Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘childhood depression’

Mini-Meltdowns and Many Meltdowns

When my brain broke back in 2001 or so, I thought it was the first time that had happened. Later, on reflection, it turned out that wasn’t so.

The 21st-century breakdown was certainly the most dramatic. Although I had just quit working in an office to start a freelance career, I found myself unable to work after a few months.

I had become unable to work in the office because of mounting difficulties that I now realize were warning signs of the impending breakdown: inability to concentrate, increased anxiety (the feeling that an angry badger was about to claw its way out of my stomach), lessened ability to interact with coworkers, sudden flares of temper, turning people away with unintendedly cutting remarks and sarcasm, isolating, inappropriate affect, catastrophizing – you name it, I had it.

What was causing all these symptoms? My bipolar disorder, obviously. But I’ve had that for years. What was pushing me over the edge this time? I had trouble at work. My boss left and, when I “came out” to my new boss as depressed (which is what I was diagnosed with at the time), she reacted with wariness and incomprehension. She gave me the first bad review I ever had at that job.

My mother’s health was deteriorating seriously, too, about then. I lost time at work taking her to various appointments and I had to have “the talk” with her about how much longer she could live alone. Eventually I took over her finances – and by then I was scarcely handling my own.

I experienced a lift when I quit my job and began freelancing. Hypomania? You bet! My new flexibility allowed me to take better care of my mother, and the assignments kept coming in.

Then everything came crashing down. I screwed up my finances and my mother’s. She began having worse falls and injuries, hospital stays and drug reactions, even hallucinations which scared the hell out of me. I emotionally judo-ed my sister to come up and help, then fought with and resented her, and had to take care of parts of her life as well.

Those and other difficulties on top of my mental disorder added up to a non-functioning me. I dumped all the chores and coping onto my husband, which was a rotten thing to do, fought with him, sobbed for no discernible reason, became unable to work, or care, or do much of anything except think up at least three different ways (and reasons) to kill myself. Fortunately, I was too immobilized to try any of them.

I’ve written before about the things that helped me get back to some kind of functioning – a proper diagnosis, the right meds, time without work (as we gutted our retirement savings), lots of psychotherapy, and my wonderful, patient, ever-helpful, devoted husband.

But now, looking back, I can see that it had happened before, though not so dramatically and completely. In childhood, in my teens, in college – at every stage of my life I had at least one breakdown, often triggered by the circumstances of my life, but fueled and stoked by my mental illness. In every one, my ability to function deteriorated a little more.

The first one that I remember clearly was when I was around 12. My best friend and I were in charge of a birthday party for her younger sister and some friends. This was the old-fashioned kind of party that everyone in the neighborhood had then: cake and ice cream, party games, presents, and not much else. It happened during pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I was blindfolded – literally – and my friend kicked me in the ass – again, literally. In front of all those younger children.

I ran home sobbing. And I curled up into a fetal ball and didn’t quit for at least three days. Non-functioning, non-responsive, non-everything. What finally brought me out of it was seeing my mother’s pain at this inexplicable (to her) meltdown.

I had a mini-meltdown in my freshman year of college, which involved sitting in my nightgown in the hallway, staring for hours at a richly detailed poster of a fantasy realm. (I managed to frighten an intruder by arising, ghost-like, in my pale yellow shroud as he entered the suite.)

This one was triggered by my realization that I had probably chosen the wrong major and that there were no job prospects ahead for me. (It turns out I was wrong about that. Maybe I should have stuck with it, but my next choice turned out pretty well.) I took a year off college and took a job as a cashier in a restaurant, where I spent a lot of time crying into the roller towel and being told I should smile more. This convinced me that going back to college, with a new major (and even fewer job prospects), was the right thing to do.

The next meltdown was major. I had finished college, endured a year-long train wreck of a relationship, and lost a job as an assistant restaurant manager (I hadn’t fully learned that lesson yet). I got unemployment, which meant I lay around the apartment for most of the week (except for making half-hearted attempts at job hunting).

One notable symptom of this breakdown was my near-complete immobility. One errand in a day – say, going to the post office for stamps – made it a productive one for me. I had maybe three of those a month, with one being the obligatory visit to the unemployment office – a supremely depressing place to be depressed.

I had some truly irrational thinking that time, too. I thought I could cheer myself up by watching light, fluffy sitcoms on TV. But as I lay there on the couch, I found myself crying with every upbeat, cheery theme song that came with them. Laverne and Shirley making their dreams come true. One Day at a Time, which advised me to get up on my feet because somewhere there was music playing. And, oh, Mary Tyler Moore. Love is all around, my ass.

After that, it was a long, slow slide to my major breakdown. It wasn’t unrelieved misery. I got married. I got a master’s degree and a job in publishing. We acquired a house and cats. We traveled. But the Big One was waiting for me.

Nowadays, I still have mini-meltdowns, but they usually last a maximum of three days, rather than weeks, months, or even years. They still tend to be triggered by stressful life events, especially financial ones. But when I get one, I know I’ll be coming out of it soon. And that’s a wonderful feeling buried in all the misery.



Mind Like a Steel Trap

Rusty. Unhinged. Not really good for trapping things.

Especially memories.

That’s not quite true. I have that uncanny ability that all depressed people seem to have to remember every stupid, clumsy, embarrassing thing I’ve ever done, as well as every trauma. It’s like a mental DVD that stores them up, then plays them at random moments. Or maybe not so random. Maybe just when I think I’m doing okay.

The memories can be as traumatic as the time other children threw rocks at me or as trivial as the time one person asked for a glass of water and I gave it to someone else.

Unfortunately, the recording feature only works for bad memories. A lot of the good ones are MIA. I don’t remember huge chunks of my childhood, except as stories that family members have told me. I don’t really know if the memories are mine or theirs. And I’m scared to compare notes.

My theory about these childhood memory deficits – and to tell the truth, all the way through my teens and early twenties – is that when you are profoundly depressed, memories don’t imprint the way they’re supposed to. Whatever synapses and neurochemicals are involved in memory are out of whack. I’m also afraid to do the simple Googling required to find out whether this is even a plausible theory. If it’s not, I don’t think I want to know. I have an explanation that makes sense to me, and the memories won’t come back if I learn my theory is wrong.

Later in life, medication has helped controlled the depression and, after it was diagnosed, the other effects of bipolar 2. But if I thought my memory was going to function properly, I was wrong. Some of the drugs left me with a memory like Swiss cheese.

My memory lapses seem more random now. Good things, bad things, neutral things, all disappear into the Pit of Unavailability. Sometimes they are embarrassing – I forgot a friend’s father had died and asked how he was. Other times they are more distressing – mere scraps left of trips I’ve taken. Sometimes they’re heart-searing – total nonrecall of a never-to-be-repeated sexual encounter.

Good and bad, gone.

(“Oh, yes,” said the doctor. “That drug will do that. You can stop taking it now.”)

I guess I’m lucky. If I’d had the electroshock, my memory would probably be as raggedy as old underwear. And about as useful.

Why I’m Not Like Sheldon Cooper

Obviously, I’m not a man or a theoretical physicist or a character on The Big Bang Theory. But also, I can’t say, as he often does, “I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested.” I’d like to have that t-shirt, but it would be false advertising.

I am crazy and my childhood was entirely free of psychological testing.

It probably shouldn’t have been, because the crazy had taken full hold during my tender years. Crippling depression. Massive anxiety. But both my parents were ordinary folk from Kentucky transplanted to a bland Ohio suburb. They stayed true to their roots and never considered testing or counseling for me or my sister. According to their upbringing, having crazy relatives might be upsetting or embarrassing, but that’s just the way it was. You tried to shelter them from the outside world – and vice-versa – but you didn’t involve agencies or doctors or hospitals.

My crazy got too obvious to ignore when I was in junior high school. I developed a nervous tic – my head would jerk up and to the left uncontrollably. This was very distracting, not only to me, but to whoever was sitting behind me in class. It got me noticed.

It did not, however, get me to a psychologist or other mental health professional. I didn’t want to see one anyway, because I had the irrational notion that being “shrunk” would go on my permanent record and I would never get into a good college.

Instead, I was taken to our family doctor. He prescribed Valium, which did stop the twitching but did absolutely no good for my depression.

Later, during my college years – at a good school, I might add – I had another run-in with Valium. This time my symptom was pain like a railroad spike being driven into the side of my head. Naturally, I thought it was a brain tumor.

I went to the doctor, who said, “I can do any test you want, but I can tell just by looking at you what your problem is. Your jaw is crooked.” He diagnosed me with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, explained that tension made my muscles contract unevenly and cause excruciating pain in my temples. He sent me away with a prescription for Valium. Which helped with the stabbing pain, but again not with the depression. (Also, I was self-medicating with wine, which just made the crazy train run faster.)

It was not until years later, after college, that I got half a diagnosis – depression – and a non-Valium prescription – Prozac. And many years after that until I got the more accurate diagnosis (bipolar 2) and an appropriate regimen of drugs, which does include Ativan, but not prescribed alone or with wine.

And that’s another thing I don’t have in common with Sheldon Cooper. He’s not taken any psychotropics (or wine) and is happily stuck in his supposed non-craziness. I’ve accepted my craziness, gotten help for it, and am slowly rising, if not above it, at least to where I can peek over the top of it.

Happy Humbug

It’s a truism that holidays are difficult, not to say hazardous, for those of us with mental disorders. But there are a variety of reasons and a variety of reactions and – dare I say it – a variety of coping mechanisms.

First, let me say, that despite the fact that I was already depressed or bipolar as a child, the holidays were marvelous. Our granny, maiden aunt, and uncle lived a few hours away and we spent Every Holiday there. (My uncle drank, but not when we were kids.)

On Thanksgiving, we’d arrive, the adults would eat themselves into a coma, and then nap while we kids were sent of to the movies.

Christmas was similar, except that we’d get up, open presents from our parents (and “Santa” for the biggies), pile into the car, and head to granny’s. The adults would eat themselves into a coma, and then nap while we kids were sent of to the movies. (I specifically remember The Sting and The Andromeda Strain, during which I saw my first picture of a naked male butt.)

There was no tension involved – no grand dining table, no fancy dress, no distant relatives, no formal manners. We’d simply fill a plate with home cooking, perch on a sofa (which was called the davenport) or chair, and chow down.

My birthday falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but poised well enough between the two that it was never combined with either one. Back then, birthdays were simple – cake and frosting from box mixes, four to six neighbor kids, presents (no gift bags), and maybe a couple of party games. (It was at someone else’s birthday party that I was traumatized during a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.)

How could anything in later life measure up to those?

Well, it couldn’t. My first Thanksgiving away from home was when I was at college, and we ate lasagna, not turkey. I believe it was the first time I had lasagna. Ever.

Since then all the holidays have gone downhill, or I have.

Any more, they’re a chore, a relentlass gray blob from November through January. (Halloween starts it off. I can’t get with that either.)

For years, I kept up some of the traditions for my parents’ sake. My mother in particular loved everything to do with Christmas – the Macy’s parade, the tree with my father’s favorite old smudge-faced angel on top, crocheted holiday sweaters and snowflakes and handmade ornaments from her foreign penpals and neighbors and church friends.


My first Christmas in my own apartment, I had a small fake tree. When I got married my husband and I tried to get into the spirit with surprise gifts and selecting and decorating my mother’s tree and inviting a divorced friend to dinner with us.

But I was sinking rapidly. At various places I worked, all the ladies sported store-bought Christmas sweaters and sweatshirts (Halloween ones, too) that I thought were just awful. But one year, in a desperate attempt to fit in, I bought holiday sweaters on sale in January to wear the next year. Of course, by then I had lost the job.

Dan and I continued the tradition of dining with our friend John, but our venue changed to Chinese restaurants, where we were kept company by Jews, pagans, atheists, and, no doubt, other depressives and bipolars.

One year Dan was visiting his mother and I was on my own. I tried. I really did. I trotted out a festive holiday sweater and little wrapped-present earrings, and went out to a buffet that offered turkey and beef and ham. But I sat by myself and listened surreptitiously to my iPod. And not holiday music, either. By then about all I could stand was the Christmas jazz from the Charlie Brown TV show.

This year, we ate out on Thanksgiving – but not at the swanky hotel buffet we sometimes took my mother to, or any of the other mega-buffets. We went to a diner that John used to love. I had pork chops and lemon pie. On Christmas I’m likely to be by myself again and may just get festive with a Stouffer’s mac-n-cheese.

Comfort food seems appropriate, and the cats like to lick the dish. Then for dessert – Zoloft and Ativan and Lamictal and Abilify and Ambien. Yum. Visions of psychotropics dance in my head.


P.S. I wrote about a Thanksgiving with John on my other blog. If you’d like to see it, go to

And if you’d like to see my rant about the “War on Christmas,” go to


Bipolar Me vs. DisneyWorld

Once a group of us were on a business trip to Anaheim. “If any of you want to take clients to Disneyland, I can get you tickets,” the boss said.

“I can’t even imagine myself wanting to do that,” I replied.

The others laughed, though I wasn’t trying to be funny. I get that a lot.

I have always had deeply mixed feelings about Walt Disney and his creations. How could I not? A place that bills itself as The Happiest Place on Earth vs. Bipolar 2 That Has Caused Depression Since Childhood. (To be fair, I used to like “Wonderful World of Color,” particularly the nature films, even when we had only a b&w TV. Gray Tinkerbelle is a metaphor for. . . well, something involving depression.)

So what explains this picture of a dear friend, me, and my husband being photo-bombed by a Lego dragon?


The first thing you have to know about Tom (left) and Leslie (the photographer) is that their inner child is, let’s say, very close to the surface. They are DisneyWorld aficionados. And they know all (well, almost all) about my mental disorders.

We desperately needed a vacation, and they offered to be our guides for an adult-friendly, non-teacup visit. Also, it was the Millennium celebration and early in December, which promised no sweltering heat, interesting decorations (as much or as little as I could stand) and other spiffy stuff, including few children, who would not yet be on Christmas break. (Ah, the high-pitched shrieks of laughter from children meeting their cartoon heroes. It cuts right through me like a knife.)

Here’s what I learned.

• The restaurants there are incredible. Eat your way around Epcot.

• I dreaded the Tower of Terror because I thought my stomach would drop out. This proved not to be the problem; my inner ear objected, though. Our friends got me on it by telling me to repeat the mantra, “Disney will not kill me. They want more of my money later.” It was one of those things that I’m glad I did and now Will Never Do Again.

• The Explorer’s Club is extremely cool.

• There are lots of nifty tiny things that aren’t rides and attraction that you can try to spot – bits of the sidewalk that light up randomly like a surprise Dance Dance Revolution, Mouse ear shapes in unexpected places, such as the wing nuts on shelves in the many gift shops, and so on. This is where knowledgeable guides come in particularly handy.

• At night, you can see the stars from the top of that mining train-roller coaster thing, something I didn’t expect, given all the ambient light an amusement park puts out.

• Also, we all won giant purple-and-red plush armadillos at one of the games. That’s one thing my inner child can appreciate.

• STAY AWAY from the teacups and It’s a Small World. They will turn you into a whimpering, burbling puddle of regret and sugar-shock. When your mother asks later, just say, “Oh, yes. They were nice. You would have loved them.”

If you go with the right people, do not try to make it into the Bataan Fun March, and rest and eat or retreat to the hotel when you need a break, it’s survivable and even – dare I say? – enjoyable. Sufficiently medicated with Prozac and Ativan, I could handle it.

I’d have to give this round to Disney, but really it was all Tom and Leslie.

P.S. Also, the Food and Wine Festival is a great experience. I spent three months in Orlando and a co-worker got us tickets. Cute guys with devastating Australian accents chatting about Australian wine. What could possibly be more satisfactory?



Going Public

I just posted this on my Facebook page. Now we wait and see what happens.

Along with the news of Robin Williams’s death have come discussions of mental illness and suicide. I’ve decided to go public with my own experience. I have bipolar disorder – type 2 (which means that I have lots of depression and anxiety, but very few manic phases). I’ve had this all my life, most likely, so whenever you met me, I had it.

Some of my friends already know and I’m sure others have guessed or suspected it. It is the result of a biochemical imbalance in my brain and is now treated with medication and therapy. I’m working on it.

Anyway, I ask for your understanding when I sometimes go hide under a rock for a while or say or do something odd or rude or unkind. My social skills have never been great, and having a disorder like this doesn’t improve them. I’m working on that too.

But you don’t have to do anything special or tiptoe around me. I’m still who I always was. I don’t freak out when people call me crazy or nuts or weird.

If you are interested, I blog about it: (I also have a general purpose blog: Anyone is welcome to visit. I can also recommend other resources.

Here is the article about Robin Williams that noodged me into taking this step:

I Bet Robin Williams Knew He Was Loved. Unfortunately, Love Doesn’t Cure Mental Illness.
It is jarring when a beloved celebrity dies of something you could possibly die of yourself—when all of a sudden everyone is talking about the illness you have, the one that they usually…

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Nutjob

I was depressed even as a child. I may have been manicky too, but I don’t remember that. Unless you count the anxiety. (I had weird fears – for example, that someone might toss a lit cigarette out of a car window just as another car with a leaky gas tank went by and there would be a huge explosion and fire. Stuff like that.)

I won’t say that bullying caused my mental condition, because I now know that brain chemistry is the more likely culprit. But bullying certainly made it worse.

In addition to the usual taunts about “cooties,” my appearance, and my complete cluelessness about social skills, I was singled out because I was smart and liked school and didn’t hide it.

As I look back on it, some of the bullying now seems extreme.

There was the boy who chased me around the playground, threatening me with what he claimed was a hypodermic needle.

There were the kids at the bus stop who threw rocks at me while I tried to pretend it was a game of dodge-rock. Never being good at sports, I came out of that episode with three stitches in my forehead. I don’t know which upset me more, but by the end of it all, I was hysterical. And not the good, funny kind.

And there was my best friend and the birthday party. The party was for her younger sister and all the attendees were about that same age. My BFF and I were supposed to be supervising, I guess. But while I was blindfolded, demonstrating Pin the Tail on the Donkey, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all those younger kids.

This resulted in what I now realize was my first breakdown (meltdown, freak-out, whatever you call it). Naturally I ran home sobbing, and spent nearly a week curled in a fetal position, alternately crying my eyes out and going numb. I stayed like that until I saw my mother crying. Then I got up, went down the street and yelled at the (by now former) BFF for indirectly making my mother cry.

It’s a wonder I’m not a spree killer today. But we’ll go into that some other time.

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