Until moving recently, 75-year-old Ella Mae Rayner read this column in the New Bern Sun Journal in North Carolina.
At age 18 and in nursing school, she began having extreme mood swings. “I had never had a problem with depression,” Rayner said in a telephone interview, “until one day someone yelled at me and I (eventually) sat in a corner and cried three days. About every six months I would have (periods of depression) and it got worse and worse as I got older.”
In between depressive bouts, she experienced manic periods lasting three months or so in which she had a lot of energy. “I always said I could stand on my head and spin nickels when I was manic,” she said. “It was almost as if I was a different person. For example, normally I was afraid of saying something wrong in public and never opened my mouth. But when I was manic, I could do it.”
After about four full cycles of see-sawing between depression and mania, she learned to curtail some of her manic impulsiveness, which sometimes involved shopping purchases. She also learned to stop joining community organizations because of having to quit them during depressive periods.
At age 52 and while her husband was being treated for depression himself, Rayner received medication to balance out her mood swings. Although a physician never officially diagnosed her with a form of bipolar disorder, Rayner, a registered nurse who had worked with mentally ill patients, eventually figured out the diagnosis on her own. She believed her physician may have withheld the diagnosis to protect her from any stigma of having a mental illness.
Through the years, her husband has been supportive. For some reason, she has been relatively symptom-free the last 10 years, which has allowed her to become more involved in community work.
A National Institutes of Health website defines bipolar disorder as a brain disorder causing unusual, severe shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels affecting the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. It’s a lifelong disorder with no known cure and is often referred to as manic-depressive illness.
She advised: “What helped me most (during the depressive periods) was to wake up and make a small list of things to accomplish that day. That is what kept me going. And you also need someone you can talk to about it.”