My dad, Jack Cantwell, had bipolar disorder and died by suicide in 1998. When I was born, my mom gave me the name Carrie Ann Cantwell. I was born with my dad’s last name.
I had a strained relationship (if you can call it that) with my dad. His bipolar disorder made him moody, unpredictable and scary to me. He was either lost in another world in his head (he was there, but not there) or irritable and snappy. When he was in a good mood, I always approached him with caution because I knew it wouldn’t last. I got my feelings hurt many times, getting my hopes up when my dad would pay attention to me, and then having them dashed when his depression would always inevitably return. I felt rejected and unloved. My relationship with my dad and his bipolar disorder, combined with my own bipolar diagnosis after he died, affected me so much that I’m writing a book about it called Daddy Issues: A Memoir.
I have bipolar disorder. I’m lucky that I’ve found the right cocktail of antidepressants and mood stabilizers that work for me. Of course, like everyone with this illness, I struggle, and I’m not immune to having episodes. But because I take my meds every day, and I practice self-care by getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising and avoiding triggers when possible, I’m generally stable and high-functioning.
I need to pay bills, and I require health insurance to cover medications and doctor visits. I’m not on disability, so I have to work. Like many people with bipolar disorder, I experience challenges in many aspects of my life, including my career. I have to pay close attention to my day-to-day routine, so it’s imperative that I work in a job that fits my needs.
It’s that time again, and with the beginning of a new year, it’s easy to get swept up in the idea of a fresh start. Lots of people make new year’s resolutions, but not everyone sticks to them. With bipolar disorder, it can be even harder to keep those promises to yourself, even when you have the best intentions. Things like unexpected mood swings, reactions to surprise triggers, and just life in general can get in the way, making it near impossible to live up to the grandiose pledges we make to ourselves after the holidays are over.
We’re smack dab in the middle of the holiday season right now, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a little too jolly during this time of year. I’m jubilant, extra outgoing, and full of buzzing excited energy. I adore the spicy smells of mulled cider, glittering string lights and cozy inviting fireplaces. People are friendlier and more generous with sincere sentiment as they wish you a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah. The world comes alive with a positive energy that’s infectious. ‘Tis the season, so they say. Everything is brighter and shinier during the holidays, and this overstimulation can be a dangerous thing for someone with bipolar disorder.
I just read some disturbing news the other day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate in the United States is at a 50-year high. If that weren’t concerning enough, I’m also seeing multiple news outlets reporting that more than half of the people who died by suicide in 2016 had no known mental health problems. The trend in reporting is attributing the dramatic rise in the suicide rate mainly to opioid addiction and overdose.
Let me preface this by saying I’m not a health care professional, so I’m not an expert. Nevertheless, as someone who struggles with mental illness, I keep asking myself the same questions. Why are so many people getting hooked on opioids? Why are so many of the people dying by suicide not known to have mental health problems? Why is the discussion around substance abuse disconnected from the discussion around mental health? Are we missing some key information here? It’s possible many of these people who died by suicide just had never been diagnosed with mental illness.
I grew up with a bipolar dad who committed suicide when I was 24. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years after he died, when my delayed reaction to his suicide triggered my first depressive episode. Before my diagnosis, I struggled with unexplained racing thoughts, impulsive behaviors, and conflicted relationships. I always knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t until I had a psychological evaluation, underwent therapy and found the right mood-stabilizing medication that I was able to finally find peace within myself. I’m thankful to finally have an answer as to why I made so many bad decisions. Here are five reasons I’m grateful for the insight my bipolar diagnosis has given me.
- I can explain my behavior.
From sleeping with strangers to getting arrested for shoplifting, I struggled with impulsive, destructive behaviors for years. I’m not saying my bipolar disorder was an excuse, but it’s given me an explanation as to why I compulsively made so many mistakes that hurt myself and those around me.
My eating disorder started in high school, but it really got into full swing after I split from my fiancé of four years in 2009. It was a rough breakup and I was devastated. I withdrew from people around me, ignored phone calls and cried constantly. I lost the spark that makes me who I am. My body felt like a balloon with the air let out, lying limp and sad on the ground. I was in a depressive episode. Everything tasted metallic and bland at the same time. I’d sit down to eat, take a few bites and lose my appetite. “Why bother eating?” I’d think to myself, “What’s the point? I just want to die.” Yep, that’s depression alright. So of course, I lost a lot of weight. My clothes got baggier, and it seemed like every other day I was buckling my belt one notch tighter.
And something strange happened. People around me began saying things like “You’re so skinny, you look different. You look so pretty!” Friends I hadn’t seen in years were asking me what my secret was, how I lost so much weight. I’ve never been overweight, but when I went from a size 8 to a size 2 I got attention like I never had. Men were flirting with me (something I’m not used to) and women were showering me with flattery.
I have bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed in 2002. It wasn’t easy, but I learned to accept my diagnosis so I can stay healthy. I take my medicine every day. I get enough sleep, I exercise, and I do my best to avoid triggers.
I also try to pay attention to what’s going on in my head. You’ll notice I said “try to” there. That’s because with bipolar disorder often comes a stunning lack of insight. Sometimes I can barely hear my own thoughts, especially when I’m getting manic. Ideas whiz around in my head so fast I can’t catch them. So I’ve learned to look for other cues. There are things I and others see on the outside that can indicate what’s going on inside my head.
I watched the documentary God Knows Where I Am on Netflix last night. For those of you who haven’t seen it [spoiler alert] here’s the description from Rotten Tomatoes:
“Linda Bishop was a loving mother, a well-educated and happy woman. Then her body was found in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse, marked by cold and starvation. What was once Linda Bishop had quickly become a mystery, accompanied by her diary that documents a journey of starvation and the loss of sanity. For nearly four months, Bishop, a prisoner of her own mind, survived on apples and rainwater during one of the coldest winters on record. Waiting for God to save her. As her story unfolds from different perspectives, including her own, we learn the heartbreaking reality about a systemic failure to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
I’m so saddened and moved by this film. Much of the movie is someone narrating her diaries, and I really felt what it must be like to be inside her head. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar, bipolar with psychosis. Whatever it was, her words resonated with me. I felt what it must be like to lose one’s mind.
I can’t believe I ever wanted to die. But then again, things right now are really good. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it felt like to be so hopeless I was willing to end my own life. But that’s why the saying “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” makes so much sense. Just because one day, one week, even one year or more of your life is rough, that doesn’t mean things will be that way forever. Death is forever. And you can’t take it back.
I have bipolar disorder, which means I’m vulnerable to emotional stresses that can trigger a manic or depressive episode. My dad—who also had bipolar disorder—committed suicide in 1998. I was numb until four years after his death, when I crashed, suffering my first major depressive episode. I felt like I was encased in a black slimy ooze that slowed my mind and body. I cried constantly. Completely unable to function, I went on disability from work. My mom (who is a therapist) sent me for a psychological evaluation and after six hours of testing, I was given a nine-page document. Laid out in black and white, there it was: I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I was horrified to learn I had the same disease that killed my dad. Would I end up committing suicide too? At that moment, a bipolar diagnosis seemed like a death sentence. I started seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist. I tried antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants and mood stabilizers. The struggle for chemical equilibrium in my brain was grueling, but I finally found a cocktail of medications that helped even out the intensity of my moods.