By the time you finish reading this paragraph, someone will have committed suicide. Approximately 90% of the people who take their own lives have suffered from a mood disorder like bipolar (which affects approximately 5.7 million Americans) according to the National Institute of Health. In late 2018, the CDC released a report stating the suicide rate in the United States was at a 50-year peak. With the popularity of the ABC show A Million Little Things, and the recent suicides of prominent figures like Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Margot Kidder and Robin Williams, who all struggled with bipolar disorder, this is the ideal time to shed light on suicide, and this mysterious and often fatal illness. My book, Daddy Issues: A Memoir, takes a unique approach to the bipolar narrative, showing what this illness looks like from the outside and feels like from the inside, and it also tackles suicide.
“She has blue eyes.” That was the first thing my dad said about me when I was born. He had blue eyes. It saddens me to think he was looking for something we had in common from the first moment he saw me. All babies are born with blue eyes, but mine turned hazel. As long as he lived, he never knew we actually did have something in common: bipolar disorder.
When I was a kid, my mom told me my dad had “manic depression.” To me, that called to mind a pot of boiling water, lid vibrating, steam escaping, about to explode at any moment. He’d spend thousands of dollars on Rolex watches and high-end stereo equipment, then he’d lock himself in his bedroom for days. One day, he’d affectionately tease me until I giggled, the next day, he’d angrily snap at me for no reason. His outbursts terrified me. I exhausted myself trying to make sense of his actions, always taking them personally.
I’m an only child, and my mom is a psychotherapist. Our family dynamic was—to say the least—unusual. She was married to a man with bipolar disorder, and she had a daughter with an undiagnosed mood disorder. Although my mom is a warm, caring person, she was forced to spend much of her energy taking care of my dad as well as raising me essentially by herself. When I was a little girl, my mom and I were close. It was us against the world and often, against my dad. We’d come together in solidarity when he was in one of his moods, and that was most of the time.
I was the girl with daddy issues, complicated by undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I craved attention any way I could get it. In elementary school, I was the hyperactive loud one always getting in trouble. By the time I was in college, my bipolar disorder was in full force. My thoughts raced from one thing to the next, I was over-confident, hypersexual, delusional and irritable. I got rid of almost everything I owned, declared I’d never do it again, then did exactly that. I swung back and forth at the mercy of my impulses. I jumped between relationships, apartments, jobs, even sexual identities. I shoplifted and got arrested. I slept very little and developed an eating disorder.
My senior year of college, my mom left my dad. He’d been buying guns and shooting holes into the ground. He’d driven hours away to cheap motels and called her threatening suicide. He’d taken pills and had his stomach pumped. He washed and dried my mom’s work suits in the washing machine, shrinking them and hanging them back up on the same hangers. I imagined little doll-sized suits wrinkled and mangled beyond recognition, and my dad—a deranged lunatic—standing over them.
My dad died by 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 for two months. I stayed with my mom while I recovered, and she took care of me like I was her little girl again. Even through my fuzzy fog of depression, I could tell she recognized in me what she’d lived through with my dad, and it scared her. Despite her professional training as a psychotherapist, I knew it was impossible for her not to be frightened seeing her own daughter suffering the same mental illness that killed her husband.
My mom sent me for a psychological evaluation and after six hours of testing, I was given a nine-page document. “Diagnostically, Ms. Cantwell’s atypical mood swings seem best accounted for as stemming from a rapid cycling Bipolar II Disorder. The Bipolar II diagnosis well fits her genetic vulnerability around a mood disorder (i.e., her father’s Bipolar diagnosis).” 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 felt 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.
In 2012, I was married to a controlling, verbally abusive man. My husband had convinced me that everything wrong with our marriage was my fault. It was my second marriage and I wrongly thought I’d be a failure if I got another divorce. My self-esteem was so low I felt worthless. We were renovating our condo,I wasn’t eating enough, and I was barely sleeping. It was incredibly stressful, and the stress triggered a manic episode. My racing mind was catastrophizing everything that went slightly awry. After a nasty argument with my husband, I took a bunch of pills and washed them down with red wine. Even though I knew how it felt to lose someone to suicide, there I was attempting to end my own life. Because I was manic, none of that logic applied. I was driven by impulse.
I ended up in the emergency room, strapped to a gurney and having seizures for 24 hours. I was in and out of consciousness as I pulled and kicked against my restraints. I was then transferred to an in-patient mental hospital. I was admitted late at night and shown to the room I’d be sharing with my just-got-out-of-jail roommate. The next two nights, I was kept awake by the all the lights constantly being on, and the schizophrenic woman down the hall. During the day, she was a kleptomaniac who stole everyone’s jeans and kept them in a pile in her closet. At night, she’d walk up and down the echoing hallway, screaming both sides of an unintelligible argument to herself. I was terrified, but I held it together and proved I was well enough to be let out after three days. I promised myself I’d never go back.
I can’t forget the look on my mom’s face in the emergency room. I’d put her through what my dad had, and even though I knew better, I did it anyway. That’s what bipolar disorder does. It makes you lose insight, narrowing your focus to a needle point, and everything and everyone else gets lost in the periphery. It’s total self-absorption.
As I began my recovery, I finally understood the gravity of my illness. This mood disorder can be fatal, if not managed properly. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I know what happens when I don’t take care of myself and give in to the voices that tell me to stay up a little later tonight or skip my meds. I need to be especially careful when something goes wrong in my life, because any little hiccup can awaken the whispering voice in my head that tells me I can escape by dying. My dad must have heard that same voice. And I don’t want to end up like he did.
It’s ironic that it took my dad’s death for me to finally understand him. It wasn’t until my reaction to his suicide that I was diagnosed bipolar. By accepting my bipolar diagnosis, I was able to make some sense of my dad’s actions, realizing they weren’t my fault or his. I see the time I shoplifted just for the high, slept with dozens of strangers, and tried to off myself with pills and wine as symptoms of mental illness. My dad’s outbursts, his impatience and irritation, and his suicide were the exact same thing, just with a different face. This ongoing epiphany—and believe me, I still have memory flashes of both his and my actions that remind me—led me to reconcile all the scary memories of my dad with my discoveries. My diagnosis taught me how to understand and forgive both my dad, and myself.
I have bipolar, but it doesn’t have me. I never knew what to expect with my dad, and I know that every day with this illness is different, but I’m a pretty damned resilient person. I’ve made it through several major manic and depressive episodes. But I’ve also captured a new confidence in myself—not the false, intoxicating delusions of a manic mind, but a real sense of being okay with myself. I struggle all the time, especially with seductive hypomania, but I just do my best and try to set healthy limits.
I’m both a survivor and an advocate. I want to share my story to give hope to the millions of people whose lives have been affected by bipolar disorder and suicide. Had a book like mine been available to me, I might not have suffered such desolation and confusion. The goal of my book is to open my life to those who are dealing with this disorder and to let them know that they are not alone. Whether they are newly diagnosed and looking for answers or have been living with the illness for years, Daddy Issues: A Memoir will help unlock some of the mysteries behind this disease and how it affects families. For those with a bipolar loved one, my book will clarify some of the baffling and erratic actions they’ve witnessed. I want to share what I’ve learned to help ease the pain for those who live on after losing someone to suicide.