The many faces of Bipolar
by James Heaton
I have been bipolar my entire life, as long as I can remember. My earliest memories paint a portrait of a child who was happy and energetic one moment and sad and depressed the next. Memories of blacking out or having depersonalization to the point of thinking that I was floating over my own body and looking down.
I like to think that my birth contributed to this disorder, as my mother had a very difficult pregnancy and the doctors used forceps to pull me out. My parents described me as a cone headed baby for several day after I was delivered and I have a crack that runs down my skull in the front, so 2+2=4, and the idea that the forceps caused a traumatic brain injury isn’t really too far from a true possibility. But the doctors have no way of pinpointing exactly how I came to have bipolar disorder.
The thing is, I lived with the emotional cycles my entire childhood and into my adulthood. And at the age of 24 I was diagnosed as bipolar, and it answered as many questions as it raised. But it was at age 46 that I was on my fourth hospital stay, that I was given the option of ECT, and that really changed everything in my life. Its been four years since I had ECT and basically the timeline has been like this,
Directly after ECT I felt like a zombie, no energy and the feeling that I was unsteadily walking and felt almost drunk all the time. This subsided a few months after and I had difficulty remembering things, simple things. My long-term memory was fractured, leaving only bits and pieces of memories from the last 46 years. As the months went by I was no longer having the suicidal tendencies, but I still felt like the me that I remembered was dead and gone. Like a cicada sheds it shell and awakens, so did I. A brand-new person. I wasn’t violent anymore; I was peaceful and submissive. I didn’t have the outburst and I was very quiet.
A year after I was able to do the things I used to do. My mind began to awaken. But the memories were still just a blur and completely fragmented.
Two years after and I was feeling more and more like the me that I could remember. The new me could concentrate on things that the old me couldn’t. The familiar voices in my head were quiet. I would find things around the house and have no idea where they came from, even though it was something that I had purchased. No memories of things that were laying around my own house.
Three years after and everyone felt like I was me again, but the problem there was I could remember so many versions of me over the years that were all fragmented memories. Bits and pieces, with no way to tell when or where those memories were from. But I felt like I had an insight into the bipolar me, almost as if part of my brain had been zapped into a normal brain (normal as people without mental disorders) and I could recognize the bipolar episodes, I could see the manic and the depressive. I could see when I was reacting to things in a bipolar way, the overspending, the hypersexuality, the mixed episodes – all of it. I could see it as if I was a normal person looking at a bipolar person.
Four years after ECT and the mixed episodes returned, so the doctor changes my meds. The voices come back, more medicine. But I was able to control the suicidal tendencies which were very rare and only happened when I hit a drastic low. But still the memories were fragmented, but now I was seeing glimpses of the different versions of me throughout the year.
I celebrate my 16th wedding anniversary in November, and my wife has been an absolute angel to me over the 16 years of insanity that comes with being married to a bipolar person. And I think the fact that she is a Registered Nurse has give her insight and patience to deal with me. But lately she has been helping me to remember things that I simply have no concept of. Years of our marriage, gone. I remember things from my childhood, things from college, some of my time with my children as they have grown but the last 25 years are all but fragments of memories, glimpses that last for only a few seconds. And sometimes things trigger these little flashbacks.
We took a vacation and spent some time in a swimming pool and looking out across the blue water as it rippled and moved, I had several intense flashbacks of my past and it was a surreal experience. Like time travel but just standing in place seeing these things in my head.
And lately I have been having more and more discussions with my wife about the different versions of me that she has known. And according to her, there have been at least five or six versions of me that she has seen. Each one of these versions acts completely different than the others. But the version of me now is completely different than the version she married. And yes, age has a factor as well as maturity, but there are little parts that leak out from time to time and she says, those are the old me.
ECT changed my life. And I only had eight sessions, I felt I would completely lose myself if I did anymore. Each time it was more and more difficult to be self-aware, I was slowly losing myself into a zombie state where I had no emotion and no feelings about anything. I’ve read stories about Ernest Hemingway and Carrie Fisher having ECT, and it changed both of them. Carrie Fisher said it was the worst thing she ever did but it saved her life. Hemingway felt that he had lost the ability to write after ECT and took his own life shortly after the last round of treatments.
But I like the person I am now; I feel like it’s the best version of me. I’ve written and published five books in the last four years, and I am extremely more proficient with playing guitar (I was a semi-professional musician for years before ECT) and I can find enough peace to sit down and read book after book, something that I had become unable to do with all the noise in my mind.
I like to reflect on my current status after ECT every year and update my blog on how I see the overall experience. I believe ECT saved my life, because I was at a point of ending it. I had come to the very end and ECT was offered, and I took it because I had nothing left. I broke three teeth, suffered whiplash and have substantial memory loss from ECT. A lot of people that have had ECT say they would never do it again. I don’t know that I can make a definitive stand against it, I don’t know if I can stand and proclaim that I would never ever do it again. I think if I progress to the point of being suicidal daily, like I was four years ago, that I would consider it. And by saying that I mean as an absolute last resort, I would do ECT again.
But it is very difficult to sit with the person you love and here them tell you that you are one of many versions that have been around over the years. I honestly don’t know those versions, and some of them sound like they were absolutely horrible.
The thing is, you can think you have bipolar under control, with the meds and the therapy visits, with your insight and your self-control, but the truth is, it controls you. It’s a monster and nobody can convince me otherwise. It ruins lives, it destroys people, and it takes years off of your life. The best we can do is stay dedicated to the treatment, be honest with our doctors and take the damn pills.
I live in a routine-based world, I wake up, I eat breakfast, shower and then go to my studio and write for five hours. Sometimes I take an afternoon nap, then I watch television with my wife as we eat dinner. I go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time. This routine-based life keeps me free and clear of drama, of change and it makes it easier to deal with the times I actually leave my house and have to interact with people.
I have playlist for when I’m manic, and playlist for when I’m depressed. I fully embrace the depression and cry if I need to, I let the saddest songs play and move through the cycle as quickly as I can. I don’t avoid or fight the depression, nor do I fight the manic phases. When I have them I focus on writing and let my work drain the energy slowly.
Bipolar is a lot like surfing, something I grew up doing. The waves come and you have to be prepared, sometimes you have to dive under the big ones to avoid them crashing on you. Sometimes you sit still in the deep and wait for the wave to speak to you. And when the big wave comes you paddle as hard as you can and catch it, you slide down the face and ride that bastard like it’s the last moment of your life.
I’m sitting in the deep and I’m waiting patiently for that big wave and when it comes, be it depressive or manic, I’m going to ride it out.
I face my wife daily knowing that she has seen every version of me and sometimes it’s embarrassing to know that I was a complete ass to her, and I have to face that. But it helps to know that she accepts all the versions of me, she just has her favorites.
So that is four years of life after ECT. And my opinion still stands that it is absolutely necessary if you have become resistant to medication and all you want to do is end your life. But for just basic issues with bipolar, and if you can control things with medication, stay as far away from ECT as you can.
I think they should label it as “only use if absolutely necessary”, because that is how I see it.
Take your meds, see your doctor, journal, and see a therapist regularly. Avoid alcohol and drugs and ride that damn wave every time it comes. We are special and we are beautiful. Be your best!