Living with The Beast on the teeter-totter
A Canadian/American registered nurse writes in an unusual new autobiography how she suffered for decades from bipolar disorder.
SHARON BROWN CARRUTHERS Photo: MCT
"The Beast” is how Sharon Brown-Carruthers, a registered hospital nurse,
described what lived with her as a girl in Saskatchewan and British Columbia in
Canada and as an adult in the US. “Something is not right with me.
idea kept whirling around and around in my head,” she pondered as a second
grader. “I’m not like the other kids. Once I start crying, I can’t stop like
Why?” Even as a child, Sharon showed signs of carrying The
Beast – bipolar affective disorder (BAD) – on her thin shoulders.
unusual and strikingly frank autobiography, written with great clarity in her
60s with writer Corrine Vanderwerff as a 330-page, hard- or softcover volume
titled The Teeter- Totter, has just been published by WestBow Press (available
After decades of endless teeter-tottering of her moods,
Sharon is now retired in Shawness, Kansas, with Douglas, her loyal and devoted
husband of 42 years. Contrary to her many tortured decades struggling with the
psychiatric illness of manic-depression, she enjoys a stable and productive
retirement, volunteering in a hospice and organizing and leading depression
seminars and Bible study groups.
Thus the book has a happy ending, but
most of its pages are full of her mental zigzagging between giddy highs and
desolate lows, even an attempt to leave her loving husband.
nearly six million Americans aged 18 and up in any given year (2.6 percent of
the population) and tens of thousands of Israelis, some of them undiagnosed and
untreated despite years of suffering.
Bipolar disorder is not easy to
spot when it begins, as the symptoms could appear as separate problems, not
recognized as parts of a larger problem.
It’s a brain disorder that
causes unusual shifts in mood, activity levels, energy and the ability to carry
out routine tasks with serious symptoms that have no similarity to the the
normal ups and downs that people go through from time to time.
disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school
performance and even suicide.
But bipolar disorder can be treated with
regular monitoring, and managed with medications and other therapy, and its
sufferers can nevertheless lead full and productive lives.
disorder often develops in the late teens or early adult years, with at least
50% of cases appearing before the age of 25. Yet there have been reports of BAD
Both genders and all races are affected equally, and it
tends to run in families. The first episode in men tends to be a manic episode,
while women are more likely to start with an attack of depression. Younger
patients first may suffer cyclothymia, which is basically a less extreme form of
bipolar disorder characterized by hypomanic and mild depressive episodes.
Although people with cyclothymia display less intense symptoms, nearly half of
them will progress to having a full manic episode.
The cause of bipolar
disorder is not entirely known, but researchers now believe it is mostly a
biological disorder that occurs in a specific brain region and is caused by
malfunction of the chemical neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine
and others. It can lie dormant until triggered by external occurrences like
psychological stress, life events or taking certain drugs or drinking
A person who has a non-identical twin with the illness has a 2 5
% chance of BAD, while one who has an affected identical t w i n (with the s a m
e g e n e s ) h a s e i g h t t i m e s the risk of BAD as a non-identical
The mood swing to highs appears as a heightened sense of
self-importance; exaggerated positive outlook; much less need for sleep; lack of
appetite; rapid speech, impulsivity and swift changing of the subject; impaired
judgement; poor concentration; hallucination; too much involvement in
pleasurable activities; spending sprees; and aggressive behavior.
swing to lows show up as sadness or hopelessness; lack of interest in
pleasurable activities; poor sleeping behavior; lethargy; a feeling of guilt or
low self-esteem; possible weight gain; problems in concentrating; negative
thoughts about the future; and thoughts of suicide or death. Behavior patterns
may change along with the different seasons of the year.
As there are no
blood or other biological tests for BAD, it has to be diagnosed by a mental
Patients many times resort to lies to hide their
actual condition and actions.
There are a number of useful medications,
including lithium, for the long-term condition, but when someone with BAD is in
the manic phase, he may be so elated that he refuses to take pills because he
“doesn’t need them,” while in the depressed phase, he can be persuaded to return
While lithium usually does not have serious side effects,
antipsychotics, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications usually do but can
help stabilize patients.
Psychotherapy may also be beneficial, or it may
not. Most people respond positively to a medication and or “cocktail” of them.
Family members are often turned into policemen by the need to make sure the
patient follows the prescribed regimen.
Sharon’s case was quite typical,
except that she felt she was “different” at an unusually young age. She has a
twin sister, Carol, apparently nonidentical because Sharon describes herself as
being taller, and an older brother, Ron.
Both of her siblings were
unaffected by the disease. Her older sister Darlene died of
The family were Seventh Day Adventist Christians with deep
When the twins were only five years old, her mother, Ruby, was
asked by friend Hortense Perfecto why Sharon “doesn’t like to play with other
children... I’ve never heard her say one word to anyone.. She just sits near you
and listens to our conversations. Doesn’t that seem a little abnormal”? “That
was true,” Sharon wrote in her book. “I didn’t like to talk – not to other kids,
not to grownups, and sometimes not even to Mom and Dad. But I could talk as easy
as anything inside my head and to Carol, who[m] I let do all the talking to the
others... I looked across the room to Dad.
He’d been chatting with the
other men and was looking at me now with a strange expression in his eyes. Did
he know that Mrs. Perfecto was right? Please Dad!, I said in the secret place in
my brain... Say that she’s right!” “It wouldn’t hurt to take her to a
psychologist and have her evaluated,” said Mrs. Perfecto.
Ruby nor her father, Norman, ever followed up her suggestion. “In my prayers
ever since I could remember I’d been asking god to make me like other kids,”
When Norman became unemployed as a salesman and Ron
found work in a sawmill camp in British Columbia, the parents and the
seven-year-old twins moved to be with Ron, who found his father a job as a
lumber worker. The family temporarily lived in a primitive shack with an
outhouse instead of an indoor toilet and running water. The girls studied in a
one-room schoolhouse, where the teacher used a leather strap as punishment for
poor learners. “Teeter-totter,” shouted Sharon in the schoolyard, an up-and-down
swing she would later know in her head for many years to come.
A pile of
lumber fell on Norman in a sawmill fire, leading to an infection of a leg and
eventual amputation. But he managed with a wooden leg.
Ruby, who also
took an office job at the sawmill, was hired to be administrator of a tiny
hospital in the area. Sharon began to do well in her studies when she reached
high school. Her ambition was to become a nurse. At 15, the sisters went to
study at an Adventist high school and junior college in Alberta.
first year of nursing school, Sharon did very well and emphathized with the
patients. But when she had a psychiatric rotation for weeks, she entered the
department with great forboding. Her texts described BAD, “and the information
strengthened my instinct about myself. I tried to brush the idea away, to tell
myself I was wrong, that all I had to do was continue putting on the nursing
persona I was developing, and that everything would always be right and good,”
“But deep down, the knowledge was there – the sense that I
truly was different, that I always had been.”
She struggled with the
evidence that she herself was mentally ill. Her first onepatient- at-a-time
assignment was a schizophrenic man.
“Instinctively, I saw myself as
needing to be where he was.”
Her own mood changes began to appear, but
she finished her education with high grades and became a registered
The head of nursing at a 21- bed district hospital in the
mountains of British Columbia hired her on the spot.
Urgent decisions and
responsibility quickly faced her, as a man walked into the ward with chest
pains, and no physician was around. Sharon treated him and had him transferred
to a larger hospital, where the patient’s life was saved with
Some time after Carol, who also became a nurse, married and
moved to Massachusetts, Sharon met Doug – a hospital administrator with a
business degree – on a blind date.
They got engaged, but a problem with a
patient who went into a coma sent Sharon into an attack of depression. Yet, when
called into another hospital when a pregnant woman’s heart stopped and went into
clinical death and nobody else knew how to use a defibrillator, Sharon worked so
competently to save the baby that she was hired.
Her mood greatly
improved, even too much.
They decided to marry when both were 26, and
Sharon thought she had successfully hidden the fact that she was suffering from
a psychiatric disorder. But at the wedding, The Beast of lows returned. Doug
never pressed her about her mood changes.They moved to an apartment overlooking
a lake in Wakefield, Massachusetts, where Doug worked as an assistant personnel
director at a hospital. The offer to be head nurse in a small cardiac intensive
care unit in the hospital again raised Sharon’s spirits. But after a short time,
the lows returned, and the hospital’s nursing director sensed something was
seriously wrong. As she had many times, Sharon resorted to lies, insisting that
it was only starting a new job that had gotten her down.
months, the clouds of depression dispersed, and she went into a high. Mania, she
explained in the book, arrives “like a quick-energy rescue from the agonies of
depression and filling you with the feelings of being able to accomplish almost
The sudden release from the horrors of bipolar depression feels
so heavenly that there seems no explanation other than its being a
But then she returned to the rollercoaster of depression in the
next cycle, and “the falling shadows rapidly shrouded me with darkness even more
ominous than before.”
They both changed jobs and residences numerous
times and didn’t remain in the same place long enough for her to be properly
diagnosed and treated.
With her husband suffering from infertility
problems, the couple adopted two boys. Coping with motherhood gave Sharon seven
years of normality as they grew up. But an encounter with a Christian preacher
who said the mentally ill have no right to h e a v e n because they are
unaccountable for their deeds sent her into a downspin that made her seriously
think of suicide.
As her condition w o r s e n e d into hallucinations,
she decided to leave Doug, rented an apartment and left, but he patiently stood
by her until she agreed to return. A friend at church finally suggested that she
was suffering from bipolar affective disorder, and a psychiatrist put her on
But it took four more years before Sharon felt enough empathy to
follow the regimen that kept her steady for many years as the boys grew to
Yet another psychiatrist saw that lithium was not having
enough effect and prescribed the anti-depressant Wellbutrin, but it too was not
the answer. Only when she was given the anti-psychotic Seroquel XR did she
“No more violent swings, no mania, no depression. I
Now retired, Sharon decided to write this book... and she
and Doug live happily ever after.