I was in a mixed bipolar disorder episode swinging from suicidal depression to enraged mania from 2003 to 2009. The most painful moment of those dark years happened one Saturday night on Memorial Day weekend 2004. It was when my daughter had her wedding and she did not invite me. She left me off the invitation list because she was afraid my out-of-control manic anger around her mother would disrupt her wedding. Her stepfather walked her down the aisle, instead. I was sitting at a picnic table in a dirty park in Berkeley, CA the instant I knew her wedding started 2,000 miles away in Missouri. I was in despair because I knew my crazy attempts to entangle my daughter and son in my anger with their mother had put me in that park. As tears moistened my cheeks, I knew my behavior cost me the joy every father feels when he walks his beautiful princess down the church aisle and into the loving arms of a new son.
My daughter finished college and put herself through nursing school before she married. I couldn’t pay a cent for her education because of chronic unemployment or under-employment. She worked her way through school sometimes with two part-time jobs. I wasn’t welcomed to attend her graduations either. I just called her cell phone and left a message congratulating her on graduation days just as I did the morning of her wedding day.
Every woeful tale needs a back-story. Here’s mine:
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II in 1993 five years after I lost my marriage and college faculty position due to a major manic episode. During that episode I walked away from my wife, a 5-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son and my faculty position at a private college to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. I did not know I had to manage the illness after I was diagnosed and started medication, so my episodes of deep depression and angry mania burned many bridges. One of them was to a woman with whom I lived for seven years in Dallas and then in the San Francisco Bay Area. One dark October night in 2003, the woman threw me out because she said she couldn’t take my mood swings any longer. She had refused months earlier to meet with my psychiatrist and me to discuss the nature of bipolar disorder and how we could maintain a relationship despite the alternating moods punctuated with periods of stability. As of that night, I was not only unemployed but homeless, as well. I had no choice. She said I had to move within a month or the police would see that I did. She refused to speak to me from that point forward. The silence was painful.
Relationship break-ups including divorce are one of the triggers for a bipolar episode. This one sent me into a vortex of suicidal depression, followed by periods of volatile manic anger. The depression was aimed at self-hatred as a failure who couldn’t hold a job and maintain a relationship with a woman and manic anger with my ex-wife who demanded child support payments even when I had no income. I did not know I was in a “mixed episode”, now called “Specifiers”, but I have since learned that it is when a person experiences both symptoms of a depressed mood and mania (though one or the other would be considered predominant) within the same episode.
My then 27-year-old son let me live with him in the bedroom he rented in an apartment in San Francisco after he refused to let me move into a homeless shelter. Had it not been for my son, I would have gone into a shelter where I could stay briefly and forced to move out so someone could take my place. My next stop would inside a cardboard box under a bridge along with all the other mentally ill homeless unless I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge first, which was more and more tempting.
The depression was over-whelming. I did not know anything about the difference between bipolar depression and major depression. Bipolar depression is a depression that most disrupts and devastates lives—and dominates the course of the illness. Depression is more debilitating than mania, it lasts longer and occurs more frequently. Since I had no health insurance, I got to see a psychiatrist and get my medication for free from a community health center, thank goodness.
Since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1993, I assumed that if I took my medication every day I would be fine. I knew nothing about managing the illness such as adequate sleep, exercise, nutrition and psychotherapy. I did not stabilize until 2010 nearly 20 years after diagnosis. The hypomania usually expressed itself with grandiosity, but now there was nothing to be grandiose about in my life. Instead, the mania went into anger and irritability. An endless source of my anger was my ex-wife’s insistence I pay off the $25,000 child support judgement levied against me seven years earlier. How could I pay, if I’m chronically unemployed? I took my frustration out by involving my now adult son and daughter by making them listen to my rants about their mother. That was emotionally damaging to my children. It was so destructive that my daughter no longer spoke to me and it would be five years of deafening silence from her. My son did speak, but it was a strained relationship. I awoke to his crying one night about me living in his bedroom and him sleeping on the floor. I moved out nine months later when I found a woman who would take me in. She lived in Berkeley and worked for the University of California. We became a couple, I think, because she had a Ph.D. in psychology and understood bipolar disorder. We joined a church where hypomania went into full swing when I was asked to be the Sunday morning announcer about church-related events. I turned it into a comedy routine much to the irritation of the minister who politely asked me to limit my comments to church events before replacing me.
My illness swung from hypomania on Sundays to suicidal depression on weekdays. I threatened suicide many times including a final note I emailed to a couple of friends. My plan was to run a garden hose from the tailpipe of my car to the driver’s side window and go to sleep forever. I had a friend years earlier who killed himself that way. It was simple and there would be no mess for anyone to clean up. Two of my friends quickly got to me and talked me out of it. I know my threat was really a cry for help. People who kill themselves like my brother and sister did go off to be someplace alone and die. To my knowledge, they made no earlier threats.
I did not hear from my daughter again until nearly five years after her wedding. It was a spring Sunday morning and my son attended church with me that day. I was in the conference room where members of the congregation gathered for coffee every Sunday morning. I saw my son on the other side of the room talking on his cell phone. He signaled me to step outside with him. When I did, he said “It’s for you,” as he handed his cell phone to me.
“Hello, Dad. I’m pregnant,” I heard my daughter say. My throat tightened as I choked with tears. Not only did I hear my estranged daughter’s sweet voice for the first time in nearly five years, but I learned I was going to be a grandpa for the first time, too!
We exchanged “I love yous” and I learned the baby was due in six weeks. It was a girl, too! They planned to call her Kadyn Ann.
My son told me later he had been begging his sister for months to call me about her pregnancy. He couldn’t imagine the cruelty of me not knowing I had a grandchild long after her birth, if ever. Over our lunch that day, he confronted me with his observation that I always talked about myself and didn’t focus on his sister or on him. He was right. It was bipolar grandiosity, I learned later, most evident in the manic phase of my illness. Now that I was aware of it, I stopped doing it out of love for my children.
I flew to Missouri and held my new granddaughter soon after her birth. My daughter met me at her front door with the baby in her arms and said “Here you go, Dad” and then kissed me on the check.
As I held my new granddaughter, I noticed my daughter had an enlarged wedding photo hanging above the fireplace in her living room. I couldn’t look at it and never saw the video of her wedding. It was too painful because it brought to mind those miserable days in Berkeley. It still does.
Gary Zukave, American spiritual teacher and author of The Seat of the Soul, wrote:
Eventually you will come to understand that love heals everything, and love is all there is.
Tom Roberts is a mental health speaker and writer living in Huntington Beach, CA.
He is the author of: