Half the battle: My story of bipolar disorder in an already sober world
April 2011. It’s late afternoon, and my second day of the Partial Program at Beverly Hospital has wrapped up. I’m plowing down Route 128 with a song on the radio that I don’t remember. Everything has changed, but I’m not totally sure if that’s a good or bad thing. I pull over into the parking lot of the Liberty Tree Mall, just trying to absorb the information I’ve been given. I’ve spent so many years of my youth hanging out in this very location, and I can see the sign for Laser Quest over the highway, along with a cut-rate movie house. Traffic passes. It’s 4:00 p.m. and I call my wife with the news.
As it turns out, my official diagnosis of bipolar II wasn’t exactly a surprise to her. In fact, it was as if I suddenly announced I was right-handed. I presented the news to a test group of hand-picked familiars (a former supervisor, a friend of my son, coworkers from a side job I still do from time-to-time) and each reacted like I was telling them there would be a World Series in October. With a solid network of support in place, the big question was … now what?
I was already comfortably sober for some time and had no plans on going back. The AA community, sponsors, 12-Step Work, etc. were a fantastic resource, but this was a different animal. One of my favorite sayings is “You don’t connect the dots in the future”, and I can now see my road to this point was paved by a string of major life changes in a very short amount of time. Having some family history with the disorder added fuel to the fire, and it was gently suggested that my time before sobriety was most certainly self-medicating.
What you see isn’t necessarily what is there
After running the gauntlet on different prescribed pharmaceuticals, a nurse practitioner suggested Lithium, and it had an almost immediate effect. I began to feel better, even under some very challenging circumstances. As I still do now, I found solace and stability in the simple act of work. I’ve usually had some kind of side or second job, and I happened upon two that seem intentionally designed for someone like me. In a coincidental twist of career trajectory, I ended up in the Member Services Department at Beacon Health Options, my logic being who better to assist people with behavioral health and substance use disorders?
If I appear a little down, it’s not always depression. If I look like I’m lonely, that may be my introverted side showing. In short, look at the person, not the affliction.
In the meantime, it’s safely under control and manageable. Honestly, most of the time I forget I’m one of a massive population of Americans with the disorder. It can be deceptively tricky at times as I have to be aware of racing thoughts, obsessive searches for insignificant items, rapid speech, etc. On the flip side, if I appear a little down, it’s not always depression. If I look like I’m lonely, that may be my introverted side showing. In short, look at the person, not the affliction.
Of course, some have the disorder much worse than I; otherwise I wouldn’t be “outing” myself in such a sweeping gesture. I find strength in my family, loyal friends, like-minded social media people, colleges, and past and present advocates, ranging from Red Sox great Jimmy Piersal, Patty Duke, Richard Dreyfuss, Carrie Fisher, A.J. Lee and Russell Brand. Stamp out Stigma is also a fantastic source for mental illness support, and there have been several accurate and positive portrayals in film and television.
If someone asks me about it and I answer in the affirmative, I’ll usually joke that we’re out there, you just have to look. And never be afraid to ask for help.