The following description of my personal journey with depression and bipolar disorder is kind of long and in some spots pretty intense. But it will help you get to know me – and, to a certain extent, depression and bipolar disorder. I hope it will be helpful to those who want to know more about these topics – and to those who suffer with these diseases, and those who love, support and live with us.
Depression did not catch up to me until my early 40′s – and I was not diagnosed with clinical depression until my late 40′s, and then with bipolar disorder a few years after that. Before that, youthful energy powered me past the depression that I realize now was always nipping at my heels. Many people called me enthusiastic, but some called me too intense. Looking back on it all, I always tended towards just a little (occasionally more) mania. I have developed a lot of compassion for my then-wife of ten years, who had to put up with a lot of restlessness and intensity in me.
In my early 4o’s, I left a very engaging and somewhat manic job: doing organization development management consulting inside AT&T – with lots of travel, lots of learning and professional growth and at times exciting and mostly satisfying work. I moved from Chicago, my hometown where I had terrific friends, family and most of my personal history – to Cincinnati, to be closer to my son (in Louisville), who was in high school and seemed to need me (and I him) to be closer than the 300 miles from Chicago. Or I should say needed me more: he always needed me, and me him – and we both have scars from all the years of me being in a different city – but he needed me more at that age. In Cincinnati, I was just 100 miles away and – instead of our previous regimen of me driving down to Louisville every third or fourth weekend, having him for summers and holidays, etc. – I could see him twice a week.
But, instead of seeing him more making me happier (it clearly did this for him), all the goodbyes just brought up for me the pain from all the previous goodbyes and rubbed my nose in the painful fact that he wasn’t living with me – still didn’t have me there for his day-to-day life. At the same time, I was living in a new, fairly conservative town, where I had just one pre-existing friend and very few natural supports.
And, instead of working in a very stimulating company with a rich tradition of staff development, management training and organization development consulting, I was working in a very traditional, sleepy-to-stifling power company that really had no idea what organization development consulting was ( it involves working the human side of business, with a lot of focus on participative management, team building and communication and staff development) – and not really a lot of receptiveness to change. And I quickly didn’t get along with my boss, who had actually less experience in the field than I and was very threatened by me.
I fell apart. I finally fell into the depression I had always been fighting. I cried a lot. (I had for a long time cried fairly often as I drove back to Chicago from Louisville, but now I cried a lot.) I didn’t have good friends to support me – at least not close by, where I most needed them.
Then something else happened. I started to remember a childhood history of brutal sex abuse, which I had always suppressed. It surfaced through dreams – at first cryptic and indirect and then more and more graphic and direct and disturbing. I in so many ways resisted these memories – and they finally came through with such chilling detail – that I have never doubted their accuracy. I have written a chapter for my memoir with the same title as the book – A Dark Awakening – which details all this. Sometime when I am a little more ready I’ll probably post that chapter on this blog. If you want to read it now, let me know and I’ll send it to you – if you promise to let me know how it affects you.
The surfacing of these memories really, finally, blew my life apart. At the same time my conflicts with my boss intensified to where I needed to leave my job. After many months with very little work, I finally got some good work doing diversity (mostly around race and gender issues – and very close to my heart and values) in Chicago and moved back there, which was good for me in many ways – but meant once more moving away from my son, which was very painful.
I got very good therapy with a clinical psychologist who specialized in working with men with a history of sex abuse. After we had done intense work together weekly for about a year, he talked straight to me about depression. ”John”, he said (no Majo nickname yet at that point in my life) “you do great work in this office. You have really opened up deep stuff. You have killed off your perpetrator in many great ways and have reached a place of mostly forgiving him. Your spirit starts to bounce back. Yet you still recurringly end up emotionally flat on the floor. I think you have clinical depression. It is the most common secondary diagnosis with men who have a history of sex abuse and I think you’ve got it.”
I said, “Dan, I don’t believe in clinical depression. I think it’s all just depression – more intense in some people than others, depending on their life experiences – but basically all the same stuff, with psychological roots, not biochemical.”
Dan said to me, “I know where you’re coming from. I was trained as a psychologist at the same period you were, and we were taught by our psychologist mentors – who were suspicious of and competitive with medically trained psychiatrists – to view it all as psychological, not medical. But I have had very good success referring my clients like you to a psychiatrist I work closely with – and have seen medications do a world of good for a lot of men.” I fussed some more at him, but agreed to have a consultation with his psychiatrist colleague.
She, a very sharp, hip young woman with short skirts that would have been disapproved of by the psychiatrists and psychologists where I went through training asked me a bunch of questions about my symptoms and relatively quickly – to my amazement – had me agreeing with her assessment that there was more going on with me than psychology could explain. She convinced me to try Zoloft, a Prozac-like drug. It pretty quickly mostly knocked out my sexuality – a big blow since I was in a very positive new romantic relationship – but within a couple of weeks greatly lifted my spirits and relieved many of my other symptoms of depression.
I still hated and resisted being on meds, and – being open about this with my protesting shrink, who I had come to greatly like and respect – reduced and then discontinued the medication. I continued to do fine for several months, then again went into a tailspin, consulted again with the shrink and went back on Zoloft. This time it helped, but not as much. She told me that this was frequently the case – that when you discontinued and later went back, the effects weren’t as strong. I still felt lousy about relying on a medication for my psychological health and again got off the drug faster than she recommended. Again I did well for a while, but this time when I bottomed out, hollered uncle and resumed the drug, it did nothing for me.
Over the last many years, I have patiently tried various combinations of drugs. Along the way, a close friend said to me, “My sister is bipolar and I think you are, too – I think you should talk to your shrink about it.” I did, the shrink asked me a bunch more questions and this time said, “Jeepers, you do have bipolar disorder. In this office I have only seen you depressed and that is all you have reported to me. But you clearly also visit some mania – not florid, not over the top, but definitely there.” I’ve since learned that this is common – for people with bipolar disorder to be mis-diagnosed as simply clinical depression because they are not showing signs of mania.
The diagnosis of bipolar disorder was later made even more clear when a new anti-depressant tripped a switch and sent me into an obvious manic response which lasted another month after the shrink pulled me off that particular med. She said, “Someone without bipolar disorder would never have had that reaction.” After that – and since then in working with other psychiatrists – we have always been very careful about using antidepressants, relying instead on mood stabilizers. These do tend to put a ceiling on any mania, but typically do little or nothing to help with my depression.
I have over the last dozen years been hospitalized several times with deep, suicidal depression. (Being suicidal is about the only way the insurance companies will pay for you to spend time in a psych hospital these days. My depression tends often to run so deep that the admitting shrinks take my suicidal thoughts – and at times plans – very seriously.)
I have had some positive experiences on psych wards and some terrible ones – a couple that bring to mind the horrifying experiences of Randall Patrick McMurphy with Big Nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. I’ve written up some of these experiences in a memoir chapter titled “Big Nurse Two”, which I also will probably post here, sometime when I build up a little more courage. (I would also send this to you if you request it.)
Moving to Asheville about nine years ago was in many ways a desperate measure, a risky “new start” in response to deep, suicidal depression. Leaving behind in Chicago all my friends and everything that was familiar to me was a very violent transition and almost killed me, but finally has worked. I have a better – in some ways very satisfying – life. I have kept some important long-distance friends and am gradually making important new ones. I have made no attempt to do the psychology or management consulting work from my past – instead doing a variety of “retirement jobs”, mostly in front-line customer service.
I have more and more identified writing as my true work. And I now have a vision of where to go with this work, all of which spills out of this blog: finish my memoir (which is so much about bipolar disorder, and of which you have just here had a taste) and continue to write and do consulting, training and public speaking about bipolar disorder. I will soon post a link here to a website for this new business.
The artistic and creative ferment of this wonderful new town has greatly supported this development. And I dance – Lord, do I ever dance. See the adjoining page on “Ecstatic dance”, which some of the time is for me genuinely ecstatic.
And my relationship with my son Terry (now 37), while not perfect and still showing some signs of the wounds we both absorbed from all the absences, is in many ways very good. I love his wife of six years, Alma. And I adore their very new baby, Aila. Still in Louisville, they are too far away (7 hours), but I will be getting there more often with the addition of my first grandchild.
I for several years have worked with a psychiatrist whom I like and respect and who – perhaps even more important – respects me. I still have a love-hate relationship with meds (I take three mood stabilizers and a tiny dose of generic Zoloft). I mostly don’t see any clear sign that they help me, but can’t argue with the fact that I’m in better shape these days. I on and off want to at least reduce them, but tend to experience heightened symptoms when I attempt this.
A friend a year or so ago said, “I think the reason you no longer are able to cry is because of your meds.” I asked my shrink and he acknowledged, “That’s probably true. Meds soften your ups and downs, but also do somewhat flatten your whole emotional life. It’s all trade-offs and which ones are you willing to make. ” It’s a tough trade-off, one about which I still am uncomfortable. Meanwhile, though, most of my friends say they see me as having an exceptionally rich emotional life – and I even am reclaiming my ability to cry. So for now I accept them.
It’s been a tough journey, but in some ways also a very rewarding one. I now believe that my personal work is not to heal from bipolar disorder but to heal through it: this condition is my personal path to healing and self-discovery. I feel grateful and honored to have the opportunity to share – and perhaps shed light on – this journey that I hold in common with so many other wonderful people.
A lot of information about depression and bipolar disorder can be found at the website for NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which also offers some very good support groups for people suffering with these and other psychiatric/psychological diseases: http://www.nami.org/.
Soon I will add pages to this blog about theories on bipolar disorder (my own theories and other conceptual approaches that have had a big impression on me) and treatment options (ones I have experienced, like psychotherapy, meds, electroshock treatments, etc. – and other strategies i employ to manage my condition.)