From a Fellow Traveler
By Dr. Martha McMillian
I’m lucky. My experiences with bipolar illness have been less severe than others, but still painful. When did I first realize I had an illness of manic depression? Perhaps I realized after my child was born in my late 20’s when I experienced a depth of post-partum depression that was debilitating. I should have known this might happen due to my family background, although few like me wish to acknowledge our greatest fears. This doesn’t mean I’d been immune to signs and negative emotional experiences prior to that: as a 5 year old, I look baths and changed clothes 4-5 times a day; I was obese and weighed as much as 100 pounds as early as 7 years old; I was anorexic and bulimic as a young adult; but I was smart and my teachers loved me—thus beginning my habit of spending most of my time in books.
My mother was severely depressed most of her life, spending much of her adult years in hospitals. I, however, was successful—as a beauty queen, as a school and college leader, and as a musician including voice, piano, and flute. I was active in my sorority, church, and student government and stayed so busy I did not have time to be depressed, but all the time knowing I was somehow different. I continued to use my tactics to hide by staying busy and not having time to worry or be depressed.
I graduated from college, started teaching and began my master’s and doctorate degrees. Again my activities centered around school and work until I became pregnant. I stayed home from my job, and I lost my identity and methods of escape from sadness, thus I fell into deep depression. I spent years in counseling and eventually was able to return to work and school—where I once again succeeded, completing my doctorate and finding a career in higher education. I loved advising and teaching over 100-500 student per semester for 35+ years and received advising awards and national offices and became the director of a large advising office. I am confident that some of my success was a result of understanding the pain many of my students felt and was able to empathize and work with them successfully. I knew that often my energy and success was also a result of my manic moods but at times those also had negative results.
I am now retired and a 50-year wife and grandmother, with an extremely successful family –a lawyer husband and former mayor of our home town, a Harvard Law Graduate daughter with twins and a successful husband, and another daughter who is a successful city employee who runs a large library in a metropolitan area in Texas. Am I happy now? I don’t have the career and absorptions of a job to make me feel worthy. Our illness needs that trait to keep us going. I know always that I will have to fight times when my heart will sink, and I will have to work on pulling it out. I have learned to accept my Manic-Depression as a plus and a minus—my mania, when kept in line, gives me energy and enthusiasm. The depression allows me to be reflective and realize the assets I have, but more important, it makes me empathetic and understanding of others’ needs.
I do recommend regular therapy with a trusted counselor, along with approved medications tested over time, which are keys to mental health. Once healthy and stabilized, the number of visits to your therapist may decrease, but when proper medication is found, that should be continued at your physician’s recommendation. Much like diabetes, regular “check-ups” help regulate and prevent problems.
We should not fear our illness, but we should accept and understand it—as should society. But society is not there yet. We have community and church sessions to deal with alcohol and drug addictions, with grief and money problems, but they are afraid of depression and bipolar illness illnesses. I suggested to my local church that we have sessions for bipolar or depressed people in our community, but very little interest was shown, despite the fact that Oklahoma‘s suicide rates are 12% higher than the national average and 13 suicides are attempted every two days. The next week after my suggestion, two widely-known celebrities committed suicide and two youth in our community had committed suicide in the past few years. Wasn’t that enough to emphasize help is needed?
The purpose of Kelly’s website is to make society aware of an illness that many don’t understand. Another purpose is to show others with our illness what a wonderful, successful life they can have filled with insights and understanding.
Dr. Martha McMillian