By Beth Brownsberger Mader
Clues in my art
Recently, I found a sketchbook from art school that had been hidden away since the early 1990s. One drawing is of a bunch of grapes: ripe fruit at the top, withered raisins at the bottom. Nowadays, in hindsight, I can see in many of those sketches my pain and confusion, my depression and hypomanic events, my unanswered shouts for help.
Even in that bunch of grapes.
At the time, my biggest dream was to become a college art professor. Due to a very crowded and tenured academic community, that didn’t happen. So I chose arts administration, eventually reaching upper management at an award-winning gallery. I followed all the conventions of a career-oriented young woman. I was a plump, juicy grape, ready to make sweet wine out of life. Then, within a year of everything going as planned, I began suffering from unexplained psychic pain.
Stress and expectations
I left the art world, thinking that was the cause of my distress. Yet I found it necessary in every job or career path I took to grab for the highest position possible. And every time, the stress and expectations drove me to deep depressions and hypomanic rages. By then, I knew that I had bipolar. But I was so caught up in titles and status, the thought of stepping down to a more reasonable, less stressful job was out of the question. When a company offered me a job with a corner office two years ago, I jumped at it—I was an executive!
It squished me flat.
One day, the cumulative stress of work left me sitting under a giant shade tree rooted about 100 feet from the local emergency room. I sat under that tree for a long time. Could I find another way—or was it really time to go inpatient?
The bipolar rollercoaster
After the day under the tree, I spent the better part of a year on the bipolar roller-coaster, making art I couldn’t finish, training for a triathlon I didn’t compete in, cleaning houses to help pay the bills, and feeling like a failure.
It would be ignorant of me to say that those with mental illness are the only folks who must adapt their lifestyles due to their circumstances. At some point, virtually every person has to, for good or bad. That’s life.
But there’s a twist in the unexpected alteration of one’s life due to mental illness, and the resignation that some dreams and goals may be gone. It’s different because of the stigma, the whispers, and the attempts to recover while your life may literally be falling apart. In my case, it was my ego that took the hit. The juicy grape had become a dried-out raisin.
Support and acceptance
Returning to the day under the tree, what I neglected to note is that I didn’t go to the emergency room, after all. I had my phone, and my mom spent two and a half hours on the other end, listening and supporting me. Without her, I likely would have walked into the hospital, ready for voluntary commitment.
This winter I found I was ready to fully accept my illness. It was no great epiphany. It was a process. Why it took me ten months after sitting under the tree, I’ll never know. But I was also able to understand that some dreams and plans are now beyond my reach. I’ll never be an executive again. I may never be a college professor. My husband and I may never be financially stable. I may never work as a full-time artist.
But as I was coming to terms with my limitations, something unexpected happened. I became a writer—a published writer for a national magazine.
I have always liked writing, but I did it mostly for the annual uplifting holiday card insert. And now here I am, writing on a topic I learn more about every day. I’m beginning to branch out, and my work has been published elsewhere.
Giving back and The Future
I was recently hired as a peer support specialist at our local behavioral health center. My job consists of visiting with clients as an equal, and sharing my common experiences with them. I help them set goals, build skills and—just as I had to do—rebuild their dreams. I work part-time, the pay is low, and it’s a bottom-rung position. Sometimes, it’s a bit stressful. But helping others with mental illness in their quest for answers, hope, and support offers me the chance to give back.
Where things will go from here—who knows? For once, accepting bipolar is a good thing. I no longer give a hoot about titles and status and making others— and myself—look good. I care a lot more about empathy and giving. I care about being me and being well.
Like a sweet, ripe grape, ready to be made into wine..
Beth Brownsberger Mader is a regular columnist for bp (Bipolar) Magazine a blogger for the bpHope Blog.