Mental illness runs in my family. My mother, Joyce Bell spent a year in a state hospital when I was about seven years old—back in the 1960s. My father, Joe Bell served in the combat infantry during WWII. He was given a medical discharge for combat fatigue, what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. He was a proud veteran and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in the war.
My mother was sick off and on throughout my childhood. She was chronically depressed, spent hours each day vomiting, moaning and laying in bed. She was also diagnosed with schizophrenia—hearing voices, seeing things that were not there, sleep walking and was verbally and physically abusive to my brother, sister, and I. There were happy times as well. We kept a houseful of pets, she and I would read and talk together, and on my 18th birthday she gave me a surprise birthday party that included 30 of my friends and our family members.
However in 1976, eighteen months after that party, my mother thought she found a lump in her breast. My sister found her lifeless body in the bedroom. My mother had swallowed a bottled of tranquilizers and ended her life. I was 19 years old. She was only 40.
After her death, my family, which was never financially or emotionally stable to begin with…fell apart. My brother, sister, and I each had our own unique set of personal problems and my father found it difficult to hold down a job, and was often depressed and paranoid. I held myself together largely because of my faith in Jesus Christ. I did experience much sorrow and grief. But in college through the help of a friend, some 30 years my senior, I began to bounce back.
There is so much more I could share about those early years, but let’s fast forward to the 1990s. Out of respect for my wife and children, I am leaving out certain details of my journey into manic-depression and its consequences. Before moving to Colorado, I had a successful business, was respected in the community, an elder on the board of a local church, and a lay youth minister. I organized large evangelistic rallies and events to discourage teens from using illegal drugs or joining street gangs…and to put their faith in Jesus Christ.
During those years, I had amazing energy. Talked and thought a mile a minute, multi-tasking in a helter-skelter way. I took creative ideas for doing good and ran with them. I slept little, ate a lot, and sadly neglected my family. In 1994 after becoming disenchanted with the fruits of my labors (even though there was nothing to be sad or disappointed about) I began to slip into days of dark moodiness and anxiety. I became reckless with money, and would lash out at family members, not in anger, but in uncontrollable rage.
Everything began to irritate me. Nothing made me happy. And then my employer changed the terms of my contract, cancelled my health insurance, froze my pension and gave me little choice but to quit my job. Then my mania kicked in, but not in a productive way. Thinking and moving at light speed, I decided that I must leave California to find work elsewhere. I impulsively made plans to move to Colorado to start a new business and ministry. My wife tried to get me to rethink my plans. But I was convinced I was right. I had visions of grandeur, fueled by unrealistic optimism.
But after I brought my family to Colorado, my dreams died. My mind began to snap. People who knew me then noted that a dark cloud seemed to follow me everywhere. My moods would switch from sadness causing me to being uncommunicative and sleep all the time and then to being ‘superman’ working two jobs to support my family, and struggling to keep my marriage intact. We had no family or friends here to provide support.
I became angry. I was angry at God and the world. I denied anything was wrong with me . I would fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. Even a facial expression or an innocent comment or question would trigger the monster in my mind and mouth. The mood swings could take me from being a nice, friendly, positive man; and then within hours become extremely angry, verbally abusive or depressed. I said and did many unmentionable things that I am deeply ashamed of.
My loving wife urged me to seek medical help or counseling. I said no to her entreaties for over a year. Then, in desperation, I poured my feelings out to a counselor. He was very caring, but said I was severely depressed and probably needed medication. I saw a doctor, who gave me a five minute psychiartric exam and prescribed Prozac. He never checked for mania. That misdiagnosis sent me into a manic cycle that lasted nearly a year.
Those depressing, destructive times began to subside in 2001 (after a proper diagnosis of bipolar disorder and being treated with mood stabilizers). Part of that healing process is due to the love of my wife, who did not give up on me or our marriage. Yet much of the damage had already been done. During those ‘lost years’ we were nearly evicted from our rented home and came within weeks of finalizing a divorce. I was estranged from my wife, my children, and my God. Bipolar disorder created my out of control thinking and moods, but I take responsibility for the poor choices and pride that contributed to this path of destruction.
Besides better medical care and talk therapy, there is another important reason for the many positive changes in my life that I have experienced during my early recovery experience. A group of men from a local church that I met with weekly for prayer showed me unconditional love, listened to me, and prayed for me. They helped me realize that I was loved and God had never forsaken me.
A huge part of my recovery has been via the support and education I have received from my friends who are part of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Getting to know others who understood what I was going through and encouraging me to learn more about mood disorders and how to live successfully with them has given me hope and courage to embrace a better future.
Yes, I have bipolar, but that label does not define who I am. I am a husband, a father, a self-employed mental health service provider…and a child of God.