Robin Kahler is a patient who was diagnosed with affective bipolar disorder in 1988. She works from her home in Tucson, Arizona, as an
There should be a special award for husbands like mine. Thirty-six years of marriage to a woman with bi-polar disorder; not to mention current menopause.
I was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder on October 13, 1988. I also remember what I was doing on the day I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. And I usually remember my wedding anniversary. After that I tend to become a little bit like Edith Bunker, but the date of my diagnosis is forever etched into my memory.
The spiral to hell began with a family outing to the Grand Canyon and ended with a half-frozen chicken.
Our two teenage sons helped pack the family van with tents and fishing poles and we sang songs and reminisced as we drove the 650 miles; our first visit to the Grand Canyon. We arrived in time for a glorious sunset, set up our camp, enjoyed our meal, and slept well in the mountain air.
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The next morning I woke early and took a short hike to view the Grand Canyon up close. I stood at the very edge and looked straight down, about six-thousand feet down. Without reason or cause a black dark depression swept over me and I thought about stepping out and slipping over the edge. I moved forward to dangle one foot and I watched in fascination as the ground began to crumble a bit; pieces of dirt fell, plunged so deeply, beyond my view. No fear. Just dark depression, sadness. I was slightly surprised at the emotion because there was no reason for it’s existence and yet it was there and very real.
I looked up and out over the canyon and suddenly a beautiful large bird flew out over my head and dove deep, playing against the air near the cliffs, it soared. I watched as he folded his wings tightly against his body, he twisted, no longer bird-shaped, now like an arrow he plunged. His body fell quickly, plummeting a few hundred yards, spinning out-of-control, and then suddenly his wings spread out wide and bird-shaped again he soared back up above the canyon walls, then above me. He repeated his dangerous game several times and the thought came to me, “He can change his mind; you can’t.”
At that moment I heard a footstep behind me and my husband’s voice spoke, “Do you mind stepping back a bit, that edge could crumble you know.”
We went off on a hike and I remained silent about my experience. I never spoke about the deep depression that had suddenly overwhelmed me. That was the first step of mistakes.
I had experienced some depression at times in the past, but those were times when everyone has normal lows; after the death of my grandmother, some postpartum depression, my doctor prescribed a few weeks of valium. There was an underlying sadness, my parents divorced when I was young and I hadn’t spoken with my father in over twenty years.
But in a strange way that seemed a blessing, my father was an odd sort. He never held a job longer than a few months. He often disappeared on fishing trips for weeks at a time. We sometimes went to bed hungry because he’d spent the grocery money on an elaborate toy train village at Christmas, or something else as frivolous. Of course I didn’t know about bi-polar (manic) depression. I didn’t know that sometimes it’s inherited and my father’s “odd” behavior were symptoms. I didn’t know about that when the blackness swept over me at the Grand Canyon and I didn’t know it a few weeks later when I faced the half-frozen chicken.
Autumn had finally arrived to the Arizona desert and I thought it would be nice to have an oven meal. I planned a roast chicken dinner with stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans. That morning I chopped the celery and onion, sauteed them in butter to a clear yet crisp transparency; a PERFECT meal, a beautiful day.
I went to the refrigerator for the chicken I’d set out the night before. The thighs were still frozen. In a half of a milli-second my bright yellow kitchen turned dark and the blackness returned, my mind swirled with confusion. How would I stuff it? The thighs were frozen to the body. What would I do now? It would never roast, the meat would be raw. Confusion. Something that would normally not have bothered me at all, I knew how to soak the bird in a bowl of water, I knew the basic rules of cooking, but I didn’t know about bi-polar depression. I didn’t know why my world had suddenly crashed. I only knew that my dinner was ruined. My day way ruined. My life was horrible. What was I supposed to do with a stupid half-frozen chicken? Tears began to stream down my face and I plunged to the floor in a lotus position. I sat there with my legs crossed and that half-frozen chicken in my lap and I cried.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but my husband came home from work and found me there on the floor and he said, “Honey! What’s wrong?! Did somebody die?!”
I thought for a moment and suddenly I knew, deep down inside of myself, like a metaphysical moment, I felt that I knew the reason for my dark grief. Someone had died. But who? Who had died? A little voice spoke to me inside my head and I looked up at my husband and said sadly, “My father died.”
During the following weeks I relied on my new little voice to help with every decision I faced. My own mind was so overwhelmed that even reaching for a glass of water when I felt thirsty was now a task I couldn’t complete. I’d sit and stare at a glass of water until my little voice told me to “Take a sip.” My little voice told me which blouse to wear, “that blue one”, when to go to bed, (I never slept) when to brush my teeth, and how to cook dinner. It also told me how my father died.
My friends were fascinated with my story; my father was killed by enemy spies; for years he had been an undercover agent with the CIA and his code name was “Rhett Butler”. I had to be careful now because the spies might be after me, I’d seen them in the shadows in the back yard.
The hallucinations and stories continued for thirty days, thankfully now was the time when I had a follow-up visit with my family doctor. I had been prescribed a beta-blocker for my blood pressure, and it was time to see how the drug was working. My little voice was still giving me daily instructions for living and it told me to tell the doctor what was going on inside my head.
I argued with it, “If I tell anyone about this they’ll lock me away in a mental institution and I’ll never see my family again!” I was terrified to tell anyone about my little voice. My voice explained to me that my doctor also had a little voice and he would understand and help me. So when my doctor entered the examining room and said, “Good Morning, Robin! How are you?” I calmly replied, “My little voice told me that your little voice would be able to help me.”
A few hours later I was talking with another doctor. A psychiatrist. After some conversation and a miserably failed attempt at a written test, she prescribed lithium. She also removed the beta blocker since that drug has a side effect known to cause hallucinations in some people. I told her about my Grand Canyon experience. She explained how lithium worked not as a tranquilizer and not as an anti-depressant, but as a mood stabilizer.
In less than a week my little voice disappeared forever. Now I had to explain to my friends that I had no idea where my father was, there was no Rhett Butler code name, no CIA, and no spies were chasing me. I had to trust that they would understand, and they did. We laughed. We joked. We also sat in amazement that no one had recognized a very serious case of mental illness. Some of my friends were law enforcement officers, one was a medical transcriber, another was my pastor. None of them had recognized anything wrong. A full thirty days of hallucinations and mania! We all vowed to learn more about mental illness.
That was twenty-three years ago. With the help of lithium I graduated from college on the Dean’s List, planned my son’s wedding, and assisted in the births of two of my grandchildren. I was the hospice caregiver to my mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. I planned her funeral. I reunited with my father. I planned his funeral when he passed with cancer. I made it through menopause without hormone treatments. I met my half brother and half sister who, it turned out, are also bi-polar. I learned that my father’s grandmother committed suicide when she was 38 and two of her sons lived in deep depression in mental institutions for many years. Her other five sons were successful and apparently not affected.( I have another brother who is not affected with depression at all and so it can be but isn’t always inherited.) Lithium didn’t numb me. I felt grief when my parents died. But it wasn’t that overwhelming end-of-the-world darkness. I felt joy when my sons married and when my grandchildren arrived, but I didn’t go out and spend money we didn’t have, or slip into an excited state of mania.
Last year my kidneys began to reject the lithium. That sometimes happens with long-term lithium use. My doctors slowly removed it from my daily use and replaced it, for now, with something very mild. There are more choices on the market now and doctors and patients can decide which drugs are best for each individual. Lithium is still used successfully, as are other things. I was scared at first to go off of the lithium, I was afraid my little voice might return. I thought of Andrea Yates. But now I know the key is to not remain silent if anything happens. Communication with my doctor and my husband is vital. My family and friends are educated now and life is good. Life CAN be normal with bi-polar depression.
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