Archive | November 2014

Riding High

However, the next semesters are all a bit of a blur to me.  My parents were pressuring me to graduate early, so I started taking high course loads.  I took 21 hours during regular semesters and six hours each summer term—managing to make all A’s except in chemistry.  I had signed up for the “engineering chemistry” instead of “liberal arts chemistry” and had difficulties there—but my major classes seemed to be a breeze.  I kept a high enough GPA that my department head kept signing off on my requests to take extra hours, and I did that through the next spring, summer, and fall semesters.

I can look back now and know I was manic—I was taking the lead in every course project I was involved in as well as writing for the campus newspaper.  I told one class group in my small group communication class that if they handled the presentation for our final project, I would handle writing the paper on the project by myself—knowing it would be for half the project grade.  The paper made a 95, while the presentation garnered an 85.  But the paper grade was enough to give everyone involved an A, so they were happy, as was I.  I had met Bob my first full-time semester and started dating him my second full semester, and that relationship was going well.  I was riding high and felt very confident of my future.

It finally came crashing down my final full spring semester.  I had signed up for a jaw-dropping 24 hours—double what was considered full-time enrollment.  But I was under enormous pressure to finish in August of 1990.  My course of study was causing some concern in the department that I was being given a pass on taking certain courses through special projects instead of waiting until they were offered in the classroom.  I had explained my predicament to my department head, who supported my efforts all the way, bucking the wishes of at least two professors that I know of.

College

After attending Mississippi State University part-time my senior year of high school, I attended summer classes in 1988 and started full-time the following fall as a sophomore.  I took a standard load of 15 hours and moved into Critz, one of the freshmen residence halls.  I met lots of new friends, some of which are still my friends to this day.  Things were going well for me until I took my first set of finals in December.

I was having difficulty in one of my communications courses—I was already in over my head and didn’t know it.  When I say difficulty, I mean I didn’t have an A.  Remember the pressure I was under in grade school?  That was nothing compared to what came with having to maintain a certain GPA to keep my scholarship.  I was constantly threatened with having to move back home because without my scholarship, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college.

The day of my final in that class, I woke up with the same old stomach symptoms I had before biology tests back in grade school.  I went to a final I had at eight in the morning, a theatre class.  But I had to leave four times to go to the bathroom and throw up.  The last time I came back, Dr. Durst said, “Why don’t you go home? This isn’t worth dying for.”

I assured him that I would be able to finish the test, and I did.  I hoped that I had thrown up everything I had left—but I was wrong.  My big final was at one that afternoon, and by eleven o’clock, I knew I wasn’t going to make it.  I called my mom to come get me because my dorm had rules about going home when sick.  I called to tell my professor I wasn’t coming to the final and got the head of the department, Dr. Hill.  I told him I wasn’t going to be there, and he said, “You know you need a good reason to miss a final.”

I said, “I’ve been throwing up since six in the morning.  You can ask Dr. Durst about how often I had to leave his final to go throw up.”

I negotiated another time to make up the final and hung up.  My mom arrived to come get me, and she commented that the last time I had done this was when I took my chemistry final in high school.  I went home and stayed until the day of my makeup final.  Then it was Christmas holidays, and I stayed home until classes started in January.

Designer Purses

Other symptoms I’m more or less able to control on a daily basis.  I sometimes get the urge to spend money.  However, since I grew up in a stone-broke household, I know the value of a dollar and know that saving is a much better proposition than spending.  So I resist it, unless it is for Christmas and birthdays.  And even then I am so cheap that I don’t buy anything that isn’t discounted or that I don’t have a coupon for.  My current weakness is purses—designer ones when I can find a good sale.  I only have three so far, so I have kept that impulse in check very well.

I can obsess over small details.  I am by nature a neat freak.  I like to organize closets, cabinets, bookshelves, files, and collections.  However, I was so tortured over neatness by my mom when I was a young child that I swore I would never inflict my obsessions on my kids.  So I haven’t.  My house is generally neat but has pockets of chaos in it, and I refuse to stress over it.   I let the kids manage their own rooms and refuse to freak out over their messes.

I have a cleaning service come once a week to do the cleaning so I am free to spend my time doing the organizing that I enjoy and am capable of.  I have taught my girls how to clean but know they have to make the decision to use that training when they get out into the world.    My middle daughter loves neatness, while the other two like more clutter in their lives.  But that is who they are, and I will not make my condition worse worrying over it.

When I get anxious, I often pace around the house.  It’s aimless, directionless, and uncomfortable.  I try to do it after I’ve spent a long time sitting at the computer so that I am getting at least some motion into my otherwise sedentary life.  But sometimes I do it simply to fill the time.  When I feel the anxiety spinning out of control, I do have a medication I can take on an as-needed basis to calm me down.

I very rarely have crying spells.  One thing that makes discussing depression so confusing is that people use the word depression as a synonym for sadness.  When I’m sad, I cry.  When I’m depressed, I can’t muster up enough energy to cry.  I have very little to be actually sad about.  That is why I was diagnosed with clinical depression; depression that has a reason is called situational depression—it is in response to life circumstances.  Situational depression can turn into clinical depression if it lasts long enough with the variety of symptoms listed earlier.

I hope I’ve been able to describe the symptoms I experience well enough.  As I said, it’s very hard to describe them when not actually experiencing them, and it’s hard to remember in the middle of them that they will pass if you continue taking your medication, doing your therapy, and, most importantly, praying for relief and walking with the Lord.

Self-Injury

The first time I ever scratched myself was when I was attending college one summer under a special program for rising high school seniors.  It was my first real experience away from home, and I would get homesick at times. I was having trouble fitting in with the other students in the program with me because I claimed to be a Christian, while many of them seemed to either have no religious beliefs, have other belief systems, or simply live in a way that belied a Christian walk.  I felt my own faith weakening as I was exposed to new philosophies in classes and challenged in my beliefs by professors and other students.

One afternoon it all came to a head.  I was walking back to our residence hall from class by myself and was overwhelmed with a sudden fear and an immense amount of self-loathing.  I knew I would never fit in back in Ackerman where I grew up, but now I was faced with not fitting in where I had planned to go to college.  I started rubbing my upper arms with my palms and quickly moved to scratching them with my fingernails.  I did this over and over until the skin on my arms was raw while crying some of the most intense tears of my life.  I had always bitten my nails short out of anxiety, so I did not leave bloody scratches.  I feel like that would have been noticed by the people supervising the program, so I was glad.

The episode was over as quickly as it came.  I went back to my room and sat down on my bed and started rocking back and forth.  I was four hours away from home, and I didn’t know or understand what had just happened to me.  However, the fear and anxiety and loathing were gone.  All I wanted to do was go to sleep.  And I did, fully clothed without even unmaking the bed.

I’ve only done the scratching a few times in my life since then, and my last impulse to do so was two years ago after the funeral of my husband’s grandmother, who was dearly loved by our entire family, including my girls.  I was trying to hold myself together, to be strong for Bob and for the girls, and after it was all over, the roof seemed to cave in on my emotions.  I did not cry or scratch myself; I made my hands into fists and held them out from my sides as I walked out to leave the church.  But I desperately wanted to hurt myself to make the inner pain and anxiety go away.  Something about causing myself physical pain made the psychic pain more bearable.

My Experience

Many of my episodes have been what are called mixed episodes, where I had both manic and depressed symptoms going on.  I would have the irritation, grandiosity, and pressured speech of mania with the sleepiness, suicidality, weight gain, anhedonia, and feelings of worthlessness of depression.  Often my episodes featured psychosis, which is a loss of touch with reality in some area of your life.  Most of my psychotic episodes were rooted in fear delusions (false beliefs)—fear that my husband was going to leave me, fear of some unspecified danger, or fear that something was going to happen to my children because God was angry with me for not taking care of them like I thought I should.

Thankfully, I have never had hallucinations, where I was seeing, hearing, or feeling sensations that were not real.  I don’t hear voices, I don’t see dead people, and I don’t feel insects crawling on my skin.

Another one of my symptoms falls outside the definitions and involves self-harm that does not rise to the level of suicidality.  When I am extremely stressed, I have the urge to scratch my nails into the skin of my arms.  A more extreme form of this impulse is known as “cutting”, where people cut on their arms with scissors or razor blades.

The DSM

Bipolar symptoms are hard to describe.  The medical establishment has lists of symptoms they use to diagnose this disorder; they are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  Mania is characterized by a period of mood disturbance where the person experiences an abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood for at least a week.  Three or more symptoms from the following list should be present before the mood disturbance can be called manic:  elevated self-esteem (grandiosity), less need for sleep, more talkative than usual (pressured speech), the feeling that thoughts are racing (flight of ideas), abnormally low attention span (distractability), increase in goal-oriented activity (psychomotor agitation), and risk-taking behavior (such as buying sprees, sexual experimentation, or poor business decisions.).

Depression is characterized by loss of interest or pleasure in life activities for at least two weeks.  Five or more symptoms from the following list should be present and cause severe disruptions of a person’s life before the mood disturbance can be called depressed:  low mood (depressed mood), low interest or pleasure in all or most activities (anhedonia), significant unintentional weight loss or gain, sleeping too much (hypersomnia) or too little (insomnia), slowing of activity (psychomotor retardation), loss of energy (fatigue), feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, unable to think, concentrate, or be decisive, and recurrent thoughts of death (suicidality).

The bipolar person can switch from one pole to another very quickly or very slowly and can have periods of normal functioning in between them. Mania can be fun.  Depression is never fun.  In my personal experience, mania is scary.  I have had periods of high functioning that you could call hypomanic, which is when the symptoms are less severe than in full-blown mania.  I think most of my time between the birth of my middle child and my youngest child was spent in hypomania, in that I had the goal-oriented behavior and the drive to accomplish my goals without the excesses of true mania.  But my truly manic episodes feature a high level of irritation, a low need for sleep, pressured speech, and grandiosity, where I have big dreams and plans that had no basis in reality.

After The Recital

One girl had seen the whole exchange with Charlie but didn’t know what was said.   She assumed he’d said something to hurt my feelings and walked out after me.  “Julie?  Are you all right?

”Yes,” I said. “I’m fine.”

I don’t know what kind of look I had on my face, but she decided not to ask me any more questions. Instead she turned around and headed in Charlie’s direction.

I paced around outside until my heart quit hammering. I went back inside and saw Charlie standing off to the side talking to another girl.  He had his back to me and didn’t know I could hear him and her talking.

I heard something along the lines of “I don’t believe this.” A few more words I couldn’t understand, then “You’re going to hurt her feelings.”

I heard him say, “I know.”

On one level I thought it served him right all those years he’d spent teasing me like that for me to just for once decide to take him at his word. On another, I recognized I’d put him in a horrible position and wondered idly how he was going to get out of it.  On yet another, I hoped he really did mean to go through with it just because he had said so.  I should have known better, and somewhere in my head I did.  So I wasn’t very surprised when after his performance he came up to me and said, ”Can I talk to you for a second?”

I turned and looked at him expectantly. He came up with some horrible, manufactured story at how he’d already asked someone else and she was expecting to go with him and he hoped I understood.  His face was red and his hands were shaking.  I don’t know what he expected me to do, but I said.  “That’s all right.  I understand.”

You could see the relief in his face. “I knew you would,” he said.

I held it together through the rest of the recital even though I knew my adventure with Charlie was all the talk backstage. Then I went home and cried and still didn’t understand why.

Once he graduated, the fascination wore off and I was back to my normal self.  But the episode bothered me a lot.  How could I have been so crazy for him? What had happened to me?

Charlie

While I experienced depression as early as 12 years old, I believe I had my second manic symptoms in tenth grade, when I actually fell for a guy who had a great deal of fun teasing me unmercifully since seventh grade, the lead trumpet player in the band and a total jerk from beginning to end.

It was bizarre—one day I was in love with a gentle guy in my grade who was a committed Christian and one of my few friends in school, and the next, I had fallen for a senior who was a few months from graduation: brash, loud, and mean to me in a particularly insidious way. I couldn’t stand him or his friends—particularly when they would surround me and Charlie would profess his “love” for me by talking about how beautiful I was and he just couldn’t help himself from acting the fool around me.

But two months before he was supposed to graduate from high school, I wanted to be around him, I wanted him to notice me—and I couldn’t explain why.  One of my friends noticed how I was acting towards him and asked me what was going on.  I had to tell her I didn’t know.

But I had plans for me and Charlie, and they centered on the Band Banquet—our end of the year awards ceremony where winners of various contests and trophies were announced and everyone dressed up and brought dates and generally made a hoopla over it.  I was going to trap him into saying he was going to go with me —it was just a matter of time before I had the chance.

The chance came at the end of the year recital for the music teacher’s voice and piano students.  Charlie was singing a solo of “Ol’ Man River” for his performance, and I was playing a piece called “The Hunting Song” on the piano.  I’d watched him practice and was looking forward to hearing him perform.  He was the only guy participating in the recital, so a group of us girls, including Charlie, stood around waiting for our chances to perform.

Talk turned to the band banquet, which was coming up in about another week or so.  I was listening to the group talk when a girl I didn’t like very much asked me if I was going to it with a date.

I said, “I don’t know. I guess it depends on if anyone asks me.”

Less than two feet away was a water fountain, and I walked over to it to get a sip because my mouth was dry waiting for the inevitable.  I saw Charlie glance at the girl that asked the question, then sidle up to me with a grin on his face.  And I knew I had him.

I innocently looked up from the water fountain and said. “So who are you taking to the Band Banquet?”

He gave me a huge grin and said,”Oh, I wouldn’t think about going with anyone except you, Jewel,” which was his nickname for me.

I said, “Okay. That sounds good.  We can talk more later.”

And I turned around and walked off—down the hall and all the way down the outside steps of the school auditorium to the sidewalk, it being all I could do not to run as I went.

Mania

Bipolar disorder is tough to live with.  Your emotions are always on high alert. You never know what going to set them off.  Bad news, national or personal, has the potential to kick off a deep depression. Good news can make you more than happy—mania lurks around the corner in every good day.

Even though I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 35, I can see how symptoms manifested in classic fashion late in my teen years, especially my first semester in college —the typical age of onset. Now that I think on it, I think I had my first manic episode much younger than I originally thought.  I think I had a manic run when we returned to school for third grade from summer vacation.  I had been popular in kindergarten, first, and second grades and was already involved in activities our small town had to offer like cheerleading camps and Girl Scouts.  I won AHS Miss Mini-Cheerleader and Halloween Queen in first grade and was already the first child identified in the county for the gifted program in second grade, newly begun for children with high IQ’s by the federal government.

I had discovered boys in second grade much earlier than most of my friends, calling a fellow named Gerald “my boyfriend” and once defending him against a guy trying to beat him up.  I dragged him off of Gerald and pushed him to the ground.  My teacher did not believe I had done it until I admitted to it when confronted.

But I took it to a whole new level in third grade.  I suddenly became one of the “kissy girls”.

You know the “kissy girls”.  They’re the ones that chase the boys around on the playground trying to kiss them.  They usually run in packs and usually manifest around fourth grade or so.  But I was all by myself, and all I wanted to do was catch a boy and kiss him on the cheek.  And it didn’t really matter much which boy it was.

But my morphing into a “kissy girl” put an end to my popularity.  Thus began the era of my being “weird”. The boys were scared of me, and the girls thought I was gross.  I found all kinds of ways to misbehave around boys, trying to get their attention.  I mostly limited my activities to boys my age, but word got around pretty quickly, and I soon became a person to avoid.

I got over the “kissy girl” stage quickly, returning to my normal self after Christmas, but no one forgot about it over semester break. I became the object of teasing, bullying, and rejection when it came time for birthday parties and sleepovers unless the other girls’ mothers forced them to invite me.

Psychamore

On two occasions, I was involved in a treatment process called partial hospitalization—once after being discharged in 2008 and again in place of a hospital visit in 2010.  I went to daily classes such as nutrition, counseling, group therapy, yoga, or grief counseling at an outpatient facility called Psychamore only fifteen minutes from my house.  I attended for several weeks each time, learning more coping skills and interacting with patients judged not ill enough for full inpatient treatment.

My sessions were attended by other professionals trying to get a handle on their lives, just like I was.  Most were recovering from inpatient stays; others came back for “refresher courses” like me when judged not ill enough for full inpatient treatment. We were overseen by a psychiatrist and met regularly with counselors and social workers in the small group classes.  Often we did projects, such as the time we were asked to draw a family tree and discuss those relationships.  (Being from the country, my tree branches were a bit tangled, shall we say.  Much hilarity ensued.)