Sliding into Forty

Today is my 40th birthday. It’s been an interesting ride, and I feel a need to take some time and reflect upon what this milestone means to me.

My parents had me over for dinner the other night, and they asked me how I felt about this birthday.

Excited. Ready. Interested and invigorated.

It wasn’t always this way.

For most people, bipolar disorder doesn’t manifest until their teens or early 20s. That was not my situation. I have distinct memories of dissociation from the age six. It would not be unusual for me to walk around and believe — genuinely believe — that the world and everyone around me didn’t actually exist, possibly including me. Or, that if it did exist, it was only for my amusement, actors on the stage of my mind, figments of my imagination. The only point that left me unsure was that sometimes people made me angry, or sad. Surely, if I was imagining fake people, wouldn’t it all be smiles and fun?

Deep thoughts at such a young age.

By the age of 10, my diary was full of dark writings. I actively obsessed over my own death, imagining classmates looking into my open coffin and saying nice things about me. I wondered if I would actually be missed. My mother approached me one day about my diary, worried. She’d read some of what I’d written and was deeply concerned that I was going to commit suicide. I lied, telling her it was just thoughts and none of it was serious. In reality, I debated the best method of committing suicide, although I knew in my heart it was a step I would never take.

My fantasies headed in other directions, too, mostly fixated on getting attention and hinting at my fundamental detachment from the real world. I imagined doing amazing gymnastic feats on the playground, jumping twenty or thirty feet high in the air and completing three or four somersaults before landing gently on the ground, my schoolmates watching me with mouths agape.

I ran around the playground 17 times one day at lunch. No one knew the word “hypomanic” at the time, but that was the mood I was in.

My youth was marked with common refrains: “You’re so intense!”; “I can’t understand you; you’re talking too fast;” and “you’re so dramatic!”

At sixteen, I longed to be pregnant, imagining it would provide me a life I fantasized for: a normal, stable family and a child who was obligated to love me unconditionally. I couldn’t have told you in concrete terms what that looked like or how my current family situation lacked. Reality didn’t matter; just the fantasy.

Swinging between periods of elation and depression, I was “just a moody child.”

In my 20s, I wanted nothing more than to be the master of my own destiny, ill-prepared though I was. My depressions were more exaggerated, and it looked to the outside world as though I was flighty and a frivolous spender. In reality, I would be really good at budgeting for a period of time — often several months — and then I would feel an overwhelming pressure to break free, and spend significantly more than I had in a very brief period of time. I picked up new projects, new careers and new debt without losing a step, leaving a wake of debris behind me, primarily in the form of relationships and discarded jobs. By the age of 30, I’d had seven distinct career paths, each of which I’d travelled aggressively and successfully before simply walking away. At the time, I called it boredom. Now I know its true name: Bipolar disorder.

My 30th birthday was a tremendous relief for me. It felt as though I had permission to leave my self-destructive 20s behind me and focus on the possibilities in front of me. No more pressure to “go clubbing;” no more pressure to “look cute” and attract a man. As the mom of a two-year-old, I had permission to be serious.

But not the skills.

I continued to have issues with managing money, exacerbated when I settled into my own apartment and had responsibility for paying for full rent and utilities. I knew it would be tough. I knew I had to be insanely disciplined about money; I knew that I didn’t have a choice. Still undiagnosed, I had no control over the hypomania, and the first bout of it — right after I moved in to my new apartment — was all it took to set me on a financial roller coaster, one with a broken safety bar.

Depressions continued to be the more common symptom, settling in particularly deep. Depression told me I’d dug a hole too deep; there was no way out.

I stopped checking the mail.

For four months.

It is only by the grace of God, my parents, and a girlfriend that I survived that terrible time.

I finally settled into a steady job with more income and had the freedom to indulge those spending sprees without jeopardizing my home. (Well, most of the time.) I still wasn’t quite in the clear, but life was getting better. My girlfriend made me join and go on dates. “You don’t need to marry anyone, but you do need to spend some time with real adults outside of work.”

I met my husband.

He changed everything.

Although I was on the upswing, my history told me I wouldn’t sustain it for very long. I lived a life of held breaths, waiting for the bottom to fall out from under me. I was desperate not to lose this man, this amazing man who had taken full custody of his own daughter and raised a strong, independent, and whole person. I knew if I asked him for the moon he would do everything in his power to get it for me; I rationed my requests, saving them only for what truly mattered, afraid to ask for more.

I sought help in the form of a therapist, who helped me navigate that wonderfully perilous time. Between her and this new love, it seemed permanent change was possible for me. My symptoms, never gone, abated enough that the relationship held and grew.

We married four years later.

The rest of my thirties have been wonderful as a result. Though still marked by brief periods of hypomania and some serious depressions, overall they have been a joyous time. Looking back on them, I am proud of what I accomplished over this past decade, and realistic that my husband, family, and faith were necessary to my success. Without them, I’m confident that I would not be in the position I am today.

And now, here I am: 40. For the first time, I feel like I’m hitting my stride. The expectations I had for independence in my 20s are the reality I live today. Whereas 30 was about leaving my 20s behind, 40 is about embracing the decade before me. Nurturing my daughter and seeing who she blossoms into. Taking the hope and joy I feel in the wake of my own diagnosis and treatment and sharing it with others. Growing closer to God, closer to Jesus, and sharing the joy of resurrection-in-life to those who are dead inside through my ministry.

While I can’t see the road before me, I’m confident of a few things. My 40s will be tough. Life doesn’t stop happening just because I feel good. There’s no cosmic scale that says, “she’s had enough; time to let up now.” My 40s will be purpose-filled, and a time of growth and change. I expect my life to take me down a new road, one I can’t see today. And I know the only way to get there is to walk the road before me, so pardon me as I skip away.

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