Gene Olson’s The Boy from Bothell: Bipolar Vietnam Veteran gives a memoir of his life, his difficulties with bipolar disorder and his fight for sanity. As Olson notes, bipolar disorder was first described at the time of Hippocrates and is currently one of the most prevalent and severe mental illnesses in the world. It affects nearly 6 million adults in the United States. While research continues, bipolar disorder is often said to have no cure, with the choice of particular medication often experimental.
The Boy from Bothell is the story of Gene Olson’s life from kindergarten to high school in Bothell, Wash., his entrance and dropout of college, his life in the U.S. Navy and his troubles with bipolar disorder, which first appear after his return home. After six years of searching, Olson found lithium to be an effective medication. After 30 years on lithium he felt that his dosage was too high and in his book he describes frightening experiences with his wife, Jolanta, and his family after he reduces it. As Olson writes in a message accompanying his book, “My goal for the book has not been monetary, but that someone might find answers in their quest for peace of mind.” One hopes that the detail that Gene Olson provides in his engaging book offers clues for further research and hope for bipolar individuals.
Gene Ellis Olson was born the fourth child of a Norwegian mother and Swedish father in Seattle, Wash. on Oct. 12, 1945. At the age of 4 he moved with his family to Bothell. As he says, “Bothell is my hometown. I say it with pride. I say it with affection. Though born in Seattle, Bothell is the place where I grew up and out. Going from kindergarten through high school in the same school district develops deep friendships; friendships growing each year.” In high school Olson excelled in “. . . student government, journalism, friends, fun, friends and more fun.” This background, and the significance his family put onto the role of church drew his attention as a teenager to the cover of Look magazine. It read, “Wanted: Priests, Rabbis and Ministers.” Following this article, after high school graduation, he decided to enter a ministerial course at Northwest Nazarene College in Nampa, Idaho, beginning study at the same time and place with his eleven-month-younger sister.
Unfortunately, Olson’s heart was not in “campus life.” He felt out of place and his disinterest grew daily. He began missing classes, not reading textbooks and not turning in assignments. He writes, “The ‘fun and friends’ of high school were finally catching up with me. But not only was I drifting away from college academics, I was also turning away anything religious. And I was a ministerial student!” At around this point his sister received a letter from home, hinting of financial concerns: that maybe only one of them could continue in college. Olson took this opportunity to be a “martyr” and convinced his sister that, of the two, she should stay.
Olson left Nampa and moved to Boise, Idaho, working with a friend in a pesticide company, but discovered, one night in a drunken stupor, that he had no life, no goals, and no opportunities. In the summer of 1965 he hitchhiked from Boise back home to Bothell. The summer would not last long. As he writes, “College dropouts were in demand. Something to do about Southeast Asia. Something to do about a place called South Vietnam.” The escalation of the Vietnam War had caught him. Drafted, his report date was Oct. 12, 1965 — his 20th birthday.
Olson writes of his two years of experience in the Amphibious Force on “The Tiger,” the flat bottom USS Tioga County, porting tanks, trucks and jeeps on the Saigon River and Mekong Delta. He writes, “There were times in the Navy I thought survival was impossible. The loneliness and confinement sometimes made ship life unbearable. The faces were the same day after day. Other times being a sailor was fun, exciting, never dull. I loved sailing over the Pacific Ocean, the vast horizon, the Philippine Sea, jumping overboard for a swim, the South China Sea and even the Mekong Delta, at times.” In the fall of 1967, Olson left the Navy and with the use of the GI Bill returned to Nampa, Idaho for college with a fresh start in the academic field.
Olson did not anticipate the prolonged transition from military to civilian life. Front-page stories showed that the “Vietnam Conflict” raged on; students continued to march and to protest. As he writes, “Though I had enrolled, college was again drifting away, seeming less important each day. I hardly read a book or studied.” Nonetheless, Journalism and Creative Writing brought him satisfaction and World Literature introduced him to unique and interesting works with enduring impressions. Traveling back one summer, Olson found his place, working with people, at two group homes for boys his parents opened in Bothell and Arlington, Washington. He never returned to southern Idaho.
One evening, back in Washington, was the start of his first manic high. After having seen a person injured in the waters of Lake Washington, off of Juanita Beach, Olson’s imagination and creativity began taking hold of him. His mind began racing over all kinds of possibilities. In his truck, he kept driving and driving, always covering the same route, as if he were hypnotized. In the morning, with a mind filled with too many thoughts and ideas spinning too fast, he decided to return home. At the driveway he met his dad driving down the road, who asked “where have you been? We’ve been worried about you all night.” He told his dad he didn’t want to talk and went back to his room to cry.
Olson’s bipolar seeds began to sprout and with them came the accompanying paranoia. After a psychiatric consultation he followed the doctor’s recommendation and entered Fairfax Psychiatric Hospital. After a five-week stay at this private hospital, money became scarce. His brother discovered that Gene was eligible for psychiatric treatment at the VA Medical Center in Seattle. He moved in there, and as a paranoid schizophrenic, began treatment with the drug of choice at the time, liquid Thorazine. As he relates from his own experience, liquid Thorazine made him develop ‘zombie’ characteristics of slow motion, walking on eggs, stiff arms and dry mouth. After several successful weekend passes and no problems on the ward he gained his freedom as a discharged patient.
After his discharge from the VA hospital he quenched the dry mouth and thirst brought on from Thorazine with beer. As he writes, “The Navy made me a Vietnam veteran and an alcoholic.” Although his Thorazine dosage had been reduced he decided to quit taking it altogether. As he says, “The manic highs started out less intense, less common, but still noticeable. Music in the car would always set the spark to fly high with associations.” After failing sobriety tests when picked up on the southbound I-5 highway, he spent two weeks in jail. He writes, “My lawyer talked to the judge about releasing me to the alcohol and substance abuse program at the VA medical center, American Lake, Tacoma Washington. The judge agreed.”
Olson wandered the halls at American Lake, never tired, investigating the many places to explore. Olson began taking lithium at American Lake in 1976, just six years after it had been approved by the FDA in 1970. He notes, “As the lithium started working its miracle, calmness, less agitation appeared. The staff recognized this new behavior and permission was granted to leave the locked building during the day.” After a total of five months at American Lake he was discharged. He did not yet comprehend the power of lithium. Olson writes, “Comprehension would come later. The diagnosis was correct. I was bipolar. I would be bipolar the rest of my life.”
Olson soon grew tired of his life of “too much beer and sleeping with too many women,” and in his search for a genuine, lasting honest relationship he took out an ad in the Little Nickel free ad newspaper. Soon he was to hear from Jolanta, who he would later call his “Angel from Poland.” After speaking with her on the phone and meeting her in person he said to himself, “I’m going to get this girl and keep her!” Soon he sat on the edge of his bed and read her a poem he had just composed, called, “Will You Marry Me in May?” When finished reading, he told Jolanta he did not need an immediate answer. After two weeks she finally said, “Yes, I will marry you! But you have to stop drinking beer.” They were soon married.
After having finished her residency in Poland, Jolanta still had to start over and jump through all the hoops for foreign medical students. Jolanta and Gene had made a plan. “After she received her physician assistant license, we would have our first baby. When she had met all the requirements qualifying her to enter a residency in internal medicine, we would have another baby.” Before long they had a son, Gene-Paul, and by the time he was 4 they were about to have another child. Before the birth of their next child, Gene’s father died. Olson writes, “We never agreed on anything. I know I disappointed him many times. His legacy will live on with his children. For me, his legacy was love, unconditional love.”
After having another son, George, and now living in Indianapolis, Olson writes of his thoughts in early 2000: “Sitting on the fence, I felt like lithium was a pop-up blocker, blocking all spirits, good or evil, and blocking out anything with emotions. I had nothing spiritual, I had nothing emotional. In twenty-seven years I had cried once, when my father had died.” After days of discussions with his wife Jolanta, they decided he would gradually reduce his daily dosage from 1200 milligrams to 300 milligrams over a period of fifteen days. The results were disastrous.
As Olson notes, “I could always feel mania approaching. Only a bipolar knows. For me, the fear advanced with the manic high.” Nonetheless, he writes, “During the high, wow! You didn’t want the mania to stop.” He writes, “Inside the house, I knew soon I’d be flying high. I checked my wristwatch, three o’clock.” Immediately he found himself on the Hoosier Express, traveling from Indianapolis to Chicago. He writes, “The train was on a trestle before entering the station. Down below the houses were shabby, revealing Chicago’s south side poverty.” The train then stopped at Minot, N.D., the birthplace of Olson’s mom. From Minot the train was bound from Warsaw to Vienne. Soon he was walking all over the sidewalks in Vienne, fascinated and charmed by its historic beauty. He then found himself beholding the beauty of Budapest. He watched the Danube river flow calmly around the city. The Danube river stopped and he found himself at the mouth of the muddy Saigon River, with the river banks lined with shacks built on poles. Bouncing back to Vancouver, Wash., their present home, his mania trip ended. He looked at his wristwatch. It read 3:03. Only three minutes had passed. It was a fast “trip.”
In his final episode, Gene’s aggressive behavior, screaming about helicopters coming from the four directions to rescue him and later yelling at the hospital security guards, “I am a Vietnam Veteran!” scared Jolanta. At the hospital he was knocked out with the powerful drug Geodon and slept for five days. Gene and his wife decided to increase his dosage of lithium from 300 milligrams to 900 milligrams. Olson observes, “At nine-hundred milligrams, I was ‘off the fence’; feeling some emotions and able to tell the difference in dosage. It was amazing the difference one little capsule made.” His youngest boy said, “If only dad can stay off the Saigon River, everything will be ok.” He replied to his son, “Don’t worry, Son, everything IS going to be ok.”
Olson’s firsthand account provides details in the life of a person beset with bipolar disorder. Such a detailed account may offer researchers further clues and offer individuals what Olson’s desired goal is, to provide answers in their quest for peace of mind.
The Boy from Bothell: Bipolar Vietnam Veteran
By Gene Olson
Bipolar Beacon of Hope and CSN Books
Paperback, 280 pages