A Bipolar Story

The following post was written by Bill LaPorte-Bryan.

My name is Bill LaPorte-Bryan.  Because I’m bipolar I’ve had to deal with wide mood swings for much of my life but I’m lucky and they seem to be gone now as I enter my eighties.  But I love to tell my story and often share it in public and in private at my church, the Unitarian Society of Hartford.  Here’s what I said during a recent disabilities service.

“I think it was 10 years ago, in 2008, that I told my story in public, for the first time, from the pulpit in that year’s disabilities service.  A few of you might have been there and some of you might even remember what I said, but with my apologies, I’ve decided to tell you my story again, but today in the context of AIM.  The words still ring true.  This morning at the end of my story, I’m going to try to answer the questions in the Enews blurb describing this morning’s service … What does it mean to have a disability?  How can our church help or hurt?  What can we all do to support our families, friends or fellow church members with disabilities?

“So here’s my story.  In this place and with your support, I feel safe sharing it with you today…

“Until my wife and I got married about 11 years ago and decided to take on the same last name, I was Bill Bryan all of my life except for three days during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day in 1969 when I was Jesus Christ.  That might take a bit of explaining so let me go back to the beginning.

“I was born on Ground Hog’s Day in 1937 with two significant genetic abnormalities that I inherited from my father.  One defect made me deaf in my left ear and gave me poor hearing in my right ear.  As usual, my hearing got progressively worse as I got older but I use a hearing aid in my good ear and the technology got progressively better so I’ve lived a full and fulfilling life in spite of my disability, capped off when you elected me President of our church a few years ago.  (I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.)  But now that we’ve installed a hearing loop in this Sanctuary and I got a new aid with what’s called a T-switch, I can hear everything that’s said in a service without having to struggle to understand all of the words.  I won’t have to sit up front any more so I can see the minister’s lips to help me figure out what she’s saying.  And then there’s the ultimate … adding real-time captions on a big screen, also only a matter of time and money, so if I doze off for a few seconds, I can catch up.

“The other genetic aberration gave me a propensity for a mental illness which at that time was called manic depression.  Today the condition is more commonly known as bipolar disorder and it’s characterized by extreme mood swings.  The symptoms include alternating periods of exceptionally high mood called mania when you’re up and feeling really good, you’re exhilarated and everything is wonderful.  They’re followed by periods of depression when you go down and become gloomy and lethargic.

“So I was born mentally ill and the chemistry in my brain wasn’t normal but for 32 years nobody knew it.  I led a normal life, my moods were normal and I had no idea that anything was wrong.  But, in a sense, I was a ticking time bomb.

“In 1969, I was well into my career with IBM and living in New York with my first wife and two children, who were 9 and 3 at the time.  During a Christmas visit to my parents in St. Louis something happened that changed the next 30 years of my life.  I was playing football with a group of neighborhood teenagers and dislocated my shoulder.   It hurt like hell.  I needed surgery to repair the damage.

“During that experience of extreme pain something had happened to me.  My family was worried about me.  They knew something wasn’t right.  Even the dog noticed it.

“In the car on the way to the airport to head home, I had a mental breakdown.  I lost consciousness as I was looking at what I thought was an enormous brilliant cross on top of a church.  At that point, they tell me, I blacked out and started screaming at the top of my lungs.  I was told I screamed for hours.

“When I came to the next day, I was in the psychiatric ward of Barnes Hospital but I had no idea where I was.  But I did know I was Jesus Christ.  Mind you, I didn’t wonder or think or believe I was Jesus Christ.  I was Jesus Christ.  There was no Bill Bryan.  There was only Jesus Christ and that was me.

“I can also tell you that I remember vividly how I felt when I was Jesus Christ and it was scary.  They were trying to kill me and I knew they’d succeed.  The medicine was poison.  The food was poison and the only reason I decided to take and eat it was because my life was in God’s hands.  I didn’t want to die and I didn’t know whether He wanted me to die or not but, if He did, that was that.  I was really scared but what are you going to do?

“It took the better part of a month for me to know for sure that I was Bill Bryan.  After another month I was released from the hospital and flew back to re-join my family.

“I started seeing a psychiatrist right away but it wasn’t until the following spring that he told me that I was manic depressive and I began to have some idea of what had happened to me in St. Louis.  Only then did I become aware of my mood swings which, in my case lasted for several months; two months feeling good and two months feeling really depressed.  With the help of a newly approved “miracle drug”, lithium, in spite of missing some work when I was down, my career went on.  I must say IBM was wonderfully supportive.  I couldn’t have worked for a better company.

“For the next 30 years I enjoyed a successful and fulfilling career with IBM until I retired in 2000.  But even the best jobs bring stress with them and during those years, even with lithium, I continued to have manageable but annoying mood swings.

“And then when I retired an amazing thing happened.  My stress level went down and the mood swings which I had been told would be with me as long as I lived started to become less extreme.  In three years, my doctors had gradually weaned me off of lithium and my moods were normal.  So for the last 15 years I haven’t taken any medication and, while I still have the genetic defect and I still think of myself as bipolar, I have no symptoms of mental illness.  They’ve disappeared.

“I’m very lucky and very grateful.  I’m told that the symptoms of bipolar disorder usually don’t go away.  But mine did and in all likelihood they’ll never come back, although you never know for sure.  I just take it one day at a time and I’m grateful for every one of them.

“So that’s my story.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share it with you.

“Now let me turn to the questions I mentioned in the beginning.  What does it mean to have a disability?  That’s a great question to start with.  The answer is, it depends.  Usually we mean that someone has a physical disability, a mental illness, a brain malfunction, a learning or intellectual disability or an extreme sensitivity to something.  The condition can be visible or not, it depends on the disability and the person making the observation.  Some people who have a disability consider themselves disabled, but some do not.  There are so many personal judgments here that, in many cases, the label “disabled” can be arbitrary and can carry baggage … so be careful what you say and how you say it, particularly if you’re talking with someone you don’t know very well.

“How can our church help or hurt?  All of us can help by creating a safe place where people with disabilities feel welcomed, supported and treated like the whole person they are.  It’s important for us to realize that we are all some combination of “abled” and “disabled”, all wrapped up in one human being.  With that in mind, let’s just live our UU principles.  Living with a disability is a spiritual practice, as is supporting a family member, a friend, a member of our church or, for that matter, anyone else with a disability.  If you practice healthy relations with everybody, you’re on the right track.  Oh, and by the way, you can help by participating in and supporting AIM.  There will be lots of opportunities over the next few years for you to ask questions, share your thoughts and learn more.

“And finally, what can we do to support our families, friends or fellow church members with disabilities?  Listen to us, realize that each one of us is different … each a unique human being with different needs, different support requirements, different sensitivities, different fears, different passions, different joys and different capabilities.  It’s that simple.  Simple, but often not that easy.

“Amen and so may it be.”