by Beth Brownsberger Mader
Determined and Surviving
When I was little, my dad created a number of imaginary characters that ended up teaching us kids some crucial life messages. The teaching wasn’t intentional— he just thought he was spending some peaceful summer evenings with us out on the back porch.
One of Dad’s characters that always resonated with me is “Tabby Ant.” Tabby Ant lived in the yard, had grand adventures among the grass and trees, and would “visit” the porch and tell us about his day. He was a determined worker, knowing that he would persevere somehow in taking care of himself and his colony. Everyone remembers the song, “What could make that little ol’ ant…” —that’s him. I have a tattoo of Tabby Ant, as he is my daily reminder of the power of perseverance.
That’s why it was challenging for me to accept the diagnosis of bipolar II. I was used to invoking the power of Tabby Ant and determination to survive decades of psychic pain. But with the diagnosis came absolute terror, fear to my core that now I would never be all that I could be and expected of myself. Could I survive this new shift in my personal paradigm? Would my persevering, tried-and-true Tabby Ant still be relevant?
Of course, I will never forget the day I learned I likely had the illness. I went to the doctor on another issue and ended up having a loud, sloppy-wet meltdown, including talking about suicide and tossing things about the room (okay, just gloves). Funny, I don’t recall what set me off. The doctor gently asked if I ever considered that maybe I have bipolar disorder? I melted even more and called my parents, screaming into the phone about how I truly was for-real crazy! Told ya! For years I had been struggling (surviving, at times just barely), not knowing what was wrong. I was sent to a psychiatrist and got the bp II diagnosis.
Yes, finally having a name for it that seemed to fit did provide a sense of relief in that, now, maybe we had some kind of answer. A place to start, a place to store some hope, at last.
Shock and Acceptance
Almost everyone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder has experienced a profound feeling of shock (to say the least). With the shock, and eventual acceptance comes an awareness of just how much there is to learn. When I meet people who were themselves diagnosed many years ago, I note that I might be considered a “newbie” when it comes to having the illness. I now have a bit of hindsight into the seeming eons I doggedly fought incredible confusion and pain. But in terms of actually learning how to manage bipolar, get meds right and really become stable, I still have loads to absorb and experience.
My folks have told me since my diagnosis, “You were always a difficult child.” This is not intended as an insult, but as an insightful part of what have become very long conversations where we attempt, together, to understand bipolar disorder. What is interesting is that they accepted the diagnosis immediately—“well, duh,” they thought, once they learned the symptoms. They have been tremendously effective in helping me come to terms with my illness. I have the phone bills to prove it.
Still, I battle some days to accept that bipolar is a chemical-brain-thing, and does not mean I am a broken empty shell. I am redefining my long held beliefs about determination and perseverance. Banging your head against a brick wall trying to bust through may only give you a bad headache. I believe now that perseverance and determination can include softly, gently and wisely absorbing the understanding that having bipolar is just part of me. Quitting the head banging sure feels better too! As much as I am connected to the notion of Tabby Ant, he can no longer define my whole approach to life.
"Am I OK?"
Another of my dad’s characters was “Mr. Moon.” Recalling the falsetto voice he tried to use in making the character come to life still makes me laugh, and today reminds me that humor heals. Seriously though, Mr. Moon was the philosopher, and spoke about the big questions: Why am I here? Who am I? What can I be? Am I OK?
I’ve come to learn that managing bipolar disorder will be a lifelong road trip. I see Mr. Moon as my guide in hope. Tabby Ant is driving the support vehicle. Together we will persevere and find a balance between determination and wisdom. And I can become more than I ever dreamed. To a newbie, the Chinese proverb rings true: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with but the first step.”
Beth Brownsberger Mader is a regular columnist for bp (Bipolar) Magazine and a blogger for the bpHope Blog.