In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week I felt it was appropriate to write this post about my bipolar diagnosis.
I first learned about bipolar disorder when I was thirteen - when it was called manic depressive disorder. I had a friend who used to sigh and complain, "Ugh, I'm so bipolar." I remember looking up the disorder on Wikipedia and thinking, "Oh my god, this is me."
I don't think back then I even said anything to anybody, but I related to the symptoms entirely. The manic highs coupled with crippling lows, and the sweet bliss of the time in between the crashes. It reminds me sometimes of being tossed on an ocean. I started managing the symptoms on my own. I abused drugs until I almost couldn't anymore, relying on uppers to pull me through depression, and downers to bring me back down to earth. The funniest part is that I couldn't even see that until I cleaned up. I charted my life out with a psychiatrist and we both realized it. I also realized that my swings usually work on roughly a two year basis.
When I was sixteen I hit the wall. I describe it as the 'first time I went crazy'. I fell into a deep despairing depression that even drugs couldn't get me out of. I started cutting myself in places I thought nobody could see. I went for a Pap smear and my doctor noticed a strategically placed cut. I blamed it on a cat scratch. I couldn't sleep, and I slept too much. At night my mind was wandering with thoughts and I would fall asleep around six in the morning and sleep until about six at night. I couldn't go to school, I stopped eating and showering. When I was awake all I did was write and read. I obsessively searched for some sort of Meaning To Life, exploring into religion, something to believe in. I devoured psychology and philosophy books, looking for some sort of sign of my existence. Eventually I was diagnosed as depressed and spent a year on Amitriptyline, Trazodone, and any other pills, which had no positive effect on me. Until that feeling finally went away and - I felt like ME again! Oh, how the sun shined!
Fast forward to twenty years old and four tumultuous years filled with drug abuse and when I quit, alcohol abuse. I was living in a house with no phone, no power, no food, and drinking as much as I could to combat myself and my emotions. One day I snapped. I phoned my mom.
"I'm going up to the hospital to check myself into the psych ward," I explained to her, "I just wanted to call and tell you."
Mom drove out the hour trip into town to come pick me up and take me out to her house on the lake. I went to go see my doctor, again, who diagnosed me with depression, again. I started on Cipralex which seemed to elevate my mood but came with horrible anxiety. I continued to drink. The anxiety got so bad I found it difficult to leave the house. I needed to be drunk to deal with it, so I stayed inside and drank. After a few weeks I got into a cognitive behavioral therapy group and went to go see my first psychiatrist. I filled out so many papers that felt like little games, mapping out my moods and emotions and reactions. He asked me the question I dreaded.
"How often do you drink?"
I lied. I said maybe two-three times a week (which is still a lot, considering I meant getting drunk), and he peered at me over his papers.
"I'd like to give you a proper diagnosis, but I can't do that unless you quit drinking." I nodded. He handed me off a prescription for Ativan, for the anxiety. It was a bottomless prescription. I was on 9 milligrams of Ativan a day. Suddenly I had another addiction. Oh, and you know what? I kept drinking on the Ativan. Drinking on Ativan can stop your heart. Drinking on Ativan, especially that much, can kill you. This was a manic phase. Even during this manic phase, I didn't care if I died. One night I took so much Ativan that I thought to myself, "I don't want to wake up tomorrow."
I was obviously depressed, but obviously much more. I let it go. I didn't get the help I was looking for, because I wasn't willing to help myself.
Skip forward much later to the age of twenty-four. My true descent. I had quit the Ativan and quit the Cipralex and I spiralled down into a madness of anxiety and depression. I lost my job. I was clinically diagnosed as agoraphobic. I ordered groceries to my house. Leaving the backyard made me so anxious I would throw up. I was on a wait list for six weeks to get in to see a therapist and psychiatrist. When I finally got in (after missing the first two appointments from anxiety), I decided to lay it out on the line and be honest for the first time.
When she asked me how much I drank I was honest and I told her nearly daily, to the point of getting drunk. She noted it down but diagnosed me with having a type two bipolar disorder regardless. I cried. Even though I'd recognized the symptoms for over ten years, I still cried. All of a sudden I didn't want to be different, I didn't want this diagnosis. Part of me did, so that I could get the help I needed. The other part of me just wanted to have normal emotions, normal moods.
I started on Seroquel first, which was described to me as a 'blanket drug' that could control my emotions. Seroquel made me drowsy and I felt like a zombie the first few weeks. I couldn't wake up in the mornings and I was dizzy and out of it. I was also still drinking (again, extremely dangerous behavior). When I went to increase my dosage I had night terrors for the first time in my life, vivid hallucinations of being strangled, and three people staring over me. I slipped back down to my nightly dosage and sought out a different drug. This time I started on Lamotrigine, a mood stabilizer.
After the first few weeks of slowly increasing my dosage I allowed my body to get used to the new drug and the nausea and exhaustion faded. I started feeling a bit more normal - sort of. I was still getting drunk nightly, trashed, wasted. When I finally cracked in December 2014 I realized that I wasn't letting the medication take its full effect, because the alcohol was still causing depression. So I quit drinking.
I've been told that medication is simply a stepping stone to recovery, that it can't do all of the work, but it can get you to the point where you can start to work on yourself. This is what Lamotrigine has done for me, and I've been able to work on myself, especially after being sober this whole time.
That was a year and a half ago. In the past year and a half I've felt both a depression and a manic upswing. But they are nothing compared to how they were before. It feels as though my emotions have been muted. I still feel. I had a panicky moment last spring when an event in my life happened where I should have freaked out and lost it. I was still able to feel the sadness, anger and hurt, but I didn't fly off the rails like I would have normally. I went to go see my Dad, in a state of worry.
"Dad, I feel like I almost can't feel. Well I can. I just don't feel as much, you know?"
My dad laughed at me. "Welcome to normal human emotion, kiddo." Once I realized that I was finally reacting to a life challenge with a normal emotion, I calmed down and assessed the situation and assessed myself. I embraced that rational mind. I didn't go out and binge-drunk or use drugs or put myself in a dangerous situation. I was able to rationally handle my emotions and the negative situation.
I've lived with a bipolar diagnosis for a year and a half now and I have accomplished so much in my life since then, including sobriety. I don't think I could have handled the diagnosis with booze. I had to get sober in order to accept and embrace my diagnosis, to allow my medication to work, and to come to terms with it within myself. I have now.
I tell myself, I am not bipolar, I have a bipolar disorder.
Having a bipolar disorder is only one aspect of the human being that I am. I don't identify as bipolar. I identify as an artist, a writer, a clothing designer, a human being, but not bipolar. It is a part of me, but I choose not to let it be the biggest part of me. I take my medication every night and I am aware when my mind and body spike in emotion, and I have enough practice within myself to let myself feel appropriately about every and any situation. I stay sober, for myself, and for my mental health.
This fall will be the two year anniversary of my breakdown, the agoraphobia, anxiety, the crux of my drinking. I mentioned before that my bipolar symptoms tend to work in two year cycles. Around this time two years ago I was already experiencing anxiety nearly crippling me, it's coming up on the two year anniversary of my job loss, when I was fired for having a panic attack at work. If my bipolar disorder wants to work in two year cycles, I should be anxious as all hell right now and letting the depression creep in.
Today I woke up and it's a grey day. I'm drinking my coffee, writing this blog post, and reading inspirational quotes. I woke up happy. I woke up not anxious. I'm not going to let history repeat itself.
Because I now have this diagnosis, I also have the tools at my disposal to combat the symptoms. Without this diagnosis, the medication, the therapy, the sobriety, and all of the work that I put into myself, I very well could be spiralling down into another two year cycle at this moment. But I'm not.
I am thankful for my diagnosis, and my experience. I am blessed to have my diagnosis, because I have gotten to know myself much more than I ever believed possible. I won't let my diagnosis define my life, but I have made room for it, accepted it, and embraced it.