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Woman Standing on Dock
Woman Standing on Docks

Happy Birthday to Me!

Well, I’ve hit the double nickel.  At 16:30 my time, here in the Netherlands, I will have arrived on this planet fifty-five years ago.

It’s been quite a ride.  It’s amazing I’ve survived it.  I don’t really understand how I’ve done it.

I don’t remember anything from my first five years but photographs from that period seem to show a normal, happy, healthy kid.  But, in my earliest memories from kindergarten and first grade I am already struggling socially and experiencing serious depression.  It’s a long story that I intend to write about as time goes on and I hope it’s helpful to someone, at least to know that they’re not the only ones and that maybe there’s hope to overcome it.

Fast forward to 1985, three decades ago, and I was descending into the worst 3 years of my life from ’86 to ’89 and honestly, I did not expect to survive another year, let alone till now, three decades later.  It’s staggering and incomprehensible to to me that it’s been this long … that I’ve been on this long detour this long.

I call that period from ’86 to ’89 ‘The Dark Ages’.  I am a native Californian, but in 1985, I was living in Utah, one of the last places on earth I even wanted to live and my mental health was deteriorating rapidly.  In early 1986 it was becoming dangerous, and on July 4th I left Utah, and returned to California for treatment.  My first diagnosis was schizophrenia, one of the darkest and most terrifying of all mental illnesses.  I was told I it was incurable and that I would have to accept that and adapt to as best I could.  And I was put on heavy medication with terrible side-effects.  I was devastated.  But, I refused to accept that diagnosis.  As fragmented and impaired as my mind was at the time, I didn’t believe the diagnosis was correct and I had reason to question the competence of the doctor who diagnosed me, despite his impressive qualifications.

Had that turned out to be an accurate diagnosis and prognosis, I am virtually certain that I would have chosen not to live that way.  Not because of the limitations that it imposed – I probably could have adapted to that – but because of the suffering it caused.  The pain I was experiencing at the time was almost unendurable and I think it would have been unendurable long term.  But there was something in me that comes from some source that I still don’t understand that wouldn’t allow me to give up.  And I clung to a few specific reasons why I was not going to let this thing kill me.

Fortunately, although my symptoms were severe enough to mimic schizophrenia, that was not the underlying cause.  Although diagnoses in the mental health field are of limited value, we’ve settled on Bipolar II with AD(H)D, which is generally more treatable and/or manageable.  But that’s another story.

The Dark Ages came to an end in ’89 when I found the first medication that was effective and the long, slow climb out of the illness began.  I was finally able to return to work full-time in ’94 and had a period of relative health and productivity for a few years, but for complicated reasons, it was not sustainable and another crash came in the 2008 to 2010 range, though it was not nearly as severe.  Since then I’ve been on another slow climb.  Even a year ago – In fact, even 3 months ago – I was saying that I was not in immediate danger but my lifetime risk of losing the battle with this condition was very high.

But, now I feel genuinely hopeful again. In the past, after each new round of treatment that seemed to provide a little hope, I would ask, ‘Is this what it’s like to be normal?’ or, ‘Is this what happiness feels like?’.  But after a kind of honeymoon period, it would prove, indeed, to be a real improvement but not a sustainable solution.

I seem to have the right formula now though. I feel ‘normal’ – and even ‘happy’ sometimes – for at least for a few hours a day, and that helps to tank me up to deal with the condition the rest of the time.  I don’t have to ask myself, ‘Is this normal?’  When I’m in that state, it’s self-evident.

Now, I just have a decades-long backlog of accumulated experience to process that’s been on hold while my attention has had to be concentrated entirely on this other little problem.

And I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.  And I honestly, really have no idea what to do about that … at present I feel like an almost entirely blank slate as far as the future is concerned.

I’m still scared to death that this isn’t going to last, but I think that’s probably irrational.  Living with a condition like this becomes a kind of lifestyle and breeds an entire worldview and way of coping with life which isn’t easy to change.  It can be hard to adapt even to positive changes in your life.

I hope by next year, I’ll be past that and that the future will be a lot more clear and I can celebrate July 4th as a true Independence day.

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