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Living Life on The Bipolar Ride

by John D. Mudie, Ph.D.

It's a bit like living in syrup, today. I seem not to want to exist. The music plays. There is little urge to accomplish anything. Shaving seems like an overwhelming project. Interest in the world is nothing. Japan can receive twenty H bombs and I don't care. The cat hasn't been fed, dishes are unwashed. And I need to keep reminding myself, its just part of the bipolar ride, its called depression. It too will pass, the trick is to stay alive and wait for it to pass just as it always has in the past. So, I do the things I am supposed to do, take my medications, call for help, eat (luckily I can still cook) and I may as well start preparing this article because there is nothing else I vaguely want to do.

I was born some fifty seven years ago in what now seems to be a typical family. Father drank assiduously, mother nagged him to stop drinking and I was the eldest son. I have memories of being sexually abused and physically abused by my mother but they are strange recollections, little vignettes from the past standing out alone in a sea of lost memories of a "happy" childhood.

I was blessed with enhanced intelligence from a early age. My first grade teacher reported "Magnificent untidiness and colossal intelligence". My final high school years were in an English type boarding school where I landed up as "Dux" of the school, the one with the highest academic ability. Sometimes I hear people talking about how, if they get that degree, everything will be OK. Should I tell them, I got all those degrees and now live on SSI? I continued on to a local university receiving a M Sc. degree and a scholarship to Cambridge University in England. It was while working on my masters degree that my creativity made its first appearance. It was the time of Sputnik, the first satellite, beeping its way around the earth. I generated an electronic device to make similar sounds and held it in a university parade beeping loudly at passersby.

When I am depressed, the standard world seems bleak and uninviting, no prospects for joy ever again empty, black. Yet, the same world, when I am manic, seems a wonderful playground on which my slightest whim will become law.

Creativity, the love of starting new projects, of doing new things, is one of my hallmarks and, perhaps, the first of my bipolar characteristics to show. When I am depressed, there are very few things I want to do. I am not surprised that I am writing this article right now. It is the most creative project I have... right now.

This article has three intertwined threads to it. It is a story of substance abuse and bipolar disease, a twin tale with an underlying theme of stress. My twin diseases interact with each other and feed on each other. It is also a tale shared by many of my brothers and sisters. My source book on the disease, Manic Depressive Illness by F. K. Goodwin and K.R. Jamison, tells me that somewhere between 20% and 40% of us bipolars abuse alcohol as well.

I am faced with two possibly lethal chronic diseases, bipolar and substance abuse. I would not have lasted as long as I have if I had been born in the past, that is perfectly clear. I need to remember each day that I am living on borrowed time and that each day is a gift, even one like today.

My stressors are the conventional stressors of everyday life coupled with an ability to create irrational stressors of my own. I believe strongly in the power of the mind to influence the body because I have seen time after time the effect of my mind on my body. One way of viewing my story is that my diseases result from my body unwittingly developing symptoms resulting in my removal from the stressful environment. Originally the main option I created was to manifest the symptoms of bipolar and to take a time out in a psychiatric ward. These days I consciously try to create a low stress environment and to create less, dramatic time out options.

I was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge University where I was directed to do research on age dating of rocks. I got interested in exploring archeological sites using magnetism as a tool and invented a special kind of magnetometer. I built it, applied for a patent for the technique and wrote a rather unusual Ph.D. thesis. Half of it was on the age determination of rocks, the other half on how to build magnetometers. It was while at Cambridge that I first encountered digital computers. These offered a wonderful venue for creativity. By manipulating characters and symbols I could produce physical results without the intervening messy stage of soldering irons and metal fabrication. All I needed to do was to learn how to I manipulate paper tape and that was far cleaner than electronic components. Computer programming has been a wonderful media for me to express my creative abilities. Today, I converse regularly with about 120 fellow bipolars on the InterNet in a forum called "Pendulum." I was very surprised to note how many of my fellow "pendulees" are computer programmers. Some of us go into the arts, some of us express our creative abilities in programming. We bipolars are very creative people. We are the Schumanns, Byrons and Shelleys. We love to be creative and to lead.

Looking back on my career as a professional whatever, first at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I can now see the key role my bipolar disease played in it. First of all the creativity. I was hired as a post doctoral worker in geomagnetism. I ended up as an Associate Professor of Marine Geophysics. My productivity was astounding. One famous professor would produce one citeable item a year; I produced twenty. Working with graduate students I would create investigations into new topics of marine geophysics. I created expeditions which circled the Pacific ocean, and computer programs for analyzing the data. I wasn't too good at analyzing the results in depth but, by God, I could create new tools. My desk and office were a heap of activity, projects galore, phone calls, brokering, international conferences... I mentored graduate students to Ph.D.'s and was looked on as the eventual Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Obsessed with my activities, I could only talk about work, work and more work at cocktail or dinner parties and only reluctantly go on vacation with my wife and children. Eventually it caught up with me. I am now very suspicious of my perception of my activities in the year preceding my break,but I do know my wife took me to visit a professor of psychiatry. He was an "expert" in bipolar disorder and pronounced me manic depressive. His opinion astounded me. What did he know about me? He didn't have enough data on which to base his opinion. But that didn't stop him. Ridiculous, I thought. Not me! I would continue what I was doing, and I did.

Looking back, now, the warning signs were obvious. For the preceding year I had nausea most mornings. A gastrointestinal exam showed nothing abnormal. I loved my mind and was deathly scared of anything going wrong with it. Yet, I faced that possibility and started seeing a psychiatrist regularly. Gradually I got used to the idea that my mind may be less than perfect. The marriage was breaking up. My wife was away on a field trip and I got drunk with a friend one night and made love to my friend. My wife then developed a relationship and eventually left for Canada to be with her new partner. I sent the kids on to her later. Without the kids, I could devote all my energies to the work ahead of me!

The first year on lithium carbonate was terrible. I was in a constant depression and could barely get myself out of bed in the morning, had few friends and, in general, led a miserable existence.

Key people were away. I assumed their roles and helped prepare a ship for a long expedition. I was in charge of the expedition. Then came the phone call. my wife had fallen off a horse, cracked her skull and was in an Intensive Care Unit in Canada and the kids were in Canada, too. Off I went to Canada. I spent one "glorious" night in a friends study, drinking, calling England, calling South Africa and calling a ship out at sea in the Pacific Ocean. I felt I was critical to all that happened around me. My wife's recovery, my kids well being, the progress of a Scripps expedition all depended on me. It's called "feelings of grandeur and magnificence." And it does feel all of that. My friends kindly took me to a psychiatrist who gave me some pills to last me until I got back to California. They suggested I immediately see my psychiatrist back in California. I didn't think that was really necessary, but I told them I would. When I got back, I found that my psychiatrist was on vacation and so I proceeded with my plans to join the expedition.

I rendezvoused with the ship in Guayaquil, Ecuador, full of my new experiences in psychology. It was now far more important, I felt, to develop human relationships amongst the people aboard the ship than to do scientific research. I believed in people "doing their own thing" so I deliberately didn't give the guidance people needed to do their jobs and to work together as a team. At the same time I was engaging in open public combat with an Associate Director of the Institution by sending public messages attacking him. I felt like God, given a gift to see above that seen by other people, and to introduce new ways of humans relating to each other. The next thing I knew, the Captain kindly took me aside, fed me Valium and asked me to stay in my cabin. He would take over management of the scientific operations. Thus, my first psychiatric ward was a sea going one. I had subconsciously achieved a stressreduction. No more worry about group therapy for the crew. No more concern about that director's behavior, just peacefully taking Valium and watching the ocean go by.

I am still amazed at how my values and judgments can be distorted when the affective disorder sets in. When I am depressed, the standard world seems bleak and uninviting, no prospects for joy ever again empty, black . Yet, the same world, when I am manic, seems a wonderful playground on which my slightest whim will become law. This is the ride of the bipolar, and we try to stay in the saddle without getting hurt or hurting others.

I came back to land, beaten. I felt as though my authority and power had been stripped from me and I was good for nothing. I had set up to teach a fun course to undergraduates. Even that was beyond my reach. I canceled the course. I wandered the halls like a ghost. There was no future. My career was ruined. My marriage was over. My kids gone. My life empty. No one respected me . I couldn't accomplish anything. There was nothing left. I may as well go out in a painless way. So, I collected some sleeping pills, a bottle of wine and a bottle of my prescription pills and retired to a motel room to go to sleep in a dreamless fashion. No note. There was no point. Nobody cared. just a quick, endless sleep.

The only snag was I woke up the next morning. Not only had I lost everything, I couldn't even kill myself successfully! This was one of the most devastating positions I had ever been in. Despair reigned supreme. A colleague suggested I admit myself to a psych ward. Why the hell not! There didn't seem to be any reason to or not to. My life was already down the tubes. How could a psych ward make things any worse? So I packed an overnight kit, drove to that place, and admitted myself.

The first few days were foggy as the medication overdose wore off and they started me on lithium carbonate. I rapidly realized that the only way out of that place and back to freedom was to appear to be normal and cured, so I started on my "project of apparent sanity". The major impact on me was that all conventional stressors were removed. No need to cook. No work obligations. No family duties. A place where I was shielded from the outside world. What a wonderful opportunity for me to do some stock taking and to evaluate who I was and what I had been doing. What I had been doing was what I thought the world expected of me and now might be the time to start doing what I wanted to do. Salvation, I speculated, lay in my expressing myself more fully and avoiding the expectations of others. Scripps had expectations that I do things I couldn't/ wouldn't do, so, it was time to make a long range plan to quit my tenured position at Scripps and to start on my glorious, liberated new path that would eventually lead to life on SSI!

This was my first level of acceptance of the disease. Maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe the pills would help. But, quite frankly, I felt no real certainty that I was a bipolar.

They were kind at Scripps. They allowed me time to rehabilitate from the suicide attempt. I spent my time writing computer programs increasing my skills as a programmer. Later, I realized that what I had done was to drop the stressful parts of my job and to concentrate on the low key, low stress items.

The first year on lithium carbonate was terrible. I was in a constant depression and could barely get myself out of bed in the morning, had few friends and, in general, led a miserable existence. I enlarged my activities in the human relations groups that I had joined, but I was out of place a once straight professor trying to adopt a hippie life style.

Being labeled manic depressive was very hard on me. I felt clothed in a cloak of shame. I was less than all other people.

The depression gradually faded and it was time for me to leave Scripps. I took a job in a software firm. My career had started its steady downward slide of decreasing responsibility, decreasing challenge and decreasing stress.

Drinking now made me forget to take my pills. The hospital had made such a big deal about them. I knew I could start them by myself again, any time I wanted. Except I didn't. And I found myself being chased around my house by a person with a bloody ax. A good friend quietly suggested I go see my psychiatrist, again. I did, and he gently suggested that I resume taking lithium carbonate, again. I did, this time with the experiential knowledge that lithium seemed to make my life easier and gentler. I broke through to the second level of acceptance. I did need to take lithium carbonate; probably on a lifetime basis.

Being labeled manic depressive was very hard on me. I felt clothed in a cloak of shame. I was less than all other people. When I met a new person, I hid my dark secret for awhile, then blurted it out and felt that they would leave me. The only moments of joy came when I met another person who had been diagnosed manic depressive. They looked OK. Maybe I could be OK, too. Being a manic depressive was a great part of who I saw myself as, and it was bad. It has taken me many years to walk through this shame till now I see it as part of me and, just like my English accent, useful in some places, disadvantageous in others. In general I don't reveal being labeled to other people because most have such stereotyped reactions.

I lasted a year at the computer firm, then went on to an aerospace firm, which was more interested in hiring bodies than getting the job done. My duties were very simple and not challenging. And so started my remission; see a psychiatrist once a month, take my lithium daily, blood check every two or three months. Except for those activities, I was normal and restored to the world of the sane. I was like a diabetic, take the necessary actions and it's no big deal.

So there I was, sane and sober and bored in a small city. Not for long. Off I went to the big town to make my fortune. It was the same story, low stress undemanding jobs, fellowship meetings... until I sold my house in California and came into a lot of ready cash. The ultimate low stress life beckoned life in a trailer and truck, touring North America. So, I did it. The stress was all of my own making and I could control it and life was great. And so it was... until I ran out of money.

I had a succession of small meaningless jobs but finally, with the help of a very skilled rehabilitation counselor, found a job as a Training Officer in a government organization. It was a job that demanded my skills and I relished it. But, after six months, it went sour. and I was faced with producing a lot of work by a deadline or losing my job. I felt that if I didn't try to produce the work, I would lose my job and I had to have the job to stay alive, so I would try to produce the work. It was faulty reasoning. What I forgot was that trying to produce the work might cause me to lose my sanity and so it was really a choice between losing my sanity and the job or losing the job. I took my medications, saw counselors and lost both my sanity and the job.

I remember starting up lots of new projects, finishing none; feeling in charge of the whole situation, but walking in circles in my apartment, unable to stop. I was manic again. So, back to the psych ward, this time a day treatment center, living on unemployment and waiting to stabilize.

I was now terrified of another job. Jobs meant stress, stress meant mania. And so my counselors helped me apply for Welfare and Social Security benefits and I dropped lower and lower in the financial scale. While this period was very scary, I actually survived quite well, keeping my car operating, living in a high rise apartment for $60 per month and getting food from the Food Bank. But, it was so scary I started to think suicidally again and checked myself into the psychiatric ward for a couple of days.

And it was during this period that I came to my current level of acceptance of the disease. I have the bipolar disease. It is not tamed by the medications and I must continually be on my guard against it recurring. Stress seems to be the key. I must take whatever action I can to reduce stress.

I started a regular practice of meditation and excercise, watched my stress level and got my manic level checked weekly by a counselor. I started to work on a computer program designed to help bipolars check their mood levels. I have found that we bipolars are masters of denial. Perhaps an objective computer program might help us to recognize when our mood levels are getting out of whack.

The computer program did track my levels, recommended medication changes within my allowable limits, but then denial struck at another level. I refused to believe that the computers output was valid. So, I am currently working on an extension to the program, an ability for it to call my counselor by phone and report that I am out of limits, when that is appropriate. I have great hopes for this project to be of use to the bipolar community. Automatic cheap monitoring of our moods will allow us to take avoiding actions before the great excursions set in and we're off on another bipolar ride.

(This article was first published in 1995)

JOHN D. MUDIE, Ph.D. is owner of MuSoft, a business devoted to the rehabilitation and empowerment of the disabled, in Lompoc, California.




Special thanks to California NAMI. This article was originally published in The Journal of NAMI California, and is provided on this web site with permission of NAMI California. Copyright 2000, NAMI California.

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