LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Denver Nobles always had drive. He worked three jobs sometimes. He needed little sleep.
But there was more to Nobles' energy than just a strong work ethic. Not until he was in Lafayette 40 years ago, raising a child and trying to support a wife who was going to college, did he learn what it was.
The Washington Parish native learned in 1971 that he was manic-depressive, a condition now called bipolar disorder. After more than four decades of coping with the condition — he prefers to call it his "diagnosis" — Nobles works with other people facing the same challenges he has overcome.
"God didn't punish me by giving me bipolar disorder," Nobles said in a recent interview. "What he did was allow me to be a person who found his niche by being a people person. It has been a ministry for me."
The National Institute of Mental Health says about 27 percent of Americans 18 or older will have been diagnosed with some form of mental disorder at any given time, if the definition is broad enough to include conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Include addictive disorders, and include family members who must deal with a loved one's condition, and mental illness can easily touch the lives of half the population.
Bipolar disorder is one of those conditions. It's marked by changes in moods from exuberant, high-energy periods to depressive lows and back again. Nobles' particular variety of diagnosis is bipolar 1 disorder, in which the highs tend to be extreme.
Nobles, 63, believes members of his family were genetically predisposed to mental illness. A great-great aunt was sometimes locked away in a corn crib until her manic episodes passed.
An uncle lived most of his life as a hobo, riding the rails and panhandling. Relatives later discovered when the uncle had to be hospitalized that he'd hidden thousands of dollars in the soles of his shoes.
"That was my first inkling about what was going on with me," Nobles said.
Young Denver noticed that his father kept him close, even forbidding trips to the local malt shop, for fear that the boy would act up. Even when the teenaged Denver got musical training and began spending his summers traveling to sing gospel music, Nobles' father warned the preachers to keep Denver in sight.
His father turned loose a little when he got a job as a grill cook. After high school, he studied drafting, and began touring state facilities to make drawings for the federal government.
In 1969, he wound up at Louisiana Tech, where he studied and worked as a cook. That's where he met his wife, Roselyn.
By 1971, Nobles, his wife and their 9-month-old daughter were in Lafayette. His wife was going to school at what was then USL, and he was working at the Leather Pouch. The jobs were starting to pile up.
A friend who was studying psychology noticed that Nobles kept late hours. "He asked, 'When do you sleep?' I said, 'I don't. I don't sleep.' And he said, 'We're studying something in class.'"
The friend showed Nobles a psychology book, and that led Nobles to psychiatrist Warren McGovern, who first diagnosed his bipolar disorder in 1971.
"He said, 'You have manic-depressiveness,'" Nobles remembered. "'The one thing that's going to save you ... you have an excellent work ethic. You're not afraid to do the things you need to do for your wife and your child.'"
And work he did. Nobles said he held 37 jobs between ages 21 and 40.
"One of the things about my bipolar 1 disorder is the functioning level I had was real high," Nobles said. "When I would have these jobs and my disorder was obviously trying to tell me I was fixing to go into a low, I would get to a place where I didn't want to go to work. I'd lose jobs like that."
He took the medications that were prescribed for manic-depression in the early 1970s: Mellaril, Haldol and Thorazine. He joked about the "Thorazine shuffle," and stood to walk across the room with slow, short steps. Powerful as the drugs and their side effects were, Nobles heard McGovern say he'd be able to live a normal life if he stayed on his meds.
To do that, he'd have to watch his money.
"Pharmaceuticals for people with mental health issues — it's out the roof," Nobles said. "One medicine is somebody's complete salary for a whole month. And in those days, it was no different."
By the mid-1970s, lithium-based medications were available. Nobles said he was put on lithium soon after it was introduced.
"I didn't have the highs and the lows and the side effects," Nobles said. "All that stuff went away when I went on lithium."
A sudden spike in his system's lithium levels in 2010 resulted in his bouts of hospitalization related to his bipolar disorder. He described the result, which he calls a psychotic episode.
"You hear about marijuana and drugs and all that psychedelic effect," Nobles said. "Well, a psychotic episode is worse. My brain was like zeroed out. I was feeling euphoria to the sky.
"I didn't feel like I could function as a person. The psychotic episode took everything about me, stole my identity, caused me to question my human functioning. ... It was very detrimental to me."
But one fact distinguishes Nobles struggle with mental illness from the struggles of many others. Although many mood and personality disorders tend to isolate people, Nobles never seemed to be alone with his problems.
He credits his wife and three children with giving him important support. And when it was time to be hospitalized, he called his family together and explained why.
He was hospitalized briefly, returned to the hospital in 2011 during a depressive episode, and has been doing well since.
Over the course of more than 20 years, he has also sought training in ways to help other people with their mental illness. He discovered the National Alliance on Mental Health and its Acadiana chapter. He's now a member of the alliance's state board, a Louisiana representative on the organization's National Consumer Council and a coordinator of consumer programs for NAMI Acadiana.
He is a trainer, presenter and facilitator for the In Our Voice and Connections programs and a peer-to-peer education mentor. He has written a seminar on mental health as a physical issue, "One Mind, One Body, One Spirit."
As he gained expertise, Nobles made a move from the laboring jobs he'd held to a job in marketing with a national retail chain in Acadiana.
One important lesson he tries to teach people with mental health diagnoses is to learn as much as possible about the condition and the treatments for it.
"They need to read as much black and white information as they can about that diagnosis," Nobles said. "They need to do all the reading about the meds in black and white as well so they understand what the medication is doing for that diagnosis, but also what side effects they're having.
"That is the core value of recovery. If you're in a place where you know about your diagnosis and you know about your medication, you can advocate."
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Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com