A Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis is Not a Death Sentence
I can’t believe I ever wanted to die. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it felt like to be so hopeless that I was willing to end my own life. The saying “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” is so true. Just because one day, one week, even one year or more of your life is rough, 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—died by suicide. I remember when he started getting really sick. My senior year of college, my mom left him. He was buying guns and shooting holes into the ground. He would drive hours away to cheap motels and call her threatening suicide.
My mom showed up at my job in April of 1998 to tell me my dad had just died by suicide. 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 diagnosed with bipolar II disorder.
Losing Myself to Bipolar
I was horrified to learn I had the same disease that killed my dad. Would I end up dying by 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 combination of medications that helped even out the intensity of my moods.
In 2012, I was married to a man who became controlling and verbally abusive. My husband convinced me that everything wrong with our marriage was my fault. I wrongly thought I’d be a failure if I got a divorce. My self-esteem was so low, I felt worthless. We were renovating our condo, and it was incredibly stressful. I was agitated and irritable, and my racing mind was catastrophizing everything that went slightly awry. After a nasty argument with my husband, I attempted suicide.
So, there I was, 38, bipolar, and trying to kill myself, just like my bipolar dad had done when he was 55. What was I thinking? I knew what it felt like to lose someone to suicide. My mom and I have gone through so much pain because of what my dad did. But I was under the spell of mania. I wasn’t thinking about that. I ended up in the emergency room having seizures for 24 hours. I was in and out of consciousness, thrown into and out of reality as I pulled and kicked against restraints that were keeping me from hurting myself. I was then transferred to an in-patient mental hospital.
I'll never 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 wasn’t me, it was my brain causing these problems.
Coming Out on the Other Side
In recovery, I finally understood the gravity of my illness. This mood disorder can be fatal, if not managed properly. 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 it could 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.
I’m both a survivor and an advocate. I'm just finished writing a book about my experiences entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir. I want to give hope to the millions of people whose lives have been affected by bipolar disorder and suicide. I’ve made it through several major manic and depressive episodes, and I’ve come out on the other side. I struggle all the time, but I take care of my body and mind, and I set healthy limits for myself.
I work in the film industry as a graphic designer. I’ve always loved movies, and I feel so lucky that I get to design graphics that bring fictional worlds to life. Several years ago, I was working on a movie that had a hospital set. I was tasked with creating the logo and all the signs. While I sat at my computer, designing a large red and white emergency room sign, it hit me. If I hadn’t survived my suicide attempt, I would never have been there. My life could have ended in an emergency room. Instead, I was living my dreams doing what I love most. The horrible experience that made me want to end my own life was over. It was temporary. Had I died, it all would have been permanent.
I’m living proof that a bipolar disorder diagnosis is not a death sentence. I haven’t just survived, I’ve thrived. And while I’ve had many professional achievements, I’m most proud of my recovery.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a bipolar dad who she lost to suicide. She's written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is darknessandlight.org.
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