The police were coming. I had only a few minutes to act. I called the mental-health hotline for my insurer and, when the call was answered, I said, “I have bipolar disorder and I’m off my medication. I don’t want to hurt somebody and I don’t want to hurt myself.”
“I’ll help you,” the woman told me.
“The police are going to be here,” I said. “Will you talk to them?”
She would. Three policemen showed up on my doorstep, responding to a disturbance call. A disturbance call during which I’d gone so completely berserk that I snatched a phone out of someone’s hand and pitched it across the room. The policemen talked to the woman on the phone. They put me in handcuffs. They took me to the hospital. Later I’d be charged with misdemeanor assault, but for now I was to be hospitalised and treated for my condition.
That woman, and those police officers, saved my life.
I’d been living with Bipolar II, a (slightly) milder form of the manic-depressive disorder, for my entire adult life. At various times I’d been diagnosed with depression and given medication that I always ended up discontinuing.
I was irritable all the time, and verbally abusive to my friends and family. I had towering rages. I thought it was all a character flaw, and that if I could just knuckle down and get a hold of myself, it would go away. But mental illness doesn’t work like that. You can’t use positive thinking to cure cancer and you can’t treat depression or Bipolar II or schizophrenia with wishes.
I was 38 when I decided I’d had enough and went to see a psychiatrist — a doctor who specialises in prescribing psychoactive medication — instead of my general practitioner. He told me in no uncertain terms that I had Bipolar II, not depression. He prescribed medicine. I didn’t believe him and stopped taking the stuff. A year later I was in a mental ward hearing the same thing and getting the same drugs: Lamictal to stabilize my moods and keep them from fluctuating violently; Risperdal, an antipsychotic that curbs manic episodes; and Wellbutrin, which would keep me from falling into the great sloughs of depression into which I’d descended so many times before.
The doctor who prescribed them said the appropriate mixture was so often effective that it was automatically given to anyone presenting bipolar symptoms. I was far from alone.
When I was a child and a young man, my father was the same way: constantly on edge, driven to fury at the slightest provocation, emotionally and verbally, and sometimes physically abusive. When I started to exhibit many of these same behaviors as an adult, I thought I’d learned it from him. I’d actually inherited it genetically, and as my son grows into his teenaged years I see it happening to him, too. But he’ll have the help he needs to get through it.
It’s not considered manly to confess to mental illness. Everyone sees it as weakness and everyone has some nonsense “cure” they want to push on you: meditation, cycling, jogging, CrossFit, gluten-free bread. Whatever.
Exercise is a recurring theme. But while exercise doesn’t hurt, it won’t fix a faulty brain. Just like a heart condition requires treatment, so does something like Bipolar II. No one looks down on a person with kidney problems and suggests they’re inadequate somehow. No, they see a doctor and they do what must be done. No one judges.
Mental illness, because of its stigma, is something you spend a lot of time trying to will from your body. And truth to tell, sometimes it seems like it’s working. Because Bipolar II sufferers have upswings as well as downswings, sometimes I felt terrific. I worked ten or 12 hours straight. I was happy, almost giddy. It was easy to believe it’d fixed itself. But the downswing inevitably came and it all turned sour again.
I had other problems to contend with at the same time. My son was diagnosed with autism, and that’s enough to bring anyone down. Some days I could barely face him. Other days I had no tolerance for him. I was loud and impatient and I didn’t give him what he needed because I didn’t have the treatment I needed.
It was only from the perspective of that room in the hospital that I realised how much I’d failed him by failing myself, and how much of a burden I’d put on my wife during our 12 years of marriage. She weathered the storms and stayed with me. She was there when I began my recovery. That’s almost as good as medicine, and maybe a little better.
When everyone’s telling you to shrug it off and you can’t, you start to hate yourself, and that poisons everything. You think you’d be better off dead. Some people take that train of thought to its inevitable extreme. These people either don’t have help available or they don’t realise it’s there. They have to want it — none of this can be forced — but it exists and it makes all the difference.
As for me, I continue on my cocktail of medications and will do so for the rest of my life. The dosages are reviewed every three months to ensure they’re still applicable, because body chemistries change and sometimes a medication becomes less effective. In the beginning I saw a therapist once or twice a week, and did so for years, but now I’m stable enough to go only once a month. Sometimes I go a month or two without any talk therapy at all. I’m better. The affliction that plagued my whole life is under control.
Mental illness is a silent epidemic. Thousands of men suffer and lose their self-worth and even their lives because we shy from talking seriously about it as a medical condition. We are doing these people the ultimate disservice because we have made them fear honesty, turn from treatment, and embrace self-destruction.
Everything changes on the other side of treatment. It’s not a guarantee of happiness, but it is a transformation. Those things about life that seemed intolerable are easier to navigate, and what seemed impossible is now within grasp. But it takes everyone — the sufferer, their family, their friends — and it takes commitment.
Sam Hawken’s new crime novel, Missing, is published by Serpent’s Tail.