Ride the life and death roller-coaster of mania and depression with mother and daughter.
The Bi-Polar Express – Natasha’s Ride
All my life I knew I was different, I didn’t fit in. I always felt I could do everything – but things never worked out for me, I’d either get depressed for no reason or be hyper-active.
As you read my book, you will follow the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the high highs, the low lows, back and forth, faster and faster, my Bi-Polar roller-coaster life. But always keep one thing in mind: you can put the book down and get off my roller-coaster ride…..I can’t.
This book contains:
and may contain
The Bi-Polar Express – Ela’s Ride
This is a funny, sad story of a mother’s search from childhood, through the teenage years and beyond, for the correct diagnosis for her ‘different’ daughter, whilst desperately trying to battle with her daughter’s alienation, dramas and crises.
This book is for all people who know someone, a friend, relative or acquaintance with a mental disorder – and that’s just about everyone. Read this book – you’d be crazy not to.
I have a fascination for vampires. Imagine if you could fly, only had to get up when the horrible sun goes away, you never had to go to church or anything and if you didn’t like someone you could invite them round for dinner and never worry about them again. On top of all those amazing super powers you would never age and, according to some movies, turn into the beauty you always wanted to be, and then never change. Sounds pretty good to me.
I often wonder why they always make vampires out to be evil. They kill people to stay alive, but so do tigers. Survival of the fittest. Why do we need a vampire slayer? The world is over-populated and, if vampires were real, it should be thought of as a blessing. “God”, or whatever, wouldn’t have to worry about creating natural disasters to wipe out 500,000 people, vampires could do it and maybe even start an army that has a chance at surviving a war. People always say they want to live forever but no one wants to be old. Vampires are obviously the answer.
I often think about death and I think after all that stuff about vampires the next topic is logically death. What if I was driving in a car and there was fog or a cloud and I couldn’t see past the bumper of the car in front of mine and I was about to die, but I didn’t know that? When would my life flash before my eyes? How can life flash before my eyes if I die without any warning? There is less than a second to sum up my entire life, right before I am removed from existence. Or would I just think about everything forever? Or maybe you don’t think about anything, everything stops, there is none of this “my life flashed before my eyes” bullshit when you die, only when you think you are going to die and you worry about all the things you never did, so you do them.
I think about death all the time, mostly my own but often others’ too. I couldn’t handle anyone close to me dying. I think it’s more painful to watch someone you love die than to die yourself, not that I know. But the thing I think about most is; what is the point to it all? We spend our entire life trying to save money, meet the right person, have kids, have a good job and for what? To die? At the end you just die. You don’t get a big award saying congratulations you have everything and even if you did would it be worth it? So maybe you do it all to be happy. A friend of mine once said, “Happiness is not the destination but the way to travel.” This means that if happiness isn’t what is at the end of the rainbow then it must be death, if it’s the journey, you work really hard to be happy only to arrive and die? OK, I seriously think the system is stupid.
What is the point? People often waste years trying to figure it out, some their whole lives, and they never find it or they die before they can tell anyone. If we were born knowing what we were meant to do with life and in life then not as much would be wasted. Or is that the point? There is no point? “Learn from those who waste their lives and don’t waste yours!” If that is the message then I say “how can we not waste ours, by just being happy with what we have and travelling towards death in style?” So that means that the answer is always just another question. How annoying. OK, that was too deep for me so let’s move on.
We heard about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and read many articles and books on the subject. There was always a list of criteria to tick and if a certain percentage was present, the child would most likely be suffering from ADHD. God knows Natasha met almost all of the criteria.
She wasn’t just very active, she was fidgety and restless, could not concentrate on a single task (especially reading or writing) for any length of time, unless it was watching a movie. She flitted from task to task, she was very impulsive, accident prone and un-coordinated, walking into walls and misjudging distances was a constant problem, (“Natasha, watch where you’re going”), always seemed clumsy - the apple juice spilled by her over those young years would have filled the Warragamba Dam by another 10%. She had to touch everything and taste everything. She could not concentrate in a classroom full of children. She spoke before thinking “Mum, look at that fat lady”. Any instruction or request given to her was either unheard or instantly forgotten. She interrupted adult conversations or shut off completely (feeling as though she didn’t belong to the family), overreacted to school teasing and cried often – hence being branded a wimp and a sook. She found it very difficult to wait for her turn at games and did not like to lose. She was also very claustrophobic – hated small restrictive spaces.
The traits of ADHD she did not possess were aggression and a bad temper.
She wanted so desperately to be popular and mix well with her peers but it never worked out. She was ignored in the playground and not invited to parties. She would act inappropriately and awkwardly in a group. She misread social signals and came on too strong. She invaded others’ personal space. Most of her days were sad. She was very bossy with others, ordering them to do and fetch things for her and tried to organise them too much. The other children rejected her pushy behaviour.
It is documented that at least half of ADD/ADHD sufferers also have a learning disability such as dyslexia (difficulty reading, writing and spelling words).[i] Natasha certainly suffered from learning difficulties. Not only did she have difficulties with learning to read and write but also with learning to ‘read people’ and respond appropriately. Was it genetic? A male relative on my side of the family has (undiagnosed) ADHD. Was it environment? This relative certainly grew up in a totally different environment, so why so many similarities?
Why was Natasha so different from the ‘normal’ child? She hates the word normal and who can blame her? “If you were more normal, you’d have more friends” she would be told, even by close family members. Who wants to be ‘not normal’?
She was not learning to her full potential and she had very few friends, and certainly never belonged to a group of friends. She was often in trouble. We were struggling to keep her happy and to keep her going and often we felt like complete failures.
Articles we read and lectures we attended suggested that as the ADHD afflicted child does not cope well with stress, inconsistency, noise and unnecessary over-discipline, home life should be filled with routine, structure and an atmosphere of minimal stir, where good behaviour is rewarded and bad isn’t a big drama.
In an ideal world this would be possible but stress is everywhere, from the minute you get up to the minute you fall asleep at night. Peter was a very consistent parent, but I, as a working mother who loved her work, found it extremely difficult to maintain a steady pattern of behaviour when at times I was tired, cranky, late, rushed as I had just been called from work to come and take Natasha home for the 3rd time in a week, had a headache, was going through early Menopause: I was running around in circles and it was making me dizzy. Good behaviour was rare so how could I reward it? I don’t beat myself up about it (OK, I do). But my girls spent 3 afternoons a week at my parents’ place, where there was structure, lots of food, lots of love and plenty of that all important consistency.
We were advised to ask her teachers to have her seated away from other distracting influences, to talk to her directly, watch out for specific weaknesses, try to boost her self esteem and encourage her as much as possible. We also were to ask Natasha’s teacher for extra supervision for her in the playground.
As for the school meeting all or even just some of above mentioned desired conditions – sorry, no, not even in a Private school, where you are paying thousands of dollars a year. Seated away from distracting influences – how is that possible in a class of 30? What teacher has the time to concentrate on one, two or five ADHD children when she has 25 others to teach? More supervision in the playground – a splendid idea, but one which is rarely put into practice. No teacher ever looked out for Natasha in the playground when she was being bullied. Having branded her an ‘attention seeker’, attention was the last thing they wanted to give her. Watching out for specific learning weaknesses was a reasonable suggestion, provided that the teachers were up to the task. In year 2, Natasha’s teacher would ‘correct’ her bad spelling with his own mangled version as his specialty was Mathematics, not English! The problems of an ADHD child are many and complex and they cannot be addressed in a public, or even a private school. A one-on-one approach is the only one which may, with a lot of patience and just as much luck bear fruit.
[i] From an article, Is your child hyperactive by Dr. Christopher Green,
published in the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine in March 1993.
After Natasha’s return from Scotland, Puppy, The One before The One before, reappeared on the scene, things didn’t work out the way she hoped they would. Puppy just wanted to be friends. The romantic disappointment, combined with the car crash and the case of the disappearing friends, led to a deep depression and Natasha’s first suicide attempt. She took a large quantity of pills and fell asleep in the bath, waiting to die, waiting for the pain to stop. As is so often the case, her desperate action was a cry for help. Luckily, before it was too late, she was awoken by a phone call: Puppy called and talked her into getting out and meeting him in the city. They went to a pub they and her passenger/girlfriends frequented, and they were also there. She told them about the suicide attempt. The girls appeared to be upset and promised to be better friends and call her every day. The only person to call next day was Puppy – the rest of the soon-to-be-better-friends presumably thought the suicide attempt was just a dramatic gesture designed to attract their attention. There seems to be no end to most teenagers’ self-absorption. According to my GP, most 18 year olds just want to have fun and anyone who is not a ‘fun person’, is not included.
With Natasha’s desperation to belong to a group, she applies the term ‘friends’ too freely and too often to people who are at best, acquaintances. This inevitably leads to disappointment. Only later, did she make true friends, who offered selflessness and loyalty.
After her suicide attempt, Natasha spent almost three months in her bedroom, refusing to come out, refusing to talk, just lying there in bed, in the dark. Occasionally she would emerge to eat something, but every request to come for a walk, have a shower or just come out was met with an apathetic “not today”. We were so worried to leave her alone when we went to work. What would we find when we came back home?
I often wondered why a bout of mania was always followed by a depression. The multi-tasker that Natasha is, like a Microsoft Windows® system - several tasks are running at the same time, each started whilst another is being performed. The system tries to manage the different tasks running. At times, the processor (mind) and memory is so overloaded that a ‘out of memory’ warning is issued. The Task Manager program is exhausted. Natasha is exhausted. All tasks were not completed. The ‘system’ needed to be re-booted. You can reboot a computer almost straight away. Not always so with a multi-tasking person. The nervous system is so tired that a reboot is not possible right away. Long periods of rest and silence are required to recharge the battery. For a multi-tasking person this can take months spent in bed, depressed. Very little activity can occur whilst the person is recovering.
Finally Natasha snapped out of her depression when a booklet advertising locally available courses was included in a newspaper we bought. She chose two; Creative Writing and Forensic Psychology. She particularly liked the latter and attended regularly. She was still going when Peter and I went on a 5-week overseas trip to my Primary School reunion in Israel, three weeks in the Greek Islands and a week in Rome. We had planned this trip long before Natasha went overseas, our original intention being to meet up with her in Greece in May – but her premature return to Australia cancelled out that part of the plan. She assured us she would be OK and look after the house and our animals. My friend Cathy, (who lives down the road) was going to look in on her regularly. My friend, Suzy, was only a phone call away and called Natasha often. Despite these assurances, we set out on our holiday apprehensively.
Every one of the of the numerous phone conversations we had with her while we were away seemed to indicate that everything was well. But we discovered upon our return, all was far from well.
Natasha was still suffering deep depression and while we were away, started to see a Psychologist – a unique individual who I will call Doctor Bob. It transpired that while she was doing the Forensic Psychology course, her lecturer took note of Natasha’s comments about committing suicide and contacted his friend, Doctor Bob. In turn, Doctor Bob emailed Natasha, started a dialogue with her and convinced her to come and talk to him. What a remarkable display of compassion for a total stranger! Just as remarkable was the fact that he provided his professional services for free, flatly refusing to charge her for two months of therapy.
Doctor Bob believed in Natasha and was sure in time the ‘tulip’ would open and be absolutely magnificent. He built up her self esteem and was a true friend to her during lonely and dark times. He helped her to see herself in a more positive light and gain enough self-esteem to come out of her room and start facing the world again.
Armed with renewed confidence Natasha applied for a course in Child Care, where she ran into a school acquaintance, who was in touch with an old high school friend. As luck would have it, her mum ran a Childcare Centre and was looking for untrained staff.
Natasha got a part-time job and all went relatively well for eight months – an exceptionally long period of stability for her. And then, everything unravelled again: She was brimming with grandiose ideas of how to improve the running of the Centre by reconstructing the business, getting new toys, books, etc. She made a list of all her ‘proposals’ and handed it to the owner. Needless to say, this initiative did not go down well and Natasha left the job before she could be fired. The usual demands of real life and a regular job (tedious though manageable to most) – such as being on time, obeying the rules and keeping your mouth shut, were too much for Natasha and the manic behaviour began again.
My attention was caught by an article (published by the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend magazine) about an Olympic swimmer who is a Bipolar sufferer. It described Natasha’s behaviour to a T: the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the good times and the very bad times. I showed the article to Natasha and she confirmed that her own feelings and her moods swings were exactly as described. The article recommended that sufferers contact a Bipolar Clinic. But upon calling them I was told no help could be given to Natasha unless she was already diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. As my GP felt Natasha suffered from a Personality Disorder and not Bipolar and did not refer me to a Psychiatrist, I was hoping this clinic could help me get the diagnosis. I asked the lady to recommend a Psychiatrist; her reply was “Sorry, we are not allowed to do that”. “Please, at least provide me with a name of a local Bipolar specialist, don’t recommend him/her” - I persevered until I managed to get a local contact name - only to be told by this psychiatrist’s receptionist, that I could not get an appointment for 6 months! A very long time in a Bipolar sufferer’s life!
After quitting the Childcare job Natasha was depressed, but she swung into action fairly soon by getting work from an agency providing temporary jobs for the Education sector. The hours were erratic, Natasha rarely knew in advance on which day she was working and could be called to distant locations at a moment’s notice. The unpredictable pattern exacerbated her natural anxiety. She also had babysitting jobs and another as a nanny to a 10-year old girl. Her nanny duties included picking the girl up from school, preparing the dinner for her and her single mum, and occasionally taking the girl to the beach. As ever, Natasha’s relationship with her younger charge was fraught - the girl tormented her with criticisms about Natasha’s weight and unfashionable clothes. At the age of 20, Natasha was bullied by someone half her age and did not know how to defend or assert herself. She would come home in tears.
She kept searching for a more permanent position with regular hours – but holding down a full-time job can be an impossible task for a Bipolar sufferer. It is a sad paradox: a stable, routine environment is supposed to ease their anxiety – but the demands of a routine only create more anxiety.
Her behaviour was erratic and each day presented us with a new challenge and another drama.
One morning we got up to find she’d brought home a young lad called Dingo she had apparently picked up somewhere the night before. He was ‘The One’ and they were going to be together forever. She knew him so well. They went back – how long? – well, hours! When she told me they had sex, I freaked out. All we needed was Natasha getting impregnated by a Dingo! I was so upset with her irresponsible acts. To prevent such a nightmare scenario becoming a reality, I whipped her off to my GP and asked that she be prescribed the Pill. The GP obliged with a script and told Natasha to take the Pill every day. To ensure that she did not forget, the GP suggested that she make it an integral part of some daily routine, like brushing her hair in the morning. “But I don’t brush my hair” was Natasha’s reply. It’s true, she never did – but this kind of twisted logic did nothing to reassure me or the GP, that it was within our power to help her avert a catastrophe. Trying to impress upon her that the matter was a serious one, The GP told Natasha that she was way too young to be having sex and thinking of bringing up a child. This was the final straw. Natasha started screaming and raving about having enough money to raise a child as her paternal grandmother was going to leave her all her money in her will. She was totally irrational. The doctor asked her to leave the room, by now concerned more with my sanity than Natasha’s. Once we were alone, she repeated a question she had asked me several times before: “how do you cope with her?” To be absolutely honest, I don’t know. All I know is that I love her and that she is my responsibility. My choices are few and as stark as in the ‘Flight or Fight’ scenario (where a person can choose to run from a threat or problem or stay and fight), I choose the latter. I have to fight for my child’s happiness, to say nothing of her survival.
After this altercation Natasha decided that she would move out as soon as she had a good job. She wasn’t going to obey our house rules and stop bringing strangers home. They weren’t strangers to her. These were her dream men, each ready to commit to her for life.
Natasha decided Dingo was not The One after all and she broke it off after two months.
We packed a few belongings; a toothbrush, pyjamas, videos and other essentials into a bag and drove Natasha to the Clinic with heavy hearts. She was apprehensive but excited. She had always loved adventure and this, clearly, was another one. It was the start of a new phase in her roller-coaster ride.
The clinic was a 2-floor facility, 1st floor for Mood Disorders, 2nd floor for Drug Rehabilitation. Natasha was on the 1st Floor, where she had her own room. It was almost as good as Club Med.
As soon as the formalities of checking-in had been completed, the clinic staff got to work. There was a blood test and a barrage of questionnaires and forms to fill in. Natasha particularly liked filling in the mood/feeling questionnaire – she was always one for multiple choice tests.
There was a light-hearted moment when the doctor who examined Natasha discovered she was Jewish and said “I have a son for you, your age, are you interested?” Can you imagine? Why would he want a manic depressive crazy loon for his son? Maybe he was trying to put her at ease. Natasha was amused.
The resident psychiatrist, Doctor D. prescribed Zyprexa®, an anti-psychotic drug to control the mania. As she was manipulative, bossy, loud and full of bizarre ideas, he said that as well as being Bipolar, there was also the possibility that she had a Borderline Personality Disorder.
Natasha’s arrival seemed to cheer up the ‘inmates’ at the clinic. “She’s a breath of fresh air” one told me. Under normal circumstances, this interpretation of a cyclone could be considered curious, but as the majority of the resident patients were depressed, it made perfect sense. Natasha’s manic behaviour and entertaining ways provided a temporary escape from their own Black Dogs. She swung into action immediately, organising the times and programs for the fellow ‘inmates’ to watch on TV – including betting cigarettes on Australian Idol eliminations as well as dictating the timing and frequency of smoking breaks. In the privacy of her own room, she started to write in a pink diary my sister had sent her.
We visited her every day. Visitors were welcome and could share delicious meals with the patients at minimal cost. We suspect that thanks for the gourmet food are owed to a certain Sydney stock broker and Bipolar sufferer, who had been a resident at the clinic in the past. He probably funded Chicken Schnitzel with creamy mashed potatoes and steamed beans and Veal Stroganoff with fluffy rice and creamed Spinach instead of the more common Chicko Rolls and soggy Salmon Patties. We would sit, eat, chat and feel at home - because Natasha felt at home.
Here, at the Clinic, Natasha finally met like-minded people, a group to which she could belong. Their ailments and degrees of affliction varied, but they had mental problems and consequently could relate to each other. From a distance it may have seemed like an awful group to belong to, but at the time it did not seem so to us. My parents visited only once and when I showed them around and said I was happy she was there and that it was a good place, my mother shook her head sadly and said “Happy? Good place? We would only wish it on our enemies, tut, tut, tut”. Far from being happy, my parents were devastated and probably also ashamed, though to be fair, their sadness was not caused by the clinic per se, but by the fact that their granddaughter was so ill. I, on the other hand, could see that this was the first step on the long road to recovery. Here, Natasha saw a whole group of people behaving differently from others she knew - and the first glimpses of recognition that yes, they, and she, had a problem, appeared.
Some of the patients told Natasha that they had been back to the clinic as many as five times, that they would get better for a while and then suffer a relapse; that they had been to much worse facilities, where you just sat on the bed all day, doped up to their eyeballs with sedatives. This idea “scared the shit out of” Natasha because she didn’t want to be coming back. I was saddened by the sight of families bringing young children to visit their sick relatives. How would a five year old understand that dad was suffering from depression or that mum was suicidal and had to undergo ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy)? I wondered whether these obviously traumatic visits would have long-term effects on the children’s own mental stability.
The Clinic had structured days but nothing was compulsory. The only things forbidden to patients were sex and drugs. There were hourly lectures and group sessions between breakfast, lunch and dinner times. Natasha was too anxious to attend the anxiety classes and too hyper to attend the relaxation class. She went to Group Therapy but could not wait her turn to talk, which intimidated the rest of the group and made Natasha feel guilty. She was too obsessed with her many obsessions to last through a meditation session and too manic to go to lectures about depression. Depression was off her menu, at least for now.
When visiting, I would always find Natasha in the large ‘Smoking Room’, where the ‘inmates’ liked to congregate. If one went into the clinic a non-smoker, he or she became a smoker before you could say “why smoke a Camel?” Cigarettes were a currency; people would trade cigarettes, borrow cigarettes, repay cigarettes, roll cigarettes. Natasha went through cartons and cartons. I would bring her 3 packets in the evening and by the next morning they were all gone – as was the credit I would buy her for her mobile phone. $30 would not last half an hour. She was still messaging and calling people at all hours, day and night.
Hardly any of her few friends came to visit, which, considering the tenuous nature of so-called friendships, was a blessing. She was quite fearful of the mere thought of seeing certain people, especially anyone whose behaviour had caused her anxiety in the past, or those who were ‘stoners’. Perhaps she was afraid that the latter would present her with a temptation she would not be able to resist. Her reluctance to see the former was perfectly understandable.
The people she wanted to see were Puppy, with whom she was still in love, and The Scottish One with whom she was still obsessed, but he was not contactable. Extremely manic, she would colour her hair constantly. She also filled her time by writing incessantly in the pink diary about all the patients and their symptoms – which did not sit well with the nurses, who were horrified by the apparent breach of confidentiality and consequently confiscated the book. This made little difference; Natasha wrote on anything she could find and also held the information in her mind until she and the diary were happily reunited – only because she had changed the patients’ names to obscure ones.
We were given lists for things Natasha wanted us to bring to the Clinic – the must haves included a laptop, and a Scene It board game.
During the first 2 weeks in the clinic, Natasha was torn between an acceptance of the fact that she should be there and the desire to get out. Arriving on a visit one day, we found her with all her belongings packed, (these had accumulated over the days due to the constant requests for her familiar things; teddy bears, pillows, DVDs, clothes), begging to be taken home. It took us quite some time to convince her that she had to stay. We felt like heartless criminals.
While still at the clinic, out on a day-pass, in her mania and continued obsession with mobile phones, I failed to talk Natasha out of signing a 2-year contract with a new mobile company. She had no income but what did that have to do with anything? She started with a minimum of $44 then increased it to $55 (cheaper calls). She just had to have that phone. She would not listen to reason – it was not a word in her vocabulary at that crazy time.
At this stage, there was no visible reduction in Natasha’s manic behaviour. The clinic’s psychiatrist, who saw her and us on a regular basis, said that she wasn’t really getting any less manic but that it would be a very long road. How right he was!