When My Life Began

Cynthia Sabotka, age 55; wife and mother of two; stepmother of two and grandmother of five; co-owner of a construction company in St. Clair, MI; author of Life is Like a Line

Turning Points

There was a time when I was a stress junkie. Stress kept me going. When I hit my 40s, I turned a corner. My father was sick and I cared for him until he died. Then I cared for my aging mother (and still do), and when my brother became sick, I was his caregiver, too, for three years until he died. During this time, both of my daughters became engaged and I had surgery, which sent me into menopause. I became very symptomatic of things I had never had before. I had hypergraphia [an overwhelming urge to write]; I was writing all the time on little pieces of paper and I didn't know why. I'd find these papers in my pocket with cryptic notes that I couldn't understand. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown, because both of my parents had had nervous breakdowns, so I figured I was just susceptible to this sort of thing. When my parents had nervous breakdowns, it was in the '50s. My father was called a Type A personality and my mother had "nervousness." I think that's what they called it in those days.

Finally, one day I sat in the garage with the car running, and I thought, "This just doesn't feel right." At that point, I told my husband what was happening. A couple of days later, I took my mother to a doctor appointment and I asked the doctor if he knew of a psychiatrist. He said, "You? You don't need a psychiatrist. Just wait until your family situation calms down and you?re going to be fine." I said, "No, I think you should give me a name." He wrote down the name of a woman who eventually diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and prescribed medication. I started seeing her once a week. That is when my life really began.

Patience and Progress

I had rapid-cycling, where I would feel very up and then very down during the same day. At the beginning, I was given antidepressants, which sent me into hypomania. Over the years, I have tried 35 different medications. Finding the right medication takes patience. I would start to feel better and want to go off of the medications. It took me a while to realize that, like a diabetic, I have to maintain these chemicals in my system in order to have recovery. Even if it's giving me side effects, I keep on my medication until my next doctor appointment so that we can discuss it.

You have to take care of yourself physically in order to get well mentally. As my menopausal symptoms lessened and the doctors corrected an underlying thyroid problem that I had—in addition to managing my bipolar disorder—I gradually got better. Now, I try to walk about 30 minutes every day, and I go to bed at the same time every night. I also look at stress differently. It's taken me all this time and some psychotherapy to realize that it's not about the stress, but about how you respond to it. I still see my therapist once every six to eight weeks, just to check in and discuss any problems that have arisen. I also know that I will be on medication for the rest of my life.

Finding Happiness

I would advise anyone with any mental disorder to investigate the art, music and theater programs offered by your community mental health center. You can meet others who may have the same types of symptoms that you have, in an environment outside of a support group or outside of the therapist's office. Creating something and discovering your own hidden talents can also raise your self-esteem. When you have bipolar disorder, you live so much within yourself, and if you sit in the house day after day, gloominess can turn into despair.

I am a realist, but I'm optimistic. My marriage is wonderful, which helps. My children and grandbabies are my support group. There's always that little hint for me that I'm going to get beyond it, and everything is going to be okay.

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