41. A Lifelong Challenge

41. A Lifelong Challenge

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

A Lifelong Challenge

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

~E.E. Cummings

It took nearly thirty years for me to accept that I’d spent most of my life operating under a delusion. As a first grader, I told my classmates my biological parents were coming to take me away from an unhappy home. Down the road when that dream never materialized, I turned to men to erase my misery. A church upbringing took the back seat as I threw myself at everyone I could. Some men were much older. And married. Many had dubious backgrounds. Nothing mattered. I only wanted to escape and knew someone else must lead the way. When I finally reached a tipping point, feeling I’d suffered too many disappointments, I had a severe nervous breakdown, which led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Years later I related my story to a friend, Irene. She had driven out to our condo in Carpinteria, California for lunch. She responded to my story in her signature New Jersey accent: “I had bipolar disorder once, but I got over it. When I knew something was broke, I fixed it.”

As I listened to her, I felt dismayed. Despite the fact I always took my medication, I still exhibited symptoms that prevented me from holding jobs or forming meaningful relationships. My moods resembled a teeter-totter on steroids. Every so often I would hit bottom with a thud. Getting up and dusting myself off was never easy. Try as I might, I couldn’t overcome my illness. I often worked hard just to get out of bed in the mornings. And, as always, I tried to keep the fantasy alive that someday — somehow — somebody was coming to put an end to my unhappiness.

I shared my friend’s words with my husband. Gary suggested, “Maybe she didn’t actually have bipolar disorder. You know how she exaggerates.”

“I don’t know why anyone would want to pretend to be bipolar.”

“Maybe she felt she was being helpful.”

“Well, she wasn’t. After all these years, my mind is still like a stagecoach pulled by runaway horses.”

Mood swings were the main problem. I wore my moodiness like a cloak that I could take on or off in an instant, changing my moods without warning.

When I was diagnosed, my life was in shambles. I had no money, no job and no emotional support from my family. I had always worked in the legal field, but never stayed at a job for long. Concentrating proved difficult as the voices inside my head constantly vied for my attention.

Thank goodness my husband loves me despite my illness. We moved to California, wanting some adventure in our lives. Living in a small beach town provided a lifestyle we greatly enjoyed, but my mood swings still didn’t disappear. I had a meltdown at the law office where I worked and walked out. Gary was supportive, yet I could tell he wasn’t happy.

He did go with me to a new doctor, though. I finally found a professional who seemed empathetic. In our third session, he said kindly, “After hearing your story, I think you could benefit from not working. Just until you get your life in order. I’ve prescribed some newer drugs that should be more helpful than those you’ve taken in the past.” He looked at me intently as he continued. “It also sounds like you need to find out who you are apart from being bipolar. Your bipolar disorder is just a small part of you. But you’ve let the illness take over your life, denying those wonderfully creative parts of you that make you unique.”

“It’s funny you should mention creativity,” I said. “I had writing talent years ago, but after my diagnosis, my voice was drowned out by all the other voices. I lost my ability to put pen to paper, and now I’m one frustrated writer.”

“Creativity comes packaged many ways. Perhaps you will write again. In the meantime, stay open to any opportunity for growth. By the way, my patients call me Dr. Looney.” The psychiatrist smiled. “You’re welcome to call me Dr. Looney, too.”

Taking Dr. Looney’s advice, I stopped looking for work. Initially, I feared searching for the real me. What if there was nothing there to find? I’d lived with bipolar symptoms for so long that my teeter-totter behavior seemed normal. But, with time on my hands, I dabbled in scrapbooking and card making, discovering I had an eye for color and design. Seeing a finished product helped me realize I could accomplish something. I befriended other women with the same interests and enjoyed the camaraderie. Their praise and support made me feel like a member of the human race.

I also spearheaded the creation of a neighborhood newsletter, which gave me skills that paved the way to writing short articles. I even went beyond my comfort zone and taught a self-esteem class for young girls. My own self-esteem had been in tatters for years, but while encouraging those precious preteens, my own self worth was unveiled. I had talents to offer the world after all.

Eventually, my husband and I moved to Oregon. A new doctor prescribed an even better antipsychotic that helped me focus. And once it got into my system, words started raining down in torrents. If I had ideas, I quickly wrote them in a journal so I could later spin them into inspirational stories. Some of those stories have been published. But all of them make me a bona fide writer, a longstanding dream come true.

One day when Gary and I went walking, he asked unexpectedly, “Do you think you’ve overcome mental illness?”

I couldn’t formulate an answer right away. Finally, I said, “I don’t think I’ll ever overcome mental illness. But look at all the hurdles I’ve cleared so I can be the person God wants me to be! It’s not important to be an overcomer anymore. Instead, I’m living with this disease one day at a time. Staying in the present moment is the healthiest thing I can do. And it’s the best way I know to explore more ways to enjoy life.”

I remember hearing as a child in Sunday school that Jesus Christ directed His disciples, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” I figure if He’s already overcome the world, then there’s no need trying to overcome bipolar disorder. He’s done it! I may never get over it the way Irene said she did, but there’s no reason for this disability to wreak so much havoc. With proper medication and people supporting me, I’m up for any challenge. And I don’t entertain delusions anymore. As far as I’m concerned, the knight in shining armor already came. Ever since Gary whisked me away to the West Coast, things just keep getting better.

~Jill Davis

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