Together at the Poles

School: The Bipolar Way

In this blog, I would like to share my experience in schools over the last 44 years. It traces how bipolarity affected my progress in school and my social life.

I always hated school, from the very first day…and indeed, I do remember that day well. I was outside the kindergarten section of the neighbourhood public school. My name was called and I immediately started to panic. I didn’t want to join that line of strangers. And who was that lady at the front??? I clutched my mother’s hand but she withdrew it and then used it, with a wag, to point my way down that slippery school path. When I came home after my morning at school, my mother asked me how it went. I responded, “It’s fine. I’ve seen it but I don’t want to see it again.” I found it such a nightmare trying to interact with the others. One thing I remember very well was that nap time was pure fear and so I always refused to sleep.

School Playground

Copyright ©2013 Michael Ligtenberg

By grade two I was a chronic skipper. Every day at lunch time I would complain of having headaches to my mother on the phone. She would be at work and had little time so she would sometimes accept that I stay home. But sometimes she wouldn’t and would push me to go, threatening reprimand. Nevertheless I still wouldn’t go…but she didn’t know. I changed schools three times in the first seven years…always trying to integrate with the kids but in the end always feeling worthless and apart. In grade 4 my teacher said, “Michael, sometimes you can be such an idiot”. Yeah that was a real boost to my self-esteem at the age of 9. My grade 6 report card, and I still have it, said that I need to progress from drawing stickmen. Okay, so art I thought was not from me. Now I have explored writing, cabinet making and photography and all with some success.

Next was junior high. I will talk about it but not with a great deal of pleasure. I don’t know if anyone would like to remember going from age 13 to 16. Fumbling through puberty, talking way too much, always afraid to approach members of the opposite sex who I had quickly discovered were, well, exciting. It was then that I was baptised with a very endearing nickname. Often my last name is mispronounced. I pronounce it the Dutch way, Lig-ten-berg. The teachers and other kids would always say Light-enberg but I wouldn’t protest. At that time, my mother would say that I was “husky” (and no, I’m not a dog, actually I’m quite cute now I do believe). So I was dubbed with the nickname Fat-enberg. That dashed all my hopes of ever connecting with girls.

Now it was high school. New rules, new choices, new people, and a new chance I thought. I do have some very pleasant memories of high school. I got my driver’s license with car time from my trusting parents (little did they know). I had beer, pot, girlfriends, and a two-year long relationship and yes, I lost my virginity!!! However the heartbreak from the broken relationship was wrenching. I was still a chronic skipper so my grades sucked resulting in many failures. It’s ironic that I never passed French but now I can speak it fluently. In the final year I once again changed schools hoping to reshape my image. However trying to fit in at the end is never easy. The only clique I managed to fit in with was the “potheads”, but I can’t deny that it was blast. I felt more comfortable with these friends than ever before. I was still a chronic skipper and I didn’t even attend my graduation.

School Foyer

Copyright ©2013 Michael Ligtenberg

Then a year off in which I worked for six months and then travelled through Europe exploring my roots. Three months travel turned into six, and I had the most amazing experiences, even working in Copenhagen for three months with a premiere avant-garde anti-racist Danish photographer/activist named Jacob Holdt. (You can find him on Facebook.) He remembers me to this day. Evidently he felt that my personality had made an impact on him. Yes I was hyper-manic most of the trip.

Now it was time to brave the new world of university, for the first time. Within two months of beginning, my father died of a heart attack, on my university’s running track no less. Needless to say, the depression was long, the whole three years I attended in fact. I had no hopes; I had no goals; I felt no reason to be. My bachelor of arts was in literature and I completed all the requirements. However I still haven’t completed the six credits I need in any course to complete it. Again my grades sucked (“C+” average). There were lots of bars on campus open all day. You could often find me there. I never could be bothered to finish my degree. There was a silver lining though…I was able to avoid another graduation ceremony. Another two-year relationship collapsed shortly after my stint at university, and so again more heartbreak. So I ran off to Europe again and smoked my way through Holland for six months.

The next time I attended university was after a six-year hiatus. I was married and my first child had just been born. When she was one month old, I lost my job. I knew I needed something more solid than a measly incomplete B.A. in literature. So I returned, and after acing my first session in philosophy I qualified for the teaching programme. Yes you read that right. I wanted to become a teacher, but I had a clear reason to succeed and a definite goal why. And I flew through that four-year programme in two and half years finishing with Honours and a 3.72 GPA. We also had a second child 18 months after the first. If I remember correctly, I believe I was hyper-manic for a very long period of time. And no, I didn’t go to my graduation.

School Agora

Copyright ©2013 Michael Ligtenberg

I am a teacher now and have been for the last 20 years. Now I never skip. It was a rough ride at the beginning. We had our third and fourth child during my first five years and we bought a house which needed a lot of interior renovation. So for the next five years I was teaching, renovating, washing diapers, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and sleeping about 5 hours a night. A continuation of the hyper-manic state I’d say. Can you believe that my relationship fell apart when I finally crashed back to earth like an engineless plane?

I love school now. I don’t regret becoming a teacher despite its associated stress levels. I have been able to develop many qualities like leadership, compassion, and respect for everyone. I love being in the classroom and breathing in the discovery teenagers go through. And when the learning bud blossoms in an adolescent’s head, it’s a high in itself. Working here in a Native Community has helped me to develop those qualities even further. The last three years, however, have been difficult resulting in three sick leaves. This came after my mother’s death in 2011. After a suicide attempt my symptoms then became so pronounced that my bipolarity was finally diagnosed. Over the next 18 months my health team, including my new spouse, and I have found a good pharmaceutical cocktail for me. I am now trying to find a way to protect my mental health and continue teaching. And I am determined to do just that. I really want to appreciate and enjoy my last years in school.

3 Responses to School: The Bipolar Way

  • I always knew you had a good brain in there Michael. Your way with words, your fantastic photography, your vast knowledge, your respect for others and your sense of humour. Now I have read some of your history I am even more impressed and in awe of your strength of character. Well done and bless you! xx

    • Hi Pat,
      I’m sorry I didn’t respond to you earlier…I just never noticed the comment so I guess my brain is in tip top shape all the time.
      Thank you very much for your kind words, there are never too many of them in the world today. I always go kinda red when they are directed to me but I am trying to accept praise. Disapproval I get enough of from myself. Take care Pat…and bless you too. 🙂

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Counselling from Daniel
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.