My Life in Balance
By the fall of my daughter’s junior kindergarten year, I was getting a little tired of working all day with the kids and tutoring at night. My husband, Jim, and I felt as though we were two passing ships; quality time together was scarce. So I took a job at the local high school as a full-time mathematics teacher. It was a huge transition going from a stay-at-home mom to a full-time teacher overnight.
The next year, being a perfectionist to a fault, things started to fall apart for me. It is very challenging to be a perfect mother, perfect wide and a perfect teacher without something giving. What gave was my sleep, thus my patience with my children at home and the students at school. I hated myself for that.
In the span of two years, I lost my two remaining grandmothers and a great-aunt. Shortly thereafter, a friend died of cancer. I could sense myself starting to unravel. My low mood during the winter months lifted as spring arrives, however my mood elevated to an uncomfortable high. I decided that our house needed some renovations, so I made a list and started racking up the bills. My erratic spending put a strain on our finances.
During the first weekend of September 2001, my mother, sister, and I visited New York City to celebrate my mother’s 60th birthday. Two days after we returned, 9/11 occurred. This was the beginning of my downword spiral. I remember going for a run the following weekend and having my first panic attack; one of the most intensely frightening, upsetting and uncomfortable experiences of my life.
From September on, my moods were erratic. At family gatherings I would say inappropriate things, making people uncomfortable. At work I was manic. I spoke very fast and loud in the office. I felt paranoid and I frequently lost my temper with my students. On top of my regular work, I coached two sports simultaneously. By January I saw my family physician because I was having more panic attacks. I sobbed uncontrollably for a long time, confessed my paranoia, and was referred to a psychologist to treat my diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.
After an initial consultation with the psychologist, I was diagnosed with moderate depression. Delving into my past seemed to cause more panic attacks. That spring, a student a tthe school where I taught took his own life, and although I didn’t know the youth personally, I was deeply affected emotionally.
I have little memory of the next few weeks. I barely slept and household functions became impossible. I either forgot to feed the kids dinner, or I burnt it. My workplace became very stressful as tensions in the office grew-both real and imagined.
On April 10, 2002, while halfway through a lesson with my grade nine class, I was suddenly unable to make sense of the math on the board. I was terrified. That day I had conversations that puzzled my coworkers and later, at home, my own children were frightened of me. My husband had no clue what was happening. Somehow I made it through the day but went through a third night without any sleep.
The next morning I came downstairs and plopped myself on the couch in a semi-comatose state. I refused to get read for work, so my husband called my psychologist, who advised him to take me to the emergency room immediately. I was in a full-blown psychotic state. I remember very little about that experience. When asked what year it was, I responded “1972.”
The hospital performed a CAT scan to rule out any biological cause (such as a brain tumor) for my psychosis. Then I was placed in the psychiatric ward, which became my home for the next three weeks. I was given some medication for my insomnia and had my first good night’s sleep in a week.
Over the next few days I refused treatment. I was completely manic and had no concept that I was a wife, a mother, and a teacher. I did not attend any group sessions and at first I refused my medication. Once I started complying with the medication, the healing of my brain began. Although I slept a lot after meals, and kept more to myself, by the end of the second week I was granted a day pass to see my family.
I was discharged from the hospital almost four weeks later. I have very little memory of this time or of the next few months. I know that I slept a lot at home and felt overly drugged, but this was necessary for my recovery. My hair started to thin, and my weight ballooned by thirty pounds that summer.
At first, I had been in denial about the seriousness of my illness and I was furious at myself for this. September arrived and I thought that I would be returning to my old life as a full-time math teacher until a union representative called to suggest that I consider entering the disability management program. Feeling paranoid, I refused the assistance but concerned to teach a two-thirds timetable. Initially, I was granted an administrative transfer to another high school; however, my doctor and I decided I should stay at my original school where I had supports in place. It felt safe to be working with staff members who cared about me and a principal who was well aware of my situation and had my husband’s work number if ever needed.
I went for replacing walks in the mornings and worked in the afternoons. These walks were not always productive as I spent a lot of time grieving the loss of my former life. I felt tremendous guilt about everything. But I was happy to return to a “normal existence” as a math teacher. It was proof to me that I was still a normal functioning member of society. I was able to work the entire first semester successfully at two-thirds time, but the second semester was more difficult. My stress levels rose until one day, in the spring, I ended up in the principal’s office waving a white flag – my timetable was reduced to one-third time.
The next year I again attempted to teach a two-thirds timetable, but after a few weeks it was reduced to one-third again. I was very angry with myself over those two years. I don’t know why I had been so pigheaded about entering the disability management program. I guess I was in denial that I had a chronic illness. I then had to wait 200 days to start the program. Over these two years I stopped and started my medication, testing to be sure that I still needed it. I was determined to be without anti-psychotics and anti-depressants because of the perceived stigma.
This was a very tumultuous time for everyone.
In the fall of 2004, I finally entered the disability program with a lot of support from my doctor and my principal; I was given a timetable that I could handle. These were rebuilding years for me. I joined a gym and faithfully attended three times a week. I was assigned advanced classes at school, which typically had fewer discipline problems. I enjoyed the work and I felt myself healing. I even trained for a half-marathon and ran it in September. Then, once again, I tried to ween myself off my medication under the supervision of my doctor, but as stressful events happened at work my symptoms returned and I soon accepted the fact that taking this medication was best.
In September, 2006 I completed the disability management program and felt ready to teach two-thirds time. As a transition from the disability program to a regular timetable, I was given two of the same advanced preps. I was extremely proud of myself and felt so much stronger both mentally and physically.
I was twenty pounds heavier, but I surrendered to the fact that I would never get my svelte figure back. This affected my self-esteem, which also affected my relationship with my spouse, but he stood by me during these difficult years and for that I am forever indebted. In general, I felt somewhat defeated, I believe this would be as good as it gets. Work was going well, but on a personal level, I wasn’t where I wanted to be yet.
Then, in the spring of 2007 I went to see Margaret Trudeau speak about her struggles with bipolar disorder. Her keynote address was Finding Balance – Mind, Body and Spirit; Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness. My moment of clarity happened when she said she views her illness as a gift. As time goes by I better understand what she meant.
As my fortieth birthday approached I felt stuck. Although happy one a professional level, I still felt a lot of self-hatred. After a knee operation the previous summer, my life-long goal of running a marathon was shattered. I redesigned myself to the fact that I would always be overweight and physically unfit. But then, as a birthday present to myself, I went to a hypnotherapist for help. I recall being very weepy, confessing my inability to control my appetite and my constant self-deprecating thoughts. Here, I began a journey for self-love for the first time in years. The therapist uncovered my feelings of guilt over the pain that I caused people and helped me to accept that I was not responsible for my illness. I am continuing this voyage to self-acceptance and recently I have been able to graciously accept the accolades spoken by parent sof my students on their appreciation of my kind of teaching style.
Living with bipolar disorder forces you to live with balance. The key to success lies on three things: compliance, compliance, and compliance. Stability will not ever be achieved if you not have a positive relationship with a doctor that you trust. My doctor and I negotiate my treatments. My visits to the doctor every other month ground me.
Once I came to terms with the fact that my illness is lifelong and must be managed with medication, I became more at peace. Creating a stable environment on the outside will allow you to build the framework to have internal stability. I am grateful for a stable marriage, loving children, supportive friends and family, and a job that I am passionate about. Limiting alcohol and late nights have been a fact of life. If I am feeling over stimulated I rever to my bedroom for some peace. I very often get 10 hours of sleep. Yoga has become a big part of my life as well. Walking, biking, gardening, bid watching, and reading have become my peaceful solitude. I treasure moments spent with my two children, my husband, family, close friends and neighbors.