I was the second child born to a Navy sub sailor and my mom, a nursing school student in New England. I never saw much of my dad, and he and my mom divorced when I was around 4 or 5. We lived in a poor area of town, and Mom stayed home till we both went to school. She slept a lot, and cried a lot, but we always had root beer floats and popcorn while we watched Disney on Sunday nights. We had dancing lessons, too. I did well in school, but my sister did not. We fought about this and everything else. We visited my dad on weekends now and then, but we were just there, not really doing anything with him. It got worse after he married someone else. My sister was definitely the favorite; she could do anything and got paid to wash the cars and mow the lawn, things I wasn’t allowed to do.
My mom met someone else too, and when it became apparent that they would marry, my sister didn’t come back from one of the weekend visits to dad. Then she decided to go to school where he lived. Then Dad asked Mom for custody of her, but not me. And Mom gave her to him. I was devastated, frozen inside. That was the beginning of third grade for me. It was horrible. No one else in my class had divorced parents. Mom registered me in school with her new name, even though it wasn’t legal. The other kids made fun of it, of me, and I retreated into my own skull, the only safe place I knew. My once perfect grades went down the tube, and I was ashamed. I didn’t know why I didn’t do the work, but it wasn’t because I couldn’t. It was like a bad card game: they said “Go fish,” but the card I drew was blank, and didn’t match anything else in my hand. I drew blanks a lot that year. My parents had all kinds of physical tests done, but all were inconclusive. Doctors weren’t recognizing depression in kids at that time I guess, let alone bipolar disorder.
I improved when we moved to a more rural town, but the classrooms had huge windows and I stared out of them a lot. I could see me and my horse galloping across the playground all alone, hair and mane streaming, locked together like a centaur. I had riding lessons, and finally I was freed and in charge of my destiny. I could do anything from the back of a horse, and the horse would always help me and be my friend. No horse ever made fun of me, not ever. I knew horses were better than people for a lot of reasons then, and sometimes when I’m depressed, burying my nose in a horse’s dusty winter coat is the only thing that brings me up a notch.
I didn’t have more than one human friend at a time, and they were usually misfits like me. Sometimes boys were interested in me, but didn’t know what to make of how I acted. I had few social skills in this world, but I was the consummate lead mare in the herd in my own world. Pretty soon, I figured out that some boys didn’t care how you acted if you were pretty and willing, or just pretty willing, and I developed those particular social skills much faster than the others. I never got along with most girls, didn’t fit into the social cliques, and didn’t wear dresses year round. I would get very excited and say goofy stuff that no one else could follow. I believed people were saying and thinking things about me that were nowhere near true. I would get furious at first one clique, then another because none would accept me fully. In truth, I was as terrified of being accepted as not being accepted. I didn’t know how to behave with people.
Meanwhile, my parents weren’t doing so hot. My mom was having psychiatric problems of her own, but treated them only with therapy. She went from having terrible trouble with arthritis all over her body, to intestinal problems, to headaches, all of which caused her to sleep most of the time. Through no fault of her own, she was unavailable to me, and I felt very alone. When she felt better, she wanted to spend her free time with my step-dad mostly, and I felt like a third wheel, a tagalong, a little sister brought along on the date. She and I didn’t know we were bipolar at the time, but we were cycling up and down like yo-yo’s and never failed to get our strings tangled. I grew up angry with her and my step-father both. I ate Librium from the medicine cabinet to try “not to be there.” A temporary fix at best.
When I was 12, they gave me a large pony who the blacksmith said was older than God. He was a monster and a challenge, and he and I reached a very special understanding. He was also my ticket to freedom. I got involved with the local 4-H club, became a junior leader, and lived with my 4-H leader for an entire year. At her house, I took care of 14 horses, ponies and mules, and could do anything with any of them that I wished, if it were reasonably safe. I had no set bed time, people to talk with and who would talk with me, and who understood living inside one’s own skull. I became a person there, trusted with responsibility, better understood than ever before. So I went manic. That’s what I do when I feel good. So feeling good, after a certain point, is always suspect. I was allowed to go to a firemen’s dance, completely equipped with a pint of Southern Comfort. I floated through it, and my 21-year-old date took me home still chaste.
I was so attached to the living rhythms of the earth then, and they have become my Higher Power today. The snow melting away to brilliant green grass and corn sprouting in fields, calves bumbling after their mother’s swaying udders on rocky green slopes, lambs bleating, furrows steaming…these things awaken me in the spring time like a lover’s kiss in the night. Feeling alive is an understatement. I could feel the blood pulsing in my veins. Every emotion was incredibly intense–still the best rush I’ve ever had, and undoubtedly the most dangerous. My best judgment went right out the window, but I did my best to stop just short of being discovered and getting into whatever trouble came with it. I lost my virginity at age 14, and from that time forward, I set out to get more of THAT. If I had been a boy, this would have been expected. But I was a girl, and the shameless pursuit of the opposite sex was frowned upon in New England.
Later that summer, I moved back home to mom and step-dad again. I had disgraced myself with the 4-H leader’s husband by deflecting his advances, and I was no longer welcomed in his home. I never told her about it. The rest of my teenage years went up and down and up and down. I had one boyfriend for almost a year. He was more depressed most of the time than I was, but bought beer for us when we had money. Otherwise we occupied ourselves in the back of his custom van. My relationships through life were to follow that mold–drink, drugs, sex, and emptiness.
I was sober enough to go into the military, got married within the first year, had my first child a year later, and the second just 22 months after that. When I wasn’t pregnant, we drank. We had plenty of money, but didn’t like each other much. He always said I was “mental.” I denied it vehemently, though I recently told him he was sort of right all that time. I told him about bipolar disorder, and when our son was diagnosed with it, we talked about it more. We get along well now, but we don’t live in the same state. Our kids will always be the most important thing between us.
I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I took the book “Moodswing” to my family doctor and told him, “This is me. Please don’t tell me there’s nothing wrong, because I know this is what’s wrong with me.” He referred me to a psychiatrist, who confirmed my conviction, prescribed Lithium and set up an appointment 6 months down the road. So I thought I was cured. And continued to drink because “the little guys” inside my head still argued a lot.
Lithium and alcohol hangovers are horrible, and I often camped out next to the toilet with my forehead mashed against the bottom of the bowl, waiting to sit up and vomit. I did vomit intermittently all day with these hangovers, until my new husband would deem me dehydrated and take me to the ER for a fluid pump-up. I would forget in a week or two and do it all over again. We were married seven years like this.
When I was diagnosed, I had been discharged from the military for over a year. I was working for a newspaper, writing advertising copy and taking photos for ads, and producing the occasional special section. I still cycled up and down, but not as bad as before. My cycles tended to correspond with my work–I would rise to challenges, then deflate rapidly when the effort was over with. I spent a lot of time staring at my fish tank, wishing I could be in there. When I was up, I drank to quiet my brain so I could sleep. When I was down, I drank to go away for the evening. I didn’t want to be dead. Actually, I desperately wanted to feel alive again, to be vibrant. But I didn’t feel that way, so I wanted to feel nothing at all.
I switched jobs to a courier position, documenting and distributing work orders to 7 different sections. There was enough challenge to keep me interested, but not enough to trigger a manic high. My self-confidence rose. When a position opened in the photo lab for a studio photographer, I applied for it and got it. It meant higher pay and more contact with strangers, but I ignored the fact that these things were triggers for spending sprees and terror. I became more miserable working for a boss who noticed more shortcomings than accomplishments, and my work went down hill. One evening, my daughter and I were arguing over lunch tickets for school, when she told me her step-dad was molesting her and her brother. I was dumbfounded, but I believed her, and we packed the truck and left. We stayed away until we could get a restraining order and get him out of the house, then moved back to a bomb shell. The kids exploded without his thumb over them, and I fell apart more each day.
I met a soldier from the military base, and he later moved in with us to help out financially and offer moral support. We had a lot of fun learning to camp and fish, but it all went to pieces after the trial for my husband was over. He was convicted and sent to prison, and I had a nervous breakdown after trying to hold all of the very powerful emotions in check all summer. I was allowed out of the VA hospital to go to my divorce hearing, then stayed for 2 weeks longer. They brought my blood lithium level back up to therapeutic range, but weren’t equipped to do much more.
I came home not well, but somewhat less depressed than before. A few weeks later, I admitted to myself that I had a drinking problem, and asked for a 24-hour chip at a local meeting. My soldier friend tried valiantly to hold us all together, but by spring time we weren’t happy. He had asked me to move to his home state when he left the military, and I said yes. We uprooted ourselves, leaving most of our possessions behind and moved halfway across the country.
The relationship foundered 9 months later. My son was showing more signs of his bipolar disorder and the trauma of his assault. He ran away repeatedly, sometimes staying away overnight. I became more calloused and hard-hearted, and learned what ‘tough love’ meant. The court put him on probation. I met my third husband at my sponsor’s house. He is also bipolar, and because we have worked through stabilizing his medication, then mine, then his again, we have learned why people in dual recovery need each other. We taught each other to be truthful, tolerant, loving, patient, observant, trusting, and to engage in loving confrontation to keep each other honest. Because of his prolonged depression, we have a relationship based on trust and friendship and love, rather than sexual passion. Most importantly, we have this common knowledge of how each other feels when we are going through some misery. We don’t have to struggle to explain it, or compare it to something the other person is familiar with. We know. And we know we won’t give up on each other. All that we’ve learned to help each other has been invaluable in helping my son. Over the past year, he has been hospitalized twice for depression and paranoia, and finally got diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His medication is different than ours, since he has early onset bipolar, my husband is a rapid-cycler, and I tend toward hypomania with less mania and more depression. He has been as baffled and ashamed as we are, but has also found help with his membership in DRA.
We started a group that began as an AA group for those who are dually diagnosed, but when I sent the registration papers in to New York, I received a phone call. The General Service Office called to tell me that our group violated AA’s principle of singleness of purpose. Our group could only be an AA group if it wasn’t for dual diagnosis people. “What about men’s groups, and women’s groups, professional groups, and gay/lesbian groups. Don’t they address issues that relate to alcoholism?” “Well, yes, but we can’t have any type of diagnosing or professional or social services going on in AA meetings. This is the group conscience of AA as a whole. Sorry.”
I was angry at first, but tried very hard to remember how I can’t control other people’s behavior and all that. One door closed is direction to another opportunity. Then I typed ‘dual diagnosis recovery’ into my search bar and clicked on go. DRA’s website was one of the top 5, and I went there first.
The information I pulled from the website and brought to the group (a small group yet) made our decision about where to go from there. People show up at our meeting that I have never seen at the social club where it’s held. They say how happy they are that they have somewhere to go, and they share their experience, strength and hope without reserve. They ask questions, and they hang around for awhile to yak and drink coffee. And we don’t feel alone anymore. They come back the next week.
Someday, we hope to have a farm where those of us who have forgotten social skills and work ethics can go to relearn them without the weight of the world on our heads. People could get evaluations and stabilize on any needed medication, learn better eating habits, learn to be friends, and learn gradually to live in the outside world again. Someday. Just as it takes one drunk talking to another to save them both, my husband and I know it takes one crazy drunk talking to another to save them both. Finally, I know where I fit.