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A Family Member’s Journey into the Depths of Bipolar Disorder

Only a few short years before leaving his cat and clothes in the covered alleyway, next to the dumpster behind the deli on 2nd Avenue, Bob was an accomplished plastics engineer. His parents, brother and sister were living back east, and his favorite aunts, an uncle and cousin lived a couple of hours north of Los Angeles. He had a home with a pool and a spa, three beautiful little boys and a wife who could no longer live in denial.

It’s not that his family didn’t care; they just didn’t know that the severe mood swings, violent outbursts and overly enthusiastic reactions to mundane events that Bob experienced in his younger years, had a name. They didn’t know that the similarities between their mom and her oldest son weren’t simply a result of being so close. It wasn’t just that Bob was a genius with quirky habits, or that he was the oldest of three who often stayed home to help his mom take care of the kids: Bob had bipolar disorder.

It’s not that his family didn’t care; they just didn’t know that bipolar disorder can’t be ignored. If left untreated, Bob’s enthusiastic happy moods would eventually turn into uncontrolled fits of violent rage. They had all heard about the fights between Bob and his wife. She said he spent money like water, was collecting and storing things she called garbage, and he just wouldn’t help around the house, which incidentally was now in foreclosure. And to top it off, he lost his job. His bad luck would turn around.

All couples argue over finances and chores, particularly when the breadwinner of the household loses his job, most certainly due to no fault of his own. His wife was just cranky because she had to cut down on the luxurious lifestyle she was living. It had nothing to do with Bob’s increasingly bizarre behavior. There was no reason for her to call the police to have him removed from the house just because he broke a few things in the den. After all, he was the one who paid for that stereo and the window he threw it through, in the first place. Look what she did to the kids.

Bob had never imagined that feeling elated could be a problem, even if he had to deal with a few days of crushing depression every now and then. There was no need to take medication or talk to a therapist like his ex-wife had been nagging him to do. He had gotten over the divorce and was looking for another job. The studio apartment he rented would work perfectly as his main office and he would soon buy a new house for his three growing boys to visit. Besides, his family would help him out in a pinch.

The only thing Bob couldn’t understand was why the landlord kept threatening to evict him. Bob had told him that he would pay the rent as soon as he got a job and the small fire in the bathroom didn’t really cause a lot of damage. The landlord knew that he had to buy more office supplies to keep up with the work he was doing and it was none of his business how much stuff he stored in the apartment.

The shelter was getting a bit crowded and everyone was nagging Bob to take medication and see the therapist at the hospital. Since his cousin had been so helpful to him in the past, he thought it best to move there. His cousin would understand; he’s family. Bob knew that his cousin would realize why he had to set up a tent in his backyard while he was at work. His cousin’s kids would be happy to see him there in his new main office when they returned home from school. Bob wouldn’t be disturbing anyone since he slept outside and would only use the house when everyone was out. In fact, he could babysit for the kids to give his cousin and wife a break. Bob couldn’t understand why his cousin made him move out. He was just playing around with his youngest child in the swimming pool. He didn’t mean to hold him underwater for so long. His cousin really overreacted by diving in the pool with his clothes on to grab his child away from Bob. After all, the child started breathing again in a few minutes. No one got hurt.

Money was tight and Bob needed a new suit for the many job interviews he was expecting to get. It was tough getting around without a car and using the local Kinko’s as his main office. He didn’t mind living in state park since the weather was warm and he always loved camping anyway. However, even California gets cold in the winter.

Bob was ready for a place to stay with a phone and indoor plumbing. Luckily, his elderly single aunt wanted nothing more than to help her first nephew get back on his feet, so she told Bob he could stay with her for a couple of months. She had a one-bedroom apartment and a pull out couch in Ventura County. However, when she made that offer, no one would have predicted that a few adolescent moods swings in his past would lead Bob through an interminable path of self-destruction.

It seemed like decades, but it was only a couple of years that Bob stayed with his aunt. Even though her own health was failing, she tried hard to help him by giving him her debit card to buy food and proper clothing to wear at a job interview. Bob knew that he was really the one helping his aunt since he was convinced that she had Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, Bob’s aunt did have dementia. She never realized that her nephew had filled her house with his stuff. She didn’t know that the $300,000 she had saved over the years was spent on rubber bands, cameras, a knife collection and other important materials for Bob’s main office.

When the police arrived after a particularly loud conversation between them, she couldn’t remember how she wound up on the floor with a broken arm. Bob couldn’t explain it either and he certainly couldn’t understand why he was taken back to the emergency room yet again. His aunt was the problem, not him.

Bob’s brother had tried to help. He went to California more than once to track Bob down and bring him home. But Bob was fine and didn’t need more nagging from his younger brother about taking medication and seeing a therapist. Bob’s ex-wife got remarried and moved out of state and his aunt was in a nursing home; supplemented by his cousin, brother and sister. Bob couldn’t understand why there was an order of protection to prevent him from visiting her since he had just spent a couple of years caring for her. Back east, Bob’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and dementia and had to move to a nursing home. Bob’s dad was hit by a car and needed his children’s’ assistance to live.

It’s not that his family didn’t care; they just didn’t know how to make Bob accept help. His three sons loved their father and were now old enough to let him stay with them until he got back on his feet. The boys were ready, willing and able to do anything possible to help their dad. His oldest was planning to get married soon and Bob got to see his younger sons become college graduates. Bob set up his new main office in his sons’ apartment. He knew that he’d get a new job soon and he was on top of the world. He simply couldn’t understand why even they were nagging him to take the medication that the doctor prescribed during his last emergency room visit.

The new apartment that his sons rented for him would be a perfect main office, even if it wasn’t in the neighborhood of his choice. As soon as he got a new job, Bob would be out of there. He wouldn’t have to hear nagging words from anyone. He had it all under control, until the day his oldest son was killed at work.

Bob didn’t seem to have any more elated feelings. The crushing depression he used to put up with once in a while was there to stay. He didn’t care that his job prospects were fading or that he was evicted from another apartment. It didn’t matter that his aunt died in the nursing home or that his brother and sister-in law came to visit again: nothing would ever be the same. His youngest sons moved out of state to be with their mother. They still kept in touch with him, but were trying to start again themselves. They were the only reason Bob procrastinated about killing himself.

The people at the new shelter were very nice, but they wouldn’t let him move into transition housing until he agreed to go to the program they offered, at their clinic. In the meantime, the guy at the deli on 2nd Avenue let him stay there during the day when he had nowhere to go. The cat that lived in the parking lot was Bob’s best friend. Even though he wanted nothing more than to end the pain, he couldn’t put his sons through another loss. Bob joined the program and began taking medication.

It’s not that his family didn’t care; they were afraid that he would simply give up. He seemed to be doing a little bit better with medication and therapy, but he was living in transitional housing and had nowhere to go once he stabilized. Bob’s father passed away and he didn’t get to say goodbye in person. He wanted the chance to be with his mother before her time came. Bob’s sons called his brother back east to tell him that they just couldn’t take him in again, no matter how much they loved him. Bob was finally ready to accept help.

This time, Bob was happy to see his brother. He finally reached the turning point: acceptance. Bob could no longer manage his ups, downs and delusions with herbal supplements and denial. He returned to New York with a few pre-established rules in place. He would take medication. He would allow his brother to handle his finances. He would see the doctor and attend a bipolar support group on a regular basis. He’d allow a community action team to help him really get back on his feet.

He’d let his family love him. He’d begin again.

Reference

Goodwin, F.K., and Jamison, K.R. (2007). Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression, 2nd edition, New York Oxford University Press.

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