My Personal Journey: Running with BiPolar – Part 1

Run-Oregon-Logo-SquareI need to confess something. I had been vacillating about whether or not I really wanted to post about something so personal, but the passing of Robin Williams hit me hard and almost instantly I decided this was no longer a choice but simply something I needed to do. If I can play a tiny part in raising awareness about mental illness it’s my duty to do so.

I’ve been perplexed as to why the media has focused on this great man as “depressed” or “having a depression,” and has neglected to mention the fact that he suffered from Bipolar Disorder. In no way, shape or form am I saying that one is less devastating than the other, but they are each their own unique illnesses.I am also, for lack of a better term, sickened by the many posts criticizing Mr. Williams for his “selfish act.” How dare he do that to his family and his fans? What a terrible “decision.”

The simplest, most accurate (although decidedly understated) definition of Bipolar Disorder I have found is as follows: A marked fluctuation in moods, energy levels and ability to function. For some us the mood swings are more profound than others. There are different types of Bipolar Disorder. I am diagnosed as Bipolar 1, severe, with psychotic features, and I am a rapid-cycler meaning I have more than two major episodes per year; usually its three or four. Often I swing from one to the next with no reprieve.

After dealing with depression and insomnia in my teens, more pronounced episodes began to happen in my early twenties, approximately twenty years before I had an actual diagnosis, which is the average time it takes for most people to be correctly diagnosed.

My life was an ongoing series of serious depressions, odd behaviors, peculiar mental states and crazy high roller coaster rides that always ended up crashing at the end. During manic phases I would start fifteen projects in a month with a tremendous enthusiasm and yet finish none of them.

Creativity abounded, and often I was much more sharp, witty, intelligent and flirty than normal. My senses were intensely heightened. I also experienced very strange and obsessive thoughts, ideas, delusions and hallucinations. I swung between invigorating highs with extreme periods of inspired creativity on little to no sleep, to the lowest of lows.

The black depressions, as I think of them, were the worst. When they would hit I’d never have any understanding of what they were, so I pulled judgment on myself morally. I felt there was something terribly wrong with me and that it had to be my fault somehow because there was no one else to blame for it. I would unplug my phone, close the curtains and stay locked inside for days sleeping around the clock, only awakening to read one to two hours per day and subsisting on Mountain Dew.

I became a runner roughly ten years after the onset of my disorder and approximately ten years before being diagnosed. Thirty-one, moderately depressed, and sedentary, I began to walk for thirty to forty-five minutes on my lunch hour. At first walking was great because it raised my heart rate significantly and gave me that post workout relaxed feeling I so desperately needed. But the more fit I became the more that feeling eluded me. One day the thought dawned on me to try running. My journey from non-runner to avid runner started with a formula…walk for five minutes, jog for fifteen, and then cool down with another ten minutes of walking. Over the course of about a year, I had worked my way to being a recreational runner. Roughly five years after, I ran my first marathon.

I have run my way through mania, anxiety and terrible depressions. In the past few years I have spent much more time paralyzed and unable to run during varying degrees of these states. I have learned to wholeheartedly appreciate every run, particularly the ones where I feel like I’m in slow motion … trying to run through a giant vat of Jell-O. Being as grateful as I can for the bad runs, simply because I am out there running, makes the good runs that much more enjoyable and, at times, triumphant.

In the first draft of this article I went on to explain more about both depression and mania and their effects on my running. I decided to change gears a little bit for today and focus more on the depressive side, and will revisit the manic periods in my next post.

The depressions are in a class by themselves. I can’t write while in them. I’ve found that, when I can, keeping a journal helps. Here’s a post-depression entry and the only thing I wrote from July through September of that particular year:

  • Fell from a manic state into deepest blackest depression ever
  • Physically paralyzed
  • Horribly sad, as if grieving the loss of a family member or best friend, cried constantly
  • Lost 15 pounds in one month, unable to eat or even drink hardly at all (NOTE: If it hadn’t been for my husband bringing small meals to me in bed, I’m not sure what would have happened.)
  • Spent 22-23 hours in bed each day, sometimes never getting up at all
  • Could not shower, sometimes went for days
  • Washing my hair took more energy than I could muster, washed it once a week (twice if lucky)
  • Only wore makeup once in two months
  • Had psychotic thinking patterns
  • Only ran an average of once a week (had to flake on two relays I had been training for all year)
  • Couldn’t even fake it for family so they wouldn’t worry
  • Unable to check email or Facebook or answer text messages
  • Was forced to take three months of medical leave from my job
  • Fantasies of suicide every day

The particular episode referred to above literally came on within hours of having been manic for at least several months. We were on our way back from Idaho, a good eight hour drive and I cried the entire time. Mood switches tend to happen pretty rapidly for me.

Because we just lost one of our most beloved entertainers and a beautiful, kind and generous human being to suicide, I’d like to touch on that for a moment.

First of all … do I get suicidal in my deep depressions? I do. It’s no mystery why. The pain, horror, hopelessness and despair are accompanied by terrible feelings of guilt and self-hatred. In that state, I loathe myself for what I’m doing to my family. The suicidal ideology is twofold. I want to end my own pain, and I want to lift the terrible burden from the shoulders of my loved ones. One of the most terrifying aspects of these depressions is that while in them, perspective is completely lost. Even though somewhere in my brain I know that I have survived these before and that at some point it will end. The problem is, in losing my perspective, my ability to think clearly, to reason, I cannot see an end. I truly don’t believe it will ever come.

The thing that has saved my life every time is the energy drain and inability to think straight. If it’s an exhausting ordeal to simply wash my hair, how on earth would I ever come up with and carry out a plan to end my life? In that state it simply would not be possible.

Having said all that let me tell you about a terrifying component of this illness. With Bipolar, you can be in varying types of mania or varying levels of depression. You can also have what are considered “mixed” episodes. These are the most dangerous, and statistically when the most people suffering from Bipolar commit suicide. Because of the mixed nature of the episode, one can be in the state of absolute despair as described above, and yet also be dealing with a crazy kind of manic energy. The two combined are most likely to be lethal. The intense desire to end the suffering, combined with the energy and capability to carry out a plan. I’ve experienced many of these mixed states. I am truly fortunate, and infinitely grateful, to be alive.

Mr. Robin Williams fought this illness valiantly and with grace, humor and full disclosure for many, many years. He dedicated his life to helping others and used his fame to raise countless funds for charities. He gave the world the gift of laughter. He was a runner just like us and an avid cyclist as well.

What was he thinking? What triggered his final decision? Was he in a clear enough state of mind for it to even be called a “decision?” Was it “selfish?” There have been plenty of blog posts floating around pontificating, speculating and passing judgment from a place of pure unadulterated ignorance.

Here is my take: it is absolutely none of your business, or mine or anyone else’s. No one can ever know what was truly going on, how bad this particular round had been, how deeply his soul was ravaged by pain or how profoundly exhausted he might have felt. So instead of dissecting it or offering up criticism on his “decision” focus on his gifts and the legacy he left.

RIP Good Sir. May you now have long sought after peace, and many beautiful places to run.

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