Point A: Help Rebuilding Life
Submitted May 18, 2011
People ask me if I feel a 100% again, and I would have no answer because there is nothing to gauge that against. I was starting from an unknown place, Point A.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in 2006 but the catastrophic damage to my life was already done, and the long painful quest to find the right combination of medications to stabilize my moods and actions had just begun. I spent over 150 days of the next 2 years in hospital psych wards over 6 stays until the right combination of meds was found in March of 2008. At this point, Bipolar Disorder had cost me my marriage, destroyed or severely damaged most of my personal and business relationships and was responsible for the loss of five businesses, two homes, all my savings, and retirement. Below is my relationship with Bipolar Disorder.
When I’m manic it feels like I just won money. It feels great. When I’m depressed, I feel like I have a draining flu that dwells in my emotions. It can physically hurt. When I have a manic episode, it might for example begin innocently enough with such thoughts as I am at one with nature, and then all the stars are aligned with the numbering system, and then these numbers translate into a hidden language that only I know how to decipher, and on and on my thought process is running at an exponential speed. After 3 to 5 sleepless nights, this speed begins to melt my thoughts, and I am left in a mental state where everything has new meaning and I created a new mystical reality which really is true. This reality stays with me until I get on some sort of medication that will take one to two weeks to take effect, and it is unknown whether it will really work well at all.
I was let out of the hospital 5 times on the wrong combinations of meds not knowing whether my mystical reality was real or reality was real only to return a week or month or two months later. During this time, I had probably embarrassed myself a number of times, said things that I did not mean, did things I had no business doing, and this obviously creates long term memories in others around you that are not easily forgotten or forgiven. People are scared at what they are witnessing, a friend, business partner or family member being taken away to a psych ward because they are “crazy.” Many abandon you.
When the medications began to take hold, I felt cloudy, lethargic, numb and cold. I felt no sadness or happiness; it was just an emotionless state which to this day does not feel natural. I was living in this lifeless world, and the full impact of my dire situation did not even register. Many of those around me wanted me to just snap out of it and be my old self again, which is ridiculous as my old self is unsustainable. I should concede that I am in this place because I have a serious disorder, but this revelation is a very hard pill to swallow. Nobody clearly explained to me that when you have bipolar, you’re fighting a battle on at least five fronts with regards to the medications, and these fronts are all being fought while I was on these new mind altering medications.
First, there was a great deal of trauma that occurred when I lost everything that I loved. The culmination of all my efforts thru out life had been basically lost. I had a new medicated prospective on life whether I liked it or not, and this was a very unnerving experience.
Second, I had been living 43 years of my life with an extreme manic passion and thinking a certain way, and now on medication everything seemed to be gray and standing still. I realized that many of my goals and dreams might have been unrealistic and my behaviors where not rational at times. This caused much self-doubt, concern and disbelief as I looked at the mess around me. It is confusing and really scary to realize that this is life’s new speed.
Third, it took me more than a year to really trust the medications not knowing if I was going to have another manic episode and be sent back to the psych ward. It’s all very stressful, and stress is one thing that triggers manic episodes in me, so it can become a revolving door at the hospital if it’s not managed properly.
Fourth, my mood never changes. Life no longer has an emotional flow to it, and there is no urgency to do or react to anything.
Fifth, the medications have destructive side effects that make me feel like my health is being compromised. They include weight gain, which affects my confidence and self-worth and would most likely severely depress me if I was not medicated. It’s sort of another hidden disorder that is created and that jeopardized my will to continue taking these medications, which is not an option. I know that I will have to navigate through these issues for the rest of my life and this, at times, is an overwhelming endeavor.
From the time I was 16, I was self-medicating with alcohol 3 to 4 times a week, and at 18 it was a daily ritual that lasted until I was 43 years old. From what I heard, I appeared to be a happy restaurateur who liked to drink his fair share. When 9/11 occurred I became extremely unhinged and spiraled into a deep depression. I often thought about jumping from my deck or walking off the pier into the Hudson River but I never told anyone this. My wife was worried and got me a very incompetent therapist in October 2001, who agreed with me that it made sense to quit my job and give up my businesses; after three months of visiting him, I did just that. I sold my businesses for scrap, resigned, and started up a new international telecommunications company with a friend. We had a five-page business plan and no funding. The financial stress and anxiety of paying the bills and mortgage on a new penthouse as well as self-funding the company put a lot of stress on my marriage and my life in general.
Stress and Anxiety are two of the triggers that prompt a manic episode in me. It’s like lighting a match and holding it over a tub of gasoline. It’s only a matter of time until the fumes ignite and you have a raging fire. In my case, I was putting out the fire with alcohol over and over again, 24/7, and this is where my drinking escalated to drinking in the mornings to quell the mania. This didn’t work well as now I was drunk all the time instead of just a self-medicated happy restaurateur. I felt like a plane in war that gets all shot up, and I’m trying to hold it together even though bits and pieces are falling away. My life was disintegrating, and I was out of control. The ability for Bipolar Disorder to “hide” right behind my increasing alcohol use over the years prolonged my diagnoses, and this directly impacted the level of devastation the disorder caused in my life. I wish there was more of a relationship expressed everywhere and to everyone concerning the disorder and alcohol/drug abuse. I bet there are quite a few parents, wives, husbands, and people in general at the end of the rope not knowing why their loved one can’t control an alcohol or drug problem, and the fact is that they are witnessing a symptom of Bipolar Disorder.
After the dust settled from my world blowing apart, I was left with a palate of debris at Point A not having any healthy coping mechanisms in place to take me to Point B, wherever that was. There was no structure left and strangely no personal foundation to build on. I had said things to people that were insane and made no sense and acted like an irrational madman, and this led to boundaries being broken and beliefs and values being fragmented at best. People said you can pick up the pieces but where do you put them? Back where they were doesn’t work. Am I really going to network in the bars, hang out and drink with friends who witnessed my downfall, and return to work? There is no workplace as I burned those bridges too, so where do you go? At the beginning it was to a “safe place” in Central Park that I had to go to when I felt like the lines were blurring as to whether or not I was going to impulsively walk in front of a truck or jump onto the subway tracks. It would abate in 20 minutes or so, and I would realize that I had nowhere to go and nobody to meet so I just walked. This was a very dangerous time. The medications that I was on were not working, and I was severely depressed and hopeless. My Dad would always talk to me by phone, and his voice did stop me in my tracks a few times from taking matters into my own hands so please let your supporters know that just their voice can be helpful.
Another deadly trap in Point A was that I had built my personal and business life around my medication – alcohol. Everything I knew had ties to my only coping mechanism, and in everybody’s eyes it was off limits as many still thought I was only an alcoholic and completely ignored my bipolar diagnosis. They did not understand that I was using alcohol to equalize my daily mania that was keeping me stable and sedated for the day as the presently prescribed medications were not working properly. I really thought that this could take me down as support waned as people did not think I was making an effort to get better. I knew I had to stop but if I didn’t drink for a day/week, I would begin to spiral into a manic episode which meant going to the hospital so I remedied my situation by having the drink. This was my choice: hospital or drink.
On my last hospitalization, I was presented with the combination of Abilify, Lamictal, and Provigil which not only stabilized me but I had no urge to drink. I knew that I had to work out what I was going to do with my social life now that I had all this “drinking time” on my hands. I decided to put my social life on hold until I got my professional life in order, but I learned through these last few years of therapy that these are not the only two things in life I had to put back together. In retrospect, it seemed that my whole life had been built around putting out fires and proceeding to the next tub of gasoline that was presented to me in life, and this was what was fueling my mania. Whether it was taking care of a Mother with early onset Alzheimer’s as a teenager, getting through school with dyslexia or rapidly opening restaurants and businesses, I was setting myself up for a fall time after time by having no coping mechanisms in place with the exception of alcohol. I had to start to build coping mechanisms and recognizing my bipolar triggers, but this had a steep learning curve and a lot of trial an error. I realized such things as the need to build and obtain more and more things in my life which I thought would make me happy was really just a way I further coped with my manic energy and that the stress and anxiety it generated nearly killed me.
Today I feel more grounded in a healthy way and a lot more at peace with myself even though I have a lot less personally and financially. The emotional “noise level” has been turned way down, which now lets me make rational and informed decisions without that phantom pressure forcing me to rush them. I used to go on a vacation and, as the plane was taking off, I would literally think of what it was going to be like when we got home and continued to live this way my whole life. I never enjoyed the moment. Too busy putting out fires. There are no fires in my life today. No crazy thoughts or grandiose plans. If something bothers me it’s a flag, and I have to figure out why and how to deal with it in a safe manner. I now listen to what people have to say because I’m not thinking of ten things at once. I walk and it resets me and gives me time to organize my life.
I do mourn my last life and truly miss and love my former wife but that was another time. My fires most likely would have turned into an inferno and I’d be dead right now like another bipolar friend of mine. He was a lot like me but had no support and refused to take medication and one day he jumped off a building. I have walked on the ledges of building thinking that if I fall I would appear back on the ledge in a different reality so I see how these things can happen. I survived because of my medications, therapy, and the support of family and friends. I have only begun to figure out where Point B might be or that it might not really matter as when you build a personal foundation that has structure, boundaries, beliefs, values, and coping mechanisms, you can always rely on that.
Finding a new career and getting back to work is also challenging to say the least. In my case, my business network has been seriously damaged. I was making irrational decisions, acting bizarrely, and destroying relationships and creditability. Very few friends are left and those that are would be hard pressed to give me a recommendation since I have had so many hospitalizations. There are only so many times that I can walk out of a hospital thinking that I am “fine” and meet my professional friends only to go back into the hospital a month or two later. Do this 6 times and you have your answer of how many people would want to work with you or offer to give you a recommendation. It’s not many but there are a few, and I feel fortunate to have these people in my life.
I did a lot of research about people with bipolar who were diagnosed during their professional careers, and many had to make drastic changes to their careers. Many of those who lost their jobs or had to quit contribute this to the fact that they did not change their habits, thinking, and environment of their old lives to their new bipolar lives. They never transitioned as I continue to do. I can do everything I did before I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder but there are consequences of doing some of these things, and this sentence is tricky to live by because there are so many things that I do intrinsically. My past work experience is intrinsic, and I have serious reservations about the stress and anxiety levels of managing a company, managing a restaurant or being put under the pressure of a commissions-only job such as a Real Estate Broker. I am learning to set boundaries and respect them with regards to my ability to determine sustainable jobs, and these positions are not in that safe set.
This leads me to my skills which are many, and this is where I can build a completely new career. I have been working with an employment group which deals with clients who have bipolar disorder, and they are highly recommending that I take an US Federal Government Job for its structure, good salary, health insurance, ability to advance, retirement, and pension. This is not the intrinsic choice I would have made in the past, and it does require me to recalibrate my priorities such as I have had to accept that my career does not represent who I am which it does when you’re an entrepreneur like me, and that is challenging. I will have to draw on other things in life to satisfy my personal creativity and entrepreneurism, and this will be different for me. I have to remind myself that my previous personal and financial goals are not going to happen nor were they probably achievable in the first place. I am not giving up but I have to be realistic. Many of the things that I wanted to accomplish professionally in life are just not safely obtainable in my present situation. I could try but I never lose sight that bipolar disorder affects me and everyone around me, and I don’t want to be an everlasting burden on my family and friends. It’s just not worth the risk.
Bipolar Disorder can be a real destroyer of lives, and the medications are a crutch not a cure by any means. The real work of re-establishing and rebuilding your life comes from family and friend support, therapy, and making safe decisions. I realize that I am fortunate to have these things in my life but it did take work and advocacy. I strongly recommend that you write a letter to your supporters or possible supporters explaining what your situation is as many are misinformed, afraid to ask, scared for you or of what you represent, and I found that many people wanted to help and had kind words to say even though I had completely different expectations of them. I was not myself and know that I perceived things differently when I was in an episode so setting the record straight really helped me cope with my loss. I hope this story is helpful as it was to my supporters who were very surprised that Bipolar Disorder can affect you and others in so many different ways. Please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org as it would be great to hear your thoughts.
To find out how Steve is doing more recently, check out Steve on Rebuilding a Life: Part 2.