“What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This?”

Vol 5  #2



Sandra Coombe


Back in the ’60’s there was a TV commercial in which a dejected-looking woman was peering inside her very dirty oven when Mr. Clean sprang up, and asked, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

It was, of course, a play on words. That phrase referred to ‘good’ girls who had wandered off the straight and narrow, hanging out in seedy bars and shady nightclubs with men of dubious character. These ‘girls’–actually young women–risked losing everything: their reputations, their ability to marry well and thus live a happy life with husband, children, a desirable home, an enviable lifestyle.

Twenty-five years ago I was diagnosed with Rapid-Cycling Bipolar II Disorder, after twenty years of baffling symptoms and chaotic upheaval. There followed thirteen tumultuous years while my psychiatrist worked tirelessly to find a viable treatment to stabilize the intractable illness–19 medications, prescribed in myriad combinations.  Often I was on a 72 hour cycle: 24 hours up, 48 down. While ‘high’ I was full of energy on little sleep, creative ideas flowed like a fountain, my speech raced fast as my brain fired from one thought to the next (‘flight of ideas.’) Then, as if with the flick of a light switch, the mood would plummet into lethargy, apathy and worse, despair. The previous bright ideas seemed insurmountable. Thoughts, speech and movement slowed—conversation and socializing were avoided, despite helping me feel better. What I first described to the doctor as my ‘normal’ mood was actually hypomania; I called the depression, ‘black holes.’ I didn’t know an even keel normalcy between the two extremes.  Rapid-Cycling creates a very turbulent experience: I felt like two distinct people at either end of the mood spectrum: “Who was I?” The overtly vivacious, social butterfly, or the hermit in her hut? Certainly it felt crazy-making. And exhausting.

Talk therapy gradually helped me accept the implications of a life-long mental affliction, its stigma, and how to live with it within the context of my relationships. My husband and young son bore the brunt of the rapid changes in mood and, most distressingly, the hyper-irritability that accompanied them.

Early on it became apparent that I was unable to work outside the home except for a few hours per week in the family business.  I went on the Canada Pension Plan Disability and Ontario Disability Support Programs.  It was during those early years of  seeing myself in that different light—having a mental illness, plus the inability to have a career like all my peers, after starting out with such early promise (third in my Grade 13 graduating class, an Ontario Scholar, accepted to the scholastically elite Trinity College at the University of Toronto)–that the vision of the Oven Cleaning Lady began to pop into my mind: what was a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?

One season followed another and the symptoms dragged on. I fell into a deep abyss (the hour is darkest just before the dawn). I held on ‘by my fingernails’ as my psychiatrist counselled, not always believing he was right that a treatment would be found. Hope is the first to flee in  deep depression.

Then Miracle of Miracles, the illness stabilized at age 49, six months before the death of my younger sister. Even through the shock and grief of that time, the mood held steady. And has done in the subsequent 12 years with only the occasional hiccup. I am still on the same ‘cocktail’ of six medications that worked a dozen years ago.

After 21 years as his patient I was discharged from my psychiatrist’s care. At first that felt like being on the high wire without a net, but I began to see that I was ready, doing well with the aid of my therapist in conjunction with my family doctor who was now monitoring both my mental and physical health.

At 61 my life doesn’t look like I had envisaged it would. My marriage did not withstand the ravages of the worst of the illness. And so my house and home are also gone. My son lives 4300 km away; my gravest concern is that I somehow damaged his young psyche when I was not in control of the mood-swings. I never did end up having a career. Or a retirement plan. I get by on a very limited income, and live alone. My faith, which formerly provided great solace, seems to have vanished with the wind. Once in a blue moon that old refrain still repeats in my head, “What’s a nice girl… etc., etc….”

And yet, and yet… The cornerstone of my spiritual practice is Gratitude. I am so proud of the man my son has become and grateful that he is content in his life. I am deeply thankful for the relationships  that sustain me—with my brothers, sister-in-law, close friends, and health-care team. While I  don’t have paid work I enjoy volunteering, and singing in a community choir. To paraphrase a line from Dan Fogelberg, I have an  apartment ‘that keeps me warm and safe and dry.’ I am appreciative that I live in Canada where there is a social safety net in the form of disability pensions and subsidized housing. My physical health presents challenges, but not as severely as some others’.  I give thanks daily that my mental health remains balanced. I feel humbled that, despite my somewhat narrowed life, I am still better off than billions of people on the planet.

Despite my brain’s genetic code and the challenges it presents, I am reminded of my son’s advice to follow Nietzsche’s “Amor Fati”–  to  love one’s fate.  Nietzsche adjures us to accept all of the occurrences in our  life, including suffering and loss, as at least necessary, perhaps even good. Therefore, This Isn’t Such a Bad Place to Be, after all.


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