The biggest fear in writing this is the knowledge that some people will forever look at me differently moving forward. I’ve never gone to great lengths to hide the fact I’ve struggled with bipolar disorder since I was teenager, but I keep my mouth shut when a person is acting moody and someone inevitably cracks a “Talk about bipolar!” joke.
I fear people will look back to conversations or experiences we’ve shared, remember a particular comment or situation, and think, “I should have seen it!” My fear is that telling the world I have bipolar disorder will render me one-dimensional. I could fill this article with medical data and testimonials from the world’s foremost experts on the subject, but I may still be labeled as something I’m not. Bipolar disorder is not schizophrenia. It’s not multiple personality disorder. But do the facts matter to people who just label others as “crazy”?
I knew someday I’d share this story with a wider audience. It’s been nearly 20 years since I first suspected I had something going on inside of me that was going to need to be dealt with; perhaps finally sharing is a unique anniversary gift to myself.
High school and college
As a teenager, you’re constantly told it’s normal to feel different. You’re supposed to be awkward and anxious. You’re supposed to be going through a conversion from child to adult that leaves you emotionally and mentally spent at times.
Somehow, though, I knew what I was going through was different than the “different” I was supposed to be experiencing. While my friends in the early ’90s were certainly all awkward and uneasy at times, they clearly weren’t struggling with what I couldn’t put a label on.
Toward the end of high school, most of my friends were taking Advanced Placement courses and looking forward to college and the rest of their lives and their certain-to-be-magnificent careers. I thought I could be content taking phone calls from coaches at my $7/hour sports clerk job at the Sun Journal until I was gray. The path I once shared with my peers didn’t feel like the path I was supposed to be on anymore.
Immediately after high school, I went off to college in Boston, as the script I thought I was supposed to follow stipulated. I went and experienced 10 weeks of highs and lows, eventually finding a way to quit that was acceptable to my parents. Upon returning home from college, I was diagnosed as having mononucleosis. The doctor said I’d probably had it for a very long time. I tried to accept this as the reason I felt “off” the past year or two.
Despite the occasional bad moods, I spent most of that next year working at the Sun Journal. I had graduated from the ranks of sports clerk and was working on the “city side” of the newsroom. While my friends were away knee-deep in college life, I reveled in spending the first half of my day writing stories and the second half designing news pages. It wasn’t unheard of for me to work 12 to 14 hours per day and love every second of it. When I wasn’t working, I didn’t have many friends around and began experimenting with alcohol and marijuana, but it sounded like most of my friends off at college were doing it, too. When I’d visit them, though, I noticed their use seemed more recreational while mine seemed escapist.
I gave college another shot the following autumn, in 1995, this time in a more rural setting in Rhode Island. I spent most of my year in a state of isolated boredom, looking forward to breaks or long weekends when I could come home and enjoy the frenetic pace of the newsroom.
The only time I felt content with myself was when I’d escape chemically in the evenings by myself. It didn’t affect my schoolwork and I didn’t really want to question what was going on inside of me.
I was barely 20, and in a poor decision typical for me at the time, I purchased a tainted bag of marijuana that resulted in a violently ill reaction. The multi-hour blackout episode ended with a trip to the Newport Hospital in an ambulance and an admission from an emergency room doctor that I had more PCP (angel dust) in my system than anybody he’d ever seen. Apparently whoever laced the bag loaded it with not only PCP, but also formaldehyde, as toxicology would later show.
Apparently it was called “Illy” and was killing people left and right in Rhode Island and New York that year. I was told I was lucky I survived.
As is policy when a drug-related incident took place at the college, the police were called and agreed to not press charges if I attended six Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. The housing board said they could kick me out, but agreed that if I met with the college’s counselor until she was satisfied, I would be allowed to stay and my parents would never be told of my near-death experience in early 1996.
The NA meetings were more sociologically fascinating than helpful. I knew my marijuana and alcohol use wasn’t recreational, but I also was able to come to the quick conclusion I wasn’t a drug addict and wasn’t struggling with the kind of issues the people in NA were. I did my six meetings, had my paper signed, and turned it into the police to avoid any record.
The school counselor, I have to admit, changed my mind about people who went to seek professional help. I ended up visiting with her almost every week through the end of the year. She helped me recognize that though a chemical dependency to marijuana was likely not happening, a mental dependency probably was.
The incident scared me enough that I never ingested another chemical at college, but a mounting depression also caused me to walk away at the end of one year in Rhode Island. The visits to counseling were the highlights of my week – the only time I felt like I had any energy – and upon my departure, this counselor urged me to continue to seek treatment.
I returned home, moved into a Portland apartment with a friend from high school and a girl she met at USM – insert Three’s Company jokes here – and had a great summer. I commuted to the Sun Journal almost every day for work, lived in my own place for the first time ever, and, despite the occasional weekend party, didn’t have a need for the kind of chemical relief my year in Rhode Island provoked.
Getting worse, not better
I had known Mark since he met my younger brother, Patrick, on their first day of kindergarten. They were fast friends and by association, I got to know Mark very well throughout our school years and helped both of them get jobs at the Sun Journal their senior year of high school. The summer after leaving Rhode Island was a great chance to reconnect with my brother and Mark.
My brother and Mark were preparing that summer to head off for their freshman year at Syracuse and Boston College, respectively. At least that was the plan until mid-August, when a drunk driver struck Mark as he waited to cross Webster Street. He died a day later.
I spent the next two months weeping. I was weeping for Mark to be sure, but my body wouldn’t let me get out of bed in the morning. When it did, I’d lie on the couch and weep. Trying to get through a shift at the Sun Journal was hard, and some nights, impossible, without taking a break to sit in my car and let my emotions pour out. I did the only thing I knew to seek relief. I went back into counseling.
I saw a counselor for about two months before it was clear the lack of a troubled childhood or absence of hatred for either of my parents left him with little to work with. I got through this immensely difficult time with the help of the roommate whom I didn’t go to high school with. Talking to her helped more than anything and the bond that was forged in her helping me cope evolved into a serious relationship.
Even though I had just turned 21, and drinking legally in public was a novelty, I didn’t sink into any bad patterns for the first 18 months we lived together. In 1998, as she entered her last year in college, I went off to Tokyo, Japan, for a 7-month-long temporary job. We decided to stay together, but the transition was rough. I didn’t like the job, was at first scared to venture out into the city, wasn’t making friends –ultimately, my first month in the Land of the Rising Sun saw me the loneliest I had ever been. I rediscovered alcohol and quickly found drinking at the bars in my neighborhood – where an American could be an instant celebrity – to be the only time I could ever be happy.
Never really being one who needed to rest, I’d sometimes go two or three days on a few hours of sleep, putting in my time at the newspaper while hung over, or still buzzing, but quickly found half the staff worked that way. It was an adrenaline rush being over there and the energy and excitement I felt from being in the most amazing city in the world while intoxicated made up for the depressing times when I was stuck in my room, sober and alone.
When I returned home, I had saved a lot of money from Japan and didn’t have to work for a while. I moved back in with my girlfriend in Portland, but things were different. Seven months apart when you’re that young allows for a lot of time to change. Despite my best efforts to re-create Tokyo in the Old Port, I couldn’t find happiness in a bottle, so I stopped drinking and just kind of moped around. After a few months, the act got old and my girlfriend left shortly after my 23rd birthday. I applied for a few jobs just to get out of the house, and remember working at a Kinko’s-like photocopy store. don’t think I even called them when I quit. I just stopped showing up after about a week.
The breakup hit me as hard as Mark’s dying did. Several weeks of sobbing led to several weeks of quietly sitting in a dark room, even in the middle of the day. Self-assessments all came back negative: I was living alone, had no college degree, no full-time job and no real prospects of anything positive on the horizon. It was a sobering look in the mirror and since I didn’t want to go the chemical relief route, I went back into counseling.
The new guy was great. He convinced me to return to the newspaper world, get a new group of friends, and enjoy being a single guy. I was working hard, playing hard, and loving every minute of it. Portland as a single, young guy was exactly what I needed. There was just one problem: I was awakened almost every morning by anxiety attacks. I learned to just ride them out, whether they were 5 minutes or 45 minutes. I told almost nobody except my counselor about it because the rest of the day was great.
As with the other counselors, we never talked diagnosis much. We bounced around generalized anxiety disorder to acute depression, but he always pointed out there was likely no blood test for whatever I was struggling with, so the diagnosis was a shot in the dark. The anxiety attacks did seem to cause him more concern, though. After months of refusing to be put on medication because I didn’t want to take drugs to feel better, I relented because he said the attacks could be physical. I would take Advil for a headache or Rolaids for heartburn, so I could rationalize taking medicine for a physical condition.
Any lingering prejudices I had against people who sought help were completely gone a few weeks after being put on an antidepressant and seeing the amazing relief it provided.
That stretch of living on my own in Portland was a fantastic time. The weekly sessions with the therapist became biweekly and eventually monthly. The dosage of medication was reduced to the point that I was eventually weaned off. For the first time in nearly a decade, I didn’t think anything was wrong with me. I thought maybe I had created all of the depressive episodes in my head as some dramatic cry for attention.
I missed the kind of traveling I did while in Japan and would look for any opportunity to get away. I went on spur-of-the-moment trips to Las Vegas twice, Germany to visit friends and The Netherlands, because I felt like it one random Thursday. The spontaneity was exciting and when you’re willing to go to Europe on three hours notice, the airfare can be amazingly low. I never told anybody about the trip to The Netherlands until I got back. I still imagine what the response from people would have been had anything bad happened to me while I was over there.
After a while though, going out all the time got old and while I’d dated off and on, I decided it was time to look for another serious relationship. I ended up meeting Melissa, who would become my wife. Able to work from home, I moved back to the Lewiston-Auburn area in 2002 into an apartment with her and my soon-to-be daughter. The following year, we were married and welcomed my son into the world.
Being an adult
While the transition from single guy living in Portland to married father living in Lewiston was sometimes rocky, it was welcomed. I had gone almost four years without really having any depression and I’m sure Melissa didn’t fully understand the depth to which my depression occasionally reached based on the stories I told her. We bought a house in Auburn and I settled into life as a father and husband.
The newspaper company I was with for four years imploded. I bounced around at a couple of news jobs, but never found my niche. I started my own magazine in Portland, but after a chaotic year, it folded.
I attempted to launch a freelance writing/design business and was able to pull that off for several months, but like everything else I was professionally involved with, most of my clients went out of business. I was either professionally unhappy, or unsuccessful with everything I touched. With the pangs of failure came the return of depression. I tried working at a Head Start and walked away with no notice. Nothing clicked.
My next job – my fifth or sixth of the previous 18 months – was with a catalog company in Gorham. It wasn’t until after I was hired that I learned they were going through bankruptcy and two very dull months later I remember sitting in the conference room, and as the staff were being told they were going out of business, I got up, left, and called my doctor. He told me to come in immediately.
I told him my tale. He leafed through a drawer and took out a pamphlet: “Josh, have you ever considered you might have bipolar disorder?”
There are those scenes in movies when a key piece of evidence is discovered and suddenly all of the pieces fall into place. Being handed that pamphlet was like finding out Kevin Spacey was Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects or that Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were the same character in Fight Club. It was one of those slow-motion “a-ha” moments as I ran down the list of telltale signs of bipolar disorder and the mental Rolodex flew open as I matched up symptoms with episodes from my past:
Impulsively quitting a job: The copy center, the Head Start position, and walking out of a business during the “we’re going under speech” were enough for me to see a pattern.
Charging up huge amounts on credit cards: I first did this when I was buying dinner and drinks for everyone I lived with in Portland. Taking unplanned trips to Las Vegas and Europe didn’t help either. I put the final nail in that coffin paying to print the last two issues of my failed magazine in Portland. By the time I was handed the bipolar pamphlet, all of my credit cards had already been cancelled.
Feeling rested after sleeping only a few hours: I’d been doing this since high school. Four hours was the norm, but I could get by on two if I really needed to.
Feeling irritable and lashing out for no real reason: For years, I didn’t want people to ask how I was. I dreaded the question. You have to give the standard answer to the most loaded question on Earth. People just don’t know what to say upon first contact so they ask, “How are you?” And that forced me to lie and say “OK” and it really made me angry. There were times it would ruin my day.
Feeling powerful, invincible or destined for greatness: I never even realized that this was a symptom for anything, but there it was, and I couldn’t deny there were times when I simultaneously felt all three.
I ran down a few more symptoms on the list, sobbing as it became clear: The depression wasn’t the only symptom… the manic was just as bad, perhaps worse, and was present far more than the depressed side. The manic side was my normal. I had spent more than a decade sick when I thought I was well. The slow-motion flow of examples of manic decision making continued to run through my head like a highlight reel of embarrassment and shame.
My doctor immediately referred me to a psychiatrist. We didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing my deep psychosis. There was no reason to do so. Bipolar disorder – also known as manic depression – is a chemical disorder of the brain that causes shifts in mood, energy, impulse control, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. These shifts can manifest themselves in different ways, but they are beyond the usual ups-and-downs of everyday life and do not take the place of traditional emotional reactions. I was relieved after so, so, so long to have an answer, but figuring out the right cocktail of medications to get it under control took several months. Some gave me tremors while others left a metallic taste in my mouth.
My road to a diagnosis was textbook for many people who have bipolar disorder in that a string of seemingly unrelated problems gets misdiagnosed for years. Melissa hit the Internet and learned about bipolar disorder. She absolutely knew we finally had an answer for why I had these shifts in mood and behavior.
Once we figured out the proper cocktail of medicine to take control of an illness that went unchecked for at least a dozen years, I could literally feel the manic side slip away and it was like losing a piece of me that I liked. It was the piece of me that allowed me to be fearless. It was the piece that would weigh risk vs. reward and be daring. It was the piece that provided a never-ending supply of energy and allowed me to feel like I was indestructible.
“I don’t know why you’re giving me this medication. I think the rest of you should be taking pills so you can feel like I do,” I joked to my psychiatrist during one session. He shared that many people feel the same way and often take themselves off of medication because they can’t cope without their manic side.
He taught me how to regulate my medicine and after the turbo doses of multiple pills I took immediately after diagnosis, I have been, over the years, able to get myself to a place where I understand my patterns and don’t need medicinal support most of the time.
Preparing for the rest of my life
The past five or six years, from a bipolar perspective, have been uneventful. The journey of being a person living with bipolar disorder is far easier than the journey of being a person living with something indefinable. Going over a decade knowing something is wrong but not being able to figure it out is tiring. I sometimes wonder what my late teens and 20s would have looked like had I known what the problem was, but I look at where I am now and in many ways am glad that I went through those years.
As luck would have it, not long after getting the bipolar disorder under control I was given the opportunity to be the editor of a newspaper in Windham. That provided me with the opportunity to create Lewiston Auburn Magazine a few years later. While the risk taker isn’t gone, he’s much more calculated.
To this day I haven’t discussed my bipolar disorder with my parents very much. I don’t think they’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and that’s fine. I hope they understand that it has nothing to do with any good or bad parenting choices they made.
A lot of people who know me comment on my schedule. I’m the publisher of a magazine, a husband, a city councilor, a father, a film festival organizer, someone who sits on several boards and a guy who still manages to watch a fair amount of television and waste time playing games on Facebook. Really, more than anything, my hectic schedule is a coping mechanism. Even with medication, I still tend to fall on the manic side of things, yet I’ve learned over the years how to keep myself busy so I don’t have to deal with idle time.
A big challenge these days is simply in monitoring symptoms and making sure I’m not going down roads of prolonged highs or lows. The biggest challenge is keeping my mouth shut when somebody makes an uninformed statement about bipolar disorder. I’ve never once contemplated suicide, never thought I was God, never thought I had any super powers, nor harmed anyone else. For those who have known, I thank you for not allowing it to define me, and for those who are just learning, I hope you won’t let it define me, or anybody else.