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How I Accepted My Bipolar Disorder and Learned to Thrive

Carrie Cantwell
August 11, 2020

By Carrie Cantwell, as told to Stephanie Watson

When I was 22, I lost my father to suicide. He'd been in a downward spiral from bipolar disorder for years, getting sicker and sicker. When I was diagnosed with the same disorder a few years later, I saw it as a death sentence. But I was wrong.

I came perilously close to following in my father's footsteps.

Hyperactive

I always remember my father being quiet and introverted. I, on the other hand, was full of energy. I was always getting into trouble for talking too much in school. Rather than let myself get teased about it, I totally owned my hyperactivity, nicknaming myself "hyper spaz."

This was in the 1980s. What I now realize was probably hypomania, my doctors back then diagnosed as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and put me on Ritalin to control. It made sense at the time.

It wasn't surprising that I was hyperactive. My life was full of stimulation and excitement. We lived in Saudi Arabia, where my dad worked as a management trainer and my mom was a psychotherapist. The company that hired them paid for us to travel all over the world. Any kid would have been stimulated by that kind of life.

Brooding Father

My dad had many of the classic bipolar disorder symptoms. During his manic phases, he'd go on trips and spend thousands of dollars on things like stereo equipment, CDs, and Rolex watches. Then he'd go into these severe bouts of depression where he'd lock himself in his room. When he was in one of his irritable, isolated phases, he'd become this scary, brooding person that I was afraid to disturb.

While I was away at college, he started declining pretty rapidly. He used to be really intelligent and well-read, but he suddenly couldn't string two sentences together. His brain was starting to deteriorate. He had one episode where he washed all of my mom's wool business suits until they shrunk, and then hung them back up in her closet. He bought guns and threatened to kill himself. My mother finally left him, but she always tried to protect me from him.

After I graduated from college, things escalated. One day, I went over to our former house, where my father now lived alone. When I tried to play my old piano, no sounds came out. My father had cut all the wires with hedge clippers. He was really going off the deep end.

Falling Apart

When my father killed himself on April 22, 1998, it didn't come as a shock. My mother and I had seen his death coming for a long time.

Rather than being upset, I went completely numb. My mother and I had always been close, but when she cried I wasn't able to console her. I was emotionless.

By that time, I'd already had a series of depressive and manic episodes in college. I went on spending sprees and had sex indiscriminately. I'd even shoplifted, which is totally out of character for me. I just figured I was being a typically impulsive college student.

But then, four years to the day after my father died, I fell apart. My first real depressive episode knocked me off my feet. I cried nonstop. I stopped eating. I didn't want to talk to anyone. The simplest things, like brushing my teeth, became almost impossible.

My mom brought me to a psychotherapist, who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. My first thought when I was diagnosed was, "This is a death sentence." I'd seen what had happened to my dad.

I decided I wasn't going let his fate become my own, so I went on a whole bunch of drugs -- SSRI antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and anti-anxiety medicines. When one medicine didn't work, I tried another one. I struggled with side effects. I gained weight and lost weight. I slept too much or too little.

I kept trying drugs until I finally found two that leveled me out -- an antipsychotic drug combined with an anti-seizure drug. I've been on them for 12 years now.

For the most part, they've kept me stable.

Breaking Point

In 2012, I was married to my second husband. My first marriage, when I was 20 years old, hadn't lasted very long. I've always chosen men like my dad -- fragile or broken men who I thought I could save. It's never worked.

My new husband was verbally abusive. On top of that, we were renovating a condo we had bought, and I was in-between jobs. It was the perfect storm of a really bad relationship that was pushing all my insecurity and daddy issues buttons, and a ton of stress.

Even though I was on an effective bipolar treatment, I discovered that my medication didn't help me when I didn't take care of myself. I wasn't sleeping, and I was drinking more than I should have been to cope with my situation. My marriage was falling apart. I felt completely hopeless.

I sank into this horrible depression. I felt a complete sense of despair at my situation.

For the first time, I thought about ending my own life. I was on the Internet, looking up all kinds of horrible ways to die. Eventually, I took a whole bunch of pills. I ended up in the hospital and was transferred to an inpatient psychiatric ward.

No matter how much I'd used my father as an example of what I didn't want to happen to me, I'd come terrifyingly close to ending up like him. I realized I still had a lot of work to do.

Into the Light

For the first time, I stopped running away from my father's memory and started to look more deeply inside myself. I really examined the things about myself that I didn't like -- including my low sense of self-worth, and how I constantly needed approval from men. I ended my unhealthy marriage and started dating someone who treats me the way I deserve to be treated. I got a job working as a graphic designer in the film industry.

I also started writing articles about mental health, as well as a book, Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, which helped with my self-reflection. Once I started writing, a lot of things fell into place. I learned to accept myself, accept my diagnosis, and, for the first time in my life, really love myself from within. And once I started to understand myself, I was able to forgive my dad.

It's taken me a few years, but I've learned that a bipolar disorder diagnosis is not a death sentence. Every day that I’m alive and every day that I continue to write about and advocate for mental health, I prove that someone with bipolar disorder can have a life that's every bit as full and satisfying as someone without this diagnosis.

Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She has written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is  Darkness & Light .

 

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