Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I lived hints of what was to come.
14 . Bipolar Hints in My Early 20s -- Foreshadowing
During my twenties, I had a few experiences that proved a foreshadowing of my bipolar symptoms to come. According to current date recorded by the Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), the average age of onset of bipolar disorder is 25. Fifty percent of all those who will develop bipolar disorder have experienced some symptoms and are developing a personal history of mood irregularities that can lead a physician to an accurate diagnosis. However, early signs are often overlooked. Bipolar symptoms may also be misconstrued as another mental health issue, or a physical malady, even by trained psychiatrists.
Although I was not diagnosed until I reached age 35, I had symptoms. The incidence of my episodes was not frequent, and one seemed to have no relationship to the next. I got very emotional. I didn’t advertise my depression or mania because I thought what I was going through was normal. What does one have to compare to except his own life experiences? There were private emotional demons that I didn’t share with friends, but did document in my poetry. I found it easier to open up to a blank page, rather than face a questioning return gaze from a friend.
Extreme emotional anxiety and stress are often predecessors of a bipolar episode. After the episode, I rarely remember many of my symptoms. I don’t know if that’s due to the nature of the disorder, or the nature of the antipsychotic medication that clears an episode. There were many times in my life that I spent an inordinate amount of time crying, not in public as much as in my own private space.
My late teens were not particularly happy. The summer before high school graduation, with friends I attended school with all my life, my father came home from work and announced that the oil company he worked for was transferring us from Corpus Christi to Houston, Texas. I was already wearing my graduation ring, which ended up not matching the school I graduated from. I worked half a day my senior year through the Vocational Education Program, and my peers elected me as president of the group.
I didn’t take much time for socialization, and the year seemed to grow more depressing as the months progressed. I did not go to my prom. By the end of the year, the other students in the program generally disliked me. I had no idea why. I thought I was easy going and easy to get along with. I avoided disagreements. I suppose my mood swings were showing through even then.
Whatever was happening, I had no reason to think my experience anything particularly out of the ordinary. Everything about my bipolar disorder seems normal for me. When I reflect off others, I am more able to identify “my abnormal behavior”. The world always looks a bit different from what is actually is recorded inside your own head’s perspective.
I began study across town at the University of Houston in the fall of 1973. I lived at home with my parents, and I was promoted to driving myself the 45 minute each way commute in my daddy’s 1963 push button Dodge Polara, while my father carpooled to work. We lived in Houston, Texas, my license was as valid as anyone else’s, and I unofficially had a car.
I loved exploring my section of the city, but I didn’t wander into getting lost. Houston is much larger than Corpus Christi, and the pace of the city beats harder and faster. I had always been a good student, but my first semester of university study was a challenge.
After my first college grade reporting period, my academic marks were lower than they had been in high school. Personal issues distracted me too. I figured out part of the problem myself. By the second semester, I believed the professors really did expect students to complete and understand all the assigned readings in all course texts and additional readings. I began to wear bifocals, and I read all the time.
I was majoring in history and English, though the first couple of years in college consist of general requirement courses. I was enjoying studying biology, even as an 8:00 am class. I was the type of student to borrow notes or make up assignments I missed due to absence. I took my studies most seriously. As an only child, my adventures were teaching my parents the trials and tribulations of college. I was doing the best I could under the circumstances.
During a sunny February Saturday, I had gone to the university biology building to make up a biology lab I’d missed. Afterwards, I drove leisurely, enjoying the sunshine and warm temperature on the way to the hospital where my father had been admitted.
The previous Thanksgiving Daddy had had minor strokes. He was trying to repair a transistor radio, and he said he couldn’t make his hands work right. He was diagnosed as having had a minor stroke, which lead to additional tests, revealing the diagnosis of lung cancer. Daddy’s was quickly consuming lung cancer. He became frail so quickly.
I took my first college finals. My father had spent most of the time at home, between chemotherapy sessions, but was, at times, in a weakened state requiring hospitalization. The ambulance had brought my father to Herman Hospital two days previously. The last time I’d seen him, he took a long time to answer my cheery questions, and I couldn’t get a smile out of hi—and he wasn’t interested in a chocolate shake I’d brought him. I was hoping he’d be feeling better, especially on such a pretty day. I sang along to the radio, “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun. . . .”sung by Terry Jacks. The lyrics of that song were translated by Rod McKuen, an there's a lot of thinking with that song.
Seasons In The Sun lyrics
Goodbye to you my trusted friend
We've known each other since we were nine or ten
Together we've climbed hills and trees
Learned of love and ABC's
Skinned our hearts and skinned our knees
Goodbye my friend it's hard to die
When all the birds are singing in the sky
Now that spring is in the air
Pretty girls are everywhere
Think of me and I'll be there
Goodbye Papa please pray for me
I was the black sheep of the family
You tried to teach me right from wrong
Too much wine and too much song
Wonder how I got along
Goodbye papa it's hard to die
When all the birds are singing in the sky
Now that the spring is in the air
Little children everywhere
When you see them I'll be there
We had joy we had fun we had seasons in the sun
But the wine and the song like the seasons have all gone
We had joy we had fun we had seasons in the sun
But the wine and the song like the seasons have all gone
I finally found a parking place just before noon, and continued from the parking lot taking the long walk to his hospital room, several floors up. I didn’t know that my mother had called the University to get word for me to hurry, but I never received the message, and made my way leisurely. I didn’t know I needed to hurry.
I arrived as the medical staff was clearing my mother out of the room in order that the doctors would have room to work with their equipment, the crash cart. I slipped into the room to be quickly ushered out.
Daddy expired as my mother and I waited outside in the hallway. I remember the doctor ushered us into a private area, and he announced that my father “had passed”. It struck me as a very non-technical choice of words to convey what had happened.
Rumor has it that all children reared in Texas refer to their father as “Daddy”. I was Daddy’s little girl. When he went fishing, he often took me along with him. When he mowed the yard, I had the proud job of sweeping the sidewalk. If I was lucky, the ice cream truck would be heard far enough down the street that I could run into the house, get into my daddy’s change on top of the vanity in the bedroom, and receive the sweetest snow-cone treat.
All during my high school years, Daddy drove me to the skating rink on Friday and Saturday nights, and picked me up at 10:30, when I’m sure he was ready for sleeping. I remember many warm summer nights when Mother and Daddy sat on the patio swing, and I played in the yard with the dog. Daddy was an integral part of my life until his passing at age 62, in February of 1974. I still miss him, and regret the good things in my life that he wasn’t around to experience with me.
I am an only child, and my mother and I leaned on each other completely after my father’s death. Our close relationship later became a problem because I recognized we were having an intertwined relationship, and I tried to deal with our codependency, but my mother never really understood the problem. For a while, it was she and I against the world. Our lives and emotions became entangled so that there was no personal boundary between us. We acted on behalf of each other, in each other’s interests, without telling each other. I became rebellious for the sake of rebellion, and our relationship became very strained. Different people grieve in different ways.
I met my first true love in college, just a few weeks after my father passed. A forgotten yellow umbrella led to a chance meeting with a fellow I’d had my eye on in the large auditorium I reported to for US History. John asked me on a date, and I was so thrilled that I could have done cartwheels on the spot. The date turned into a serious relationship, and we spent most of the summer together. I met a couple of his friends and we all went to movies, hung out and played board games, went on picnics, and began to frequent a little downtown Houston spot for dancing and drinking.
Alcohol was a battling point for my mother because she never drank, and I never saw my father drink. But she couldn’t stop me. Marijuana smoking was part of the college scene in those days too. My teenage rebellion blossomed later than usual, but I was dating and very happy with John. Mother was happy that I was happy, she liked my new friends, and she didn’t usually stick her nose in my business.
The most embarrassing moment of my life was when John and I were in the living room, in the dark, unclothed, and in the process of making love when my mother walked in. Well, I was taking birth control pills to control acne, and she was assured I wasn’t a virgin anymore. I know it broke her heart. John and I had an official engagement announcement party for his parents, my mom, and my visiting great aunt to meet and eat. My Great Aunt added to my growing things to be embarrassed about. We planned to be married on June 19th, of 1975.
My Great Aunt has lived through lots in her many years on earth. She had no politically correct filter in her speech. "Nigger day?" Everyone laughed and I turned red. I often recall the scene when I hear of Juneteenth being celebrated.
By fall I had a little engagement ring, and plans to marry the next summer. He and I had different majors and different classes that fall. I thought nothing of him spending a great deal of time with his study buddy who was in his classes with him. During midterm exams, he even spent the night at his friend’s apartment in Montrose.
I was in love and naïve, and I thought our love would go on forever. Studies also filled my days and nights, and I always looked forward to spending time with my fiancé on the weekends. During our relationship, we spent a great deal of time on the phone, with me stretching a long curled telephone card its full length to obtain privacy for talking in my bedroom. One night later in the fall, his telephone call changed my life.
“I can’t marry you. I’m gay.”
It wouldn’t even soak into my brain. When it did, I tried bargaining the relationship, saying that I didn’t think a threesome would be an insurmountable problem. His mind was set. The year was 1974, I was almost 20, and the weather carried the chill of his words to my bones. I was such a poor excuse for a girlfriend, that I’d turned him to men. That’s not the way it was, but that was what stayed with me emotionally for years. I made it through my sophomore classes at the University of Houston that spring. I never shook the unhappiness and shame. Time buried it somewhat.
About ten years later I ran into one of our group of friends, and we had a happy hour drink together. In catching up with who had divorced, and whatever else had happened, my old friend passed on what had happened to my former beau. I felt like the ground opened up and swallowed me. I could hardly breathe.
“He stuck a gun in his mouth and blew his head off.”
By then, AIDS was an issue, and that’s the info I expected. I was totally blown away. My former gay beau was so unhappy that he ended it all. Humanity adieu.
I went off and forgot my favorite sweater in the bar. I was in shock for more than that day. I’d never known anyone personally who had committed suicide. Now I know that suicide is never an option. Talking about suicide should be treated as a plea for help. He’s buried in the cemetery in Alief, Texas. I’ve never gotten myself there for a visit. John Williams would have an old looking headstone by now.
I transferred to The University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 1975 to complete my degree, and Mother remained in the family house, she grieved, and moved on with her life. She was still young at 53, and she enjoyed working different types of part-time jobs. Her hours were happily occupied by a night job where she served as hostess at the Black Angus Restaurant, or several office day jobs, doing the office work which she enjoyed like a hobby I lived independently in Austin, first housing at Kinsolving dorm on campus, and later to off campus apartments.
I enjoyed the change from living with my mother. I majored in English, in addition to accumulating many hours in history, psychology, as well as the required courses toward secondary teacher certification. I was a member of The University’s Humanities Council, and remember a dreamlike Christmas celebration at the Dean’s home.
I was putting much effort into my studies, having mostly made As and Bs. I joined both a service sorority, GDE, and a service fraternity, APO. Members of APO are in charge of running the huge Texas flag onto the field during Texas football games. One semester I was co-coordinator for the campus wide blood drive, and another semester I served as a Service Vice-President, organizing and coordinating service projects.
GDE and APO worked many projects together, and by the spring of my second semester, I had a steady boyfriend. He had blue eyes, curly longish hair, and possessed all the qualifications I had for a future husband. We would have had beautiful blue-eyed curly haired babies.
We lived at different apartments with different addresses when we stayed to take classes during the summer session. As time went on, he was spending more time at my efficiency apartment than he was with the roommate in a house he and a fraternity brother had rented until fall. My mother came to visit once, and we hurriedly moved all his clothes from taking half of the closet to occupying the trunk of my car. If my mother noticed the closet, or suspected anything about us residing together, she never spoke of it. Even with the pressure of summer classes, I was in love with a wonderful guy named John, and all our friends knew it. We were a couple. That summer was heavenly.
The fall of 1976 arrived, along with a new class of potential pledges. John and I had been together for seven months, but I could tell he had a real interest in this busty little blonde girl from Amarillo. I heard he asked her for a date. I heard they went out. I considered myself, again, a sexual relationship reject. This time my love chased after bigger boobs, and a cheerleader’s personality. Other guys that I was friendly with asked me out, but when I went we both had a horrible time. I wasn’t over John like he was over me. School went on, and my friends tried to console me. I admit to being hardheaded.
Your basic college apartment usually contains many books, a few beers, and a fifth or two of liquor, and mine was no different. I’d been to a happy hour with some of my girlfriends an afternoon in early November. The party progressed to another club, and perhaps another before we ended up at my apartment to finish off the night in gossip.
I still couldn’t get that damn busty blonde out of my consciousness. In my head, our break up and my unhappiness was all her fault. I wanted John back, or I wanted nothing. When I visited my bathroom to release some of my heavy alcohol consumption, my eye caught a prescription medication bottle, about half full, prescribed for anxiety. I up ended the bottle, flushed the toilet and returned to my friends. I was crying hard when I came out of the bathroom, and one of my girlfriends came to me and gave me a big hug.
She said, “Forget about him”, and she hugged me again. Friends can be angels.
I cried even harder, and in the process, my mouth opened, and little red pills fell out of my mouth and on to the floor. I had already swallowed enough to make me miserable the next day, and I remember attending my morning psychopharmacology class in a daze. I metabolized the drugs and alcohol out of my system without going to the University Medical Center. My sorority sister saved me from my first suicide attempt. I was a month shy of turning 22. I almost didn’t make it any further.
Afterward I disengaged myself from having a social life. I was embarrassed at what I had done, and why I had done it. I thought all my friends knew what happened, and I knew they didn’t want to be around me. Nobody told me. I just felt it. I was experienced in studying with a broken heart. Two semesters later, in December 1977, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, with a major in English, a minor in history, and a certification to teach secondary school. My college education took me four and a half years to complete, but I did it. As I was returning to normal from an episode once, oneof my counselors noted to me that my college degree is something no one can take away from me, no matter what the future may hold.