The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, BrainStorm: From Broken to Blessed on the Bipolar Spectrum.
I’m writing this partly because it’s healing for me to tell my story and partly because I wish I had found a guide like this, written from the inside, when I was in my darkest hours. Someone who had a brain like mine telling her story of devastation and renewal, death, and resurrection. Someone who could speak to me as an insider to give me comfort and hope and lift some shame off my sunken shoulders. I’m hoping this story will help someone like me who is suffering alone in the darkness and sees no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
None of the “expert” books and print-outs that take more than three long bookshelves in my bedroom really described my experience or showed me a way out. With the exception of one. I’ve mentioned it before. An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison is a brilliant, poignant, painful, and ultimately redemptive memoir of Dr. Jamison’s struggle with her own brain disease, bipolar I. The book came close to describing my experience of what it feels like to have a bipolar brain, and it really did help me. Jamison is an academic superstar, an all-American beauty, a magnetic personality, and a wild manic depressive. She is also an esteemed psycho-pharmacologist from Johns Hopkins University, so she is able to speak of the disease both from personal and from highly clinical perspectives. The book reads like high drama, so even in my most depressed state when I had difficulty concentrating, I was able to get through it.
The most impactful piece of Jamison’s writing for me is how she has a love-hate relationship with medication. She refuses to take it. Has wild manic binges of spending, sex, and sleepless nights. Wreaks havoc in her life. Then gets on medicine – lithium. Finds that it stabilizes her, but also takes the color out of her days. She misses the highs. Comes back off the drugs, reasoning with herself that she really doesn’t need them and that they destroy her creativity and joie de vivre. And then has the inevitable crash, days and weeks of being unable to leave her house, her mood so excruciatingly painful. Finally, after years of this devastating cycle, she comes to terms with the fact that she must take lithium. That it is a life-saver and that she is on a collision course with destruction without it. She finds a dose of the drug that is low enough to allow her creativity to flow but strong enough to eliminate her manic-depressive cycle. She finally finds equilibrium, peace, relationship, sobriety, and professional achievement.
I have never experienced the highs that Jamison describes and have none of the classic manic symptoms. When feeling at my best, I am more energetic, optimistic and full of life’s wonder than the average middle-aged white woman. The gratitude for life that I experience is a silver lining. Since I don’t experience the mania that Jamison describes, her story is not mine. And in fact her sickness is easier to diagnose than bipolar II as it shows a classic pattern of the manic-depression that has responded well to lithium for decades. What did resonate with me was Jamison’s struggle to accept the need for medication in her life. That she had a chronic disease and that she needed to treat it as such. It took me a quarter of a century to accept this and to feel grateful that effective medicines are available.