Happy Birthday to Me

December 16, 2009 at 4:31 am | Posted in Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood | 1 Comment

Birthday Cake

Yesterday was a day of many candles -- may main wish is to keep moving forward, inch by inch if necessary.

Yesterday was my birthday, and I’ve also hit 100 posts in this space. In true depressive style, I tend to focus on what’s absent instead of the many amazing gifts that I have. Therefore, I wanted to spend this morning reminding myself that I have made progress.

Ten years ago Thanksgiving, things were looking bad for our heroine. I was physically ill nearly to the point of death; I had just been released after two weeks in the ICU for a collapsed lung, the result of a long bout of untreated pneumonia. I had spent part of those two weeks on a respirator, and the doctors had prepared my family for the very likely chance that I wouldn’t be able to breathe on my own, and would die as a result. At the same time, I had serious nerve damage to my right leg; when I was first admitted to the hospital, I couldn’t walk. By the time I left, I used a cane and had a severe limp.

A terrible flare-up of my bipolar disorder combined with financial problems had forced me to drop out of graduate school when I had barely started my dissertation. I had run out of teaching support, and didn’t have the money to pay fees or support myself. I had been fired from two successive non-academic jobs, at least in part for cognitive problems (which I believe were caused by heavy doses of some very ugly mood stabilizers). Once I’d dropped out, I lost my excellent student health insurance coverage, and had no way to pay for the thousands of dollars in psych drugs that I needed every month. The hospital bills for my ICU stay totaled about twice I had earned in my entire life. What’s more, I was carrying more than $25,000 in credit card debt after six years of having earned $12,000 annually while living and working in phenomenally expensive Orange County, California. My student loans didn’t bear thinking on, and once I dropped out, I would have to start paying them back. My only asset was a bright red ’63 Galaxie 500 that would fetch about $2,500 if I sold it.

Since I couldn’t keep my apartment in graduate student housing, when my parents sprung me from the hospital, they sold all my stuff in California and moved me back to my hometown. In 1999, when my 31st birthday rolled around, I was living with them with no job and little prospect of being able to walk normally, let alone work. As you might imagine, I was suffering pretty severe depression. When I limped to the breakfast table that morning and found a gift next to my plate, I cried. I felt deeply unworthy of a gift of any sort. Honestly, I don’t remember what my parents gave me that December 15; I just remember my deep sense of shame and failure.

Fast forward 10 years, to December 15, 2009. I’ve earned my Ph.D. and enjoyed two prestigious postdocs. I was the only person in my graduate school cohort to receive a degree and a job as an assistant professor. I spent another four years as an academic before tiring of the lousy treatment and quitting. Today I have an excellent job with the largest and most generous employer in my home town. Through my company’s association for disabled workers and this blog, I’m living my dream of educating people about hidden disabilities in general, and bipolar disorder in particular. I even own my very own banana leaf house, a freshly renovated condo in the center of town. How on earth did I go from there to here?

Rebuilding my life after that illness took every bit of grit and determination that I could summon. In many ways, I was lucky. My parents supported me while I was too sick to work. I had nothing else to do, so I sat down for an hour or two twice a day for months on end and wrote my dissertation. Once I’d mailed it off to my committee for approval, I got a temp job to pay the bills and relieve my boredom. For two months during tax time, I was lucky enough to work as a clerk in a local accounting firm. It was hard to stand on my injured foot day after day assembling tax returns, but the hard work helped to keep my mind off my losses. From there, I went to an administrative position at a nearby research institute. Ironically, I was filling in for a woman who had taken an extended leave to deal with her bipolar disorder.

And the story goes on, one incremental step at a time. A friend was kind enough to pay my university fees so that I could register and file my dissertation formally; I graduated in June of 2000. Against all odds, I received an extremely prestigious, year-long research fellowship that allowed me to move back to Southern California to teach and write. And so forth, bit by bit, up to the present day. Luck and others’ kindness combined with a hell of a lot of hard work to get me to a relatively stable and responsible position. Believe me, I earned my opportunities.

Why is she telling us this? I believe there are two morals to this story. First, it’s always possible to move on, no matter how dire your situation. Second, it’s incredibly hard to do that. It’s a bloody, hand-to-hand battle that’s waged hour to hour and, at times, moment to moment. There are still many, many days when I think that the house of cards is about to come down. To get here, I used the techniques that I’ve outlined here: organizing my life, battling procrastination, working on wellness, and slogging through each depression as I come to it. I wouldn’t say that my life is a happy one, but I do feel that I’m giving back after years of depending on others for everything from room and board to heath insurance to emotional support.

For whatever reason, yesterday was an extremely hard day. I suppose it’s never easy to turn 41 without a spouse and kids, both of which I always assumed I would have. What progress I’ve made has been slow and halting, and there have been a lot of setbacks, including a horrible year of unemployment when I left academia. Overall, though, I have overcome my limitations and made a life for myself. It’s not what I expected or hoped for, but it’s more than I had any right to expect, given my circumstances 10 years ago.

I intend to fight on, then. I will do my best to give back to the community, to look for love, and to do simple things like pay my taxes and vote. I will keep trying, and in another 10 years I hope I will be able to point to a whole new set of accomplishments.

Love to all.

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1 Comment »

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  1. Sorry I missed your birthday.
    happy birthday love


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