder can be fatal, if not managed properly. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I know what happens when I don’t take care of myself and give in to the voices that tell me to stay up a little later tonight or skip my meds. I need to be especially careful when something goes wrong in my life, because any little hiccup can awaken the whispering voice in my head that tells me I can escape by dying. My dad must have heard that same voice. And I don’t want to end up like he did.

I’m both a survivor and an advocate. I am currently writing a book about my experiences entitled Daddy Issues: A Memoir. I hope that by sharing my story, I can give hope to the millions of people whose lives have been affected by bipolar disorder and suicide. I have bipolar, but it doesn’t have me. I know every day with this illness is different, but I’m a pretty damned resilient person. I’ve made it through several major manic and depressive episodes, and I’ve come out on the other side. I struggle all the time, but I just do my best and try to set healthy limits for myself.

I work in the film industry as a graphic designer. I’ve always loved movies, and I feel so lucky that I get to design graphics that bring fictional worlds to life. Several years ago, I was working on a movie that had a hospital set. I was tasked with creating the logo and all the signs. While I sat at my computer, designing a large red and white emergency room sign, it hit me. If I hadn’t survived my suicide attempt, I would never have been there. My life could have ended in an emergency room. Instead, I was living my dreams doing what I love most. The horrible experience that made me want to end my own life was over. It had been temporary. Had I died, it all would have been permanent.

I’m living proof that a bipolar diagnosis is not a death sentence. I haven’t just survived, I’ve thrived. I’ve obtained two Bachelor’s Degrees in English and Graphic Design. I’ve been interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and my artwork has been published in a college art school textbook and exhibited in national and international art museums. With more than 33 movie and television credits to my name, I’ve been working in the film industry for over 13 years, earning two Emmy nominations and an Art Director’s Guild award. I also have a blog where I share my stories about living with bipolar disorder: darknessandlight.org. And while I’ve had many professional achievements, I’m most proud of my recovery, my hardest-fought battle.

 

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About Michelle Clark Bipolar Bandit

I am a strong advocate for the mentally ill and have been since I was first approached by a lawyer in a psychiatric facility as a teenager. He wanted me to help him fight how the mentally ill are mistreated. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 17 after a full blown manic episode. Before that, I suffered from debilitating depression for 4 years. My goals are to help others by sharing my story and providing tips to deal with mania and depression. I often write blogs related to advocating for people like myself. I want to encourage, inspire, and educate those with #bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses and also include inspirational #quotes. I founded the group Advocates for People with Mental Illnesses and the page Mental Health Advocates United and have several social media sites that are related to bipolar disorder and/or advocacy. If you are an advocate or would like to be, I hope you join our FB group: Advocates for People with Mental Illnesses
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