Saturday, November 7, 2015

WYL #17 - Turning Points

This topic turned out to be a bit of a durge, perhaps Leonard Cohen would like to put it to music (of course he’d be more eloquent). It came out sounding like a bit of a whine, but that was not my intent. But we are writing about our lives, and this is certainly a big part of mine…


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There are forks in our lives where we chose one direction over another and this choice can dramatically change our path in life. The day I accepted a temporary job with the government changed the course of my life in ways I can only guess at. Who knows what would have happened if I had stayed in school and moved with my parents to Toronto. Maybe I would have gotten a degree in Arts and become a clerk in some big city bank? Or maybe I would have flown to a foreign city and fallen in love. Instead I entered a career in IT that lasted 30 years. Staying in Ottawa also set me up for another turning point. The lonely night I slipped a note under Carm's door to meet me for a coffee set in motion a series of steps that led to building a happy life together. I have no regrets with either choice, my life has been happy and full of love.

Not all turning points are choices though. Sometimes things that are out of your control happen that force a new track. That's what happened to me in 2004. My life was perfect. I was living my dream with a farm in the country, complete with a herd of horses in the backyard. I ignored the ominous signs. Occasionally I'd have a week or two of depression but it would pass and I'd forget the grey misery. Spring and summer were euphoric. The sun shone brighter, the grass was greener, everything was a miracle. There was nothing that I couldn't do. I thought everyone loved life as wildly as I did.

In March of that year everything changed. My depression didn't end and just got worse and worse. Moving one foot in front of the other was the best I could do, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep it up. Life seemed like an empty void. A trip to the doctor got me a prescription of antidepressants. I thought my problems were solved. Summer that year was great. I bought 2 more mares. I bred 4. I didn't sit still. The next spring was going to be busy and I was super excited about it. My brain was on overdrive… until it wasn't. The September fall from hypomania to depression was like landing on a cement sidewalk from one story up. Thoughts about dying haunted me - it seemed the only solution. Another visit to my doctor got me a leave slip, a different antidepressant and a referral to a psychologist.

The new prescription didn't help but, luckily, I only had to wait a week to see the new doctor. I sat in a big blue armchair in his office and answered question after question. Finally, Dr. Beck put his notes down and looked me in the eye. "You have bipolar, a mood disorder that has no cure. You'll be on medication for the rest of your life, without it you have a 20% chance of dying by suicide.".

I sat stunned. This wasn't what I expected, it wasn't what I wanted. What happened to my perfect life? I asked him why it happened so suddenly and he told me that I had had a mild form which can suddenly turn more serious.

Talk about turning points! Everything had changed but it took a while to sink in. I didn't understand how the diagnosis would change nearly every aspect of my life.

My doctor told me that bipolar is a mood disorder where the hypo-manic highs cycle with depressed lows, with some 'normal' thrown into the mix. Instead of experiencing a mood for a few hours or maybe days, it get's stuck at one of the extremes, sometimes for weeks or months before it cycles through the mood spectrum again. It's been my experience that hypomania can be energetically euphoric, which can be fun, until the energy overcomes me so I can't sit down or sleep, and my brain spins with crazy ideas.  The euphoria can suddenly, like flicking a light switch, change to an irrationally irritable rage. Depression is a loss of feeling. My brain doesn't spin, it lies flat without moving. Thoughts are slow and muddled. I feel like I am moving through a thick grey porridge. It isn't just sadness but is often a painful emptiness from which there seems only one escape.

The weeks turned into months which turned into years as medications were adjusted and I worked hard to learn how to manage this illness. One of the first things I learned is that having a calm environment without frenetic levels of activity was crucial. I could no longer manage the schedule of taking care of 11 parrots, and 11 horses.  The horses and birds had to go. My dream life was over. I thought of keeping one horse, but one of the many side effects of the drugs was a loss of balance. I learned the hard way that the ground is hard! There were rivers of tears over these decisions, but I knew that they were the only ones that I could make, I knew that to carry on the way I was going would keep me ill.

If that wasn't enough to deal with, I found that the depression and medications had affected my brain. I couldn't think. My IQ dropped. Simple tasks were (proved) difficult and frustrating. I kept at it though and with more hard work most of my brain has returned. I still have trouble with concentration and memory, especially when tired.

Some people with bipolar enter remission and no longer experience any of its effects. I'm not one of those people. Every single day I have to make choices towards wellness. The odd late night might be okay, but more than that will likely trigger a mood episode, as will too many activities in a day. I keep track of my thinking to make sure I nip any negative thoughts in the bud. The tremor in my hands is just one side effect of the medications I take, but they are a lifesaver to me so I'm careful to take them on schedule. These management techniques help, but sometimes depression or hypomania gets a toe-hold and I'm brought down.

The reminders that my life has changed are harsh at times, but then I realize how lucky I am, for most turning points have a positive side and this one is no different. Please don't feel sorry for me! I live a good and happy life. I have good doctors, I have supportive family and friends, I have experienced the kindness of others, I have a spouse that is my champion. And, sometimes, I even get to experience a little bit of that euphoria!

This is a quote by Albert Camus that is a reminder that I have within myself the power to overcome:

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”  ~Albert Camus