Bipolar Disorder is a lifelong disease. There is no cure. Regardless of how well it’s treated, or not treated it has an effect on every day, one way or another. It may not be obvious, or disruptive, but it’s always there. And one thing I’ve noticed is, there is one thing that the vast majority of everyone with this disease has in common.
We end up with nothing.
Sure, there are exceptions. For example, Kay Jamison comes to mind. She’s a Clinical Psychologist and writer who has focused on Bipolar Disorder, which she’s had her whole adult life. I’m pretty sure she’s not broke. Carrie Fisher is another. Needless to say, I’m sure her share of the Star Wars movies was enough for her to live comfortably. Then again, she had a pretty extravagant lifestyle and made bad choices, so who is to say what she actually ended up with.
But they are the lucky ones.
Of course, there are various levels of impact depending on the severity of the illness. Bipolar I, while horrible in its own right doesn’t necessarily mean that one is incapable of maintaining a somewhat normal life. Not minimizing the personal struggle, but by definition it’s a milder form of the disease. Bipolar II is a totally different story. This can be completely debilitating, affecting every single day of a lifetime. Even during periods without an active episode there are consequences to deal with that never seem to end. Has anyone ever ended up in Jail because of an episode? I have. Has depression made it impossible to make it to work? It sure has for me. At the very least it results in lost wages, and worst case results in losing the job. Another way to be unemployed is working while in the throes of a manic episode. Boy can that be a doozy! I’ve screamed at customers (and bosses), worked for days on end to come up with grandiose ideas that are going to save the company, or just generally being a nuisance by bouncing off the walls and rambling on to coworkers.
And the state where I work is a ‘hire at will’ state, so they don’t need an excuse to let you go. “I’m sorry, we no longer need your services.”
I guess I’m really talking about the long term effects though. There may be periods of being highly functional and successful. But, for me at least, each one of those times has been offset by the bad times. And it’s what I’ve observed so many times with others.
Let me use myself as an example. The early years were just bad. I couldn’t hold a job more than a couple of years, and it always ended badly. I went through multiple relationships and marriages, all with disastrous results. There were periods of high success. I started and ran my own accounting firm, and built a solid business in a very short time. And I lost it all when I spent several months inpatient at a mental hospital. (Well, two hospitals, but that’s another story). And then spent years and years unemployed, more or less incapacitated. I started to get things together in my 40’s. I held a decent job for 5 years, with reasonable growth and promotions. About the time I started to lose it again, I moved to a new job and was able to focus my excessive energy in a productive way. Another 4 years of success. I did lose that job, but this time it was a buyout that got me, not as a result of my illness. And I was able to leverage that job into an even better one; this time as a vice president of a software as a service company. I was rolling with financial gain. I felt like I had truly made it. But again, through no fault of my own the job went away. An economic downturn in our market (Construction) shut us completely down. And I started my own downward spiral.
I have to say though, even though I was at peak performance with work, there were still related issues. Even though successful in my career, I made some really bad choices with relationships, and ended up losing everything I had gained. So when the job ran out, I was just as broke as I was at 35 when completely controlled by the disease. I eventually found another job, but at about ½ the salary I was used to. By then though, I had lost control of myself, and ended up with a spectacular manic episode. That one landed me in the hospital again, and when I came out I not only lost my job, but my wife as well. Again, I ended up with basically the clothes on my back. The next couple of years were absolute hell. I couldn’t find work, and even if I had, I was so depressed I doubt I could have maintained it. I had no income other than the small amount of unemployment I was receiving. My food budget was $25 a week. And that was a good week. I went from 175 lbs down to 130, just from lack of eating. That time resulted in a suicide attempt. Not that I haven’t had those before, but I came damned close to succeeding this time. But I pulled through, ended up finding another job, and have been there for 6 years and going strong. My treatment seems to be working, and I’m confident that I’m emotionally in a good place.
And I still have nothing.
I’ve been living with my Girlfriend for the past 3 years. I’m more than paying my way (I cover about two thirds of our bills), but it’s all hers. She owns the house. It’s her furniture. Everything reflects her style and taste. It’s not that I have a problem with that, except that if anything ever happens between us, I again will have to start over from scratch. And in spite of all the success in recent years, I’ve not been able to away anything towards the future. I’m getting older now, and retirement is staring me straight in the face. And I’ll have the choice of working until I die, hoping I don’t lose my relationship, or living in abject poverty.
Not too bad, huh? I’m almost 60 years old, and have nothing except a few items I’ve been able to hold on to through all the marriages and moves, and a car that I own with the bank. Oh, and a boat. My boat is the only asset that I have that’s fully paid for. It’s a shame it’s not big enough to live on.
So you see? By and large I’ve had a good life. Or, more to the point I’ve survived the worst, and grown into a good life. But the damage is done. The disease has taken its toll. There have been relatively short term episodes that have turned into a lifetime of failure.
Now, don’t misunderstand. This is not depression talking. I feel as good as I ever had. (But not too good!) It’s a realization I’ve recently come to about the sum of my life. And after a lifetime of pain and joy, of ups and downs, good times and bad, I really have nothing. Sure, I have my kids and my grandkids, and they are certainly not ‘nothing’. As much as I love them however, it’s not going to support me in my old age. My self-reliance will eventually fail.
Hm. I started off with the premise that we are all in the same place due to this affliction. But the more I think about it, the less I see the comparison. I’ve known people who are completely consumed their entire life, and others who have managed and coped successfully. So when I generalize on the cost of being bipolar, it’s not fair or accurate. Not everyone ends up with nothing to show for a lifetime of effort. Failure is not a forgone conclusion for those who suffer from this illness. There’s only one absolute I can state. Being bipolar can come with a high cost.
And it’s a cost I’ve paid in spades.