Forget the Bootstraps: It takes more than "suck it up" to deal with being bipolar

By Margo Pierce

The barista greets some customers by name and wishes everyone a good day. Under the “Pick up” sign stands an older woman wearing a jacket, skirt and tennis shoes, staring into space. A man with three children sits at a table sipping coffee while the kids run around; he’s the only customer in casual clothes in this coffee shop on the first floor of a many-storied office building in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Two tables over sits a man in a traditional blue suit with a striped red tie. Which one has been diagnosed as bipolar?

It could be any coffee shop in any town. The hiss of steaming milk, the slamming of a refrigerator door, the grinding of beans, “Mocha latte for Bob!”

The man in the blue suit begins to talk.

I was diagnosed with bipolar in about 2000 and through the next two or three years had a rough time trying to figure things out. It’s really a disorder that causes mood swings. It used to be called ‘manic/depressive disorder,’ in which manic—or mania—is the highs. The other side, depression, is traditional depression where you feel hopeless, sad, paralyzed. You really can’t do anything, which really hurts people in their everyday lives trying to live and trying to make things happen.

It causes erratic behavior. It’s very debilitating on both sides. You cycle back and forth between the mania and the depression. It’s quite a big span sometimes.

Dan DiMarco looks away, breaking eye contact. Is he looking out the window, maybe at the man with the children? At the request of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI,) the organization for which he’s a volunteer board member, he is sharing his story.

I used the term ‘I was missing something’ with my doctors. Looking back, in high school I did everything well, felt good. Into college I started feeling not as productive. Then I got out of school, and in my first few jobs … I wasn’t able to do as much as I had before and that frustrated me, and I wanted to figure out what was wrong.

I couldn’t concentrate like I used to. I didn’t pick things up technically the way I used to. In the past I was always picking up things quickly. Socially I was still fine. In fact, that helped, allowed me to hold onto a lot of my jobs.

Looking back at home, my wife noticed it, but not family and friends. I was always outgoing and fun. …There was a lot of periods of inactivity at home where I wasn’t doing anything. Anytime I was home I was laying on the couch. I couldn’t cut the grass, I couldn’t paint the walls, I couldn’t really do anything because of the depression. Anything I had to do felt like lifting my car over my head.

Once I started this ‘I’m missing something’ came probably three to five years of ‘Maybe I ought to go talk to someone. Maybe I have fear of failure. Maybe I have fear of success.’ What to do, who to go see—I had no idea, so that went back and forth.

Then I went to church with my family. My 1-year-old and I were walking around in the back of the church and I saw a flyer from a nun who’s a psychologist and I took that and I went to see her. She thought it was depression, which part of it definitely was, so she recommended me to a psychiatrist to get the full analysis.

Joni Mitchell chimes in with “California.” Oh it gets so lonely / When you’re walking / And the streets are full of strangers / All the news of home you read / More about the war / And the bloody changes / Oh will you take me as l am? / Will you take me as l am? / Will you?

When I heard ‘bi-polar,’ it scared the hell out of me because it just sounded scary. Then, when I started on this medication stuff, it finally hit me that I’ve got to take this forever. At the time, late twenties, to think that I’ve got to have a pillbox out on the counter like grandma does for the rest of my life is scary. The medication management took a long time and it was exhausting. You can’t take a blood test, say, ‘OK take four of these and call me in the morning.’ It’s a total guessing game.

We experimented with 15 different options over the course of the next two or three years. I was full-speed ahead so it was just like, ‘Let’s figure it out and do what we have to do.’ When I’d go pick up my 30-day supply and it’s $700, I’d just shake my head and start getting concerned, and then a week or two weeks later it changed anyway.

I can appreciate it’s got be extremely difficult for people who are in bad situations. With the bi-polar we settled on two drugs that kind of made things OK. It was at that time I felt really good, started a new job, which helped, and then that’s when I joined NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness]. I thought, ‘I feel good, I’m going to try and help.’

So the two medications boxed things in. Then the doctor portrayed it as some of the depression wasn’t being treated and so we tried an additional drug to complement the two I was taking, and that didn’t work.

He twists his wedding ring—a gold band—on his finger. Then he takes it off, fiddles with it and puts it back on, eyes down the entire time, before taking it off to roll it between his fingers again.

If the doctors are guessing, essentially, educated guessing, figuring out how to fix things, then it’s nearly impossible—and I’ve tried with my wife and several other people—for people to understand what’s going on in my head.

With this recent bout of depression that’s still kind of hanging around, I tell my wife that I’m sitting at my desk and I can’t make my phone calls. That’s what I have to do. I have a lot of calls—I can’t make my phone calls. She says, ‘What do you mean?’ I’m just sitting here and my hands are on my desk and it feels like they’re chained to the desk and I just can’t make the calls. Loving and right next to me and supporting me the whole way—and she says, ‘Well just suck it up, pick up the phone. Why can’t you just pick up the phone?’

Your brain does a lot of amazing things. It’s very powerful, so if turns around on you and tells you not to do something, ya ain’t gonna do it.

In the momentary quiet another female singer croons in the background , “only you guy trying to believe that you changed…”

I was in a fundraising walk (for NAMI). … I basically sent the e-mail to 400 people throughout my network, basically saying, ‘This is me, this is what happened. I didn’t choose this, it’s who I am, so please donate.’ I included in that the family members I hadn’t told. That was the way to let them know. … You would think people would push away after something like this, but I was amazingly surprised at the level of support from friends and family with the walk…

You see people who are super-successful. They lose their job, they get divorced, they lose another job, they become an alcoholic—I see, I’ve been flirting with all of that. You see people like that and think, ‘What a loser, he can’t get his life together.’ Well, he may think the same thing. Some people are too proud to throw their hands up in the air and say, ‘I need help. I don’t know what’s going on.’ I think that keeps a lot of people away.

I’m 100 percent sure that if my dad felt the same way when he was 29, I don’t think he would have said anything. So, I think as generations move on there’s more advertising about it, more awareness. So I think you’ll get more and more people entering the system, if you will, and acknowledging that they have something.

It’s a biological disease. It can happen to anyone. When you think about the person sleeping under the bench and then you see the person ready for open-heart surgery, they’re probably just as sick, but nobody’s going to make fun of the guy with the heart problem. So I think the biggest thing is awareness, and that’s something I feel like I can help with.

People will say, ‘What can I do?’ and first of all, don’t yell at me when I can’t call someone. And secondly, the old good listener trick—that’s real helpful.


The American myth of individualism tells people who are struggling with addiction, abuse, mental illness or poverty to simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In reality, specially designed services and other kinds of support are essential to the process of transformation. This column is the first in an occasional series that will explore what it takes to Forget the Bootstraps in order to live a better life.•