Five years ago, 26-year old Karla Smith died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She was, by all accounts, a talented young woman, a brilliant writer, much loved by her twin brother Kevin and parents, Tom and Fran…and bipolar.
The Smith’s chronicled their experiences in book and web forms, and created The Karla Smith Foundation to provide “hope for a balanced life to family and friends or anyone with a mental illness or who lost a loved one to suicide.”
Over the next few weeks I will mention the Smith’s, their advocacy efforts, and the resources they’ve created. For today, I share a glimpse of Karla from Kevin’s perspective. You can read this eloquent tribute in it’s entirety at the website “ In Memory of Karla Smith”.
In Kevin’s words…
…Karla was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression…The symptoms fit Karla’s behavior to a T. The mania stage includes excessive energy, delusional thinking, paranoia, often accompanied by financial struggles and a desire for constant movement. The depths of the depression stage lead to suicide for one in five individuals with bipolar disorder. There was disbelief, a fear, and countless questions that struck each one of us in our family. A lot of what we discovered was scary - 2.3 million Americans are diagnosed as bipolar, the cause is unknown and generally manifests itself during the late teenage years, and there is no cure. We had to accept that we would never be able to answer the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ questions. We all became experts on this new thing called bipolar disorder and sadly realized it is a lifelong battle that does not go away. As a family member watching this, the word ‘forever’ was a difficult one for me to grasp.
Throughout the years, Karla explained to me eloquently how her illness felt inside and I’m going to share an example in her words from both the manic side and the depression side. During the mania phase, she explained it like this:
“Imagine your mind as a switchboard and you are looking right at it. And on this switchboard is everything that has ever happened in your life - every past thought, every past event, every past emotion. And one flash appears on the switchboard so you focus on it, but 10 seconds later, another flash appears, and you have to look at it, but then there’s another flash over there, and another one here, and another - and your mind pushes you to see all of them because you have to see them all and experience them all. It’s constant. And I try to explain my thoughts, and what is going on, but it’s so hard to speak that fast because everything is just so confusing.”
And on the reverse-side, an example of her depression came to me in the form of a letter:
“It’s hard for me to talk out loud. There’s a rock that lives in my throat. My mind thinks only of death and escape and I cannot keep up with it. I am afraid of everything, I can’t do things I used to do with ease, and I’m afraid of even people that I’m closest to. I often don’t answer the phone or call anyone back. I’m not afraid of one specific thing, but instead a big general fear - that’s how it’s been inside.”
The extremes of this illness are unbelievable. It is mind-boggling to me how a person can change so drastically in the span of just a few weeks. We did discover one very positive thing about bipolar: even though it did not have a cure; taking daily medication could control it. Bipolar individuals can live long normal lives and most people would not even know the individual has been diagnosed…