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Golf Saved My Life

My Struggle Against Bipolar Disorder

September 2011

I lived with my grandparents until I was 3. Then my mother showed up, back from her adventures, and with the help of a friend stole me away to her apartment in Milwaukee. I have a vivid memory of being jostled like a football as grandma chased us to the car. The scars that dot my body remind me daily of the abusive childhood I spent with my mother.

I left for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when I was 17. A year later I had a wife, a son and a job as an assistant in a nursing home. I'd started playing golf, too, and on a good day could break 90. Life was good, until it wasn't. Financial stresses grew, and I started having days where all I could think were dark thoughts.

One afternoon I took the big knife from the kitchen. I walked into the woods behind our trailer and sat on a stump where the loggers had cleared. The sky was gray, and the leaves on the ground were wet from a rainstorm. I undid my flannel shirt and set the blade to the side of my sternum. I was crying. The blade went in only a quarter of an inch, yet there was a lot of blood. The physical pain was bad, but the mental pain was worse, and I stopped. I went in and bandaged myself and put on another shirt before Peggy came home with Greg Jr. I didn't want anyone to find out because I was scared of getting locked up in a ward, or worse, having my son taken away.

A co-worker I confided in told me to see a doctor. I didn't know words to express how low I was feeling (I still don't), and the doctor gave me a week's worth of medication for depression. I finished the pills in three days and didn't go back for a refill because I didn't have insurance and, more important, didn't want to be crazy. I told myself to be strong and to get on with life.

Six months later I had a seizure at work. This signaled the start of a life trial (to this day, in times of stress, my face will tic, and I risk losing consciousness). After the nursing home I worked at a bank, a deli, a grocery store, a Best Buy, a corrugated box factory and with a roofing crew. My buddies and I played at public courses, and I got down to a 3-handicap. Golf was the one thing in which I was finding joy.

Peggy and I separated. I made two more attempts on my life. On the second overdose the police found me fading away on the fairway of a local course. In the hospital I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I participated in group therapy. Normal people have moods that fluctuate between 4 and 7, I learned, but people with bipolar have fluctuations more akin to 1 and 10. Contributing factors can be traumatic experiences or structural abnormalities of the brain that cause a chemical imbalance. It was impressed upon me that my health was dependent on medication, so this time around I vowed to really take it all the time.

I met my soulmate speed-dating, of all things. On our first real date I told her about my illness, but she wasn't deterred. Fast forward to our honeymoon in Jamaica. In paradise, feeling so happy, I made the irrational decision to stop taking my medication. When we got home, the manic episode ended, and I plunged into the deepest depression I'd known. Again, I tried to overdose. In recovery my natural weight of 195 pounds ballooned to 300. I slept the days away on a 14-pill cocktail of meds that left me void of feeling.

Eventually my doctors found a better, smaller-dose strategy. Beautiful Rijalynne, still supporting me, suggested I dust off my golf clubs and get some exercise. I went to the range and discovered with my weight gain I could no longer swing the club on the same path. After 40 balls I had to stop from exhaustion. But I hit a few good ones, which made me smile. That season I started with a cart and progressed to walking. By fall, I had lost 80 pounds and was shooting in the 70s again. I felt like an idiot for thinking I'd be better off dead.

I've found the best defense against bipolar disorder is routine. Playing regularly helps me achieve regular sleep patterns. Thinking about yardages, wind and breaks on greens shifts my mind from other anxieties. I now compete regularly in amateur tournaments, and the mental strength I've learned in golf continues to strengthen my mental approach in life. The game reminds me that there is possibility for success.

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