The Ups and Downs of a Bipolar Life: An Interview with Tom Roberts

Hi, I’m Dan Lukasik from LawyersWithDepression.com.

Today’s guest is Tom Roberts. Tom is a mental health speaker and writer living in Huntington Beach, California.  He’s the author of “Escape from Myself: A Manic-Depressive’s Escape to Nowhere” Tom earned his Master’s Degree in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of Kansas. He worked for several years as a broadcast journalist for local stations and freelanced for National Public Radio’s popular newscast “All Things Considered,” “The Voice of America,” and “ABC Radio News.” Tom has been a professional actor on stage, screen, and television and currently does voice-over work in the L.A. area. He is the creator of the website Tom Speaks Out!

DL: Tom, welcome to the show.

TR:  Thank you very much, Dan. I appreciate the invitation.

DL: I think our audiences wants to know, what is bipolar disorder and how is it different from depression?

TR: Bipolar disorder is described as an affective illness. It affects your moods.  You go from deep, deep depression to manic episodes which would make you hyperactive, give you poor impulse control and a number of other things like hypersexuality. Major depression is treated quite differently than Bipolar. Depression usually responds well to antidepressants whereas bipolar you have to experiment with different medications and I always dread the worst part of bipolar disorder which is a deep, deep, deep. In fact, up to 17% of people with bipolar commit suicide.

DL: What causes bipolar depression? Previously on the show, we’ve asked other guests as to the causes or risk factors for depression.  What about bipolar disorder?

TR: With bipolar disorder, it is believed to be genetic. My dad, my brother, my sister; we all have it. So, first of all, it is genetic. But the cause of it doesn’t have to manifest itself.  Frequently, it goes along and the gene doesn’t wake up. So, there is what is called a “precipitating cause”. In my experience, I believe, the precipitating cause was the sudden death of my mother. I was 14. And then the depressions started and it really disabled me throughout college, throughout my 20’s, throughout my 30’s.  And it was only addressed as depression because that was the only way it presented itself at that time.

You don’t go to the doctor when you’re manic and go, “Doc, I feel great! What’s wrong with me?”  So, once it’s diagnosed then the correct medication can be given, the mood stabilizers. That’s what happens.

DL: You mentioned the sudden death of your mother. Can you share with our audience what happened to her?

TR: I was in ninth grade. I got into a bit of trouble with some other guys. And my mom had to get me out of it. She came to talk to the county attorney and pick me up after school. And she said, “As long as I live, I’m never going to help you out of another mess like this!”

Just after she said this, she slumped forward in deep pain. She managed to get down to her doctor’s office. I remember her saying to the doctor, “Please tell Tommy that I forgive him”. The last time I saw her alive is when they wheeled her out. What happened to her is that she had a burst brain aneurysm that she didn’t know she had. She had high blood pressure that she had been treated for. So, that’s what happened. She was 34 years old. She left three boys behind.

DL: How common is bipolar in the United States?

TR: The bipolar rate is 2.6% among the U.S. population. It’s not that common to the degree that it is so difficult to treat. 15% to 17% of the people who have it ultimately kill themselves.

DL: You mentioned earlier that your brother and sister were afflicted with bipolar. It is fair to say that genetics played a role in the development of your bipolar illness?

TR: Definitely. In my book, I say my experience in bipolar began when my mother was impregnated by me! It went through my family like a Kansas tornado. My dad had it, and refused because of his fear of stigma, to ever get help from a psychiatrist until two years before he died when he was 62.

My brother, who was 7 years younger than I am, was diagnosed with bipolar in the army and then discharged without any treatment and he was so ashamed and so afraid of the stigma that he didn’t get help and, unfortunately, committed suicide.  My surviving sister was diagnosed when she was about 35 and continues today to try to deal with it and figure out better ways to manage it as a mother of two boys.

I have a stepsister who took her life 5 years after my brother because she suffered from major depression and was addicted to prescription narcotics which she used to take out her life. In one of the chapters in my book, I write that mental illness is a family “dis-ease” and with the emphasis on “ease” because the craziness in our family mixed with untreated bipolar disorder. So, I’m so afraid of the genetics in my children and, especially, in my grandchildren. My goal is really educating them and helping them see the symptoms so they can get it treated earlier than I did.

DL: Can you share with our audience your first big experience with bipolar. What was the experience like? Try to put our listeners in your shoes.

TR: I had been struggling with depression since my mother passed. It was awful in college. In fact, it was kind of interesting in college because friends of mine, who were psychology majors, used to have me take the MMPI which is a very common test to determine personalities, especially abnormal psychology. They never told me why. I just wanted to help them out.

After I finished college and went to graduate school, and then went eventually into broadcast journalism, I thought depression might have left me. When I wasn’t depressed, I couldn’t remember a time when I was depressed.  Then when I was depressed, I couldn’t remember a time when I was ever not depressed. I call these things my “happy times” and during my happy times, my behavior was rather poor. I drank a lot, womanized a lot, and spent a lot of money, and those types of things were never, never addressed.

I went on from being a broadcast journalist to teaching broadcast journalism at a small college in Arkansas. I was miserable, in and out of major depressions, and blaming everything. I thought it was my environment, that I was in the wrong career, that I didn’t like the people and became very suspicious of other people.

Finally, in 1988, I became severely depressed after spending a year on sabbatical working on my Ph.D. I admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital to be treated for the depression. The psychiatrist there treated me for depression. He did not treat me for bipolar. So, he gave me a new antidepressant. It really sent me to the moon in about three days and, suddenly, I had this wild idea: “I know what I can do to get out of this situation. I can go to Hollywood and become a film and television actor”. It’s always been what I wanted to do. I found this other woman, in the psychiatric hospital, who believed in my dream. We planned to go to Hollywood, which we did.

That was the major, manic episode because I walked away from my wife, my two little kids, my college teaching career, to go pursue a fantasy. Then that bubble burst, as it always does, and I was back in a major depression. I tucked my tail between my legs and took a bus back to Arkansas to try to salvage everything.

But, it was all gone.

It destroyed everything I had.

DL:

That’s a very powerful story. When you say it “destroyed everything,” that must have been very difficult to cope with. Did it intensify your depression? What was your reaction and behavior after all that and coming to terms with it?

TR: It intensified my depression for five years. I was doing menial jobs. I was a hospital emergency room janitor, just trying to get a little money, living in an unheated cabin in the country. Two years before, I was a college professor and had my own home and my family. That was quite a shock living that way. I was depressed more and more and I became more preoccupied with suicidal ideation during that period of time. I never attempted suicide, but I thought about it a lot.

I was finally diagnosed with bipolar, actually came from an orthopedic physician I worked for. He gave me a job of videotaping research and producing videos for his patients. About a year into the job, I was in the operating room during surgery and talking non-stop. The doctor stopped the surgery and said, “I want to see you outside”.  We went back to the surgeon’s dressing room and sat down on a bench. He said, “Tom, you’re acting kind of crazy. And you’re scaring the staff. I think you may have bipolar disorder and I do not want you to come back to work until you’ve seen a psychiatrist.”

Five days later, I was in the psychiatrist’s office talking non-stop for an hour. “Without a doubt,” he said, “Mr. Roberts you have bipolar disorder. I’m putting you on this medication that I want you to take immediately”. This was the beginning of an awareness that I had to learn to manage my illness.

DL: How long ago was that experience?

TR: I was diagnosed in 1993. It was a year after my brother’s suicide. Had I been diagnosed before that I could have talked to my brother about it and gotten him some help. But it was 1993 and I was under the assumption because my psychiatrist did not tell me what I needed to do to manage this illness. He told me if I just took a pill, I would be okay. That’s not true. Medication compliance is important, but I had to learn how to manage my life; my stressors, my sleep patterns, my nutrition.

That took twenty years to learn and, unfortunately, I left a lot of wreckage behind.

DL: Tell us some of the things that you’ve learned over the years to manage your bipolar?

TR: I think, first and foremost, besides medication compliance, is a good sleep pattern. It’s called “sleep hygiene”. Sleep problems are usually an indication of the onset of a mood change: if you miss sleep, or can’t sleep. Six to seven hours of sleep is what I need every night to stay even. Exercise. Personally, I have a dog. The exercise, the clean air, that’s terrific.

The other thing that has helped me so much, is that I remarried in 2010, and it was just having a family, having loved ones. My two adult children went through difficult times with me, but we’re very close. And being a grandfather. And being very, very grateful and having to stop, at times, and say thank you to my higher power that I am here. It took a long time, but I put the pieces together. I see a psychotherapist when I need to. Those are my management tips.

DL: You’ve also written a book, “A Manic-Depressives Journey to Nowhere”. Tell us a little bit about the book and why you wrote it.

TR: The book is my memoir and I’ve been struggling with the idea of a memoir for 10 years. But I wasn’t ready yet – probably because I wasn’t stable yet. If I had done it earlier, it would have been grandiose. This time, a year ago, I was asked to give a webinar for the International Bipolar Foundation. It was a long presentation and I thought this would be a great outline for a memoir. All I have to do is flesh it out a little more. I found a publisher and I wrote it.

I have to tell you that I wrote it with many tears reliving some of these experiences. Especially, my brother’s death.

But it was cathartic and by the time I finished it and published, that is what I needed.  Then I realized in the process of writing, I love what Abraham Lincoln said, “Writing is man’s greatest invention. It allows the dead to speak to the living or those yet to be born.” I thought, wow, my grandchildren can pick this book up one of these days and it will help them.

Listen to the remainder of the interview as a podcast on Apple iTunes or Goggle Play and hear Tom talk about the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Further reading:

7 Tools for Overcoming Impulse Control Issues by Eric Johnson

Surrender, Acceptance, and Living with Bipolar Disorder by Karl Shallowhorn

My Bipolar Brain: Constant Conversations in My Head by Dave Mowry

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website

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One Response to The Ups and Downs of a Bipolar Life: An Interview with Tom Roberts

  1. Amanda Ruano says:

    Amazing article, I really loved reading this article as it was very informative as being a law student I really enjoy this kind of article as it increase my knowledge

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