To a bipolar person, reality is a tease. Sometimes you see what others see, sometimes it’s through a distortion lens. And sometimes it’s what does not exist.
Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depressive, which, though not as soft sounding, has a gritty truth to it that squarely identifies what the sufferers go through. It means an afflicted soul can be Julie Andrews singing in the Alps one day and the Phantom of the Opera the next.
The mania stages of the disease can take the form of wildly energetic periods of productivity or soar off the charts into manic psychosis. Depression episodes can plunge the sufferer into a black hole that has sides too high to climb out of.
Deva Lipson of Ocean Beach can tell you all about it. She’s a bipolar survivor who has become a missionary against the twisted existence the disease can cause, and has become an emissary for NAMI San Diego, a mental illness advocacy organization. She goes wherever in the county to talk to service clubs, schools, anyone with ears to loan about the disease that for years pinned her life like a beetle — how to understand it and how to survive it. She especially wants to help remove the stigma.
Her teaching syllabus is her own life. Lipson is a native of Boston, born 60 years ago, a time when mental illness was a scarlet letter for respectable families. She describes herself as having been “a wild child, wild and crazy, the black sheep of the family. Not a good student, but very intelligent.”
In her late teens, she dove into drugs and alcohol, which she says was probably the precursor of the illness, especially since the late teens are often the time of onset. “It could have been my first manic episode.”
Her out-of-control living was part of an erratic pattern. “My mother worked at a retail store, and then I went to work there and started stealing. I had a car trunk full of stolen clothes. My mother had worked there 25 years. That was crazy.”
Her parents took her to the family doctor. When he asked if she ever thought of suicide, she replied, “All the time,” so he promptly had her admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
“When I got out, my family said to tell everyone I was in an auto accident to conceal that I was in a mental hospital. So throughout my life, they always said, ‘Don’t talk about this (disease).’ I was always encouraged to have my family go into therapy with me, but they wouldn’t do that.”
Back in the ’70s, the presumption was that the illness ran in families, which, of course, doubled down on the urge to conceal an afflicted family member, Lipson says.
It was in 1978, at age 26, that the disease came to live with her to stay. She was in Israel residing on a kibbutz, working in the fields and loving the whole experience. Then she had one of her least-good ideas: She fell in love with the leader of the kibbutz, who happened to be married, and was unaware he was the object of her desire.
“All of a sudden, I spun completely out of control. I became extremely delusional. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I went to visit relatives, walked into their house, and announced I was getting married. I believed it with all my heart and soul.
“They put me in one of those psychiatric wards where they throw away the key. The doctors didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Hebrew. I was locked up with the craziest of the crazy. I was left there two weeks, and then my family came and took me back to the States.”
Lipson describes bipolar depression as “just the blackest of black” in which the victim doesn’t want to get out of bed, and just wants to pull the covers over her head and sleep. She calls it “an overwhelming feeling of despair, of complete hopelessness. You can’t see past the moment.”
Episodes can quickly flip-flop from one mood extreme to the other. Within a day, in some cases, the sufferer can go from crying hysterically to laughing wildly, and then back again.
Lipson says mania seemed like watching herself in a movie in which she could see herself doing things she knew she shouldn’t, but couldn’t stop.
“One of the worse episodes I ever had was back in Boston in the early ’90s. I convinced myself that the guy from Israel was flying into Logan Airport. I got into my car and drove to the airport, parked and threw the car keys into the trash. Why? I don’t know, it just seemed like the thing to do. Then I ended up wandering around the airport for 48 hours straight — just walking, walking, walking, looking for this guy who wasn’t coming.”
As part of that delusion, she remembers going to an airport bookstore and perusing the shelves, looking for her best-selling autobiography that she was convinced had been published.
“I walked through the tunnels. I didn’t eat. I got rid of things. I’d go into the washroom and leave my jewelry — deliberately. Finally, a policeman came up and asked if I was OK, and I said no. I was exhausted. So he put me into a squad car and took me to the hospital.”
A curse of bipolarity is that it destroys a victim’s credibility, even when normal, she says. For example, if she were to tell her family of something that happened to her, they’d look at her skeptically, as though to say, ‘Oh, really?” when they actually would be questioning her grasp of reality.
“I had lunch with an aunt I hadn’t seen for a while, and she said, ‘I’m really worried about you.’ I asked why, and she said, ‘Because you’re so happy.’ She was afraid I was having another manic episode. And I thought, ‘My God, I can’t live a normal life if these people won’t let me.’
“It strips you of your validity as a person that people just don’t understand that you can be normal.”
Lipson came to California in 2003 with a modest inheritance to make a fresh start. She held jobs that did not tax her abilities, but did give her a foothold on self-sufficiency for several years. But as can happen with jobs, that foothold collapsed and she found herself jobless, homeless, broke, with no one to reach out to and with nowhere to turn. Life had closed in on her as effectively as an isolation booth. It culminated in a “series of horrible events” that included doors being slammed by her family, leaving her despairing of all hope.
“I had gone to all the resources and had sought help everywhere. I couldn’t even get into homeless shelters. I had nothing, so depression kicked in.”
As a result, in July 2011 she decided to end her life by taking a full bottle of sleeping pills and walking into the ocean. She was attempting to carry it out when a woman saw her and called 911. She was taken to a locked facility and kept there for a month.
During that stay, her life was changed when a psychiatrist suggested she undergo ECT, or electro convulsive therapy, the dreaded “shock treatments” of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and an earlier, chilling film named “The Snake Pit.” But those movies were of another day.
Lipson says her six treatments were not painful, and for her, the only side effect was partial and temporary short-term memory loss.
The blissful, glorious upside was a mind free of the cruelty that since her teen years had played hide-and-seek with her sanity.
Lipson has also immersed herself in Eastern healing therapies, especially meditation, yoga and renewed belief in her life. And though she had swept clean the pharmacy shelf of the usual medications over the years, she has withdrawn from all of them.
She draws sustenance from the Universal Spirit Center in Hillcrest, which has as its credo, “We recognize the divine presence in all beings. We seek to remember that we, along with all creatures, are expressions of Spirit and that love is always the deepest truth between us.”
A traditional rabbi or minister might call that pretty vague, but after 40 years in the spiritual wilderness of mental illness, Lipson has understandably gone shopping.
Approval for state disability payments has eased her fear of destitution. She now is happy with a rented room in a private home close to the water in her beloved Ocean Beach. So far, she says, her life is working. She’s clear-minded and contributing to others as she had long hoped. But she knows that on any morning, she might awake to see those two devils, mania and depression, once again sitting on the edge of her bed.
For her, life is right now, today. Her future is the unknown that begins tomorrow. All she knows for certain is that today is better than her yesterdays.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]