My Life in Balance
It is hard to be a perfect mother, perfect wife and perfect teacher without something giving. I decided that what would give was sleep. My husband recalls waking up before sunrise to get ready for work and finding me on the couch doing prep work or marking. I became increasingly short with my children at home and also with the students at school. I hated myself for that.
My low mood that winter lifted as spring arrived; however, the mood elevated to an uncomfortable high. I decided that our house needed some renovations. And I made a list and started racking up the bills. My erratic spending was putting a strain on our finances.
The first weekend of September, my mother, sister and I went to New York City to celebrate my mother’s 60th birthday. Two days after we came home, the world changed forever. 9/11 was the beginning of my spiral out of control. I went for a run the following weekend and had my first panic attack. It was one of the most intensely frightening, upsetting and uncomfortable experiences of my life.
I had to stop on the side of the road and try to calm myself down.
All fall my mood was up and down.
At family gatherings I would say inappropriate things and make people uncomfortable. At work I was manic, spoke very fast and loud in the office and started to become paranoid. I lost my cool in front of my students.
In January, after experiencing more panic attacks, I finally went to my family physician. I sobbed uncontrollably for a long time, confessed my paranoia and was referred to a psychologist for generalized anxiety disorder.
After an initial consultation with the psychologist, I was said to be suffering from moderate depression. Delving into my past seemed to worsen my condition and I continued to experience panic attacks.
A student at the school where I was teaching took his own life. The atmosphere at school was very stressful and even though I did not know the student personally, I was deeply affected emotionally. My mental stability was definitely crumbling.
I wasn’t sleeping. Daily household functions became impossible. I forgot to feed the kids dinner, or I would burn it.
My workplace became very stressful as tensions in the office grew. These were real and imagined.
I went to work on April 10, thinking that it would be a normal day. Halfway through a lesson, I looked at the board and the math no longer made any sense to me. I was terrified. There were conversations that I had that day that were puzzling to my coworkers. At home, my own children were frightened of me and my husband had no clue what was happening. I made it through the day somehow and entered a third night without any sleep.
The next day, I went downstairs and plopped myself on the couch. I refused to get ready for work. My husband called my psychologist and our family doctor and was advised to take me to the emergency room. I was in a full-blown psychotic state. Jim had no one to leave the kids with so all four of us set off to the hospital.
It seemed to take forever for the psychiatrist on call to meet with me. I have recurring flashbacks of the doors closing and me waving good-bye to my family. I was placed on a stretcher and two security guards were put in charge of my safety.
My first test in the hospital was a CAT scan to rule out any biological reason (brain tumour) for my psychosis.
I was then brought up to the psychiatric ward that would be my home for the next three weeks. When I arrived my doctor opened her hand to reveal a small pile of pills. She said they would help me sleep. At that I became panicky, revealing my fear that if I went to sleep I may not wake up. She persisted and I had my first good night’s sleep in a week.
My husband arrived in the morning with a large overnight bag he had packed for me. It had several days worth of clothes and my toiletries. It all was very strange to me as I thought that he was coming to take me home.
He accompanied me to another test that involved measuring my brain patterns. Jim sat in on my session with the doctor. He recalls this event with great emotion. It took all of his effort to keep his composure. He honestly feared that he had lost his wife, the mother of his children, his life partner, forever.
Rumour around the psychiatric ward was that a new patient arrived and was “formed”. I met a fellow patient named Paul and he explained to me what this meant. On the desk in my room was a hospital form that stated that I was admitted to the hospital for a mandatory stay of three days because I was in danger of harming myself. This paper left me puzzled.
Over the next few days I refused treatment. I was completely manic. I had no concept that I was a wife, a mother and a teacher. I had lost connection to my life back at home and work. I felt that I was at summer camp. I loved the hospital food. There were endless puzzles to put together and wonderful conversations around the dinner table. While my husband, children and extended family went into crisis mode, I lay sun tanning on the porch of the hospital.
I did not attend any group sessions. I refused my medication.
One afternoon I went outside to join some other patients that were sitting in a smoking circle. One offered some invaluable advice. He said I really should start listening to the doctors and start taking my medication. You know things are bad when the other psychiatric patients are complaining about you! I think they were all getting tired of my manic state.
That evening my doctor came into my room and looked at me sternly. She said if I didn’t start taking the medication I would have to be placed in the ward next door where patients were forced to take their medications. At night I could hear screams from the ward next door. I definitely did not want to be locked up in there. I started to take my meds.
I was tolerated better on the floor once I became compliant. The healing of my brain had begun. I slept a lot after meals, kept more to myself and by the end of the second week I was granted a day pass to see my family.
On May 6, almost four weeks from my admission, I was released from hospital. I have very little memory of this time and of the next few months. I know that I slept a lot at home and felt very drugged. This was necessary for my recovery.
Living with bipolar disorder forces you to live with balance. The key to success lies in three things: compliance, compliance and compliance. Stability will not be achieved if you do not have a positive relationship with a doctor you trust. Every time I get off the elevators at the hospital on the floor where I spent almost one month of my life, I am reminded of how precious my mental health is and of how far I have come. It gives me the motivation to continue down this path of wellness. Once I came to terms with the fact the illness is a lifelong struggle that must be managed with medication, I became more at peace.
I no longer want my old life back. I choose volunteer opportunities at work and in the community that give my life more purpose. At the same time, I have learned to say no to requests so that I do not get overwhelmed. I am at peace with my life, although I know that am not cured.
I am grateful for a stable marriage, loving children, supportive friends and family and a job that I am passionate about. I still work at the same school. I have less frequent flashbacks, and every day that I enter the school doors, I feel a little victorious. Every day I try to live my best life, a life in balance.