Bipolar Does Not Steal Your Life: Take a Vacation to the Sunniest City in the U.S.
Yuma has three hundred and sixty-two days of sun a year. Manic? Relax as you soak up the sun. Depressed? Swim, run, walk. Enjoy the sunshine.
I was going to Yuma for a month. I planned to drive cross-country in my car, a 2020 BMW Roadster. The car was a warning sign of my illness. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I played with the bells and whistles. When I found the start button, drive and reverse, I drove out of the lot. I drove to my son’s house. “You’ve got to see this. I’ll give you a ride.” He didn’t want a ride. He wanted to find out what happened to me. I drove to friends’ homes. I thought they would want a ride. They saw dilated eyes. My voice was shrill. This wasn’t enthusiasm. It was manic excitement.
In August 2019 I attended a conference in Dayton, Ohio. I acted out of character. I gave away money. I ran from person to person, introducing myself. I was on to the next person before I learned anyone’s name. By the time the conference ended I was over the top.
I was sick and needed help. My son called a psychiatrist and made an appointment. The doctor surprised me when he diagnosed bipolar disease. My son told him my plans to drive to Yuma.. “Fly” the psychiatrist said. “Wait until your medication takes effect. If you want to go right away, you need to fly.”
I was looking forward to driving to Yuma with my dog, Gracie. We would have a great time. I would drive seventeen-hundred twenty-five miles to my sister’s house. Situated on the border between Arizona and Mexico,
Yuma is a big city. I should do what my doctor said. “If you insist on going, do not drive. Fly.” My son agreed. He was afraid I’d get confused or stuck on the side of the road. He worried I would forget to take my medication. I told him I’d fly. Even that wasn’t good enough. I should wait. My kids worried I wouldn’t find my gate. I’d flown for five years working as a consultant with the Federal Head Start Program. I would be fine.
My son wanted me to be accountable to my older sister. Was I that ill? I complied with the reporting-in idea. I wanted to get going. I wanted to get to the land of blue skies, warm sun and hot air.
Gracie is my cocker spaniel. I couldn’t leave her for a month. “She’s a good dog. She obeys commands. “She’ll miss you, but she won’t feel abandoned,” Jim, her veterinarian said. He and his receptionist would care for her until I returned. Mary put a gate between her area and the reception counter. The gate would keep Gracie from getting into trouble with other animals. Good enough.
I was ready for an adventure. I was flying and I didn’t like it. My trip didn’t start well. During a layover at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, I left my bag with another woman while I used the restroom. Have you ever left your carry-on with a stranger? I didn’t hear the announcements over the PA system. It was loud throughout the airport. Everyone heard. There was no excuse for missing the warning. I might have heard it and thought it didn’t apply to me. Delusion can be part of my illness. The stranger asked me to watch her bags while she used airport facilities. That went well. Wasn’t that enough to trust her? I knew better, but really? I didn’t have trouble in the past. When I returned to my gate, the woman and my bag were gone.
Big mistake. I would have been insulted if my kids reminded me of airport rules. I wished they would have told me to hang onto my purse. My valuables were in my bag.
In retrospect, I pose a question. If my son was concerned, why didn’t he warn me to take my bag with me to the restroom? Why should he? He had enough questions and worries. Besides that, I’ve always been independent. I was a sixty-nine-year old widow who knew her way around an airport. I wanted my family to stop meddling in my affairs.
By the time I arrived in Yuma, my sister and brother-in-law had their concerns. My sister didn’t know how ill I was. I didn’t make sense in phone calls before the trip, but not enough for her to worry. She saw me and worried. I worried. What if I had a psychotic episode in front of her? I didn’t know psychosis could be part of my illness. I found out by checking Mayo’s website and following up with my son and doctor. My anxiety soared.
My flight was smooth and short. The flight attendants did all they could to make sure I was comfortable. I don’t fear flying but l craved the attention. Only one issue left. I was thinking about my bag. My visit to the washroom was not necessary. Why did I feel compelled? Although attempts to locate my bag failed, I didn’t think to check lost and found. My lost bag was inconsequential compared to my family’s worries.
I’ll tell you what was in that bag. My passport. I usually carried it with me. My pockets weren’t big enough. There goes any trip to Mexico. There went my credit cards. American Express, Amazon Prime and my bank card. All lost somewhere between Phoenix and Yuma. Oh, yes, I had three whole dollars in my wallet. Thank God I tucked my driver’s license deep into my pocket. I had my license.
I would use my license to secure payment on my room, I thought. It didn’t matter what I said. The amiable young woman at the desk couldn’t offer that. I hoped the company authorized her to accept my license guaranteeing my room, I slid it across the counter. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t take my license for payment. She could not alter room rates. She could make changes in room assignments. She offered water and snacks at no charge. “I can give you other examples of what I can do.” she said. “I cannot use your license.
I thanked her and asked my sister if she would use her credit card. She agreed. After paying for my room. Step one finished. She and her husband helped enough, but we made another trip to borrow $50 from my brother-in-law. I reminded him about my missing bag’s contents. He loaned the cash to me with the stipulation I promise not to lose it and would repay him when my bag arrived.
The next morning, I woke with the sun. I was going enjoy my first day in paradise. The air was cool. I was not. I loved it. I could stay here forever. I visited with people. Too many people in the beginning. When I settled down, I stopped talking without end. I didn’t tell anyone about my illness. I started limiting friends. I asked questions about their lives instead of yammering about my own. I worked hard. Each time hearing my talk about myself. I tried to stay curious. My family would be proud of me.
I alternated between my room, poolside and the pool. I worked on my novel daily. If it is not too much to edit, I would publish by late summer. If I finish writing by June and editing goes well, I could make my deadline. I had trouble with hypomania at the time and slept little. I may be crazy, but I enjoy the click of my keyboard as much as I like making up a story.
What was this illness getting in my way? I was showing mild symptoms of bipolar disorder by age fifteen. A psychiatrist diagnosed my daughter when she was fifteen. Why did it take until I was sixty-nine-years old to figure it out? My symptoms were under control and I didn’t realize anything was wrong. Why wasn’t I diagnosed earlier? Diagnosed sooner, my life might have been better. The doctors’ words scared me. I didn’t know what I would face the rest of my life.
By the time vacation started, I was sick of family comments about my mental health. I loved them, and they were expressing their concern. By day nine of my trip, my sister wasn’t visiting as often; she wasn’t hauling me to the gas station or the ATM for more cash. She nagged me enough. “Will you take your medications?” she asked. Can you believe she wanted to put my meds in pill keeper? She told me it wasn’t her idea. My son asked her to sort my pills.
Mood-stabilizing medications were not the only meds I was taking. Did they think I was too dumb to put them in the correct compartment for the appropriate day? I took medication for other conditions for six years. I knew how to keep them in order. I knew when and how to take them. “No more.” I told her to get off my back. I said I’d had enough. The next words were mean. I told her I know how to take the damn pills. I wanted a break. She wanted to know I was safe. I decided to let her fill my pill case. I handed my medication and pill pack to her. I didn’t like sorting anyway. She was happy and I got out of doing something I didn’t like to do. I decided if anything like that came up in the future, I would let her do it.
I hate medicine and don’t take pills unless I needed them. It was not often. I continued to reassure my family. I would take my pills as directed on the bottles. I wasn’t taking many pills. I was one of the lucky ones. When I got home, my doctor prescribed my new medication cocktail.
The last half of vacation was glorious. The kids no longer worried about my safety. They didn’t worry if I was dangerous to myself or others. My son said he would not fly out. My sister and her husband backed off. They didn’t call. I called them when I wanted to talk with them. They stopped monitoring my behavior. I continued to tell them stories about my behavior. I told them I was better. Could I reassure them?
The next days I was on my own. I had solitude when I wanted it. I observed. I got comfortable being with myself. I made friends. Some became friends I will correspond with. We talked about visiting each other’s homes. We would vacation together in Yuma the following year.
I enjoyed the people I met. I met them at the pool. I met them at Happy Hour. I met them in the lobby. I was not frantic. I didn’t talk nonstop. I was vacationing the way I wanted. Long days at the pool. Swimming, writing and knitting, I was happy. If others wanted to talk, great! That made me happy. When it was time for my return trip, my family reminded me to hold my bag close. They told me to follow airport rules. No matter what, stay safe. Come home soon. I knew now that they were right about me. I accepted their directions. All went well.
My vacation lasted thirty days. I slowed down, talked less, sat still longer. I found the way to myself. It was hard work. I knew I wasn’t my illness. I loved being aware. I loved knowing who I was. I may have another cycle of depression or mania. It may come next week. It may not return. Recovery tastes sweet. I was ready to go home. I had a great vacation and got my life back.
Sally’s Been Thinking About…Writing and Editing
I’ve been writing since childhood and have a natural gift for it. In my youth I penned essays and research papers on the plight of Native Americans, writing poetry on the native life and essays that spoke out against the Vietnam war and the way natives and anyone else who was different were treated. My papers were dismissed far easier than praised but that didn’t stop me. I just needed a new view and a little more perspective. My admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. I devoured his works and witness and supported his efforts with my writing. That continued through my seminary studies.
While a seminary student, I was encouraged to keep writing. Among my many pieces, I included reflections on A Letter from Birmingham Jail, set next to my own reflection on many of King’s writings. My first professional position came when I wrote a grant to the State Government’s, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention. My second job came with funds from the Federal Government’s program, Head Start. I continued to write grant proposals throughout my career in Head Start and in congregations I served as ordained clergy.
As a pastor I wrote a lot more than I expected. I thought I would have study time, not funding proposal writing. It worked out well, as I was able to read before writing. The multiple bible studies I wrote and led called for even more writing, theological writing that contained common words rather than the theological language I wrote while in seminary. One of my favorite funding proposals was a small congregation in Southeast Iowa. I wrote the proposal so the men and women involved in making weighted blankets could expand their already prolific efforts.
Writing has been a long-held passion and a ministry as well. Give me a topic to write on and, if necessary, the research task as well. Next to any kind of ministry, I love doing research. Anything you want to know about Amelia Earhart or Sam Shepherd, step right up. I’m working with Teddi Yaeger on a piece of the public byways project right now, but my mind is eager for more.
Editing is new for me, but my sister, Sue Kirk taught me a great deal as she edited several articles and my latest book, Waiting for Good News. We worked together on earlier resources in the 1980s.
Sally’s Been Thinking About…Public Speaking
As a pastor, I have had the opportunity to lead worship and preach on a regular basis. Many years before that I was owner/operator of Sally Wilke Presents, offering similar services to the ones described in this blog post. I am a warm and personable speaker who engages and keeps the attention of any size audience.
I am able to speak on a range of topics, and again, I remind you that I love research. So…give me a topic to research. I will write and present the speech.
Sally’s Been Thinking About…Research.
I have already described my affinity for research, so I need not describe much more. Fortunately, I realized before I sold any research papers that it was illegal. That is how much I love sleuthing. My preference is for people, alive or deceased, and research on topics that include geography,
history, science (limited unless I can research without understanding). Reminder: Research can always be attached to any kind of writing.
Prices for for services are comparable to local business costs.
I’m thinking just how helpful it is to have a gifted and compassionate therapist, who has recently been contributing to my toolbox. I thought it would be helpful to share some of the ideas she shared and ideas I’ve gleamed from others.
At the very top of my toolbox is medication. We are still working on the perfect combination, but the process is worth it. Feeling much better allows me to focus on “following doctor’s orders.” I don’t always agree with his decisions, but I follow religiously. There are a couple of very pricey medications that don’t seem to be helpful. I am fortunate in not experiencing too much in the way of side effects, but who wants to take a handful of medications every day? Well, I’m not happy about it, but they act much the same as the lane regulator on my car. Sometimes I find it annoying. Yet it is extremely valuable in keeping me driving in my own lane. The same is true for my medications. They keep me in my lane.
In the little divider box of my toolbox I keep symptoms at the ready. It’s not as if I spend all my time wondering if I’m moving toward depression or mania, but knowing my early symptoms keeps me from falling too far or soaring too high. So, how do I know depression is on its way? The first one is wanting to go to bed or stay in bed even if I’m not tired. I am vigilant about that, making my bed even before dressing each morning. Another sign that depression is on its way is my lack of desire to do basic tasks. Nothing seems worth doing and nothing seems interesting. More than thirty minutes playing computer games is another sure sign. The final sign that alerts me is my lack of conversation. I feel I have nothing to say.
Now, what about the hypomania? Although I have little to say when headed toward depression, one of the key warning signs of abnormal energy rising is that I have a lot to say on a lot of subjects. Talking faster, moving faster, deciding faster are all warning signs. I am naturally a rapid thinker, able to conceptualize anything you throw at me. However when headed to an unnatural high, I have so many ideas racing in my mind that I must stop and write them down. Being the belle of the ball is not my most comfortable style so when I find myself flitting from person to person I remain alert.
So, what do I do when these signs and symptoms appear, I lift the divider box of my toolbox and find just the right tool. From coloring to counting; writing with my non-dominant hand, walking background and doing regular tasks with my right, not left hand. Tapping, crunching, popping those little bubbles in mailers are all good tools for me. I tell my friends what is going on and invite them to visit me, take me out somewhere, or give me a call. Withdrawal is not helpful and even if I have little to say, being surrounded by people who care pull me a ways out of my hole. Not everyone can do this, but a few close friends sure helps.
Now, what about the hypomania? The most helpful tool for me is playing the piano. Sometimes it is learning a new song, technique or notes. Sometimes it is banging out boogies, polkas and familiar tunes. To slow down, I play quietly, slowly and with purpose. I learned about “moment in time” long before mindfulness became a popular stress reducer. Living in the moment; not the past, not the future, develops a sense of gratitude and awareness that can keep me from rushing and not focusing on the next task at hand.
Some of these tools may be helpful to you. Others may not. My hope is that these do help or spark a new idea that is more useful. You matter. Take the time to figure out a toolbox for yourself.
Until next time,
I have been thinking about mental illness for a long time. I have enough research and experience with others to write a book. Unfortunately, the topic became quite personal after I completed radiation for DCIS, ductal carcinoma in situ, see last Novembers blog post, I’ve been thinking about Being a Person with a Serious Iillness.
As I drove home from my final radiation appointment, I found myself going beyond the hyper-vigilance that had plagued me for a month. My mind was racing so fast with so many ideas that I knew was not typical Sally thinking. After a visit with my doctor, I was put on a mood stabilizing medication that helped me to sleep and slowed me down. That was great and I moved happily into fall and winter.
Sadly, my best friend had been diagnosed with brain cancer and was fighting for her life. I saw her for the last time shortly after beginning the medication. I fell into a deep depression that held fast through Beth’s battle and death. It did not dissipate until March, after a week in the sunniest city in the country, Yuma, AZ. I arrived back home in Winterset ready to engage in my life again. I was so relieved to be free of the depression that I failed to notice symptoms of an episode of hypomania. My family tried mightily to help me recognize it, but off I went to Anchorage, Alaska where the sun was shining even through the nighttime hours. I engaged in some unusual behavior for me and the friend I stayed with contacted my family with concern.
I barely returned home when I was off again to attend a conference in Dayton, Ohio. Again, no realization that my behavior was off the charts. It was only after sending a series of strange photos to my family that they began charting a course of intervention that would get me back to normal. Let me tell you that hypomania comes with its own set of denial (much like that of an alcoholic). I did everything I could to assure my family that I was fine and mentally healthy. I saw nothing strange about trading in my one-year old Honda Fit to lease a 2020 BMW Roadster, but they sure did.
I never got to the point of full-blown mania, but my actions were regularly inconsistent with my values. Caring very much for my son, friends and the rest of my family, I agreed to take Alan with me to see my doctor (the one who prescribed the mood stabilizing medication) and to see the therapist I’d found shortly after my last depression ended. Once we heard the diagnosis, we were all relieved. Not happy, but relieved. A psychiatrist confirmed my bipolar disorder shortly after those visits.
Now a new regimen of medication ensued, and I nearly surrendered to the darkest depression I have ever experienced. A shift in medication and seven weeks later, I was on my way out. And up. You may be able to tell that I am definitely recovered from the depression because this is my first blog post since November 2018. This time, however, I am working weekly with my therapist, seeing my psychiatrist who is 50 miles from home, and initiating a plan of many activities to keep me from racing and going back into hypomania.
Why am I writing this? Why am I sharing my experience with a disorder that has so much stigma attached? First, I am writing this to let you know there is life after diagnosis. Secondly, I want to be part of the fight to rid the stigma tied to mental illness.
For what it’s worth, I’m well today, December 5, 2019 and I have a toolbox filled with ideas to deal with both the depression and the hypo mania. That seems the best thing to do at this time.
I have access to treatment. I have family and friends who love me. And I always have hope; the hope that God consistently provides. Here is the bible verse that keeps me from spinning completely out of control in either direction: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” from 2nd Corinthians, chapter 4. I hope you find comfort and encouragement in these words as well.
Until next time,
A surprising thing happened on my way to celebrate and promote Waiting for Good News, Living with Chronic and Serious Illness, (Minneapolis: FortressPress, 2018). I wrote this book from the perspective of someone who loved and lived with a father, and later a husband, who had chronic illnesses. It’s a good book, full of information and stories from others, especially targeted at those who care for someone with illness.
The surprising thing: I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) just three months before the publisher’s release date. Cancer! Me! Who cares if Stage 0 Breast Cancer is not life-threatening? Who cares if the area is small and easily removed by a lumpectomy? Who cares if surgical recovery is quick and mostly painless? I do and so do the 60,000 others who are diagnosed with DCIS each year in the United States (according to the American Cancer Society). Ironically, my sister, Sue, who copy-edited my manuscript before I sent it to my editor at Fortress Press, was diagnosed with an invasive breast cancer (Stage 1) just as I was beginning my post-surgical radiation treatments.
Even before the book was released I was dealing with anxiety about what this diagnosis meant to me, my life, and my future. There were days when I went to the manuscript to remind myself of the process many of us go through when we receive a diagnosis we don’t want to hear. I laughed when my radiologist “scolded” me for minimizing my experience. “I don’t just have the T-shirt,” I replied. “I wrote the book!”
But could I really practice what I preached? It was an odd experience that (to date) has lasted for five months. From the first phone call following my annual mammogram, “We need you to have another mammogram,” to the biopsy and receiving the results and hearing the diagnosis, through the MRI (to ensure there would be no surprises during surgery), and the radiation seed implant the day before the surgery, the surgery itself and an appointment with an oncologist to discuss follow up medication, and through my four weeks of daily radiation, my life was not my own.
All pretty orderly, reasonable and expected, right? So why do I feel so strange? Why did I suddenly become hypervigilant, terrified I’d forget an appointment, or fail to follow through on work tasks? A reasonably good driver, I panicked every time I made a lane change on my drive from my home in Winterset, about 30 miles from the Des Moines Cancer Center? A wonderfully patient oncology nurse helped me see that I was feeling so out of control of my life that I was working overtime to control anything I could. Damn!!! I wrote the book.
I really wrote the book! What is wrong with me?
Ah-hah. I am a human being with a serious illness. My relatively predictable life was turned upside down and inside out and I was at a loss to get it back in order (see page 10, Waiting for Good News). Even as I experienced unusual (for me) emotions, fatigue that seemed to come out of nowhere, and this need to “get a grip,” I absolutely knew that God was present with me and I would not experience anything without God’s compassion holding me up. What sweet comfort. And what a grand reminder that none of us is destined for health issues and none of us is immune. “…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45, NRSV).
So, I’ve been thinking. Thinking with deep gratitude about the highly skilled and deeply compassionate health care providers I have now had the privilege to know. Thinking about the people of the congregations I serve and their ongoing outpouring of love and care, complete with stepping in to lead when I could not, and sending gifts, cards, gas money, letters and regular text message check-ins. Thinking about family and friends in Winterset and the amazing ways they showed their care and support.
I’m not really a Pollyanna type, but I do see silver linings. I do trust God to redeem all things, I do see the gifts of humanity in seasons of struggle. I do count my blessings. And, just as soon as I write those words, I start to think again.
I’m thinking…about those who do not have the support that I do; those whose cancer is advanced and is life threatening; those whose lives are altered in such a negative way that my words are offensive to them.
I am so sorry. I write always to help and not to hurt. I am not a fan of bumper sticker solutions to difficult problems, and seldom offer the bible verse that will provide all you need, but…
here is my prayer for you, borrowed from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13, NRSV).
Until next time,