“Though I am often in the depth of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony, and music inside me.” —Vincent Van Gogh
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I’ve been thinking about how to disrupt the stigma of “mental illness.” It’s a term I don’t like – but it’s still used throughout the world, unfortunately. To me, “mental illness” is an archaic and stigma-ridden phrase. Because it can isolate people who experience these illnesses in their own dark corner of misery, and surrounds their condition with mystery and skepticism. Yet cardiovascular, pulmonary, or liver disease are all discussed in the light of day and with credibility. There should be no difference. So, let’s talk about the ins and outs of one “brain” illness: the oddities, charm, and suffering of bipolar disorder.
My patients encounter stigma every day. Family members and friends who are furious with them, and just worn out by it all. Critical. Disgusted. Steeped in stigma.
And many of my patients are steeped in shame. It’s for them — and their families — that I’m writing today… and for you.
So let’s talk about what a person can be like who endures the suffering of bipolar disorder. Because the symptoms of a disorder like this one can seem to be intertwined with the person’s personality … for better or for worse.
In fact, neuroscience researchers have discovered a genetic connection that influences the personality development of a person with bipolar disorder. We’ll be talking more about the scientific side of bipolar disorder in a future post.
Emma was diagnosed with bipolar I when she was 15. She’d stolen her parents’ credit card, and had charged $4700 in a weekend taking friends to nice restaurants, shopping for clothes, and attending concerts. She felt like a million bucks…and tried to spend a million, too.
Her parents got alarmed, and she got admitted to a mental health crisis unit where she could be evaluated for 72 hours. It was here that she received her diagnosis of bipolar I disorder. The doctors there started medications to help stabilize her mood, and discharged her within a week.
Shock and awe. Not enough time to see how the medications really worked, or to wade through her questions and fears about this new diagnosis. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
She left confused, a bit shell-shocked, and with no small amount of anxiety as to what life would be like now. The shame she felt gripped her. How could she face anyone? She believed she’d never be able to show her face again anywhere… and the new pills she was taking made her feel weird.
Emma’s next few years were tumultuous, as the medicines didn’t help her stabilize, but even seemed to make her more unstable. Add to that the hormonal changes of adolescence and their affect on symptoms, and the instability…better said, the roller coaster… of her emotions was almost impossible to endure.
Everywhere she looked, she saw disapproval. Despite regular and frequent visits with her psychiatrist, she felt miserable and her symptoms seemed to get worse and worse.
Emma and her parents participated in therapy, to become educated about this illness. They also learned how to support structure in her life, as well as methods of helping her decompress when the need arose.
Oddities, Charm, Suffering of Bipolar Disorder… So Many Facets
But there were also transient periods when she felt a bit more like herself. Her sense of humor had always been spectacular, and often kept her family in stitches. Those light-hearted fun times reminded them of the history they shared, and endeared her to them all the more.
But…her bedroom floor. Trashed! It was the place clothes and food wrappers went to die. And personal hygiene? …Let’s just say that was a work in progress. She didn’t bother to shower unless she was badgered. But she was feeling better, and creating magnificent, enchanting poetry, so no one wanted to argue with her about hygiene. They had all learned to choose their battles.
The irony was that when her friends were high, they acted crazy. However, at the same time, when she was high it made her mind feel clear and grounded. She didn’t crave the substance, she craved the clarity. But her parents knew the dangers of addiction.
She was an odd bird, and she knew it. She figured she’d always feel like the odd one out.
But, for real, she had to give her parents credit. She could see they were really trying to understand. But it wasn’t a walk in the park.
At times she felt anxious and angry, and couldn’t tell why. But her parents would react in ways that seemed to her more like an attack. So she responded in kind.
Through therapy they learned that “pulling rank” and trying to force her to comply only served to escalate her reactions and agitate her when she was manic. They learned to listen patiently when she verbally shot words like bullets in a long tirade. They learned this was a symptom.
And they learned it was important to treat her with respect, in spite of her outbursts. After all, she wasn’t a spoiled child, she was ill. And… they learned that during times of peace, her talents, empathy, and growing wisdom had a richness they’d never seen in anyone before.
They had to admit this was new territory, and they couldn’t fall back on their old parenting patterns without making matters worse.
She was still their Emma, but there were times they didn’t recognize her. The counselor helped them see that all of these behaviors together were part of “their daughter with bipolar disorder.” Good times, bad times, times she amazed, and times she broke hearts.
Though Emma came home from the crisis center filled with shame, through counseling and the love and acceptance of her parents, along with time, she found she was slowly healing. She and her parents learned together that the mood swings – which were sometimes violent – were not a sign of her contempt for them, but rather a shift in her brain cell function that was involuntary.
Emma had made a friend at the crisis center, and was saddened for her and the awful scenes she described with her parents. Her friend felt so alone and hopeless because her parents viewed her behaviors as threats to their authority, rather than symptoms, and tried to shame her into compliance. Before long, her friend ran away from home.
Emma knew she was really lucky to have parents who tried so hard to support her and stand with her in this illness.
At times, she felt upbeat, pleasant, and enjoyed time with her parents, as well as a friend. In those same times, Emma often waxed poetic, writing pages of melodious rhyme, describing her magical wonder of the world as she saw it. Her words carried wisdom far beyond her years, and her creativity resulted in thoughtful and meaningful gifts for those she cared about.
But as the wonder bubbled up…the bubbles came faster and faster until she felt as though she was all bubbles, like helium…and she was floating, exhilarated, and able to do anything.
The Suffering of Bipolar Disorder Can Appear To Be Something Else
She’d climb a water tower and paint graffiti at the top, or she’d have sex with three different guys in the same night, or shoplift something from Macy’s. Why? Because she could do anything. (or at least she thought she could.)
Was she rebellious? Not intentionally. But she was manic at those times, and her perceptions were distorted, as well as her judgment. And impulsive. Oh my…intensely impulsive. Could that be fixed by her parents’ discipline? Ummm…not likely. Impulsivity and distorted perceptions are symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Unfortunately, there were times the police brought her home, or the store security officer called her parents, or… once…she found out she was pregnant.
Sadly, she miscarried 6 weeks later. It was all so terribly painful. The grief so suffocating. She really wanted that baby. It didn’t matter that she struggled to care for just herself…she wanted that baby more than she wanted air.
The grief continues to this day. On bad days, the pain of it rises up fresh and in waves. It’s almost more than she can bear. And the pain never lessens, or heals, but is always fresh and suffocating…because of the disorder in her brain. And the pain she feels when the waves return often push her into another mixed state episode.
But eventually, with sleep, healthy meals, and medication, she begins to recover each time.
Then, just about the time she feels a little stable, here come the bubbles again. And she forgets to go home by curfew because of the adventure she’s on. Then the crash… and eventually, the recovery.
The Suffering of Bipolar Disorder Untreated Leads to Worsening Symptoms
Years later…? Emma was 22, and the periods of depression became too frightening. The pressure within her gave way to visions of her death. The pain, then the end. The determination to end the pain rose higher and stronger. The risk of an impulsive act that would remove her hope permanently led her parents to deeply research the options that might be available to help her.
They learned about IV ketamine treatment and how it can end suicidal thinking in a few hours. They discussed it with her psychiatrist and made arrangements to see a psychiatrist who offered this treatment and would consult with Emma’s doctor to coordinate her care.
All three of them made the trip together, planning to stay for a couple weeks and make it a sort of vacation. They hoped the break and new scenery would do her good. And they believed that saving their daughter was the best investment they could make.
They’d read of people who had experienced help from bipolar depression with IV ketamine treatment, but their greatest concern was to help her continue to live.
They’d also read that people with bipolar disorder have an average life span of 25 years less than those who don’t have this illness. They could see the risk and felt they had to take measures to protect her.
After the couple of infusions, she didn’t appear to be so deeply and dangerously depressed. Her mom mentioned the suicidal thoughts, asking if there was any change.
Emma blinked. Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, she realized she hadn’t had any thoughts like that in 2 days. With all that was going on…she forgot that was why she was here. Her parents exchanged a hopeful glance.
With another infusion, her mom noticed she was picking up after herself. And she got in the shower and shampooed her hair…then blew it dry! Now this was a moment both parents noticed…but tried to not make an issue of it.
By the end of the series of treatments, Emma’s mom saw a light in her eyes that had been gone for months. And Emma suggested a shopping trip and lunch, which never happened when she was depressed.
Once they arrived back home, Emma was upbeat, and disappeared into her room to organize it and clean. This was no small chore, mind you. She asked her dad to carry out the 3 huge trash bags of trash she picked up from the floor. He jumped at the chance.
Emma, herself, was surprised about her own motivation and initiative. And she found she enjoyed the sun filtering through the trees…the ducks paddling around the pond at the park, and the aroma of someone’s barbecue cooking outside.
There was no question about it. She was feeling better. In fact, she felt better every week. She slept better at night, and had more energy for living during the day. A few weeks later, she realized she had a song playing in her head. So she hummed along. Her mom flashed a grin at her. It was so good to see her feeling so much better.
Emma has had some rough days and weekends since her IV ketamine treatment. Times when she felt exhilarated and knew she might make a bad decision. But she’d learned to call her doctor, report the subtle symptoms, go in and do what she needed to do to avoid sliding into hypomania.
Overall, her life improved dramatically after ketamine. Every month she sent a note to her ketamine doctor to let her know how she was doing. She missed fewer appointments with her local psychiatrist and her therapist. And somehow she seemed better able to manage herself now.
While Emma still has challenges, her life is happier and easier to manage. She’s more productive and was able to go to college and actually do the work. What traditional medications couldn’t do for her, IV ketamine treatment could.
At Innovative Psychiatry, we see patients who suffer from bipolar disorder often. Patients who experience significant improvement through IV ketamine treatment. If the suffering of bipolar disorder, especially bipolar depression, begins to return at some point, we’ll quickly arrange an appointment so you can receive a new infusion to refresh your well being.
If you suffer from bipolar disorder or another mood disorder, and you’ve not been helped by the medicines your doctor prescribes up till now, please call us. We will schedule a consult to determine if you’re a candidate for IV ketamine treatment. And if you are, you can begin your treatments right away.
We’ll help you connect with the version of the best you that has become hidden, and help you feel and function better, so you can enjoy a rewarding and fulfilling life.
We’re here to disrupt stigma.
And innovate— not just with fresh new effective treatments like ketamine, but innovate with understanding.
We don’t just infuse ketamine—we infuse compassion, and we infuse hope. We live for that.
With respect and appreciation for the beauty of your best self,
Lori Calabrese, MD