Thriving with Bipolar Disorder – Meet John in California!

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This is an interview with John from California who I met in a Goodreads book club (we are both authors). He did a very nice review of my book and gave some great critical feedback on the writing – John is a 17 year magazine editor and writer. I wish I could have hired him before publishing!

John has written two books – a collection of travel humor and a memoir of his time in Vietnam. For this interview he wanted to remain anonymous, the only reason I am not publishing the titles and links to Amazon sales page. There’s more cool things about him… check out the below.

Thriving with Bipolar Disorder - Meet John in California!
Cook’s Bay on the Island of Moorea in Tahitia – John’s Favorite Travel Spot. I Said I’d Buy Him a Beer if He Took Me on His Next Trip… Still Waiting for a Reply 🙂

1.   Thank you for taking the time to share your story. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure, I’m an author, writer, and former magazine editor. I’m divorced, have a son, and am a Vietnam vet.

I’m an avid traveler and have published a collection of my travel humor, as well as a humorous memoir of my tour of duty in Vietnam. At the age of 62 I joined the Peace Corps and served as an English teacher in the Philippines for two years.

2.   What events led to you receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder?

I was diagnosed with manic-depression, not bipolar disorder. It evolved after my divorce in my late 40s, which was a gut-wrenching ordeal. I was overwhelmed by fatigue, sleep disorders, and bouts of incapacitation that felt like my chest was collapsing under an enormous weight.

My only recourse was to crawl into bed, cover myself up, and wait it out. During the attacks, I didn’t want to leave the bed, the room, or turn on the light. The very thought of going outside and seeing or talking to anyone was inconceivable.

I finally sought help of a therapist who was wonderful. She went through my family history and concluded, much to my surprise, that “Your depression symptoms are not recent. I believe you’ve been depressed ‘all’ your life.”

When she said that, it all became clear. Looking back, I realized she was right. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. Extremely strict parents; berating, intimidating father; psychologically disturbed mother; estranged sisters; few friends; shy, withdrawn, socially awkward personality. As a result, I kept mostly to my room through my entire youth where I escaped into fantasy (hence my early knack for writing).

My tour of duty in Vietnam helped me in more ways than one. I saw no combat, but I worked in a very highly classified area of the base. It was my first-ever job in my life. After being berated all my life by my father for my shortcomings, I was finally on my own and no longer underneath is unceasing criticism. I not only flourished, I kicked ass.

In Vietnam, we worked 7 days a week 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. I not only became invaluable to my superior officers but they awarded me a Bronze Star, the fourth highest medal in the Armed Services. From then on, I was no longer quiet, withdrawn, or insecure. I emerged sure of myself.

Upon why return, my newfound confidence immediately clashed with my father, and for the first time I was able to stand up to him. Although I had emerged a new man, the chemical imbalance in my brain that had afflicted my mother’s side of the family for generations was still there, as were the serious scars from my tumultuous family life. Over the ensuing years my confidence and self-esteem began to gradually slip back to where they had been during my youth.
 

3.   If you don’t mind, can you share how old you were at the time of diagnosis and what type of bipolar illness you have i.e. Bipolar I Disorder (BP-1), Bipolar II Disorder (BP-2), Cyclothymic, etc.

Manic Depression in my late 40s.
 

4.   Do you have other diagnosed medical conditions besides bipolar(physical or mental)? For example, I have fibromyalgia and deal with chronic fatigue. I also have a form of subclinical hypothyroid. All of these have affected my bipolar states and when treated successfully my severe bipolar illness states (mania, suicidal depression) improved much.

Only other medical conditions are glaucoma, which doesn’t affect my depression, and occasional sprains here and there from tennis.

Note from Molly: Lol. Tennis sprains can be nasty!
 

5.   Now for the good stuff! What things – medications, vitamins,therapy, books, alternative treatments, etc. – have helped you to not only survive this difficult illness but thrive in your life?

My therapist prescribed Zoloft, which worked wonders. But it did not help with my sleep disorders (night-owl tendency, super-active mind, and restless legs syndrome, which sounds silly but is worse than the notorious Chinese Water Torture), so she also prescribed Ambien, which also worked well, except for the giant spider hallucinations at the corner of my right eye, which after awhile I kind of looked forward to. “Oh, hello again, Ralph.”

Years later, a new doctor took me off Ambien (“It should only be for temporary use, not all the time.”). Instead, he prescribed Trazadone for depression because it also helps put you to sleep and keeps you asleep. I’ve been using it ever since with wonderful results and no side effects. Sorry, Ralph — miss U!

Note from Molly: Lol again. Ralph sounded kind-of cute…

I’ve found nothing useful for my depression other than medication. I’ve got a chemical imbalance in my brain that is not going to go away because I go to a quiet dark room, relax, and listen to soothing music. My depression scoffs at soothing music.

I don’t trust vitamins or health supplements either after a recent documentary on the industry. Thirty percent of the time the ingredients in the pills were found to be not present at all, plus most of them are dangerously toxic (instead of giving you 100% of your daily suggested amount, many are for 400% or 600% — check your labels before you buy).

Note from Molly: There are mass-produced crap brands, but also many quality supplements, some that consent to independent testing. And the toxic effects in that documentary “The Truth about Vitamins” were from taking large doses, not recommended amounts. Just clarifying…

Yoga…really? I don’t know what that does for anyone except loosen their wallet. Therapy? Everyone I’ve ever know who’s gone to therapists has been doing so for years, some for decades, and they still have the same problems. That ought to tell you something.

It seems to me that seeing a therapist for depression over and over again would result in the opposite – it would make me more depressed. Although a therapist did help diagnose my depression, I’ve never seen the logic or had the need to go back. What else would she tell me – you still have it?

Of course I still have it. I’ll always have it. I’d only need to see her again if I could no longer cope with having depression. But I do cope with it. I accept it, I treat it, I’m fine.

As for books, I’ve looked at a few, but most repeat the same common sense things. One book, however, was very specific and helped me greatly. It was offered as part of a class that my health provider offered. “Ten Days to Self-Esteem” by David D. Burns, M.D.

It covers such topics as “You Can Change the Way You Feel,” “Getting Down to Root Causes,” “The Perfectionist’s Script for Self-Defeat,” and tons of self-help forms and charts to fill out.
 

6.   What advice do you have for others who may be overwhelmed by the symptoms (hypomania leading to impulsive behaviour, rapid cycling mood changes, hospitalizations due to severe depressive episode or a manic episode resulting in psychosis…) and feel discouraged or without hope?

Since I don’t have this severe form of depression and have never experienced the above symptoms or been hospitalized, I can offer no firsthand advice here. The only thing I might say about my manic-depression condition is that, since taking Trazadone, I almost never experience the depression symptoms.

However, my manic state is very much alive, is not suppressed, and seems to be perpetually at the ready. And when it kicks in, I embrace it. Let the dogs out!

I’ve never taken drugs like speed or cocaine, but when I’m locked onto a project (from something as mundane as arranging my CDs to rewriting an entire novel, I am fiendish until I get it done). And even more surprising, the quality and quantity that results from such gushes of energy are always top notch. The happiest moments of my life now occur during such manic episodes.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking (’cause I’m thinking the same thing’). If I’m taking medication to suppress my manic-depression, wouldn’t the medication suppress both the manic and depression states?

Why would it suppress one but not the other? One explanation is that maybe these periods when I think I’m in a manic state are really something else. Bottom line: I don’t care. I choose to think it’s my manic state. Maybe that’s my way of coping with my condition. Of owning it. To me, I’m beating both parts of my condition.

Trazadone takes care of one half; I embrace the other half. Take that, Depression – you can’t handle the truth!

Thank you!

Wow, what a story and it is so important for all stories to be told. Especially those of us who have lived with this condition for many years. It is a lifelong illness, and you seem to have not only coped well, but thrived much of the time. Congrats to you.

I get your point about mania too. Some of what you describe sounds more like hypomania, than actual mania or maybe a mix and you are fortunate you can have some control when in that state, or that your high states don’t spiral out of control.

Some of us do spiral out of control at times like me, so mania is often a quick trip into treatment, or possibly to being involuntarily hospitalized. Just wanted to note that.

It’s an incredibly complicated illness. Why we need better understanding and treatment options from the onset of Manic Depression throughout the years we all survive it.

Best to you. And get back to me about our ‘need to be planned’ trip. 🙂 Molly

Photograph of Cook’s island is a free use image on Wikipedia.

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