I overheard my husband describing my health to someone on the phone the other day.
“She’s definitely better,” he said.
“She’s trying a lot of new things. It’s hard to say what’s helping the most.”
“Well, she’ll always have it. I mean, it will never go away completely. But she’s able to manage her symptoms as of late. She’s able to get out of bed in the morning and go to work.”
Wow, I thought to myself, he gets it.
He truly gets it.
In some ways, he accepted the enduring nature of my illness long before I did.
I’m an easy sell — dangerously gullible — so when I hear commercials for new drugs promise an end to death thoughts, fatigue, apathy, and anxiety, I believe them, much like I believed in Santa Claus until my mean cousin made fun of me because I was way past the age to have not figured out it was Uncle Steve who was donning a white beard and ho ho ho-ing between his martinis.
When I decided to go the holistic route, I’d read profile after profile in diet and health books about people who were on four kinds of medication to treat theirbipolar disorder, but once they eliminated gluten and dairy from their diet (and added fish oil supplements, a probiotic, Vitamin B-12), they could ditch the meds and enjoy a happily-ever-after life.
Then there was reality, which fails to produce sexy sound bites.
It’s hard to finally swallow the fact that treatment-resistant depression, bipolar disorder, and other severe mood disorders can be lifelong companions because the bulk of health literature focuses on easy cures. Our media won’t promote any message that is complicated or messy, anything short of the quick fix. As Toni Bernhard, author of “How To Be Sick” says, “Our culture tends to treat chronic illness as some kind of personal failure on the part of the afflicted — the bias is often implicit or unconscious, but it is nonetheless palpable.”
I’m just as guilty as the person who hasn’t been fighting symptoms her whole life.
Yesterday I ran into a friend and her husband at church, and the husband told me that his daughter was bipolar and has attempted suicide three times.
“Does she have a good doctor?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” my friend said, “she’s at the University of Virginia.”
Why did I ask about her doctor?
Because it’s easier for me to hear that a person who tried to take her life three times doesn’t have the right care. If she has a top notch medical team and is still suicidal? That means her illness — which is my illness — is that much harder to treat. It’s serious stuff.
I felt lucky to be having a day without symptoms.
I’m even luckier to have had a string of 13 symptom-free days, as documented in my mood journal.
The difficult truth for many of us with chronic mood conditions is that, while we can experience glorious remissions, we’re never cured. Much like the cancer patient, we need to rearrange our entire lives so that the most important thing we do each day is to stay in remission (if we aren’t depressed) or to aim for remission (if we are depressed). We are always on call for the surprise visits from our illness and can never relax to the point of forgetting we are sick.
I have learned from members of Group Beyond Blue, the online depression support group I moderate, that this kind of vigilance doesn’t have to absorb the spills of joy from your life. If you know that everything is transient — the depressive episodes and the remissions — you are better able to welcome each. As Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chödrön explains, the healing happens in the movement between emotional states or in the natural cycle of our moods. She writes:
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
I posted that quote on my Facebook page awhile back, and a woman disagreed with it. She was bipolar and said that her medication combination has provided her a newfound stability.
I congratulated her.
Part of me envied her.
I do better with lines than with circles.
But my recovery is still very much a work in progress.
Just ask my husband.