Let’s start at the very beginning

I’m going to crack open my heart, peel back the layers surrounding me, and essentially strip down to my bare inner self here. It’s a little unnerving, but I am telling myself this is for the greater good: I hope that things I write will be of benefit to you who are reading this. So here goes.

I have always been a perfectionist. I have also always been a pretty optimistic, cheery, energetic person. I was brought up in a religious home and have always been faithful inside and out, if that makes sense. I have never had alcohol or cigarettes; I even avoid caffeine. I was taught to not take the Lord’s name in vain, and it still bothers me to hear people use God’s name as an expletive. I didn’t use bad language. I earned top grades since my early days and graduated as valedictorian of my high school. Generally, I was considered a “goody-goody.” No problem. I didn’t mind at all.

The summer I was 17 I had the amazing opportunity of spending five weeks at a state program for gifted students. The program itself was great and offered all kinds of interesting activities, but even better was spending that kind of time with students like myself. I felt like I belonged. I also fell in love. Ah, First Love. I had a whirlwind two-week romance with a boy who was smart and cute and who liked me, nerd that I was. I began to see myself as pretty and attractive to guys, an utterly new idea. It changed me.

It also devastated me to have to go home. The Boy lived a five-hour drive away. The romance was over. I saw him one more time, briefly, and we agonized over the distance between us. But that was it. He didn’t even try to keep up a long-distance relationship of any kind. I pined for him and went on with life, starting my senior year.

Several months later, I traveled to a state academic function, and it happened: I was in a crowded room, and all of a sudden space just opened up, and the Boy was standing a few feet away. A choir might as well have been singing and a heavenly light spotlighted down on him. I went to him, trembling. He responded distantly, and that was pretty much it. No happy reunion, no resuming of our summer romance. I was absolutely crushed.

Where is all this going? To what I now realize was my first “breakdown.” I crashed. I cried and cried and acted completely not myself. I don’t remember the details, since it happened 25 years ago and it’s too embarrassing for my mind to keep in my memory bank. I do remember, however, a teacher being called in and me acting out somehow that night in our hotel room, and then yelling and using my first bad language the next day when it came time to board the buses to go back home. Even thinking about the brief flashes of memory that are still there makes me cringe with embarrassment and shame. But in putting together pieces that resemble this outburst, I now know that this was the beginning of moments of not-normal behavior. I felt out of control and completely not myself, as if I’d been taken over by an alien being.

Even so, it was years until I even thought of this event as anything relevant to later incidents. I went off to college and went to see a counselor there, not because I felt compelled to do so by personal demons, but because my younger sister was facing her own demons at a drug rehab facility, and my mother told me that it would be good for the whole family to be involved somehow. I was 2500 miles away, so going to a therapist at college was the best I could do to be involved, I guess. I still felt a bit detached from the counseling, as if it wasn’t for ME, but for a family thing. I didn’t personally need the counseling, but I was contributing to the good of the family in a way. I did recognize that my family was dysfunctional (my parents had had issues over the years and divorced right at that time as well), and it was nice to have someone to talk to about those things. But otherwise, I was going about my own business, living the life I had been so eager to get to for years: being on my own at my dream school.

Oddly enough, I had another incident during that first year of school and I don’t think it still really struck me that anything was seriously wrong. I had boy issues throughout the year, but none really sent me into a tailspin. One evening, however, I was waiting for a date to take me to a very nice event at a theater on-campus. He was perpetually late and I’d warned him to be on time. Even so, he was hideously late and I “lost it” again. I yelled at him and generally overreacted. Again, my mind doesn’t care to let me remember details, but I remember the feeling of the out-of-control anger (rage? fury?) that was disproportionate to the offense, and the shame I felt at how I behaved. The guy was pretty easygoing, so, oddly, it didn’t seem to really damage the relationship. We broke up later, but it was just because it was time for it to be over, and I had realized I was crazy about a guy I was best friends with (who figured in to some later outbursts, a number of them).

I think I really just tried to ignore these events, or I considered them to be weird blips in an otherwise happy life in which I was still the happy, optimistic achiever who admittedly was a perfectionist and consequently a bit anxious, but everyone still saw me as a happy, energetic, bubbly person, so I could kind of skim over these incidents. In hindsight, they’re just signposts that I didn’t recognize for years for what they were.

Three years later, I was in a distance relationship of sorts with the aforementioned best friend. We supported each other through some challenging times in our respective church missionary assignments and felt we would be together at the end of them.

I will probably have to write later about more specifics of what I experienced during my mission time, but I can say briefly right now that it was generally great except for some big but brief blips at the very beginning and the very end. I came home feeling in need of support and shoring up, and I knew it was time to figure out what was wrong. At age 22, I finally realized I was depressed or … something. I came home from my mission to focus on getting myself well. Unfortunately, I expected love and support from the Male Best Friend, who had by that time been a part of my life for about 3 1/2 to 4 years. But I went to visit him, vulnerable and looking for support, and he decided practically within hours of my arrival that our relationship was not going to work out. It doubly devastated me, and when I went home two weeks later, I was in even worse condition than I had been when I’d come home from the mission service and, rather than feeling I had support to help me as I figured out what was wrong with me emotionally, I was even more crippled.

My father had had some of his own breakdowns and had once or twice decided to put himself in a hospital to get care. So I decided that was probably the best course for me. Again, I don’t care to remember the harrowing details, but I’m pretty sure from the snippets I’ll let myself remember I was at that point suicidal. So hospital it was. I went into our small-town hospital’s psychiatric unit voluntarily for what was almost a week, I think. It was odd and a little embarrassing to be inside a locked unit, and I had some fellow patients there who had some real issues that made mine seem small. But over the course of that week, the doctor there decided I was bipolar and began treating me with lithium.

I resumed my life, feeling better able to cope and probably doing better after being on the lithium, so I was able to go about life. I stayed in my small hometown for a month or two but then decided to go back to college early, a couple of months before the new semester would start and I would be enrolled. I just needed to get back with friends and in a place I enjoyed and felt comfortable. I still was absolutely heartbroken over my failed relationship, and that pained me for a long, long time, but I managed.

I checked in with counselors at college again, and I had regular blood tests to make sure the lithium wasn’t damaging my liver. But over time, I came to believe that wasn’t the best treatment, or rather, that it was unnecessary. I knew what the “typical” textbook symptoms were of bipolar disorder, and I just felt that I didn’t fit the profile (I didn’t stay up for days on end or get “manic” in the way that seems to be the “typical” way we hear about with certain cases). Lithium was a serious drug to be on, and I didn’t want to be taking it if it wasn’t completely necessary. So I went off it and seemed to do fine.

In more posts, I’ll share more about what I’ve experienced over the years. For now, this does cover the beginning. Now, I reflect on all that and wonder if I should have stayed on the lithium, and made things a lot simpler for myself, but who knows? Perhaps it was for the best I struggled and learned. I was able to have three pregnancies and give birth to three daughters, which I couldn’t have done if I’d been on lithium. In a way, hindsight doesn’t much matter now. I can’t say I have “clear”, for-sure answers now, but I do have years of experience and I know for certain that my brain chemistry does require me to be on medication of some kind. Again, I’ll share all those things in further posts. But it’s been a long haul these past 25 years, and I hope that in sharing these details of my life, I can help enlighten someone else and make things clearer in this world of mental health that can be oh-so-NOT clear.

Life of the mind

Cathy Carmode Lim View All →

I’m a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is RatedReads.com. I’m a mom of four and grandma of three.

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