[Article of Interest] The Problem With How We Treat Bipolar Disorder
By Linda Logan
The last time I saw my old self, I was 27 years old and living in Boston. I was doing well in graduate school, had a tight circle of friends and was a prolific creative writer. Married to my high-school sweetheart, I had just had my first child. Back then, my best times were twirling my baby girl under the gloaming sky on a Florida beach and flopping on the bed with my husband — feet propped against the wall — and talking. The future seemed wide open.
I don’t think there is a particular point at which I can say I became depressed. My illness was insidious, gradual and inexorable. I had a preview of depression in high school, when I spent a couple of years wearing all black, rimming my eyes in kohl and sliding against the walls in the hallways, hoping that no one would notice me. But back then I didn’t think it was a very serious problem.
The hormonal chaos of having three children in five years, the pressure of working on a Ph.D. dissertation and a genetic predisposition for a mood disorder took me to a place of darkness I hadn’t experienced before. Of course, I didn’t recognize that right away. Denial is a gauze; willful denial, an opiate. Everyone seemed in league with my delusion. I was just overwhelmed, my family would say. I should get more help with the kids, put off my Ph.D.
When I told other young mothers about my bone-wearying fatigue, they rolled their eyes knowingly and mumbled, “Right.” But what they didn’t realize was that I could scarcely push the stroller to the park, barely summon the breath to ask the store clerk, “Where are the Pampers?” I went from doctor to doctor, looking for the cause. Lab tests for anemia, low blood sugar and hypothyroidism were all negative.
Any joy I derived from my children was now conjoined with grief. I couldn’t breathe the perfume of their freshly shampooed hair without being seized by the realization that they would not always be under my roof. While stroking their backs, I would mentally fast-forward their lives — noses elongating, tongues sharpening — until I came to their leave-taking, until I reached my death and, ultimately, theirs.
I lost my sense of competence. If a colleague remarked on my intelligence, I mentally derided him as being too stupid to know how dumb I was. If someone asked what I did for a living, I would say, “Nothing” — a remarkably effective conversation stopper. I couldn’t bear the thought of socializing; one night I jumped out of the car as my husband and I were driving to a party.
Despite having these feelings in my mid-30s, when my kids were 8, 5 and 3, I was thriving professionally: I had recently completed my Ph.D. in geography, had just finished co-teaching a semester at M.I.T. as a lecturer and was revising my dissertation on spec for a respected university press. Yet several nights a week, I drove to the reservoir near my home, sat under a tree and, as joggers and their dogs ran past, thought about ending it all. There was a gun shop on the way to my poetry group; I knew exactly where to go when the time came.
My day, once broken by naps, gradually turned into lengthy stretches of sleep, punctuated by moments of wakefulness. My husband and I didn’t explain to the kids that I was depressed. “Mommy’s a little tired today,” we would say. A year or so earlier, a therapist told us to tell the children. “But they’re just kids,” we said. “What do they know?” “They know,” she said. When we eventually spoke to them, my oldest daughter came to me and asked: “Why did you keep it a secret? I thought all mothers were like you.”
After a few weeks of stopping at the reservoir, as suicide eclipsed all other thoughts, I finally told my husband about my worsening psychic pain. The next day I was hospitalized. It was June 1989. Even though we were living in Boston, we decided I should go to Chicago to work with the psychopharmacologist who, 15 years earlier, restored the health of my father, who had also been hospitalized for depression. As the cab pulled away from our house, I turned and saw three children’s hands pressed against the screen of an upstairs window. This is the way the world breaks.
The moment the psych-unit doors locked behind me, I was stripped of my identity as wife, mother, teacher and writer and transformed into patient, room number and diagnosis. I couldn’t open a refrigerator without permission. If I were on suicide watch, I had to ask before going to the bathroom. I was told when to sleep and when to wake, when to eat and when to go to group. My routine, which at home had cleaved so closely to my children’s, now revolved around the clattering sounds of the food trays being brought three times each day from the service elevators into our unit. With my husband and children nearly 1,000 miles away, I was severed from my fixed stars. I missed my children’s smells, the way they used to wrap their bodies around my legs when I was on the phone. I brought my son’s comforter to the hospital for my bed. I remembered him with one leg thrown across the covers, a small foot peeking out from his pajamas.
When my children visited, I had to resuscitate my maternal self, if only for an hour. I dragged myself to the shower, pulled on a pair of clean sweat pants and a fresh T-shirt and ran a streak of lipstick across my lips, hoping to look like a reasonable facsimile of a mother.
My doctor used my first hospitalization as a so-called washout, a period during which he planned to take me off the medication I was on and introduce several drugs in several different combinations. The prospect of polypharmacy — taking many drugs at once — seemed foreboding. I read about Prozac’s giving some people entirely new personalities: happier, lighter, even buoyant. “Who are you going to turn me into?” I asked my doctor.
“I’m not turning you into anyone,” he said. “You’ll be yourself, only happier.”
“I don’t think I even have a self anymore.”
“We’ll find your self.”
I was wary. “Just don’t turn me into Sandy Duncan.”
How much insult to the self is done by the symptoms of the disorder and how much by the drugs used to treat it? Paradoxically, psychotropic drugs can induce anxiety, nervousness, impaired judgment, mania, hypomania, hallucinations, feelings of depersonalization, psychosis and suicidal thoughts, while being used to treat the same symptoms. Before getting to the hospital, my daily moods ranged from bad to worse, each state accompanied by a profound depth of feeling. The first drug I was given was amitriptyline (Elavil), which, in the process of reducing my despair, blunted all my other emotions. I no longer felt anything. It was like going from satellite TV to one lousy channel.
For many people with mental disorders, the transformation of the self is one of the most disturbing things about being ill. And their despair is heightened when doctors don’t engage with the issue, don’t ask about what parts of the self have vanished and don’t help figure out strategies to deal with that loss.
Some in the mental-health field are beginning to recognize this need. Janina Fisher, a psychologist and the assistant director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute in Broomfield, Colo., told me that there has been a “sea change” in the role the self plays in the therapeutic dialogue since the decades when I was sick. New therapies and treatment philosophies, founded mostly by clinical psychologists and other practitioners who are not medical doctors, recognize the role of the self in people with mental illness. Patients tell her, “I just want to be that person I used to be.” Fisher encourages her patients to recognize that their mental trauma is a part of their life, but shouldn’t dominate it.
In my own experience with Scheftner, whom I began seeing after my father’s doctor moved away, we talk about the self but only when I bring it up. That’s why I have enjoyed helping to run a support group for people with mental disorders, something I’ve been doing for the last three years. There are usually 8 of us, sometimes 12. We sit in the basement of a local library every Wednesday afternoon. Though we know one another’s innermost thoughts, we are intimate strangers, not friends. Like A.A. and other self-help groups, we’re peer-led: run by and for people with mental disorders. We talk one by one about the past week — small achievements, setbacks, doctor appointments, family conflicts. While the self is not always an explicit topic, the loss of self — or for those doing better, the reconstruction of the self — is a hovering presence in the group.
One day, not long ago, a middle-aged man came to our group. He told us that he spent the past year attending different grief groups, but none of them were right. “Why not?” someone asked. The man said: “Because everyone there was grieving over the loss of another person. I was grieving for myself. For who I used to be before I got sick and who I am now.”
During the 20-odd years since my hospitalizations, many parts of my old self have been straggling home. But not everything made the return trip. While I no longer jump from moving cars on the way to parties, I still find social events uncomfortable. And, although I don’t have to battle to stay awake during the day, I still don’t have full days — I’m only functional mornings to midafternoons. I haven’t been able to return to teaching. How many employers would welcome a request for a cot, a soft pillow and half the day off?
One morning, about five years ago, my husband and I were talking on the family-room sofa. I was still wearing my pajamas and had wool hiking socks on. As he rubbed my feet, he told me he was leaving. It was, at once, a scene of tenderness and savagery. A little later, he threw some clothes into a suitcase and moved out. But my self — devastated, grieving, angry — remained intact.
Today, my mind is nimble. Creative writing has crept back into my life. I’ve made a couple of close friends in Chicago. My greatest pleasure is still my children — they’re starting careers, marrying, on the brinks of their lives. I’m looking forward to grandchildren, to singing the 1950s favorite “Life Is but a Dream” while spinning those babies under the stars of a falling night on a Florida beach. This June, I’m turning 60. I’m having a small party to celebrate my ingathering of selves. My old self was first to R.S.V.P.