In 1992, I decided to go back to school and obtained a second bachelor’s degree in medical biology with a concentration in radiologic technology at Long Island University in Brookville, Long Island. School and learning were always comfortable and exciting for me. When it came to science and psychology, I was passionate and enthusiastic, and absorbed material like a sponge. The clinical aspect, however, was foreign to me. It was very technical, but I managed to get through it. I managed B’s and A’s in my classes, but C’s in the clinical portion of the program. While I was fulfilling my prerequisite classes, I worked at Chemical Bank as an administrative assistant. However, I still questioned my diagnosis. After three to four years of stability, I felt as though I was okay and that the problems around the time of my college graduation were just a bump in the road. I was okay now, was steady, had a stable job for a few years, and showed no signs of my illness. This led me to think that perhaps lack of a belief in myself contributed to my symptoms. I thought that up until age 21 I was fine, so it seemed that two years after the manic episodes I was fine again. Perhaps it was the stigma associated with this illness. It was then that I decided to look for more answers as I wondered if my diagnosis was correct.
It was recommended that I try the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. I was free of any symptoms for five years. Was there really something wrong with me? After a week of various testing, it was confirmed. Like it or not, it was confirmed that I had bipolar disorder 1.
At the young age of 21, I allowed the illness to define who I was, and on top of that, I thought it was more of a character flaw than a chemical imbalance in the brain. I told myself no more questioning and that this was something I had to live with. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
My confidence in myself was growing as I tackled new challenges and succeeded. I felt impenetrable. After completing my second bachelor’s degree, I worked as a radiologic technologist at St. Claire’s Hospital in Manhattan from 1994 to 1998. In a nutshell, I felt great. I had a busy social life as well. I made a couple of good friends at the hospital, went out on weekends, and started a softball team called the St. Claire Saints. We played our games in Central Park and came in second place one year. It was a co-ed team and we went out after most games. It was a great way to socialize and meet people in the hospital. (I still love playing softball to this day, though I am not quite at the level I was at in my thirties, when I was in my prime.) But it was the most enjoyable social activity for me.
In 1996, I decided to stop taking lithium; it had been over ten years since I had had any setbacks or any symptoms of my illness. I was overconfident in my thinking. As it turned out, it was a bad decision. Two years subsequent to the ceasing of my medication, I was laid off at the hospital and it triggered a major depressive episode from which I did not recover from for fourteen years.
I fell deep into the depression hard and fast. It was no more than two weeks into my downward spiral that I was in a hellish nightmare. The first two weeks I was still living in my apartment in Brooklyn, but I then moved to my parents’ home on Long Island where I lived for several years. Those first four and a half years were painful, lonely, and at times, almost unendurable. I barely uttered a word, spent my days lying on my couch, and basically withstood my unrelenting pain. Initially, I didn’t know what hit me. I just knew something was wrong—deeply wrong with me. I felt like I had been run over by a bus. I was dead in many aspects—my mind ceased functioning. I could not take care of myself.
In going back to live with my family they all pitched in and tended to my situation. First things first—I needed to get to a doctor, specifically a psychiatrist, right away. I suffered greatly during this period and was disheartened along the way, as numerous doctors and medications were tried without success.
During this time, I dreaded any and all contact with people. I was afraid to go outside. I felt paralyzed if I ran into anyone who tried talking to me. I remember one instance when I went to a fair with my mother and sisters. I ran into an old friend, Dom. As he approached me, my fear and anxiety levels overwhelmed me. I was unable to process any information. Fear raced through my mind and my heart, which was beating fast and loud. As he spoke, I put on a face of understanding, nodding my head up and down in typical social rituals. I found it difficult to speak, managing a “Hi Dom,” and then retreated back into my inner world, which included head pain and a fear-filled heart. Aside from my condition not allowing me to process information, my fears enveloped me as he spoke and I could not utter much in return. He continued talking, but when he saw I was unable to respond, he turned to my sister. She took him aside and explained my condition.
On another occasion, I went to my uncle and aunt’s new home for the first time, and the daily paralyzing fear gripped me while I was with them. They showed me around their apartment and as was the case with Dom, I couldn’t comprehend anything they were saying. I just wanted to be home on my couch away from contact with other people.
As time wore on and my hopes dimmed, my only relief came when I slept. After sleeping for eight to ten hours, the pain and all that went with it would resume again for the next fourteen to sixteen hours. It felt like this cycle would last forever.
I tried dozens of medications of all types (mostly antidepressants and mood stabilizers), all without any effect. I remained the same. On the one hand, my depressive period of 14 years felt like an eternity but there also was another feeling—from within or somewhere up above—or both—that made me continue on. This indefinable feeling made me want to go on one more day.