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I Came Face to Face with Cancer and Bipolar Disoder

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‘I have lung cancer.’ Those four words would change my world forever.

I was a manic ticking time bomb by the time I was 37 and, by now, 20 years untreated for bipolar disorder. Nothing could prepare me for, or prevent, what was about to happen when my world came crashing down.

My father was an amazing man and had always been at the centre of my universe. He broke the news that he had lung cancer after a family dinner at my sister’s house. Somehow, I knew what he was going to say before he said it and I went into immediate and panicked denial. I remember standing up, backing away, and saying the word ‘no’ repeatedly. My husband Barry and my father told me to sit down and listen to what he had to say.

I truly have no recollection of anything I said or did after that. Did I say something? I don’t know. Did I cry? I don’t know. Did I do anything? I don’t know. Was I hysterical in the car on the way home? Perhaps. Was I catatonic? Probably. Sometimes our brains shut down to protect us from extreme trauma. Do I remember how we told our children, then ages 14 and 18? I do not.

One thing of note that I do remember in the days and weeks to follow is that I accused Barry of being in on ‘the big secret’ of my father’s cancer diagnosis. I was convinced that my dad had told Barry before any of the rest of us. After all, it was both Barry and my father who had forced me to sit down and listen. Did Barry already know what we were going to hear before the news was out?

I became fixated on this and convinced that it was so. I was certain he had kept this from me and allowed me to be blindsided by the news. In my mind, he had committed a major sin. I felt betrayed rather than protected. I became obsessed by thoughts of his betrayal and trickery. Delusional or real, these ideas became fixated in my head and were a constant source of fury. I attacked him physically, verbally and emotionally without mercy.

One of the most difficult issues about this time period is that the family was not allowed to talk about my father’s illness. We were supposed to pretend that it wasn’t happening – among ourselves and in the world beyond our little circle. Life was to continue as normal when nothing was the least bit normal. That was the edict from on high. My father did not want anyone to know he had cancer and he made a herculean effort to conceal it.

Any time I tried to broach the subject or express my deep fear and depression, I was told to stop worrying because everything was going to be fine. It literally drove me to madness. It was surreal and indescribably painful. I knew it wasn’t going to be fine, but my opinions were destined for an audience of one: me.

That audience of one was becoming more ill herself in her own way moment by moment. My father’s illness was the major trigger my bipolar disorder had been waiting for for a very long time. It was time to release the beast. My genetic predisposition, in conjunction with the environmental factors now occurring, combined to break the camel’s back. I couldn’t maintain the Kennedy-esque facade that the rest of my family was putting on: fake it until you make it. With me, it was fake it until you break it.

Drinking and psychosis is not a good idea. The first real thing I remember feeling was intense anxiety and the need to find an outlet for that anxiety. That’s when I started to drink. I was never without a very large bottle of wine, a wineglass and a corkscrew. The corkscrew is important later on in my story. So is the fact that I lived in a beautiful 200-year-old historic home.

I went to work during the day and drank at night and on weekends. Ironically, work was the place where I functioned best. It was where I felt some relief from the emotional torment that had become my inner life. It also provided relief from being at home – in the place where I could not control myself from torturing my family. After all, I knew that I was going to lose the person who was the center of my universe, and I had no one with whom to share that dread. Everyone else refused to even acknowledge or talk about it.

My sanity was hanging by a thread. I was unfocused at home and laser focused at work. In hindsight I recognised that I was having a full-blown manic episode. At home I was completely off the rails and my behavior was despicable. In front of my parents, siblings, and in-laws my emotions were a roller coaster of unpredictability. Yet, before friends, and co-workers I put on a stoic face. I did so through an unbelievable strength of will that sapped all of my mental energy.

Incredibly, my father was physically doing well. After going through chemo, his tumour vanished. Even his doctors were astonished. But his principal doctor wanted to be cautious and suggested an aggressive round of radiation. I fervently disagreed with this and vociferously made my feelings known. I thought this treatment plan was too aggressive in light of how well my dad seemed to be doing. Once again, I was a voice of one.

I continued to be the outlier when it came to the decision-making. I continued to rage and was so irritable that my husband and children left me to my bottles of wine, my wineglass and my corkscrew. The corkscrew is important.

The bigger shock came when my father had a mild heart attack caused by a heart weakened by acute leukaemia. The doctors determined that this was caused by the aggressive radiation. I wasted no time gloating over the fact that I had been right in opposing the round of radiation. I was too busy sliding into, for the final time, the darkest, deepest abyss you can imagine. I had gone right over the edge and into a complete psychotic breakdown.

My husband gave me extra anti-anxiety medication and put me to bed. However, when I woke up, I had a plan. I slugged down a respectable amount of wine from the bottle by my bed to shore up my nerve. Then I quietly padded over to my bedroom window. I was going out that window! I never succeeded in my plan because my sneaky son and husband were watching me and manhandled me away. Suddenly I was again wrestling with my husband and son. I was using my trusty corkscrew to gouge great holes in our beautiful 200-year-old horsehair walls and trying to do the same to these two loved ones as well. With my other hand, I smashed my large bottle of wine into a pristine white wall.

Once the corkscrew and wine bottle were gone, I made a valiant dive for the bedroom window again, having every intention of taking flight. The last thing I remember is the two of them taking me by each arm and putting me to bed. I don’t remember anything else because I was no longer in touch with the world around me.

I do know this.

Major life events can trigger latent bipolar disorder and manic or depressive episodes. It can also lead to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Illness or death of a loved one is one of these triggers. My symptoms and psychosis had been triggered but we didn’t realise that yet. At this point, I was still untreated – and the worst was yet to come.

I was still putting on a brave front as the programmes director for the agency I was employed by. I was a director by day and, frankly, a drinking psychotic by night. My colleagues and some of my managers did know about the drama playing out in my family. They did not, however, know what was happening with me personally. They all thought that I was handling things amazingly well. Ha!

There were big changes coming to the workplace. Suddenly my two mentors and closest allies, the Executive Director and Associate Executive Director were leaving the agency. They were going to a larger sister agency in another city. And the biggest surprise of all? I was to be appointed the Interim Executive Director until a national search brought someone in from outside the agency. Me. In the middle of a psychotic breakdown. And do you know what? I did it. And when the new Executive Director came on? I left as fast as I could get through the door and went to another agency to be their Executive Director. As it turns out, work was my salvation at this time in my life.

As much as my professional life appeared to be in control, my inner and personal lives were completely out of control. So, I looked in the phone book (yes, we had them back then) and randomly picked out the name of a psychiatrist who appeared to be eminently qualified to work with me. When I arrived at his office a few minutes late and seriously out of breath, he chastised me nastily for being late. We were not off to a good start. He was most definitely a stick in the mud: uptight and judgmental. In the end, he informed me haughtily that there wasn’t much he could do for a woman whose father was dying of cancer. Serious trigger alert! In the end, I walked out in tears, with a prescription for Xanax but no appointment for a subsequent visit with this revolting man. I have never quite gotten over that meeting.

Needless to say, the other shoe finally dropped. It actually didn’t take long from beginning to end. My father went from a diagnosis of lung cancer, to tumor disappearance, to radiation treatment, to acute leukemia, to death in the space of less than a year. Yes, my adored father passed away at the age of sixty-one, younger than I am now.

The final shoe dropped. And I fell into a complete break with reality. It was the end of everything. The end of life as I knew it. The end of pretense, the end of functionality, the end of my ability to work.

It was, however, the beginning of my diagnosis and a healing journey. I had no idea at the time how far or even whether I would go up. I was completely enshrouded in blackness. There was simply, nowhere else to go but up.

By this point, it was evidently crucial that I receive care for what was obviously more than a temporary condition. We had lived with my disruptive and disturbing behavior for decades. It was no longer simply disruptive or disturbing. It had overtaken my personality, my relationship with my husband, and our family life. The need to seek immediate help was critical.

I have absolutely no memory or idea of how I ended up with the psychiatrist and therapist I ended up with. But I ended up with two decent people for the first time in thirty years of trying. Well, the therapist was fine. I called the psychiatrist ‘Dr Satan’ and we fought like cats and dogs.

But the outcome of that relationship was that he diagnosed me as having bipolar 1 disorder. And the therapist supported that diagnosis. I was finally on my way and I was relieved. After so many years of suffering, having bipolar disorder was not daunting for me; at least not at that point in time. I was too relieved to know there was an answer to all of my questions. There were ways to address what was going on with me – what had been going on with me for a very long time.

Today, I am so much more in control than I had been during and before that time. Do I still grieve the loss of my father? Of course, even though that loss happened nearly three decades ago. His presence was that strong and enduring.

Do I still see Dr Satan and my original therapist? No. Dr Satan was replaced by the psychiatrist I still see to this day. She’s a rock star! And my therapist was replaced by an ‘angel’ I lost several years ago to retirement.

All in all, compared to that awful time when my father had cancer, died, and I had raging and undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Well . . . . things are just swell. They are, at the very least, manageable and under control. I am living a good life in spite of having bipolar disorder.

Deb Wilk writes for various publications and she runs her own blog, Living Bipolar


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