So, this is a question I struggle with periodically. Is Manic Depression a blessing, curse or both? There is no denying that my life has changed immensely both for the good and the bad since being diagnosed in the early 2000’s. But, is my life really worse than it was before? Was I truly happy, or was it a semblance of happiness? Would my life have taken the same path regardless?
Now that I have been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for about 5.5 years, I can honestly say I really do not know. One goal of Nichiren Buddhism is to become indestructibly happy to the core of your being so that you can face the obstacles and struggles that are inherent in life with the knowledge that whatever life is throwing at you you can handle it with maybe not, joy, but not anger or blame either. Which brings me to the question of whether I was happy before the diagnosis, or was I operating under an illusion that I was happy?
Having thought about this quite a bit, I really do not think that I was a happy person before the diagnosis. I had moments of extreme happiness and joy which I do miss primarily because those moments involve someone I miss a great deal. However, in general, I do not think I was what I would call a happy person, and never really had been. I was not a popular student, although I was certainly a very dedicated student throughout Middle School and High School, but I had no close friends or a person that I could take my problems to. I buried them, and not very successfully either. I got better at that, though. Probably not a good thing, but a necessary defense mechanism. I was “odd” in some way, shape or form that kept the other students from wanting to be my friend.
This was my reality until I went to college, and discovered an entirely new world of people my age, older than myself, and all with different life experiences. I was truly happy in college. My therapist thinks I first presented with Bipolar in college (I had already been diagnosed with PTSD), and looking at my transcript, I can see some signs that there may have been a problem with my moods. I dropped in and out a lot, couldn’t decide on a major, and drifted a lot. I dropped out for two years when I was 19 to “sow” my wild oats because I had not had that experience in High School. I got myself in trouble; some of it serious. But, with the help of rehab, and outpatient therapy, I pulled myself back together and went back with a strong determination to find my major and to earn my degree. I met my ex-fiance, and he rekindled my love of bicycling as he was an avid cyclist, and I had always enjoyed cycling. So, yes, I think I was happy in college. I “fit”.
After graduating, I set out to my find my first real job (the kind that pays more than minimum wage, or relies on tips). I landed the second job I applied for with a salary of about $28,000 per year. Although I thoroughly enjoyed what I did for a living, I was not happy with my environment, my boss, and the way I was treated by some of the other employees. To clarify, I was the Payroll Benefits Coordinator for a 200+ employee hospital, and was frequently blamed for people’s paycheck errors. That’s what the time clock is for. To keep track of your hours; if I don’t know if you worked, I cannot pay you. Pretty simple stuff, and most people did it once because I did not go out of my way to get them special checks to cover their mistakes. However, my boss was a micro-manager and I do not function well under constant scrutiny. So, I was very unhappy with that aspect. Then, I was asked to resign after I made a mistake that in retrospect was a pretty big one. They kept me on to train my replacement. That was my first go around with almost unbearable anxiety, and prescriptions for Xanax. Fortunately, I found a position at the University doing the same type of job for about the same salary. I was over the moon! I was back at my beloved University. It was during my tenure at the University that I had the breakdown that led me to seek out a therapist.
Our whole office was under extreme stress for reasons that are too complicated to explain. I found myself doing the job of two people, and working 12 to 14 hours per day. It was here that I met the individual that was probably as close to a soul mate as I have ever found. He made me happy, and therefore the environment was bearable. Then I melted down, and after about 6 months of weekly therapy, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type II disorder, and then bipolar Type I with Psychotic tendencies. My world came to a screeching halt. I was once again fired, and this time was very different because now I was clinically mentally ill. I became very unhappy, and became a “frequent flyer” at the mental health unit of a local hospital. I was up, i was down, I was drinking…..heavily. My whole world turned on its head again.
At this time, I would say that Manic Depression was most definitely a curse. The doctors were trying to stabilize me, and onto the med-go-round I hopped. Most of what I can remember about that time is very fuzzy as the doctors tried one medication after another attempting to return my moods to something resembling normal. I was very depressed, frequently drunk, and just as frequently, suicidal. I just could not see any way out of the hole I had fallen into. My whole life revolved around doctor’s appointments, medications that didn’t work or caused unacceptable side effects. I was miserable. I was most definitely caught in the “Why me?” trap. So, yes, I would say the first 4 to 5 years were a curse. And, then I reached the point I call stable madness. I was still a danger to myself, and now I had the means, and I used them. Then one evening, I took a full prescription for Geodon (an anti-psychotic) and one of Welbutrin (an anti-depressant), and I waited. Then the drugs started to kick in, and I got very frightened because I could feel in my gut that I had gotten it right (or wrong) this time. I called 911, and told the dispatcher what I had taken and how much, and the paramedics were there in about 5 minutes. I was taken to the nearest emergency room where they put about 8 IV’s in me trying to flush the now digested medications. I almost died that night. I made a pact that evening that if the Universe and everything in it that was divine that if it allowed me to live through this with no ill effects, I would never do it again. The 6 year anniversary of that pact is approaching in July. I have been suicidal since, but you do not break pacts made with the Universe so I have never tried again regardless of how much I wanted to. My whole view on life changed during the time I was hospitalized following the successful revival of my life.
Not long after I made this pact, I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism. At first, I thought the practice was weird, and the tenets difficult to understand. But, I kept at it sensing that something greater than myself was at work. I have never been religious, but I have always been spiritual. As I gradually learned more and more, and began to be able to say the prayers more easily, I started to feel better. This was entirely foreign to me. Something was working. I was becoming grounded, I was becoming more stable. I began to ride again. I wanted to see and meet people. I was beginning to think that perhaps life was worth living if only to practice and study Buddhism. I began to see that my previous trials and difficulties had left me with a gift; I was becoming appreciative and grateful for things and people I had taken for granted. I was having more good days than bad. And, the most peculiar of all, my ability to sense when another person was hurting or struggling in their life was becoming heightened. I began to think of others ahead of myself. I still had to vigilantly monitor my moods, but I was becoming less restless and dissatisfied. I became the Vice Women’s Division leader for a group of fellow Buddhists, and then the Women’s Division leader. Things were becoming okay. I was beginning to accept my illness, and think of it less as an illness but as something medically treatable.
It was about 2 years into my practice that I began to understand the practice as being essential to my life, and to my satisfaction with the cards I had been dealt. This is about the time I began to wonder if Manic Depression was a blessing, a curse, or both. Today, and the reason I wrote this, is that I realized that it is both. It is a blessing in that I have learned to appreciate and be grateful for the things and people in my life who make my life worth living. It is a blessing in that I have learned that I am not nearly as bad off as others I have met. And, it is a blessing that I have realized that I truly enjoy helping relieve others of their pain even if it is just a little bit and for a short time. It is a curse in that my moods still fluctuate though not nearly as badly as they once did, that I will be on medication for the rest of my life, and that I will still experience bone crushing depressions from time to time and that I will still have a desire to end my life at those times. So, I have finally answered my question: yes, I am a happy person today. I am alive. No, I am not always surfing the perfect sine wave, but that is okay because the sine wave always comes back. Sometimes, it just hangs out off shore for a while.