My astrologer is in sort of a crisis mode these days, so I don’t really want to bother her with the question: Why is it that I am feeling bombarded by people who feel that bipolar disorder is something to celebrate? It’s true that if I weren’t bipolar, I couldn’t possibly have accomplished the feat of living several concurrent lives.
I’ve got a lot done. I’ve created little empires, and lost them. I’ve made a lot of money, and lost it. I’ve had bosom friends, and intense relationships, and wonderful marriages–all gone.
I hated being a child. Children were so…stupid. Like cattle, running in herds, living their happy little lives, sniveling at trifles, reading Dick and Jane. Innocent, docile, boring little things. I refused to associate with them.
I had one friend, and one friend only: Terry Martin, whose father was a carpenter and let Terry use all his hand tools. There was a creek in the woods behind my house, and Terry and I built bridges over the creek using scrap two-by-fours salvaged from Terry’s father’s scrap pile. We would design a bridge, build it, tear it down, design another one and build it, ad infinitum. I imagine Terry must have grown up to be a famous architect. We were seven, eight, nine, in our bridge-building years.
The rest of my childhood was consumed with books. Grown-up books, not kid books; although I did love Charlotte’s Web and anything else by E. B. White, who is still my literary hero. And of course animals–horses in particular, and any other non-human creature. I used to take in injured animals, wild bunnies who had been half mangled by the cat, a mouse rescued from the trap, and nurse them back to health. It was my introduction to healing.
But I suffered terribly from depression–of course it was not known, in the 1950′s and 60′s, that children could be depressed. But I had frequent bouts of overwhelming sadness and a sense of confusion, not knowing where I was in space or time, dissociation I would call it now. I would cry for hours over seemingly nothing. I hated my existence and wanted to be gone.
And then there were episodes of ecstatic heroic fantasy. Like the time I tied the sleeves of my coat around my neck for a cape, and ran full throttle around the schoolyard shouting that I was going to save the world (it was the Cold War then, and the world needed saving). And the time I lost Terry Martin, by planning out and executing my fantasy of winning his nine-year-old heart to be my forever lover, by singing him a love song I had learned from the radio. That heralded the end of our bridge-building days, and plunged me into a deep river of remorse.
High school. Oh dear. I suppose most high school girls spend their after-school hours writing poetry and drawing diagrams of what would later be called “wave-particle theory.” It was the 60′s, it was Flower Power, it was Viet Nam, it was smoking pot, it was losing my virginity to a vicious rape and running away from home, all the way from Massachusetts to California. It was wandering, purposeless, homeless, sometimes adventure and sometimes just doing what was necessary to keep alive.
Young adulthood–three different art colleges, no degree, frequent bouts of dissociation, PTSD from the now many rapes and close shaves with abduction and what was then called “White Slavery,” now known as Sex Trafficking. Paralyzing depressions, then marathon painting sessions, up all night listening to WGBH Boston and working on three or four canvasses at once–hanging them on the otherwise bare walls of my bedroom and moving from one to the other until 3 am when the fishermen’s coffee shop (Mike’s) opened and I could go down the hill for espresso and listen to the hushed conversation of the Gloucester fishermen, getting their coffees and Italian pastries to warm their bellies before heading out on their boats for the day.
And then it was back up the hill for me, to get ready to hitchhike to art school, take my chances with whatever creep pulled over to pick me up–would he be manageable or would I have a fight on my hands first thing in the morning–who knew? Left art school one quarter shy of graduating–I had to go play in my boyfriend’s band. Granted, it was a good Irish band but couldn’t I have just stuck it out three more months and graduated? No.
Everything was a blur. I could not concentrate. They told me I was good, if I could only get it together–but I couldn’t get it together, because I didn’t know what together was. So I quit to join the band. We had a good roll with the band, and I was painfully in love. He told me flat out he wished he could tell me that he loved me, but he didn’t. I kept on hoping…and lapsing into states where I would go far, far away and no one could reach me, so they just went on and left me to my own devices, and I would wake up crying, feeling lost and abandoned.
Decided I’d better be a doctor, because that’s where my heart was–and is. Talked my way into University of Chicago without a high school diploma–how did I do that? I was on a high and nothing could stop me. I blazed through the interview, charmed the interviewers, and got in.
My parents had had enough of paying for schools, so they refused to help with this one. So I worked three jobs–from 6 am to 8 am blood rounds as a phlebotomist at the hospital. Ten to three, classes. Three to eight, nap and homework. Nine pm to 2 am, cocktail waitress at a downtown disco. 3 am to 6 am, lab tech. On nights I didn’t work the disco, I went out Latin dancing with the South American grad student crowd. And at 9 am I ran three miles with Sunny, the girl I was in love with and didn’t find out she was also bi until after college. Sure I got depressed. I just thought that was normal, since I’d always felt that way.
Let’s fast forward, because this is a blog post and not a book. This is the interesting part anyway. After a dual degree in medicine and Medical Anthropology, I went on to a residency in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. I was a very poor resident, partly because I had begun to have episodes of deep depression triggered by sleep deprivation. Instead of recognizing that I was having a health problem, the administration punished me for my lethargy and crying spells by assigning me to more and more rigorous rotations–extra stints in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which I loathed, and extra time in the Pediatric Emergency Department in the Gulag, which is what we called the hospital in the northern reaches of Rochester, NY, also fondly known as the Knife-and-Gun Club, since it was situated in the heart of Gang War Territory.
I loved the Gulag, for some reason. It was rough and tough and you never knew when there was going to be a lockdown because some gangs got in and were shooting it out in the stairwell. It was my kind of place. I ended up working nights there and becoming the Acting Director when the previous one quit. I took the place from being a skunk works with one intern to a fully-staffed professional department.
Then the boss hired an old girlfriend over me. She had no emergency medicine experience, was a developmental pediatrician. I put on my cape and went into Superhero mode and wrote letters to every bigwig in the medical school. I got fired.
I got a better job, developing a brand new pediatric emergency department in another part of the country. I used what was turning into boundless energy to create a top-notch state-of-the-art facility. But that wasn’t all. I got married, bought a 32 horse boarding stable with 40 acres of land, 20 acres of prime alfalfa that we baled 5 times a year, and an asphalt hauling business. We had one employee, a stable girl. Otherwise, we did it all ourselves: my husband, my son, and his son. And I worked 60 hours a week at the hospital. Not unpredictably, I got irritable and contentious. I didn’t get partnership.
I quit and got another job. I quit and got another job. I quit and went into practice for myself, which was heaven on a stick, except that now I was having to go into my private office between patients to cry. Disaster hit. A church-based organization bought out my hospital, which owned my building, and I was suddenly practice-less. The blow was too much. It sent me to the hospital, the first time out of twice. I have never been the same since.
Yes, I did create mini-empires with my bipolar. I could never have done all that stuff, and I haven’t even told you the rest. But the price was too high. I’m totally disabled now. At sixty, I have little to look forward to. I think now, in these days, when there is so much more consciousness about mental health in general and bipolar in particular, there might be hope for consciously channeling that super-hero energy while somehow mitigating the crushing depressions. I certainly hope so.
For me, it’s a day late and a dollar short.