Tracy Hammer

from Bloomington, MN

I first realized I was "different," or "crazy," when I was 14 or 15.  Of course, being that age, and in the mid-1980s, everyone just decided that I was struggling with my teen phase.  After a suicide attempt, I was sent to a therapist who didn't recognize my symptoms.  At the beginning of my senior year, while home alone, I ended up calling a crisis line after hanging a noose in the stairwell, and realizing how close I was to using it.  A few weeks later, I checked myself into an adolescent psychiatric unit.  Thankfully, my family checked me out and took me to our family doctor, who found me a fantastic psychiatrist that recognized my behavior as bipolar and began treating me with lithium.

Like many with people bipolar, I stopped my treatment after I felt better for a while at the age of 19.  From that point on, my life went drastically downhill.  I flunked out of college, began drinking heavily and became extremely sexually active.  By the time I was 24, I had a child and was still single.  I was fortunate and was able to hold down a job, at least for a few years at a time. My parents also helped me a great deal. When my daughter was four, I had managed to get a technical degree and saved enough to buy a townhouse for us.  Unfortunately, my moods were deteriorating rapidly. Two years after buying my house, I had lost my job and was losing the house to foreclosure.  I went through three more jobs and two different apartments over the next year.

Eventually, on the verge of being evicted from my apartment and $3,000 overdrawn on my checking account, I hit bottom.  I was so manic, I was experiencing psychotic symptoms: visual and auditory hallucinations.  I would rage so badly, my daughter knew when to go to her room and close the door, until I could control myself. Anything I could get my hands on, I would throw across the room or break.  My life was in shambles.  I realized that if I didn't get help, I would lose everything I had.  I explained to my family everything that was happening and found a psychiatrist.

We started a treatment program with lithium, which I had taken previously.  Due to frequent migraines, I also started taking Topamax, which is sometimes used as a mood stabilizer in addition to migraine treatment.  The difference is beyond anything I can describe.  The hardest part of getting well for me, is realizing the effect my moods had on my child.  She was doing poorly in school, had a lot of behavioral issues and was quite moody.  Since I became stable, she improved also in leaps and bounds.

Looking back, what could have been done at the time to improve the situation? Treatment, medication, a different approach, or understanding from others around you?

If I hadn't gone off my treatment, or I had resumed treatment sooner, I would have been much better off in life.  I learned later that my family knew my life was falling apart, and guessed it was related to my bipolar, but didn't know how to approach me on it. I think the best thing that could have happened is if both my family and I had been better educated earlier about this illness. That way, we would have been more aware of what was going on and prevented me from making some of the choices I made.

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