It is a heavy burden to be the daughter of tragedy and suicide. My dad died at age 66. Whether he technically died of suicide or uncontrolled diabetes is unknown, because his mental health rendered him unable to care for himself. A few months before his death, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for being suicidal (not his first commitment). A few months after his commitment, he was dead. He was 66 and he was extremely mentally ill, physically ill, estranged from family, financially destitute, and alone.
My dad’s life certainly didn’t start off with tragedy. He was born into a prominent family in Tulsa, OK, the son of the city’s first plastic surgeon and the oldest of five children. His family goes back for generations in the midwest and included farmers and a dairy. He went to private schools. After college he managed the family’s real estate business, married my mom, and owned his own professional Formula One team for fun.
Our family seemed to have the perfect upperclass, midwestern life. We had our own tennis court, belonged to a country club, saw our large extended family often, took fancy vacations and my sister and I took ballet and piano.
When I was about 8 (1987?) my dad took out a large loan to remodel a large shopping center in Tulsa. Based on changes in the economy and the size of the loan, we went bankrupt and we lost everything. I remember my mom holding garage sales to sell off all her nice things. There was the threat of lawsuits. My parents went (fled) to California to try to start a new life for us, while my sister and I stayed behind with my aunt and uncle for awhile.
My dad never recovered from the loss of his business, home and reputation in Tulsa. He bounced around from one job to the next, but was never able to stick with anything for long. My dad was psychiatrically committed and diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder much later in life, and his actions during this time period are textbook bipolar behavior: excessive spending, inability to hold down a job, periods of severe depression, enthusiasms for new projects that never lasted long, etc. During this period, my mom did her best to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.
My dad eventually went back to Oklahoma to try to find work, but ultimately my parents got divorced and my dad stayed in Oklahoma. He got remarried to a women who did her best to keep him well and give him a fresh start in life, but then he started to experience severe medical problems.
Like my dad, I also have bipolar disorder. There are so many ways in which we were alike, too. My dad loved to read books, he loved to (very badly) play the piano, loved animals, was emotionally sensitive and could connect with people in a very authentic way. Also, he could “see” me in a way not everyone can. He had unshakable faith in me and in my ability to conquer the word. He told me all the time that I would be a great news anchor, but didn’t mind when I settled on trial lawyer. One of my best memories of my dad is of us riding through the mud on four-wheelers, me on a tiny kid quad and him on an adult one. He bought me a Red Ryder BB Gun when I was eight and we would shoot cans together. I felt very close to him, even if he wasn’t around all the time. The most common phrases he said to me were, “I love you, “I’m so proud of you” and “be careful!”.
Not only do I really wish I could still have my dad in my life, I live in terror of turning out like him. My dad was alone with he died, estranged from two ex-wives, financially destitute, extremely sick mentally and physically, and having used up all the patience his siblings could provide. He flew high and then he crashed hard. Shortly before his death he called me and essentially asked me to save him and I said “no”. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done, but I knew I couldn’t save us both. He was dead a month later.
I recently experienced the darkest, most terrifying, most excruciatingly painful “mixed state” I’ve ever known, triggered by a period of extreme stress and probably being undermedicated. People usually think of bipolar as consisting of only two states: up or down. A “mixed state” combines the energy of hypomania with the darkness and despair of depression.
My mixed state lasted about two weeks and during this time period I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep even with heavy sedatives, I felt like I was going to throw up at all times, and my skin felt like it was crawling. Waves of panic and despair washed over me almost constantly. I might have been having a reaction to a new medication, but medication changes are par-for-the-course in the field of psychiatry.
Never have I felt so physically terrible based on purely psychiatric reasons. I truly did not understand the capacity of the brain to torture its host. During the waves of darkness, despair and fear I huddled on the floor in the fetal position. It was hard on our whole family. My husband did his best to both take care of kids and work, my in-laws took the kids for several days, my sweet mother-in-law let me sob in her arms, a good friend let me call and sob to her for awhile, and friends brought us food and hosted our kids for playdates. I will always remember that feeling of walking through the neighborhood and just knowing that my brain was very, very sick. Eventually I took myself to the hospital to make sure I wasn’t also experiencing any medical problems, since I hadn’t been able to eat or take my regular medication.
During this dark time, my mind went to some very dark places. I had thoughts like, “What happens if I never feel better?”, “What happens if I am a burden to my family and they eventually give up on me?”, “What happens if I still feel this way in a month?”, and “What will become of my children if I don’t get better?” “What happens if I turn out like my dad?” I had a front-row seat for most of my life to a situation that DEFINITELY did not get better, so telling myself “it will get better” can be hard to believe sometimes.
During the dark moments, though, I mustered every bit of my strength to keep the faith that things will get better. I prayed a lot. I reminded myself that the bad feelings won’t last forever, that I’m a different person than my dad and with a different life, that I have a full and vibrant support system, and that I have access to the medical resources I need. It’s hard to be rational when you’re in pain, though.
A mixed episode is first and foremost a medical situation, and the first line of treatment is medical. I’m getting better because I’m now taking medication that will recalibrate my brain to its normal setting. My mixed state was brought about by an extended period of extreme stress, so in the future I will need to be even more careful with not overdoing it. Recovering from a mixed state takes time, but the medication allows me to get a little bit stronger every day. Every day that I am stronger I am able to engage a little more fully in my life.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have grown up in a family that was stable, with at least one parent who was emotionally present, and where the air wasn’t ripe with fear, anxiety and isolation. I don’t know what that would have been like, but I can do that for my kids. Every time I rub my son’s back at bedtime, I rebalance the universe a little bit. Every time I hug my kids as I drop them off at school, I’m healing the fear I felt at their age. Doing the grocery shopping, preparing meals, comforting my children when they are scared or hurt, all of this is healing the pain I felt at their age. By loving them, I’m healing myself.
Another way I heal my pain is by being very open about living with a serious mental illness. This is a big reason why I attend mental health support groups. I want to tell people, “I have also descended to hell. I got better, and you will too.” There have been times when I’ve needed people to say that to me. The legacy of suicide, mental illness and tragedy is a terrible one. I didn’t ask to live with this legacy or this disorder, but I will continue to get better and I will continue to use my healing to help heal others.