In part two of ongoing series George tells his story of his wife death and her struggle with bipolar disorder. You can read part one if you have missed the start of his moving account.

Self-medicating with alcohol

On the negative side there were periods of dreadful self loathing and nihilism, aggressive behaviour to loved ones and a propensity for self harm. Over the years as a news reporter and later feature writer I had written some harrowing stories about people with mental illness. Never for one moment did I suspect I would be living in the same firestorm. Like many of those living with the condition Carolyn used alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate or to treat disturbing mood swings. Alcohol, of course, is a depressant. That is why many people use it as a tranquilliser at the end of a hard day or as a crutch in tense social situations.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with bipolar disorder are five times more likely to develop alcohol misuse and dependence than the rest of the population.

Carolyn once sent me an email from someone, also living with the condition.  It read: “I am bipolar and I am a drunk. Through over 20 years of being in and out of recovery - and psych wards - and off and on various medications, I have come to realize that I must treat both illnesses in order to recover from either. I experienced major depressions throughout my young adulthood, making it impossible to hold down a job, show up for friends and family, eat properly, or even bathe regularly. I stayed in bed for weeks at a time.  Drinking was the only way to numb the pain. But the manias were even worse, tornadoes racing through my life and the lives of everyone around me. I had multiple psychotic breaks, including a particularly disastrous episode in the south west 16 years ago.  One morning I threw a haphazard collection of my stuff in the back seat of my car, along with my dog, my cat, and a puppy I had picked up off the side of the road. I left the house trashed and sped toward Colorado, alternately laughing and crying. I was pulled over near the border for weaving, and the police officer looked concerned when he saw the hodgepodge of junk and animals crammed in the car. I convinced him I was okay, and he let me go - a mistake. Within a few hours I was convinced that the other drivers on the highway were spying on me. I saw dead cows hanging from the telephone poles.”

That person was eventually given drugs for psychosis and enrolled into an AA Programme. But the closing paragraph of her account summed up the patience-sapping complexity of the illness. She wrote: “The bottom line is, without sobriety, doctors can’t help me with my bipolar symptoms. But without treating the bipolar disorder, chances are I will drink to self-medicate. No amount of medication will keep me sober, but no amount of AA step work will keep me from hallucinating dead cows hanging from telephone poles. I must address both issues with equal commitment.”