(I wrote this article as soon as I returned home from moose hunting, after two weeks of watching this young dog’s remarkable alertness and sensitivity to danger in the wilderness. Whether she is reacting to an animal intruder– moose, bear, or caribou– or to a sudden switch in my bipolar moods, Lapua’s intense sensitivity has been remarkable since she was an eight-week old puppy.)
While I helped set up our moose camp deep in the Talkeetna Mountains, my 10-month old puppy, Lapua, a lanky, 50-pound, Great Pyrenees-husky-boxer mix, set up her own vantage point at the top of the knoll.
From her spot, she could watch for any moose, bears, or caribou that might walk up from the ravine below through the swamp east of our camp, and up the hillside. Lapua knew that this was the entrance to our camp, and what would be the main trail for any intruder, and so she sat, on alert, ready to warn us of any danger.
Although we never saw a bear near camp during those two weeks, she always woof-woofed her alarm when a moose or a curious caribou ventured through the shrubbery along the mountainside above us.
Lapua is not a guard dog, by any means, and she certainly is not highly trained. But, like she did in moose camp, she is somehow able to sense anything that is out-of-sorts in her environment, and she always alerts me and my husband to its presence.
At home in our living room, where she cuddles on a blanket in the corner with my old dog, Ruby, she somehow senses, and responds to, any shift in my bipolar moods.
With bipolar paranoia, it is easy to create our very own horror stories. But when we want to shut our eyes, we need to look.
We are all storytellers. We forge stories in our imaginations. And it is in fear that we create our most elaborate tales.
When it is dark in grizzly country, and I hear a noise outside my tent, it is easy to imagine a bear prowling its perimeter. In my mind, I make a story based on the clues I have before me: a rustling sound in the grass, the crack of a breaking twig, the knowledge that I have left a tube of toothpaste in my backpack, the image of the cooler stocked with food far too close to the tent. As I lie on my back, vigilant, with my ears tuned to pick up any noise, the story of the bear becomes real until I am consumed by fear.
The truth is that the sounds are probably from the wind, or even a small animal moving through the area. Of course, it is plausible that there is a bear outside my tent. But it is unlikely. Like so many nights before, when I am finally brave enough to look outside the tent’s door, there is nothing there.
For some reason, individuals who experience bipolar paranoia are often quite skilled at concocting stories of fear. At some point along the spectrum of mania, depression, and mixed episodes, paranoia creeps in. In my life, it can happen at all points of that spectrum, but it is most common when I am already anxious and agitated and in the midst of a mixed episode. Because something is wrong in the chemical functioning of my brain, I have to find a way to make sense of the pain and anxiety in my body—and so I match that internal tumult with the scariest story I can create. I do not feel good, so something must be wrong in my life.
Do you ever trick people into thinking you are OK?
Individuals with bipolar disorder quickly learn how to become tricksters—because the truth is simply not polite.
I leaned to the left in the photograph, laughing as I held a puppy on the bow of a green riverboat. I was smiling my slightly crooked smile, and in the background—in a dark sky above black spruce trees—were two bright arcs of a double rainbow. A puppy, a smile, a rainbow—all three were the unmistakable symbols of pure and perfect happiness.
Little did the photographer, or anyone else, know that it was all a trick. Despite the props in that photograph, despite being surrounded by joy and backlit by rainbows, the sky was still dark.
My husband could say I am “worth it” despite my bipolar illness, but he does not. Instead, we both say that is a question that should never be asked.
When it is below zero and I am ice fishing on a frozen Alaskan lake, I concentrate all my energy on catching fish. Each time I fish, my husband—who knows I love fishing more than almost anything—immediately goes into support mode.
Remorse after a bipolar episode can cause tremendous pain, but when everybody else says “don’t look back,” I say: “look.”
I once read a book about tracking animals, and when I lived for several months on the edge of the enormous Chugach State Park in Alaska, I tracked a snowshoe hare in the alder thickets along the side of a popular hiking trail.
Parents cannot fix a bipolar disorder diagnosis. This leads to guilt and frustration, but once they accept it as a brain-based disorder, they can learn how to help.
“I never want to leave you,” I whispered from the air mattress on the floor of our family cabin. I tried not to look under the bed, a worried eight-year old listening to the coyotes yip in the darkness and the beaver’s tail slapping the river’s surface.
Years of rock-climbing wisdom told me not to try to climb down. The only way was up, but I was frozen with fear, my hands pressed against the granite slab, hips tight and straining against the cliff, my right foot holding all of my weight on a tiny foothold below me. I was high above a rocky valley we Alaskans call Hatcher’s Pass, and snowflakes were beginning to fall around me. If I fell now, my body would hit the wall’s face before the rope pulled taut.
Climbing down a cliff is nearly impossible. As you peer down its face, your body simply gets in the way. Climbing up is the only thing you can do. That day, I could not show the tough guy belaying me that I was afraid. And so I kept on climbing.
Later, many years later, when I was in my late thirties, after a divorce and while waiting to learn whether I had cancer or not, that same tough guy told me that my life had been “tragic.”
I could not disagree more. Yes, I have suffered—but we all have. I have struggled with my greatest challenge, bipolar disorder, throughout my life. I have experienced the sturm und drang of extreme moods that would alternate between euphoria and absolute despair. Yes, I have not yet achieved the lofty goals I once set for myself, because I have at times struggled to be able to even complete the basic activities of everyday survival.
Several years ago, I went through an extremely painful divorce, when my ex-husband told me that my bipolar disorder was a “mountain of darkness” that he could not recover from. Last year, after the discovery of three tumors in my body, I spent several months not knowing whether they were benign or malignant. (And, thank God, they were benign.)
But, my life has been blessed in so many ways. Since birth, I have always been surrounded by love. My parents and sister have never, even for a moment, let me doubt their warm, true-hearted love and support for me, even when we have all had occasional difficulties during the worst moments of my illness. My parents taught me many things, including how to write, how to fly-fish, and—simply—how to be a good person.
I am still lucky enough to be surrounded by love. I am blessed to have a family now, with a husband who rubs lavender oil on my back when I cycle, who supports and cares for me every single day, and who brought two boys into my life whom I love with all my heart.
Yes, I have struggled, and, at times, the pain of bipolar disorder has completely overwhelmed me, often for weeks or months at a time. I have, at times, lost all ability to function because of side effects or medication withdrawal. Yes, there have been times when I could not get out of bed, when I could not go to work, but I have had a successful career.
Mine has been a blessed life. That day when I was on the cliff in Hatcher’s Pass, I eventually unfroze and found that handhold to pull myself up. Although I often write about my illness, I also want to write about my wellness, about the wonderful pieces of my life- and all of the things that keep me climbing up.
On the rivers I used to float upon in western Alaska, I liked to just eat the peanut butter out of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. There was just too much chocolate in the whole thing for me. As I sat on the edge of the big rubber raft in my waders and wading jacket, I would fling each piece of extra chocolate into the ripples below. A velvety gift to whoever fancied it.
I just recorded a video of myself on my computer talking about how I feel when I am well because I am well now. This is for me to play when I am cycling. This is primarily because when I am cycling, I have obsessive, depressing thoughts that:
I am a terrible person
My husband doesn’t love or want me anymore
My husband is not being honest with me
I am ugly both inside and out
I am a bad stepmother
I am a bad wife
I recorded a video called “When I am well.” I recorded it today, when I am feeling well. I told myself that I am a wonderful person, that when I am well I know that my thoughts when I am cycling are ridiculous, that my husband does love me, that he is faithful and honest with me, that everything is OK, that I am a great stepmom and wife and basically that I am a good, lovable person.
I haven’t tried watching this yet when I am cycling but it might be a good thing to try. I am headed into spring and even though everyone tells me “don’t worry about it,” I do worry about it.
Over the last year-and-a-half, I have slowly been tapering off of my medication cocktail. I had gotten up to maybe eight bipolar medications and now I’m down to about half that many. This process has worn me out, damaged my self-esteem, and almost wrecked me. I feel sorry sometimes for my husband, who comforted and loved his newlywed wife through the ups and downs and crazies of coming off the likes of Latuda and lithium.
It’s so easy to start a medication. The doctor just prescribes it, without thinking that you may have to get off it one day. As a result, I’m still on clonazepam, a benzodiapine, and, yes, I’m totally addicted.
Even though I’m getting older, I want to have a baby. It’s my only real regret in life– that I never had my own children. My young nieces have babies, and I am secretly envious– I am twice their age, and I’ve never given birth. I would be a very high-risk pregnancy, and I am worried about how my mental illness will react to not being on any medicine, but I am willing to try. The clock ticks away, but right now I am weaning off two more. I worry about weaning off of them and what it might do to me, but I am doing well so far.
My husband is wonderful. He takes care of me when I am ill. I try to make it up to him– although he says I don’t need to– by feeding him and providing for him in any way that I can. He puts up with the paranoia, my overwhelming fears, and the obsessive thoughts. He protects me when I have suicidal thoughts. He does have a limit though. He gets stressed out and short-tempered after a few weeks of cycling. I’ve learned that it takes about three weeks of withdrawal before it starts to affect him too. Even though it is sometimes hard, he loves me completely.