‘Prizefighters’: Lessons Learned Battling Bipolar Disorder, Breast Cancer
Two friends, one battling bipolar I and the other battling breast cancer, learn faith and friendship can give them strength during the toughest of times.
By Susie Johnson
I vividly remember the sweltering July day my best friend, Jackie, called. We’d met at church and been friends for ten years.
Jackie was in hysterics, sobbing.
“Susie, I’m sick,” she said.
“I have breast cancer.”
Her shocking news flashed me back to another summer day in 1995 when I’d received other shocking news: a diagnosis of Bipolar I. I was high as a kite when my parents took me to my first psychiatrist. I had just spent what I thought was the best weekend of my life on a cruise celebrating my high school graduation. I thought I was healthy as a horse.
Our diagnoses changed our lives. We asked, “Why, God? Why?”
Jackie discovered a 12 plus-hour procedure at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA): double mastectomy and, at the same time, breast reconstruction using skin from her abdomen. She spoke to women who had had the successful surgery. It would be hell on earth, but they had survived. Jackie wanted to do it all at once, too.
I am forever grateful I never had to have a surgery like Jackie’s. However, mentally and physically, I have been through hell and back, too. I remember the weight gain during my depressions. I would overeat because it felt good and was an easy way to ease my anguish. Never mind that my clothes didn’t fit anymore. I could have cared less. Life was too hard, and I wondered if it really was worth it. I remember I wanted to die.
Then there were the manias and the anxiety that went along with them. At times, I liked being in mania because I had no appetite. This was a dream for me in my early 20s, to be thin and not even have to work at it.
“This is the life,” I thought, without considering that my mental state was as convoluted as a bowl of spaghetti. I was all over the place in mixed manias. I was a mess, but I was thin!
Jackie came through with the surgery with flying colors and no complications. The surgery took longer than expected, though Jackie’s parents and two sisters sat in the waiting room the entire day on pins and needles, praying to God that she would survive.
My parents also went through hell during my unstable time. I was always in the world of me, my life, my dreams of being a teacher. I don’t remember thinking about how I affected my parents’ lives. At the time, it didn’t matter. I was a mess, but my parents were always there to pick up the pieces. They advocated for me when I couldn’t advocate for myself, like during my depressions and manias. They made sure I had the best psychologist on the planet along with an equally-capable psychiatrist. It is only 20 years later that I can truly express my heartfelt gratitude to my parents.
After Jackie’s surgery, her body slowly began to heal. My mom, a nurse, would bathe Jackie and show Jackie’s mom how to re-bandage her wounds. I remember visiting Jackie and walking around the park with her. She moved at a snail’s pace and had to use a cane. After only one loop, she was exhausted. Despite her challenges, Jackie always had the most positive attitude She was brave as a lioness and would not let her surgery beat her down. I was so proud of her.
I wish I could say bipolar never beat me down, but when I hit rock bottom in my life, I was the queen of pity parties. During the down days I lived in darkness; all hope was gone. I felt truly defeated.
Jackie and I both chose to cling to our faith and to each other. We never let our diagnoses define us.
Jackie required both chemo and radiation. I supported her when she had to shave her head and wear a wig, something no person should ever have to experience. She was so sick for so long yet she held her head high.
How did we get through the darkness? Where did we find the strength to pick up ourselves and keep going? We found our strength in the Lord.
Recently I heard it explained it like this: We each have a choice. Our faith can be like a tumble weed blowing all over the place, or it can be like a Sequoia tree deeply rooted in the earth. Call us “tree-huggers.” Jackie and I both chose to cling to our faith and to each other. We never let our diagnoses define us.
Our struggles taught us valuable life lessons. We have learned not to take life for granted. Each day of health, mentally, physically or both, is something to treasure. We have learned that life is worth the fight. Together we have cried and laughed our way through our pain. Through it all, our faith has grown even deeper. We each have a testimony, and we now help others by sharing our experiences. What a beautiful gift God has given us! In His goodness, He is making blessings out of the hell we both endured and survived.
At a recent concert, I heard Trisha Yearwood sing a moving song called “Prize Fighter.” If you have never heard it, look it up on YouTube. It was written for people battling breast cancer, but I felt it also applied to me and those living with bipolar.
The message is: If you get knocked down, get up again because life is worth it.
Perhaps you have loved ones battling cancer. Think about how your experiences living with a mental illness can help them. If you are struggling right now, know that you are not alone. Be a prize fighter! Jackie and I are. You can be too.