It seems that over the past ten years I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out the why’s and how’s of bipolar disorder. All throughout therapy and endless appointments with countless doctors the majority of our conversations have centered around the negative effects it has had on my life – and let’s face it, there have been many. Learning to understand the nature of this illness requires much reflection in order to identify triggers, recognize patterns and learn how to replace all of the negative coping mechanisms I used for decades in order to deal with the chaos in my mind with positive ones.
Every time a doctor has asked about my mental health history my memories default to the age of 15 so I’ve come to consider that the birthdate of my symptoms. I’ve relived virtually every bad choice and behavior that was a consequence of my struggle with bipolar, and as a result the memories of my teenage years and early twenties have been swallowed by a dark cloud. It saddens me because I realize that whenever I think of those years the first thought that typically comes to mind is “that was the beginning of the darkness” which of course tends to trigger memories where my mood swings, especially depression, robbed me of joy.
I grew up as a competitive runner and was always very good at it. I was fortunate enough to have a great coach, who just also happened to be my father, and was on a cross country and track team who brought home State Championships and countless other titles. But I’ve always thought of those running days within the context of suffering from mood swings and an eating disorder so I tend to only think of what could or should have been.
But something profoundly wonderful happened to me recently when I had the opportunity to revisit a place where as a teenager I spent many hours running in cross country races.
It was nothing short of magical as I started to run along the path that winds around the lake at Bear Mountain State Park. Although it has been over 30 years I was immediately transported back in time. I was no longer a 47 year old mom just attempting to get in a workout, I had become 15 again, caught up in the excitement of warming up for the biggest race of the year.
I remembered every hill, every turn and the rush I used to feel while running as fast as I could in order to stay with a pack of runners. I could hear phantom voices of all the coaches screaming from across the lake imploring us to go faster. When I ran up the infamous hill I remembered how loud the crowds were as they cheered us on and how relieved I was once I got to the top. I was shocked at how vivid all of these memories were. Faces, names and infamous phrases coaches used to shout at their athletes were as clear as day.
As I acknowledged all of these sensations an interesting thing happened — I found myself smiling! I was happy and excited! It may seem trivial but for me it’s groundbreaking because in that moment I was remembering 15 year old me as a strong, capable competitive athlete. I had tapped into a bank of memories I forgot had existed. And then the floodgates opened. Flashbacks kept coming, one after the other, of amazing experiences I had as a runner in high school and as I remembered, the dark cloud that I had given time and energy to began to dissipate. Instead of viewing that time period through the lens of depression and regret I began to remember:
The satisfaction that comes from putting every ounce of energy I had into a race.
The thrill of winning.
The hours after school spent running around town with my teammates as we gossiped and laughed together.
The security of having teammates who were my extended family.
The times our coaches were brave enough to travel with us to faraway places, chaperoning us in hotels and restaurants, big cities and even on a plane ride across the country.
These are only the tip of the iceberg.
Although I believe it was important for me to explore all of the symptoms I had as a teenager in order to find a proper diagnosis and make sense of things, I no longer need to view those times within the context of an illness. But that’s exactly where I’ve been stuck…dwelling on all of the memories that had robbed me of joy which ultimately gave the negative memories a chance to take root and hold the rest of my thoughts captive.
It just goes to show that what we spend our time thinking about directly affects us.
The most prominent memory I have and often use to illustrate the way my symptoms affected me was the day we won the State Championship. It was a goal we had all worked so hard for and when we found out we won we were ecstatic. However that day has always been overshadowed by a drastic mood swing I experienced that caused me to break down, cry and hate myself later that evening. It came from out of the blue and scared me because I knew I had no reason to feel the way that I did and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t reclaim that joy. It stole my happiness during what should have been an amazing time in my life, but what’s even worse is that I’ve allowed that to define me.
But now I get to decide which perspective I want to hang onto.
As I ran I forced myself to think back to everything that happened before my mood crashed that evening. I had vivid memories of the course and sprinting to the finish line, waiting anxiously with my teammates to find out if we had won, sitting in the bleachers at the awards ceremony laughing, posing for pictures with our trophy, singing and celebrating loudly the entire two and a half hours home…all of these moments were there, I just hadn’t allowed myself to think about them because instead I chose to remember how that day had ended.
How am I going to choose to look at things? Am I going to look at every bad situation, analyze it and try to figure out everything I could have or should have done to make it better, or am I going to commit to trusting that God is going to use it for good? Because He always does, even if we don’t realize it until years later.
God gave me fresh eyes this week and I am so grateful because it has changed me. My son has chosen to be a runner which is what brought me back to my old running grounds. When I finished working out that day I was blessed to be able to view life as a 15 year old runner through his eyes. His enthusiasm and attitude was contagious as he expressed how excited he is to compete.
God’s timing is perfect.
Tomorrow I will have the chance to cheer him on as he races around the same course as I did over 30 years ago. Together we will savor the excitement of the day and celebrate his ability to run in a beautiful environment alongside his teammates and coaches. No matter how the day unfolds I am assured of this…we will make it a point to hold on to all of the wonder. I have no doubt God has put this piece of my life’s puzzle into place at this moment in order to use what I experienced as bad for something ultimately good. Not only has He given me the ability to reframe my memories but He’s given me the opportunity to go back and truly appreciate everything I had forgotten to be thankful for. Just thinking about it is invigorating because I know this lesson will not only continue to benefit me, but the rest of my family as well.
So as I cheer for my son tomorrow I will also be cheering for that part of me that always existed but remained hidden beneath the fog for so long. She will be hearing me shout, “You can do it! You’ve got this! You’re doing great! Keep your head up and be strong!” and I know throughout it all God will be smiling down on all of us saying, “You did it! Great job!”
Philippians 4:8. And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.