Tag: bipolar

There are unquiet minds

Bipolar Disorder

And slightly less unquiet minds

Steve Kinsky’s an old friend.  We first met when we were both in a professional organization for health insurance agents.  We’ve stayed in touch since we retired. We’re both widely read, although our tastes sometimes differ since Steve has a scientific and mathematical bent that I don’t share; before becoming an agent he was an actuary.

Steve’s known for some time that I have bipolar disorder; I’m not quite sure how he learned about it.  He may have read about it in this prior post of mine.  But however he came to know, we’ve discussed it more than once.

Last time we met, he suggested that I take a look at a book he’d recently read about bipolar called An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison.   Published in 1997, the book is beautifully written and makes compelling reading.

“Racing down the hallway naked”

Like most illnesses, bipolar comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Or, to state it more precisely, it comes with varying levels of intensity.  In my case, it was relatively mild.  But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital as a young adult.  Or that I didn’t have wild mood swings between manic, sleepless highs.  And lows that left me carefully planning my own destruction.  Rather, it means that I never, as my psychiatrist once told me of other cases he knew of, “ran naked down the hallway of a psychiatric hospital screaming at the top of my voice.”

Judging from Jamison’s book, my guess is that her disorder is of the more severe variety.  While she’s a brilliant author and clinical psychologist who specializes in this illness, she’s gone beyond the planning stage and actually attempted suicide.  She’s also gone on the wild spending sprees that are typical of the disorder.  I, on the other hand, only suggested to my business partner the completely inappropriate purchase of luxury cars to “prove” how successful we were.  He immediately, and fortunately, scotched the idea.

In short, while I’ve had more than enough “near misses” to make the lives of my family and myself plenty miserable at times, Jamison was on an emotional roller coaster that continued unremittingly for years at a time.

The agony and the ecstasy

Jamison describes her experience with bipolar as a love/hate relationship.  That’s fitting.  As is typical for this condition, I resisted taking medication for literally decades after I was first diagnosed.  Pride. Denial. And, in my case, a belief that my conversion to Christianity would make medication unnecessary.  All played a part.  As they did to one degree or another in Jamison’s life.

But at least as important was that bipolar’s the sort of illness that one can become attached to.  Jamison writes about it.  I’ve felt it.  The seemingly inexhaustible energy.  The perceived brilliance of mind.  Even now, years after the condition has been well controlled by medication, I occasionally feel a wistful fondness for those exhilarating times of mental acuity.  Until, that is, I recall the inevitable and crushing lows that follow the euphoria.

It’s estimated that 2.3 million Americans, or nearly 1% of the population, are bipolar.  Suicide is the number one cause of premature death among people with the disorder, with 15 to 17% taking their own lives.  Those aren’t good odds.  If you suspect that a loved one, or you, are wrestling with an unquiet mind, figure out a way to get help.

You can start by clicking here.




On Pins and Needles

I served on the Health, Insurance, and Environment Committee when I represented Centennial in the Colorado House.  One of the many bills we heard dealt with ear acupuncture.  The testimony, which I initially took with a grain of salt-actually, a truck load of salt-was that sticking pins in the ears of someone suffering from mental illness could effect a cure.  Or at least relieve the symptoms.

But I began to sit up and take notice when the witnesses, including a woman named MK Christian, began talking about the work they were doing at the state mental hospital in Pueblo.  She made it sound as if they were having considerable success.  And, when more conventional, allopathic doctors supported their claims, it really got my attention.  They said it helped the patients sleep better and reduced their dependence on medication.

I am bipolar.  As is fairly typical, I originally manifested the illness as a young adult in my early 20s.  While Churchill’s black dog of depression was my more usual companion, I had bouts of mania as well.  External events often contribute to and exacerbate the mood swings, which was certainly the case with me.

In my early 20s I broke up with a long time girl friend.  I was desperate, suicidal, broken on the rock of my sin.  I wondered into a church and, less than an hour later, came out as a newly minted Christian.  It was as if someone had popped the top of a champaign bottle; I was effervescent.

Unfortunately, a few days later I went on a pheasant hunting trip with my father and some of his friends.  Believe it or not, guns and mania don’t work all that well together.  No one got hurt, but my father, understandably, was deeply concerned with some of my bizarre behavior.  On our return to Denver, my folks had me involuntarily committed.  I was driven to the Mount Airy Psychiatric hospital in the back of a Denver sheriff squad car.

It was, no doubt, the right thing to do.  But I felt like a blood brother to McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  They put me on medication, I was compliant in the “group” sessions, and met with the psychiatrist, Dr. Walker, whose testimony had convinced the probate court to commit me.  But when I got out two weeks later, I’d had enough of the drugs.  And didn’t believe I need more counseling.  In fact, I really thought that it was my parents that should be seeing a shrink.

So, like many in my situation, I quit taking the medication.  And seeing Dr. Walker.

It was a very long and winding road from there to the point when, in my 50s, that I finally was willing to admit I needed help.  It began with another bout of mania that reduced my two wonderful daughters to tears.  Which, predictably, was followed by a visit from the snarling black dog.   But it was still a struggle for my long suffering wife to persuade me to try to find a psychiatrist. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for my former partner, he had a son with similar, but even more severe problems-so he was able to refer me to a Dr. Jay Carlson.  Smart, with a gentle and yet probing sense of humor, it didn’t take Dr. Carlson long to get me on a course of medication that worked-most of the time.  And which didn’t have too many side effects.

So, by the time that I heard the bill on auricular acupuncture,  I certainly knew enough about the illness to be aware that adequate sleep was an important component to keeping the beast at bay.  When the testimony was over, I found MK in the crowded hallway outside the committee room and asked for her card.

Within a few days I was  in her quaint old Victorian on Franklin Street, laying face down on a table, staring at the floor through a head rest while she kept up a reassuring patter as she put needles in my scalp, ears, neck, back and ankles.  “There,” she said with what I soon learned was characteristic enthusiasm, “that will be a good treatment for you, guy!  Now, you rest!”  With that, she dimmed the lights, put a heat lamp on my feet, and turned on some soothing music on the Bose.

I woke up about an hour later.  I don’t think I was drooling-or snoring-that time.  But I know that on subsequent treatments I have done both.

How does it work?  I have no idea.  I’m not really convinced that MK does either.  My daughter, when she couldn’t get pregnant, was referred to an acupuncturist by one of the high tech, high cost infertility clinics she and her husband had begun seeing.   They got pregnant with acupuncture instead.  And now they have a second little daughter-and this time without any intervention.  One time, I asked MK,  “How does acupuncture help with infertility?”  Her answer?  “I’m not really sure.”

Has acupuncture “cured” my bipolar?  No.  I still take daily medication.  And, especially in the dark days of winter, the black dog can still nip at my heels.  But I do think that it helps me sleep better.

And, by the way, on a wall of her clinic there is a picture of MK looking over the shoulder of Governor Hickenlooper as he signed the auricular acupuncture bill into law.



Brother, can you spare a dime?

This last Sunday evening I made a quick trip to our local, suburban grocery store.  As I left the nearly empty parking lot and waited at the red light to turn on to Arapahoe Road, a young/old woman stood to my left holding a worn cardboard sign that read, “Single mom need help.”

I quickly went through the usual mental gymnastics:  are you really a single mom?  If I give you a dollar, will it just go up in smoke-or something worse?  Or really help the kids?  That she was a woman cinched it for me; I don’t give money to men standing at stop lights.

I pushed the down button on the passenger window and said, “Hey, I have something for you.”  I hurriedly pulled a dollar from my wallet; the light could change any time.  She acted like she hadn’t heard me; she could hardly see my car, let alone me, with the sun blasting into her eyes just above the mountains to the west.  I tried again, louder,”Ma’am, here’s a dollar.”

She heard me this time and took off the dark glasses that were doing a poor job of protecting her from the glare.  “Sorry,” she said, coming closer,  “I couldn’t see you.”

She reached into the car; I handed her the bill.  She thanked me and backed away.  The light changed. And I pulled onto Arapahoe.

What is our city, and country, coming to?

I grew up in Denver.  The only memory I have as a youth of panhandlers is one I would like to forget.  In high school, some friends and I went down to skid row, which, believe it or not, was where Larimer Square is now.  We brought some pliers, some dimes, and some matches.  And had a “great” time watching the wretches on the sidewalk burn themselves as they scrambled to pick up the coins that we pitched out the windows.

But aside from that shameful experience, I have no recollection of begging in this town back then.  But now it is common place to see one, two, or even three ragged souls at intersections holding up limp cardboard signs throughout the city.  Even in quite suburban areas on a quiet Sunday evening.

Do I know what to do about it?  No.

But I do have some thoughts on causes.

First, broken families spawn broken people.  In a whole range of ways, virtually every study agrees that divorce or bearing children out of wedlock negatively impacts everyone involved.  Divorced parents and single mothers are more likely to be in poverty.  Which, of course, spills down to children.

But the problems kids face go beyond poverty.  Children in these scenarios are more likely to do poorly in school, be involved in crime, act out sexually, and abuse drugs.

Will a stable marriage solve all these problems?  And mean that we see fewer panhandlers on Denver streets?  Almost certainly not.  But how could it hurt to set it as a goal?

Second, undiagnosed mental illness often plays a role in panhandling and homelessness.  And this is something I am qualified to speak about from personal experience.  I am bipolar.  In my early 20’s I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks and put on medication.  But, like many in my situation, when I was released, I quit taking the medication.  “I don’t need that stuff.”

And for the next thirty years I was on a roller coaster.  Sometimes maniacally high.  But much more frequently in the grip of the black dog of depression.  True, I was never homeless; but I was suicidal many times.  But, I was blessed to be surrounded by a supportive family that was more than enough reason to keep living.   Now I see a psychiatrist quarterly and take daily medication.  But take it from me, mental illness is debilitating.

I can see how someone can wind up on a street corner holding up a “Single mom need help” sign.  But what to do about it is another matter.