Breaking the silence about being bipolar
When Andrea Lee was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 20 years ago, she wanted to talk about it all the time.
“Everywhere I went, I would introduce myself and I would try to work in - maybe in the second or third sentence of that conversation – ‘By the way, I have Bipolar Disorder.’”
Eventually, though, she realized that people treated her differently.
“So I stopped talking about it,” Lee says in this week’s StoryCorps.
Now Lee wants to talk about it again.
She came to the StoryCorps booth in the Chicago Cultural Center earlier this month with her husband, Tim Fister.
“I remember in high school sitting at the lunch table with my friends,” Lee says, “and there was all this commotion around me and I couldn’t hear any of it…And I remember just putting my head down and feeling so…empty.”
Later that day, she drove to her family’s home and parked in the garage. “I was crying and crying. I left the car on and I remember thinking: I could just close the door and I wouldn’t have to feel this pain anymore.”
She sat in the car, contemplating suicide. She imagined how her mother would feel when she got home and saw her body slumped in the driver’s seat of the car.
Lee’s parents are from Korea and Lee says, “There’s such a culture of shame in Korea that people would rather suffer in silence then let the world know that they’re in pain and that they need help.”
Lee turned the car off and went inside the house.
Soon after she saw a psychiatrist who prescribed anti-depressants to her. Within a few weeks, the drugs helped lift her spirits. The sky was bluer and the sun was brighter. But what she didn’t realize was that she was quickly spiraling into mania.
A short time later, Lee experienced her first manic episode, and the police brought her to a mental health facility.
“So through all of this stuff that was going on, I’m just curious: Did you have anyone to talk to frankly?” her husband, Tim Fister, asks. “’Cause it sounds like your parents were out of the picture.”
“Yeah, I don’t think that in that state of mind I was really able to connect with anyone,” Lee says. “What was it like for you when you met me and I started telling you about my own mental illness?”
“It wasn’t really that big of a deal. It was maybe a little bit of a relief ‘cause on both sides of my family there’s a fair amount of various levels of mental illness. So it didn’t bother me…that much. You know it’s something you think about in terms of the logistics. I still think about that even today, especially now that Juniper’s born. What are we going to do if such a thing were to happen? But you know when it’s coming. You know the signs. And you know what to do.”
“So we’ve been married for nine—no, we’ve been married for four years, but we’ve been together for nine years, but you’ve never seen me in a manic state. How do you feel about that?” Lee asks.
“I think it’s very possible you might never have another manic episode again,” Fister says. “You’re lucky that you found the right combination of meds… And you have a good support system. You have a good doctor now.”
“You know for a long time I didn’t want to have a child because I didn’t want that child to go through that,” Lee says, “ but then also selfishly if that child committed suicide I didn’t know how I would live. I didn’t know how I could live with that knowledge: That I knew what that experience was but still decided to get pregnant and to bring a life into the world where that could happen.”
“So what turned it around?” Fister asks.
“I think that I’ve experienced things in our relationship together that made me feel like that chance was worth it,” Lee says.