by TOM SMITH
I must begin with it, not her. That focus is a change because there was a time when everything began with her. But not anymore, even though she remains at the heart of many things. The focus now is on it. In the past it encompassed her, like an oyster hugs a pearl. The pearl is more precious but the oyster is bigger, hard-shelled, hiding its treasure, capturing the jewel, never wanting it to be seen, polished, admired and loved.
This pearl has a name – Karla. This oyster too has a name – bipolar. And I have a name – Dad. The three of us have had a tumultuous relationship since 1996 when bipolar snuck into our family and caused havoc in all directions. Karla was the entry point, used by her illness, creating pain, confusion, fear and anger among the four of us, including Kevin, her twin brother and of course, Fran, her Mom. But it wasn’t Karla that caused the chaos, it was “It” – the mental illness, the brain disorder, the bipolar monster who was the ultimate destroyer.
It took me years, and a life-defining tragedy, to come to acknowledge and accept that mental illness was the devious and destructive force that ravaged my daughter and our family. At the time, I didn’t blame her, exactly. But I did figure, at some point, that she could help herself get over and through it. I didn’t know then how overwhelming bipolar could be, how hard-shelled it could be, transforming her into something she wasn’t. The pearl became a shattered stone.
It’s over 20 years now since I first met it face to face, disguised as Karla. The introduction was through silence, a long drawn out period of somber quiet, deadened eyes, limp limbs, curled up beauty wrapped in blankets of sadness, in a bed of tranquil turmoil. She hardly moved during days of misleading sleep and weary waking. Her depression expanded through her covers, into her bedroom which she and Mark, her first boyfriend, painted in glee, and it stole the joy out of the room and replaced it with inevitable gloom.
We brought her home from Oklahoma State University in the middle of her sophomore year into her own bed, homecooked meals, no school related responsibilities, a psychiatrist, therapist and a chance to find the energetic, curious, compassionate, expressive Karla of her childhood and youth. I naively thought it would take some time but that it would work. The pearl would once again shine. It never really happened that way.
The sadness of that loss dominated a large section of my life after that initial meeting with her depression. But not anymore. I now know about it, know some of its deceitful maneuvers, hidden intentions, and destructive results. I also know some ways to tame its consequences, manage its excesses, crack its shell so that the pearl inside can be found and cherished. I wish I knew them 20 years ago, but I am glad I know them now.
It took two years for the other side of the bipolar coin to enter the fray and it too, like her depression, caused mayhem. But this version of the brain disorder overflowed with energy, like a lightening storm within a hurricane. She could do anything and everything simultaneously. And she tried. Friends were bowled over, classes were useless, time moved too slowly, sleep was a waste, her mind was a switchboard of blinking bulbs, her visions were brilliant colors, endless variations, with universal, cosmic implications, and her energy, (oh her boundless energy!) sparkled in every direction. Three days later, she was exhausted but remained a manic dynamo of imagined grandeur.
The intensity could not last, and finally, the meds and the exhaustion slowed her down enough for her mind to rest and her body to sleep. But mania joined depression as bookends of her life.
I was baffled by this flurry of pointless activity and irrational explosions of spectacular proposals, like a free University for the homeless people of Tulsa. It was a tsunami of rapid words, notebooks with sketches, pacing the floor with a determined purpose but with nowhere to go. The mania scared me even more than the depression.
But not anymore. I have learned to cope. And I have forgiven her even though she needed no forgiveness, even though her guilt was erased before her crime or sin was committed. I am reconciled with her illness even as I seek out other pearls in order to help them break out of their shells of mental illness and to live in a world of emotional balance, clear thinking and loving action.
So, I begin these columns with my eyes on brain disorders, mental illness, strategies for coping, and hope for a balanced life, but not so much on my Karla-pearl because her life leads me to other lives.
And her death was not in vain.
If you have comments or questions about these columns, please email Tom Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the services of Karla Smith Behavioral Health go to www.karlasmithbehavioralhealth.org.