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My Black Dog: Living with bipolar illness in the church of God
By: Richard W. Hiebert (published August 18, 2016)

1976. 5:30AM. The alarm rings. I awaken groggily and shut the alarm off. Within seconds, a deep depression floods over me. Mercifully I was free of it for a few hours while I slept. But now it's back. It will last for months. I don't want to get out of bed and I dread what the day will bring. I have no choice but to get up and get ready for school. I'm principal of a high school 32 miles north west of the city. I must shower, shave, dress, have breakfast and drive to school and be there before my staff arrives. Then somehow, I have to make it through the day.

My school had a reputation as the toughest in the district. In fact, the Board could not find a principal to hire so they hired me with only six years as a physical education instructor and no administrative experience but with a reputation as a strong teacher. It would be difficult to explain how difficult it was for me to run a school like this while in the grip of a profound depression. But I did it - day after day, week after week, month after month until the depression lifted. Then it became easy.

I suffer from a severe type one bipolar illness, a very serious condition. My oldest son is also bipolar. It used to be called manic-depression. Type two bipolar is less severe, less debilitating and less destructive. Both forms of the illness are genetically driven and characterized by a cycle of depression and low energy alternating with a period of high energy and optimism. It cannot be cured; once it manifests itself, usually in one's early twenties, you've got it for life. Although it cannot be cured, it can be managed (but not perfectly). The cycles differ. When I was in my twenties and thirties, my cycle lasted two years so that I was depressed for one year and high the following year. Now I'm a rapid cycler. I'm low for a month and close to normal the following month. I tend not to get very high. I'm not sure why but that's a good thing.

What is it like to suffer from bipolar depression? I've already noted that I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning. The mind and body slow down when one is depressed. Tasks that should normally be easy, become difficult. I sit on a board of education. I find it very difficult to engage in conversation and conduct board work. At Sabbath services, it's very difficult to fellowship and talk to my friends and brethren. I'm self-conscious. I have little interest in anything except food and watching the news. I have little motivation. Thoughts of suicide cross my mind (some estimates put the bipolar suicide rate as high as twenty times higher than the national average. I personally have not been close to suicide). I pray a lot for deliverance. I plead with God for healing. But God does not heal. I sometimes vent my frustration and resentment, "Why me eternal God? Why do I have to suffer like this?" I would happily give my right arm to be free of my illness. I talk very little. My wife is used to my cycles. What keeps me going? I know I'm going to get out of it. The depression will lift. I can even predict when it will happen.

What's it like to be in the grip of a bipolar high? The following is an account of what it used to be like before lithium. One has limitless supplies of energy. Here's a typical day. I can remember getting up at 5AM, arriving at my school at 7:30AM, making coffee for my staff, doing my correspondence (save my secretary some work), greeting staff and students, and then diving into an extraordinarily packed day of teaching and administration. And enjoying every minute of it. A high school administrator is a problem solver. As a paternalistic principal (father figure), I took care of students,' teachers,' parents,' and community members,' problems - effortlessly. Nothing was too difficult. Discipline in a tough high school was easy. While on the high side, as an instructional leader, I introduced many new pedagogical and extracurricular initiatives that transformed the school into an extraordinary institution of learning and staff and student development. My school enjoyed a great reputation and the school community was amazed at the transformation. After school I was in the gym for a pick up game of floor hockey. After that I coached the senior boys basketball team for an hour and a half. Then I would drive to the university in the big city a hundred miles away to take a night class. I would arrive home at one in the morning. Then I was up at 5AM ready and eager to begin a new day filled with interest, excitement and accomplishment. Life was absolutely great. It goes without saying that "bipolar"and "balance" are not congruous terms.

Outside of school, in 1981, I built the Battlefords Athletic Club, a large, 5000 square foot health and fitness club - the first of its kind in our small city. It boasted a 1200 square foot, spring mounted aerobics floor, Power Plant gym with a super gym, Tunturi bikes, 5000 pounds of free weights and state of the art equipment, sauna, whirl pool, pro shop and day care centre. I was the head strength and fitness coach. I also ran my school. In those days, nothing was impossible. My wife managed the club and was head aerobics instructor. We closed out the club in 1987 because "we were married to it" - for family reasons. I also played in a band - band leader, lead singer, lead and rhythm guitar (I played in a rock band as a kid, then a country band for twelve years, and finally a family band. I was also a professional DJ for 18 years). On the high side, a bipolar person typically tries to accomplish as much as possible.

Life was wonderful until lack of sleep and a relentless demanding schedule began to take its toll. I became too high, sometimes not sleeping at all. This was before lithium - no medications. I began to lose focus and was unable to prioritize. I would deal with smaller problems but hold off on the big ones which should have been dealt with first. I became short-tempered with little patience. Worse, I lost respect for authority. I bluntly stated my views and disagreed with my superintendent as I felt "necessary - for the higher good of my staff and students" Few central office administrators will put up with this kind of behaviour from subordinates and my superintendent did not. One of my often used phrases was, "I disagree." My attitude of "I know better" (even if I did sometimes) got me into a great deal of trouble. I would have done well to heed the prophet who warned that, "woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight" (Isaiah 5:20).

And, as one would expect, I also got into a lot of trouble in the church. My minister had no idea I was bipolar and simply could not understand why I acted the way I did.

Finally, I would crash. Life became difficult once again.

How do I deal with my illness? The life of a bipolar person must be one of strict discipline. First, one must faithfully take one's medication. The gold standard for treating bipolar is the powerful drug lithium (lithium carbonate). Going off one's medication will have serious consequences. Second, one must adhere to a strict diet - no sugar, no refined carbohydrates, no junk. Instead, consume natural, organic whole foods - fruits and vegetables, dairy products, whole grains and organic meat, and drink plenty of water. This is fundamentally important. Third, exercise - hard. I run the hills, and workout intensely in a gym. It's important to really push it and sweat profusely, especially on the hills. Fourth, I take an array of natural supplements including a concentrated micronutrient with the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals necessary for optimum mental health, amino acids, fish oil and natural antidepressants like turmeric. Fifth, I get lots of sleep. Fortunately, I sleep well on both the low side and high side. I like to work late on the positive side but I discipline myself to get away from my computer no later than 11PM, and get to bed. Sleep is of fundamental importance. Finally, pray. God apparently will not heal me but I believe He helps me nevertheless. These strategies work to a large extent. In fact, they are essential.

In addition to the above, part of my strategy - my master plan - to manage my bipolar illness is to write poetry. Poetry lends perspective to my condition and my problems, and I enjoy writing it. I write it when I'm on the high side and read it when I'm both high (normal) and low.

Winston Churchill, Great Britain's wartime leader, whom Mr. Armstrong called "the man of the century" suffered from manic-depressive illness (so did Abraham Lincoln, America's greatest president). He referred to his deep periods of depression as "my black dog." I borrowed this phrase and used it in my poetry. I also borrowed generously from Shakespeare's Hamlet in this instance.

The black dog ascends from his lair riding on the winds of the night. He seeks the fair Richard to utterly destroy him. He descends on the prince and holds him like a vice. But Richard fights the black dog. And the yeomen, Lithium and Serequol, rise up in anger and ferocity to fight for good Richard. Then is doomsday near? Meet what I would have well and it destroy! Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife. Oh villain, villain…Remorseless, treacherous, kindless villain. Like the Hyrcarian beast, black as his purpose did the night resemble. For it is as the air, invulnerable. And our vain blows malicious mockery. Then the strong yeomen hurl back the beast and fair Richard is free. He kneels in thankful prayer. The prince rejoices with the inhabitants of his lands, drinks the fruit of the vine and makes merry with them in their villages.

But Richard knows that it is only for a little time. The black dog will come again seeking to utterly destroy him.

The 1990s were a wonderful time for me and my family. Both my son and I started taking lithium in 1989 and we were essentially free of bipolar symptoms for ten years, my son longer. I had a good job as a principal. It was difficult and challenging but immensely interesting. I loved it. Our children graduated from high school and went to university. Our oldest children got married to wonderful people. I ran my school. I completed an undergraduate degree in history, a Masters degree in educational administration and two years of my doctorate in education (I had to take an educational leave from 1998 to 2000 to attend university). Then, lithium started to lose its power. I suffered mild depressions at first and then down times that became increasingly more severe, and I also went too high at times. I've learned to live with it once again and my essential strategies are a significant help.

Taking stock. I have a wonderful wife and family (four children, their spouses, seven amazing grandchildren, and two great grandchildren). My wife and the children stuck with me during the hard times. I made it through a career in education that spanned 36 years and I enjoyed many successes. I have ten years of university under my belt - undergraduate degrees in education and history, a Masters and a Ph.D and two university certificates. I also had a highly successful few years as a university teacher. I published a history book in 2015 which was very well received. I'm currently writing two books; the first is a collection of short stories for high school students ( seven stories averaging 9000-10000 words each) and the second is on the rural school principalship. I also write a history column for the Regional Optimist, and I will write an education column simply titled The public schools beginning next August and market it to our province's 167 weeklies. I'm also the president of the Battlefords heritage society and a member of both the Battlefords North West historical society and Battlefords archaeological society, a past provincial director of the Saskatchewan Architectural Heritage Society, and as I mentioned, I'm on the Board of education. I'm training hard for the Saskatchewan Senior Fitness Association (SSFA) summer games (track and field). My wife and I are in the church. We have a wonderful minister. There's more. But that's enough. Despite my illness, God has richly blessed me. My family and the knowledge of the truth are my greatest blessings. I look forward to the kingdom when I, and my son, will be healed.

Life is good. For now.

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