Together at the Poles

Michael Ligtenberg: Bipolar At 47, Part One – Before

After reading many blogs here at Bipolar Today, I have been inspired to relate my own experience with my mental illness. It is a 2-part blog centering on how this disease has affected my life before diagnosis and how I have dealt with it since diagnosis. Just as I found so many anecdotes here both helpful and reassuring, I hope that you, the reader, will be able to see a reflection of your own experience with Bipolar Disorder. I have also discovered that writing has proven to be a very therapeutic activity for me.

You can find Part 2 here.

Part 1: Before

This title is misleading, I have always been Bipolar, but I only became aware of the state of my mental health at 47. I have had to live with an excessive amount of anxiety, remorse, regret, and guilt, through manic periods, major depressions, repeated suicide attempts and addiction. Yet somehow I have managed to put together a successful 18-year career as a high school teacher. I have also been able to integrate successfully in different cultures for long periods of my life. Nevertheless I have also managed to destroy the most important relationships in my life which led to a year on the streets of Montreal. If I could, would I change the outrageous experiences in my life? Never!

Michael Ligtenberg with Camera

Copyright © 2012 Michael Ligtenberg

Anxiety has riddled my life leading to actions and words that I regret. The remorse and guilt it created has been crippling. My earliest memories of anxiety affecting my life are in early childhood, in kindergarten. The social interaction simply freaked me out…I felt so out of place. By grade 2, I was a chronic skipper. My parents, being young working immigrants from Holland, were not at home in the day. I made my own decisions about going to school or not, feigning illness, or simply disobeying my parents. I was a very skilled absent student until the end of my B.A. Ironically, I am now a teacher and go to school everyday.

Anxiety has also given me a wonderful sense of humor. As I got older, I realized that I could hide or “mask” my inner self through laughter, by using my ability to use language (I’ve been an avid reader all my life) as a tool to create a comfort zone with others. When I made people laugh, I felt accepted and my self-esteem would rise for a brief moment. Yes, I was the class clown. But the encouragement of laughter could also lead to excessive talking, interrupting, and finally to some bad joke in which I would embarrass myself. Then, that would be the only moment that counts. At the workplace, my power of improvisation helps me with my relationship with colleagues and students. They are more open with me because I create that comfort zone. However I am also verbally reprimanded over and over again by my students during an exam…I can’t shut up. Fortunately I’m supposed to do most of the talking in the classroom.

Michael Ligtenberg with Cap

Copyright © 2012 Michael Ligtenberg

At other times I could commit many verbal faux-pas when I would be extremely irritable, which could flare up at any moment. Then I would swoop down like an eagle on unsuspecting prey, doling out verbal abuse in a horrible rage. I would intentionally hurt people knowing it was wrong, but I couldn’t help but bring up disagreeable moments in their own lives to shove in their faces like feces. Part of my brain would be screaming “Stop it!” but it was impossible to stop myself. There are so many regrettable moments where words have cost me the respect of friends, family, colleagues and students. It has destroyed the relationships with my partners. But I especially regret the 8 years when I very rarely saw my 4 children.

By the time I had reached the age of 14, my addictions began. The list of addictions that I have had in my life is long…nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, pain killers, gambling and the internet. I think I have them all, unless of course I’ve forgotten one. I have had at least 4 concurrently since the time I was 16, and for a quite a few years 5 addictions. It has always been a battle. But each one that I have conquered, I have done so on my own. I had too much anxiety to participate in the support groups. I simply just couldn’t get past the higher power step. Another irony though because I do believe in ghosts, apparitions, aliens, and spirits of the natural world and that somehow I am a part of it all. I consider myself somewhat telepathic…or perhaps this is just a delusion of reference. I still look for rocks that speak to me. I also still have one bottle of beer in the fridge. It’s not there for emergency purposes, or to tempt or test myself. It’s there to remind me of the power I do possess, and the strength to overcome.

Running away has been my usual answer to situational events that overwhelmed me. Not only figuratively through drugs, alcohol and major depressive episodes, but also literally by dumping my whole life…my job, my friends, my home etc. and starting over somewhere else. I suppose I would go look for a new high, always beginning the new life with a long manic period. However, this has allowed me to explore cultures from the inside. I spent the first 20 years of my life growing up with European parents in Toronto, Ontario, visiting relatives in Holland regularly and traveling in Europe. The next 20 years were spent in the francophone culture of Montreal, Quebec. My first wife is French as are my 4 children. Now I have spent the last 10 years with a Native woman living on a First Nation’s reserve in northern Quebec on the James Bay Coast. This is my home and will be for awhile. I feel like I am a respected high school teacher here and a part of the community. But alas, my relationship here fell apart a week before my diagnosis last January.

A Snowy Evening

Copyright © 2012 Michael Ligtenberg

Chronic self-doubt and low self-esteem have certainly taken their toll on my life. I tend to either starve or binge. My adult weight has varied from 155 lbs. to 260 lbs. I have also had suicidal ideation numerous times and I have attempted to take my life 4 times. Happily, I was very unsuccessful. I have an overwhelming need to have praise, feedback, and reassurance. And for spouses, that gets boring. Another aspect would be in my professional life. How often have I gotten involved in projects thinking, “Hey, I can do this!” only to go home and suffer horrible panic attacks about the responsibilities I’ve added to my seemingly overburdened shoulders? Well, too many times to count. Obviously I am very adept at self-criticism. It’s like knowing you can, but knowing you can’t either. I just never understood why.

I have always been way too sensitive. I have overreacted to other people so many times based on my perception of a sub-text in a conversation, believing that others are criticizing me or disrespecting who I am. Then it would turn in my head for days, leading to long dialogues with whomever the problem may be with. Unfortunately these dialogues were all in my head. I would be both me and the other. Then I would act, and mostly inappropriately, upon those fantasized dialogues. Also, when someone else was living a traumatic experience, I would become so empathetic, that I would find myself depressed every time I lived someone else’s sadness. But this has also made me very understanding and non-judgmental. As I am sure you all understand, living with a disease and not knowing it has taken a huge toll in my head, in my heart and in my life….

Click here to read part two.

12 Responses to Michael Ligtenberg: Bipolar At 47, Part One – Before

  • I was diagnosed at the age of 51 after quitting my job and sleeping for three weeks. my husband had me hospitalized and I went into voluntary commitment. my 3 days turned into almost a month.

    • Hi Linda,
      It may be an overused cliche, but better late than never. I hope now that you have discovered the essential cause of all the suffering you must have experienced in the past, you are finding a path to deal and cope with our illness.

  • well done, look forward to “After” 🙂

  • Thank you. This really helps me to understand what my wife has
    and is going through.

    • Hi Daniel,
      Bipolar disorder can be extremely trying for our spouses, especially before diagnosis. Having a partner that truly makes an effort to understand our dilemma is an enormous support. I wish you both the very best.

  • everyones story is unique..but my god you have hit the nail on the head, i have shared your story with friends. as it is also mine. the inner dialogue…i did not know how to explain that one. now i do thankyou 🙂

    • Hi Mandie,

      I am happy that you felt a connection to my story. They are unique but so often contain very similar elements which I am discovering here at Bipolar Today. And those inner dialogues could have me lying awake at night for hours on end. I found them very destructive, both to myself and the people around me. I glad I could help you verbalize this aspect…thank you for your feedback and support.

  • thank you so much for this article, it’s like looking in a mirror. my saving grace has been my God given gift, my husband. he has stuck with me through every manic, depressive and suicide episode, as have my children who despite me have grown into wonderful, capable adults. no sign of BP yet, again thank God. but i watch for the signs,becuse not only is their mother BP, but so is their grandmother, my mother.

    • Hi Susan,
      Thank you very much for your feedback; it is much appreciated. Indeed when the closest people around us make an effort to understand and accommodate, we are so much more apt to temper the highs and lows…they will give us constant feedback when we are blind to ourselves. I too keep my eyes on my four children, and like you I search for the signs that might lead me to suspect something is not well. It is also in my family history on my mother’s side.

  • Thanks Michael for sharing your story. Like others, I also found a lot of it I directly identified with, and at times then it even seemed my story LOL.

    Thats why I love this website for bringing together people from all over the world who have had very different experiences with BiPolar. And yet when one person shares their story like this, we can all gain so much from seeing the common threads that go through our stories and at times, struggles.

    Best wishes into the future

    • Hi MacMurphy. Thank you for your feedback; it’s always welcome

      I agree, there certainly is a common thread to our stories. I also believe it traverses environment, nationalities and cultures. And stay tuned, I intend to continue writing about my experience.

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Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC is a Registered Social Worker and Canadian Certified Counsellor with a private practice operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. He provides in-person counselling in Kitchener and email, video or telephone counselling within Canada.

To find out more, please visit the website for his private practice, Bader Mediation & Counselling Services.