'Brainstorm': A Personal Battle with Bipolar Disorder In a recent five-part series of first-person essays, Orange County Register newspaper reporter Valeria Godines offered readers a window into her personal struggle with bipolar disorder. She speaks with Noah Adams about her illness and her struggle to regain a sense of normalcy.
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'Brainstorm': A Personal Battle with Bipolar Disorder

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'Brainstorm': A Personal Battle with Bipolar Disorder

'Brainstorm': A Personal Battle with Bipolar Disorder

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It's DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams. Valeria Godines is a reporter for the Orange County Register, a newspaper here in Southern California. Nineteen years in journalism, she now covers Latino issues for the paper. And this summer she turned to a far more personal issue: her struggle with mental illness. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

She wrote a five-part series on being bipolar, with large headlines providing their narrative arc. Day One: On December 5th, 2004, I Killed My Daughter. That's what she imagined. Ending with Day Five: A Family Finds New Life After Months of Turmoil.

I spoke earlier with Valeria Godines at NPR West.

So it turns out well in the end, but that first story was very scary, and it was on the front page.

Ms. VALERIA GODINES (Reporter, Orange County Register): Yes, it was. You know, on December 5th, 2004, I went completely insane, psychotic. And I've had people ask me, what does psychotic mean. For me, it meant that I thought I was a hermaphrodite. I thought that my father-in-law was poisoning me. I thought I had murdered my daughter.

ADAMS: And, in fact, you were convinced and called the police and they came to get you.

Ms. GODINES: Yes, called the police and they came to get me and they talked to me briefly, and luckily for us the police officer immediately knew what was wrong and he told my husband, you need to take her to the hospital right now. I had never laid a hand on Gabriella.

ADAMS: The decision to make it a public story, what would be the motivation for that? Just to tell everything to - how many readers of the paper?

Ms. GODINES: Three hundred, 350,000. A little more on Sunday. I think one obvious answer is, you know, I want to educate. But for me, I feel like I'm a storyteller and this was the biggest story of my life. And it's kind of like when I'm sitting next to somebody, I want to turn to them and say, you'll never believe what happened to me, this is this amazing story.

ADAMS: You've been an editor as well as a reporter. D

Ms. GODINES: Uh-huh.

ADAMS: Did you agree, by the way, with the way the newspaper played the story: I Murdered My Daughter in big letters, and that turns out not to be true but just something that you...

Ms. GODINES: Yeah. No, that's a really good point. We got some readers who were quite unset with that. One reader even she felt cheated that it actually hadn't happened. We had many discussions about that internally, and ultimately we decided that we wanted as closely as we could to have the reader experience the panic and the chaos and the fear that I felt, and this was one way to do it.

ADAMS: To give us an idea of what your stories sound like in print, would you read a little bit about a woman that you met in the mental hospital, Barbara?

Ms. GODINES: Sure.

Barbara wears mascara and red lipstick. She loves to sing Rod Stewart songs, snapping her fingers and bobbing her head while belting out Maggie May. When she speaks her eyes grow wide, her hands wave wildly. She has a very foul mouth. I think she's beautiful. I follow her around, seeking advice and comfort. Using my CD player, we sing and dance to Dolly Parton tunes in the visiting room, prancing over the sunbeams on the floor. I sit next to her one day in a delusional but good mood. I want to be a missionary, a missionary in Mexico. She smiles, beatifically. Barbara tells that all sorts of people can be missionaries, even crazy people. That strikes me as the wisest thing I've ever heard. It gives me hope.

ADAMS: So you're out of control, in and out of hospitals, with different doctors, on lots of medication. Then comes the time when you consider electroshock therapy. You write that a mother undergoing electroshock is better than a mother who committed suicide. And you make that decision with the agreement of your husband and you go through that process. And later on, as a reporter, you go back to watch it. Tell us what that was like.

Ms. GODINES: Well, that was an incredible experience. Honestly, I thought I'll be able to handle it. I thought, this won't be so hard, I've been through it, how difficult can it be. Maybe I had a little bit of a cavalier attitude about it. But when I went back the experience was just devastating. I found myself feeling almost panicked, staring at the patient as he was going through his convulsions and thinking to myself, my God, I was in this place at one point. And it was just, it was just an incredible experience.


But you have no memory of the procedures?

Ms. GODINES: I have no memory. I have memory of right up until they put me under, and I lost a lot of short-term memory around this time, and I remember coming out of the procedure very groggy and always with a smile on my face from what I understand from the nurses. But watching it was - it was very bizarre.

ADAMS: 80 percent success rate.

Ms. GODINES: Yes. It's really an amazing procedure, and it's never your first option. In fact, in California you have to, by law, get a second opinion and you have to have tried at least two anti-depressants, and most doctors have tried many more combinations before that.

And in my case we had tried everything. I was afraid, but I was so desperate to get better.

ADAMS: You continue with medications. You go to group therapy and that seems to help quite a bit. The thing that turns it around in the story, for me, was the time that David Fitzgerald(ph), your husband, admitted that he was in trouble, too, that he had under a great deal of strain. Would you read some of that, please?

Ms. GODINES: (Reading) One Saturday night, David and I are sitting on the couch reading books. I put mine down and look at him. There's something I've been wanting to talk about, I say. I think we've been growing distant from each other. We're growing apart.

David stares at me. I agree. I want to know why, what it is I've done. Throughout this illness he's been my caretaker, the housekeeper, mother and father to Gabriella(ph). All along he's been finishing his dissertation, usually working on it after Gabriella and I have gone to bed.

His chin starts to quiver and his eyes fill with tears. He suddenly takes his glasses off and throws them. I'm afraid you're going to kill yourself. It's like being married to somebody with a terminal illness, he says.

How can you want to kill yourself, he asks angrily? How can you do that to Gabriella. You can't do that to her. This is not the David I know. The David I know does not break down. That's my job.

I don't know what to say. I had no idea how badly this was affecting David. I'd been so self-absorbed. I place my head on his chest and try to comfort him, but the only thing I hear are his sobs. I sit up and look him straight in the eye.

You may not believe me, but I'm not going to kill myself. I've already made that decision. I won't do that to Gabriella. I hug him tightly. Suddenly I'm the comforter, I'm the responsible one - somebody I haven't been. I vow to clean the house, pick up more chores and baby responsibilities. I'll take care of the man who has been holding me up.

ADAMS: To prove you could take some responsibility, you went out and went shopping and actually bought some things and brought them back and put them away. And that was a big achievement for you.

Ms. GODINES: Going to the grocery store is something I've never liked to do, and I made myself go, and I felt so proud when I got back and put away the groceries, and like a little kid was excited and couldn't wait to tell David.

It was such a small thing, but in the context of everything it was really something quite large for me.

ADAMS: Do you recall telling your editors, your boss at the Orange County Register what was going on with you, or did it become obvious that you were in a great deal of distress? How'd that work?

Ms. GODINES: When I first went out, when I first had my psychotic episode, it was very secretive. Nobody knew what had happened. Only my immediate editor knew that I was in a mental hospital. And I wanted it that way because I was so afraid that I would be perceived as weak and unable to do my job.

But I slowly began to realize that - as weird as this may sound, it was also a very fascinating experience and I had the urge to share it with people, including my top bosses. So I sat down with the top editor and I laid everything out for him.

At that time I even told him, I said, I think one day I may want to write about this. And he said, well let's see how you fell once you get a little bit better.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: Valeria Godines did get better. She's off lithium now but still takes several other medications. She's back at work full-time at the Orange County Register and has turned her attention to migration issues.

Godines says she plans to share the series with her daughter Gabriella, who is now three, once she is an adult.

More to come on DAY TO DAY.

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