The roots of my disorder stretch back to childhood. Events, some in my family, some external, have likely exacerbated an illness I already had, or perhaps were the cause of it. I’m not sure. I realize I was mentally ill when in my second-grade classroom with both hands I picked up one of those wooden little kid chairs right over my head and hurled it across the room. I don’t remember much about the incident, but I do recall the abject rage I felt. I wasn’t aiming the chair at anyone for it crashed into furniture when it landed, nor do I remember my motive for throwing it. Something brassed me off. A student? A predicament? The teacher?
My dad brought home a beautiful slate grey Weimaraner puppy when I was a baby. He grew to be a stunning specimen of the breed. I have a photo of the two of us in the living room at our first house, me, aged three, sitting on the carpet next to him in a knee-length royal blue satin dress with a wide, white collar, puffy sleeves with white cuffs above my elbows, feet in little white anklets inside black patent leather shoes, and shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair neatly combed and fastened with a clip. My arms are hugging my dog’s erect neck as he lay, haunches curved beneath him, my legs alongside his outstretched forelegs and paws. I don’t recall the occasion, but I do remember the love I was feeling toward Rudy, the name my dad had given him. Rudy instilled peace in me when I could find it nowhere else in the chaos, whether the chaos be inside my head, or my home environment, it seemed ubiquitous. Both my mom and dad drank heavily. Perhaps like me when at fifteen I turned to alcohol, they, too, were trying to alleviate the symptoms of their undiagnosed mania. In spite of the great quantities of alcohol intake, they prided themselves on never drinking during the day. They said people who did that were alcoholics.
With a thirty-minute drive home from my dad’s office we tended to eat late as he usually worked until seven. That allowed his dental patients who couldn’t make appointments during the day because of work constraints the ability to see him afterwards. Me and my three young sisters sat at the kitchen table waiting for our dad to join us. Mom was at the stove. To the rear of the kitchen was a stairwell with linoleum steps each edged with a strip of metal, leading down to the basement, which we referred to as the rec room. There was a shuffleboard on the floor and fastened to one of the wainscoted walls a dart cork. The darts were made from pinewood curving to a dull point at the back with brown and black bird feathers jutting from them, narrowing slightly at the front where you gripped them before the sharp metal point extruded. To the right of the staircase was a fully stocked bar and six wooden stools with cushions and backs. Along the wall across from the bar was a mirror, a backdrop for the liquor bottles with pour spouts perched on different levels of shelves. There were neon lights. The imbibers sitting on the stools would peek intermittently at themselves in the mirror to observe the fun they were having. I know this because I would sneak down the stairs in my pajamas to spy on the adults during their parties.
I can’t recall why we were eating in the kitchen that night where quarters were cramped as opposed to the dining room. Breaded fish sticks for the kids and my dad’s steak filled the house with aromas of flavors that fostered comfort, however, on this night, bedlam was about to occur. Rudy came into the kitchen and walking up to the table, sniffed my dad’s T-bone. Tilting his head he opened his mouth, grabbed the slab of meat, and sliding it smoothly from the plate to the floor he commenced to consume it. My sisters and I were paralyzed in a state of dread. It might have been funny at best, or disappointing at worse, I mean there were probably extra fish sticks in the freezer for my dad and Rudy could have been left to partake in the best meal of his life, but when your dad has bipolar, this was catastrophic. He entered the kitchen moments after Rudy had gotten his prize. “God damn sonofabitch!” And with his durable stiff work shoes he began kicking him. Rudy yelping with each blow, my dad continuously kicked him toward the top of the stairwell and with one great strike he kicked him down the steps. Each cry my dog discharged hurt my little girl heart like no agony I’d ever known. And he kept crying out, his body thudding down the steps, his claws scraping against the metal strips as he tumbled. I flew from my chair and in my bare feet I raced toward the steps, hopping over the steak, running to rescue my precious pet; and there my six-foot dad loomed in the threshold blocking my passage. “Leave him alone. Go back to the table and eat your dinner.” There was nothing my dad had ever done, nor would ever do again, that would conjure up the hatred I felt towards him for hurting Rudy. The combination of enmity for my dad and sorrow for Rudy filled my little eight-year-old mind with a torrent of emotions too much to bear. I ran to my bedroom, threw myself on my lower bunk and wailed.
At fifteen I joined my high school swim team. Six years later my second cousin on my mom’s side, John Naber would take home four gold medals and one silver during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. My mom reminded me of this many times in the years to come. I found my niche the first day of practice. Breastroke, my coach’s stroke when she had swum competitively. I trained hard and never missed a session, always rising to meet her demanding workouts; I was an achiever when it came to sports. A beastly flu had gripped me a week before the night of state tryouts and in a weakened condition, I came in last. My mom cranked the ignition and placed the car in reverse, the sound of crunching snow beneath the tires created an icy backdrop for her forthcoming chastisement. I sat quietly, concluding I would never achieve anything, no matter how hard I worked for it, or how much I wanted it.
“Practice after practice, meet after meet I have driven you and proudly watched you in those stands and tonight you humiliate me.” Minutes of silence would pass between each verbal blow. “Did you have to be last? I’ve never seen you swim so badly!” I sat tapping my knees against each other, the shame overwhelming. “What’s going to become of you? You’re a poor student, and you couldn’t even make your mother proud tonight. What have I done to deserve such a daughter?” I never returned to swim team, nor did I return to track and field the following season for which I had also excelled winning many high school ribbons and medals. The loss of this swim meet, which meant so much to me, coupled with my mom’s severe censure inflamed my feelings of worthlessness.
Two years later on a July night that can still haunt me today, I walked up Prospect Avenue in Milwaukee in a t-shirt, Levi’s bell bottoms, a pair of black Keds, and a strap over the opposite shoulder adjoining the leather purse hanging at my hip. Having just attended Summerfest enjoying the performances of several rock bands I separated from my friends, my bladder demanding relief. The line for the porta potty was long.
Large maroon brick apartment buildings loomed to my right as I made my way along the sidewalk paralleling Prospect towards my friend’s car. Speeding to the walk now sparse with people, a vehicle moved towards me with such velocity I never stood a chance. It slammed to a halt and a large man leapt out and hurled me into the backseat. Although I tried frantically to escape, my door handle was useless. Two men sat in the front seat and the one who had grabbed me, to my right. They were older than me, late twenties, early thirties? His hands went for my zipper and metal button. I scratched and clawed at his fingers, and attempting to wangle him I cried out, “I’m only seventeen! I’m a minor!”
I pulled at his fingers, grabbed his thumbs, struggled with all my might and writhed to make it as difficult as possible to get those pants undone. He was tenacious and I unyielding. I can’t recall the duration of our combat, but he finally ceased. “I can’t get anywhere with this fucking bitch and she’s scratching the hell out of me!” The driver veered left at the next corner and spoke, “Let me get at her.” We were in a wealthy neighborhood of stone mansions dating back to the late 1800’s. The night gave way to black street lamps sparsely positioned, emitting dull light.
Turning off the headlights he pulled the car onto a darkened lawn. The men exited and I immediately sallied behind my assaulter, swerved around the back of the car and running the race of my life I tore across the street to the first mansion in my path yelling, “Help!” continuously, the volume of my voice fueled by terror. Reaching the house, with both hands I grabbed the huge bronze knocker repeatedly slamming it onto its plate fastened to a big wooden door, the banging and my cries for help reverberating throughout the sleeping neighborhood. A pair of running footsteps slapped against the pavement a short distance away, but the windows above the door flew open as an elderly man leaning out shouted, “What’s going on down there?”
“Help me! Please help me!” I yelled, panic still jolting through my body. “What do you want?” “I’m in trouble!” The perpetrators’ car sped off with a screech. “Can you call my mother?” The man inside the house didn’t invite me in. I stood outside petrified; and fifteen, maybe twenty minutes later she arrived, the headlights of her car an inestimable relief. I climbed into the front seat beside her. I just wanted to crawl into her arms and have her hold me, but no sooner did I lock my door she rebuked, “What are you doing out at this time of night and how did you get here? What happened to your friends you went to Summerfest with?” The temperature had dropped. Was I shaking because I was cold or was I reacting to what I had just experienced, or both? “Mom, three men tried to rape me.” I could barely release the words, my legs wiggling restlessly. “That’s not true!” she shot back. “Stop lying! Don’t make things up!” Her incredulity, her harsh words and critical tone crushed me. “You’re just trying to get attention. Don’t ever say that again! I don’t want to hear another word from you the rest of the way home!” And I didn’t speak about that night to anyone, until decades later.
I am not a psychiatrist nor am I a psychotherapist. I never studied psychology, however I am bipolar, and I know what mania feels and looks like, as I know depression; ADHD; PTSD; psychosis; and alcoholism. I have it all. Even contained, sometimes my mental illness gets the better of me. For example, in my present home of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a woman living behind me has a little three-legged terrier and my quietude was demolished when she’d come out onto her porch, always with her dog. She sits outside most of the day in all four seasons gabbing with neighbors. The dog used to run around on a fifty-foot-long chain yapping incessantly.
When I have mental illness (i.e., I am in control), I would go outside and discuss the dog with her, as fruitless as it may have been. However, just before I would become mentally ill (those occasions when my illness has me), I’d be sitting on my couch enjoying my morning cup of coffee when suddenly my serenity was obliterated by one of her dog’s barking spells. The rate of my heartbeat increasing, pounding with a deep, resounding thump, I’d get hot and my mind would commence to race with indignant rage-filled thoughts and I’d just snap. On two occasions in this state I charged out of my door and standing before her with full barrels I let her have it with a stentorian voice. The words that exploded from my mouth were excoriating; and in my tirade I threatened to kick her little mut like a football if she didn’t make it stop. A pragmatic person would have gone to management months ago rather than let things get to a breaking point, but when one comes from an unstable background she periodically lacks the ability to arrive at sound solutions.
I would never kick or hit an animal in any state of mind, but even an empty threat to do so is not a sign of stability; and this last occurrence with my neighbor happened as recently as July of 2020, so no, I am not cured of my mental malady. Mental illness may not be curable, but it can be arrested, setbacks and all, in my case with medications; by pausing before acting; reflecting; maintaining my spiritual practice and asking for help from the mental health community (I bear watching).
And the little dog? With the wise input of my psychotherapist I got management involved and the issue was resolved. Easy fixes can be difficult for people like me. The key is to reach out to my emotional safeguards before I act. And besides my therapist I have several close friends in the fellowship I attend for my alcoholism who have my back and can ward off my impulsive, aberrant behavior if I take cues from the oncoming emotional locomotive and reach out for help before it derails.
There is life after a diagnosis of mental illness. There is in fact, a joy-filled life, even with the rare reversals. During the last twenty years following my diagnosis in 2000 I have learned to cook and bake whereby I am no slouch in either of those skills. I have travelled and lived all over the world. I have been able to hold down jobs which I loved wherein before treatment most of my employers terminated me. My bipolar condition is the most prominent malady of all my illnesses and today I am grateful it rarely has a hold on me. And since people no longer need to walk on eggshells around me I have friends. Good friends. Bipolar can be a lonely disease when it’s not managed, however, because of my perseverance in combatting it, I am no longer lonely; nor am I ever to be looked upon by others as misfortunate for having mental illness … I got this.