Let’s keep the #WeAllHaveAStory submissions coming! Today we share Julie’s story! Enjoy!
To look at me, I’m no different than any other Southern girl you’d encounter in the small Mississippi city of Brandon—I’m five-foot-four with dark brown hair down to my shoulders and hooded brown eyes, wearing brightly –colored clothes from Belk’s Department Store and shoes by Naturalizer. I carry a white Micheal Kors purse and have a weakness for anything made out of chocolate. Unless you were around me long enough, you’d never know that nine years ago I had a psychotic break after the birth of my third child and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder—a disorder of moods where you swing from one extreme (mania) to another (depression)
I’ve been hospitalized for it six times for episodes of various degrees and take five psychotropic medications every day, some of them twice a day. I’m on Social Security disability; I lost my career as a freelance news writer because I could no longer interact with people normally nor could I face the pressures of daily deadlines.
I don’t say any of this to make people feel sorry for me. But it’s essential that I remember where I’ve been so I can appreciate the fact that no, I did not kill myself when I desperately wanted to and no, I haven’t done anything that couldn’t be undone and no, I do not have to deal with any memories of dangerous behavior such as drug or alcohol abuse and all the other associated conditions that often accompany this diagnosis. (Start with baby coming?)
I’m living proof that a bipolar life does not have to mean craziness on one end and enervation on the other. Let me give some insight on my bipolar life, especially as I take it day by day.
I usually wake up in the morning around six o’clock when my husband’s alarm buzzes off, making a particularly obnoxious sound so as to wake up deep sleepers like Bob and me.
Well, that’s not really true. I usually roll over and groan when the alarm goes off, then drift back off to sleep until my youngest daughter, Rachel, comes to me for a hug before going and packing her lunch for school.
I may laze around in the bed for about five to ten more minutes. My medications (particularly Tranzodone, an anti-psychotic) make me sleepy most of the time. It doesn’t seem to matter how early I go to bed; the routine is the same every morning,
I finally get up when I hear my middle daughter, Amber, coming downstairs. I go and grab a couple of granola bars for breakfast. (Another of my medications, Abilify, a mood stabilizer, makes me gain weight, and although I am taking half the dosage I was before at 15 milligrams per day at night, I try to eat as lightly as I can.)
I try and help the kids get out the door with all of their bags, books, and assorted other needs for school, but they’re fairly independent in that aspect, so I only exchange a couple of words with them and say goodbye before they leave to wait outside for their buses.
I stay awake long enough to send them off to school and Bob to his office, with me still in my housecoat and pajamas. Then once they leave, I usually get back in bed and sleep another hour or so before starting my day.
Some days are better than others. If I’m in a depressed cycle, during my days off of work I may find myself in bed until 10:30 or 11 a.m. I always get up before noon, because Bob comes in for lunch around 12:30 p.m. But in those depressed mornings, it seems safer to stay in bed than to get out. Nothing can go wrong if I’m asleep in the bed, I think.
Work days are different. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I teach Composition I and II at a local community college. I take my morning medications, the anti-depressants Pristiq and Buspar and a hormone pill. I don’t know if I would do better taking them as soon as I wake up to go ahead and let the energizing effects kick in. Someday I will stay alert enough in the morning to try that. But that day hasn’t come yet.
Afterwards I get dressed and ready to face the world. I do my quiet time and then check my work email to see what the administration had to say and to see if any of my students contact me with last-minute emergencies.
Then I prepare for class, writing my lecture and making sure I’ve recorded grades for any tests or papers that are due back to the students. I recently embarrassed myself by handing back a test paper ungraded and no recorded grades in my grade book. So I had to ask for them to be returned and work out how I was not going to penalize anyone for my mistake. Being bipolar sometimes means being disorganized and unable to focus in on the task at hand.
Around 7: 30 a.m., I head out to my classes, ready to teach. Class usually goes pretty smoothly—I’ve done this long enough that I rarely make out a detailed lesson plan any longer—I work from old lectures that I wrote when I was less experienced that I am now. The students, mostly incoming freshmen this year, are pretty attentive and are able to answer questions and participate in class.
Some days are better than others. Sometimes it’s just a great big slog through all the material; other times I sail through and watch the kids’ eyes light up as we discuss poetry, fiction, and plays. I find that I enjoy class more when I’m a little on the manic side—it makes it seem to pass faster and I’m more animated in making the presentation. But that can be dangerous as well—I may tell something too revealing about myself or go off on a tangent unrelated to the matter at hand. So I really have to harness that energy carefully.
Once I get home it’s lunch time—I eat a light lunch and wait for Bob to come home so we can exchange news of the day. Sometimes I can fix him something before he comes home, sometimes not. He told me when we first got married that he could do cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch, but he wanted a home-cooked meal for supper. So I try and prepare for that by taking out meat to thaw and making sure I have all my ingredients ready.
Some days are better than others in that area as well. Sometimes I forget to take out meat to thaw; other times I simply don’t know what I’m going to fix, so I have to improvise with what’s at hand. I can go to the grocery store on Sunday with a list and still come back with nothing to fix for suppers during the week. If I’m going to have an anxiety attack, it’s going to be in the grocery store trying to get everything I need without forgetting something. I have at times sat in my car in the parking lot and cried, praying out loud for God’s help because I was overwhelmed and could not face walking in and doing the weekly shopping. But usually it passes, and I wind up getting everything I need and everything is fine. Until the next Sunday rolls around.
After lunch, I wait for Rachel to come home to snacks and homework. I usually take the opportunity to check email again and see if I have any messages that need action. Since I usually don’t, I may go look at news online or do some Facebook. Rachel comes to me when she has questions about her homework, but she is fairly independent with it, so I don’t have to help her much.
Amber comes in next, and we exchange words about the day. Sometimes the afternoons are continuations of the mornings—when I’m in the low points I lay down on the bed and drift in and out of sleep until it’s time to cook dinner or go somewhere. Amber can supervise the younger one on days when I simply can’t stay up any longer. Those days are occurring less and less often as the months go by—something I’m very grateful for.
Usually the craziness begins after four o’clock—Monday is Karate lessons for Rachel, Tuesday is dance lessons for Amber and Rachel, Wednesday is church and piano for Rachel, Thursday is Karate again and drum lessons for Amber, and Friday during the fall is football games with Amber marching in the high school band. Saturdays start with Karate again for Rachel and then are spent running errands as a family—on the first Saturday of the month we go to the bookstore and buy books, and the last Saturdays during the spring semester are dance competitions. Sunday is church again and as I’ve mentioned before, grocery shopping and other planning tasks for the week.
And somewhere in the middle of it all we try to eat supper every night as a family at the table—or in the den watching a show the whole family enjoys if time allows.
It takes split-second timing to fit all this activity together –something I am no longer good at. I am very distractible since I am trying to coordinate all these different schedules. Luckily Amber will soon have a car to run herself around in—and Bob takes late-night duty, picking the kids up after I have dropped them off earlier in the afternoon. But having once been able to do it all makes the fact that I need so much help now sting just a little bit.
Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are reserved for catching up house and school work. I wash laundry every weekday, a different person’s clothes each day to cut down on sorting time. Once I’ve done the washing and drying, the girls are responsible for their laundry, and I am responsible for Bob’s since he dislikes ironing even more than I do. I also schedule appointments on my free days—with my counselor, my psychiatrist, my hairdresser, and an occasional lunch with a friend.
We have a cleaning service come over on Tuesdays because I cannot cope with the entire house anymore. My kids are responsible for keeping their own rooms picked up and neat, and I usually tidy up quite a bit before the cleaning ladies come over. I know how to do everything, but I either do a slapdash job at it, or I get obsessive to the point of organizing everything in the kitchen, closets, or cabinets within an inch of its life. That’s bipolar disorder talking, too–an obsessive focus on the mundane.
On one or two Thursdays a month, I work at our church food pantry, handing out canned and dried goods and other nonperishable items. I am the youngest one there; most of the other workers are retirees. All of them know of my condition and are very nice to me anyway—a response that is becoming more common as the stigma of mental illness continues to lessen every day.
In between all of this activity I try to schedule an hour or two to write each day. Sometimes I don’t actually write anything except in my blog. Other times I’m so caught up in a project that I will forget to eat lunch because I’m so fixated on the task at hand.
Once all the craziness of the night is over, Bob and I get the kids to bed and retreat to our master bedroom—Bob to play computer games and me to read, think, and get ready for bed.
Sometimes we talk after the girls have gone to bed, but usually anything we had to say was said earlier in the day in our “check-in” calls. Bob calls twice a day to check on me—once around ten in the morning, then again at two-thirty in the afternoon. He makes these calls to assess my mood and see what I have been up to since he left for work. If there’s anything odd in my voice or a change in what I’ve managed to accomplish, he asks me if I’m all right.
Sometimes I haven’t accomplished much except checking email and writing in my blog—and other times I’ve gotten all the laundry done, run errands, and picked up all over the house as well. Both scenarios can be cause for alarm. But I don’t like to worry him, so most of the time the answer is yes, I’m all right. If something is wrong, I let him know so he’s not blindsided at any point before he comes in from a long day of working.
I used to hate the check-in calls because I felt like I was being monitored all the time. Now it’s just become a habit and not nearly as intrusive. He likes for me to call him if I need to leave the house on my days off just so he is sure that I am where I’m supposed to be. But I rarely leave the house on my days off when I don’t have appointments because I need the downtime from the busyness and activity of the rest of the week.
Once I take a bath and get ready for bed, I go back to the medicine cabinet for my nighttime meds. I take Zocor for high cholesterol and then Abilify, Tranzodone, Klonopin (an anti-anxiety pill), and Buspar.
My nightly bath is important to me—I went through a phase for about two years where I was so depressed that I only bathed on weekends and had my hair washed when my hairdresser applied my color every six weeks. I couldn’t see the point to these activities, or much of anything else, for that matter. So I am grateful for my nightly routine knowing I am taking better care of myself now.
I go to bed at various times, usually right after my bath. Sometimes I go to bed as early as eight-thirty if I’ve had a particularly difficult day. It doesn’t seem to matter what time I go to bed—I’m still too sleepy to get up in the morning and function well. But it means the day is over and I can escape bipolar disorder for a little while.
Obviously, I’m currently functioning on a pretty even keel. I’m able to hold down a part-time job and manage the family matters within certain boundaries. I have stayed out of the hospital for three years now—I used to go once a year at various points between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. But I am on constant guard against any breakthrough symptoms, seeing my counselor once a month and my psychiatrist every three months. I know when I’ve taken on too much—my nerves start to fray and I am not a good person to be around.
We don’t talk much about those times—the irritation, the lack of motivation, the inertia, the anger, the feeling of something not-quite-right. Rachel knows next to nothing about bipolar disorder; I have told her that Mommy has good days and bad days more than other people and that’s why she takes so much medicine. The older two are much more aware of what can happen with my condition—especially since they are old enough to remember what I was like before I was diagnosed. I hurt for them on all the years I missed out on since I was so busy trying to find stability for myself that I was often unable to meet all of their needs.
So improvement is definitely coming, sometimes in increments, other times in larger chunks. I wouldn’t wish a bipolar life on my worst enemy—but if I have to have one, I think I’m making the best of it right now and winning more victory over it every day—day by day.