09/19/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Off Center: Life With Bipolar Disorder


First, to introduce myself.

I am a 58-year-old woman who has experienced major episodes of depression since I was a young girl. My first suicide attempt came when I was 15. Because of my age, I have been in a position to witness the changes in the way mental illnesses are viewed, and how our scientific understanding of them has deepened, firsthand. You can have no idea how dramatic these changes have been.

I have also been fat all my life, clumsy and very lacking in basic balancing abilities most people take for granted. I have had high blood pressure since the first time it was ever tested when I was 14. Social isolation has been a way of life, as I have also been labeled a schizoid personality. Now with age, I have developed full-blown metabolic syndrome. Over the decades, I have survived crash diets, ovarian cysts which left me infertile, thyroid cancer and gallbladder disease. I have been in the role of patient both voluntarily and involuntarily.

When I was young, most people with "mental problems" were reluctant to admit it or to seek treatment. In large part, this was due to both the stigma attached to having these problems and because there were really only two treatments. These were either drugs such as Elavil, or electro-shock therapy, which was delivered at such high doses it frequently left patients with diminished mental capacities. If you were uncooperative, the nightmare vision of thorazine and/or lobotomy was possible, since to admit that you were mentally ill amounted to giving up your right to be an active part of any treatment decisions.

In my 20s, I was forced to seek help as my depressions began to be interspersed with manic episodes that were quite dangerous. I found a psychotherapist who kept me from going completely off the rails over the next 20 years. Granted, life was a constant uphill battle. Either I was very depressed and trying to cope with the disasters my most recent manic episode had made of my life, or I was in a manic episode wrecking whatever fragile stability I had managed to achieve. The manic episodes were brief, but their force was thoroughly effective at destruction. My depressions lasted longer, so much so, that for me, depression was a way of life.

Then came Prozac. It was the first of the SSRI drugs, and although I tried it, it was not useful for me. But others came along, and with the advent of Paxil, I found out what life was like for other people. Obviously, it did not leave me with no problems, in fact my overall disease has gotten much worse over the years. But, the drugs have changed as well, and while I am no longer able to function as a productive member of society, they have managed to get me to a point where I am relatively comfortable most of the time.

Because of these drugs, we who are afflicted with the huge variety of illnesses and injuries that make us less able to cope with the world, are also able to be more vocal and clearer about the experiences of life with these diseases. It is that which has allowed the "exit from the closet" that mental disorders have had over the last decade. We can speak of our disorders as something apart from ourselves when there are pills that take away the symptoms. Before that, it was nearly impossible for a person to tell what parts were disorder and what parts merely character flaws. Depressives in particular tend to blame it all on themselves.

Let's think for a minute about the huge variety of things that get lumped into the category of mental disorders by the general public. First there are the accidents of genetics. Everything from Down syndrome to autism to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder fall into this category, making it, you would think, enough to go on with. Then there are accidents of life, from head injuries to diseases that cause damage to the brain. Two of the schizophrenics I know are the result of a brick to the head and a bullet lodged in a man's brain. Strokes, comas you name it: all can cause mental disorders. Some of us are brilliant, some creative, and some have limited intellectual capacities or physical limitations.

According to some people, we are strange, gross, creepy, weird retards.

And here is the key point to this story. During my entire life, not one employer (aside from one where a particularly deep depression made it impossible for me to hide it) ever knew I was afflicted with this disease. If they had, I would not have been working. My spouse knew. My best friend knew. But no one else was told, and my episodes were passed off as various other things: stress, temper, asthma, flu, etc. Whatever was handy took the blame.

It is tremendously isolating to live under cover. To know that the central fact of your life must be hidden as well as it can be. It is living in an invisible prison. You learn to live as though you were acting a role in your life. You learn to live without intimacy.

A few years ago, I gave up. I no longer had the strength to go on. I could no longer pretend. In fact, I was paralyzed with such a major depression that I barely left my house for eight months. At first I was on unemployment. Eventually I was classified as permanently disabled, which emotionally speaking, I am.

This is one of the things that is hardest for people to understand: how different these diseases can be. As a bipolar, I can more or less think clearly, but I am almost never in control, mood wise. If I were schizophrenic instead, I might be convinced that cats were the minions of darkness and that my refrigerator was talking to me. Unclear thought, emotional incontinence, brain damage. They all produce different constellations of problems.

With this disease I have lived through a wide variety of economic circumstances. Now, however, I am considered completely disabled, and can protect my fragile equilibrium as much as possible. Yes, I live in poverty. No one living on Social Security disability lives any other way. And yet with the freedom to accommodate the bad days, the very bad weeks, and the occasional good day, I am much more able to cope. With the freedom from economic dependence on employers, I can speak out about my life and my experiences as with this column. Generally speaking, I am very lucky.

My last suicide attempt? Over five years ago now. Yes, I am still living with this disease. But with continued luck, I may have a chance to live out a normal lifespan with it as a chronic illness, rather that having it kill me in an acute phase.

Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.