Recently, I was diagnosed with Bipolar I.
Yes, I went there. I’ll write more later about my life in general and especially my childhood because I find it fascinating in retrospect even though I didn’t enjoy most of it.
Right now, I feel it’s necessary to talk about mental health, mine and the whole subject in general. I’m passionate about mental health. I have a degree in psychology, I took courses on psychiatric disorders, pathopharmacology, psychiatric nursing and personality disorders among others. I’ve always found anything related to the health of the mental body something worth studying, observing and poring over. The physical body is important too, of course. But I’ve always held the belief that the two are incontrovertibly linked. Physical ailments or even a general state of poor physical health can affect a person mentally, like a person who isn’t quite the same after a serious head injury; and imbalanced mental states can affect a person physically, such as when a person is feeling very anxious some of that emotion can manifest physically like in a stomachache or increased heart rate.
Before I get too off tangent, it bears mentioning that despite my recent diagnosis this is something I’ve been struggling with for almost fifteen years, since I was twelve. This isn’t something that just occurred recently or popped up randomly. It’s been a slow burn for many years. This isn’t something I like sharing with people in my life who are close to me, mostly because none of them have any idea. And the ones I have told, have reacted in the most invalidating way possible.
One person I shared with was someone I trusted, at the time. We were friends, or so I thought and also roommates. I’ve since had her move out and have been enjoying the last few months blissfully on my own for the first time in my entire life. We were talking and she mentioned how she missed me because she never saw me. I work nights, have been working nights for the past several years. I love working nights, being the night owl that I am. She only worked days so I’d come home before she was up and leave for work after she was gone. We hardly saw each other and even when I had days off, I was holed up in my room.
This past summer, I went through one of the worst bouts of depression I can recall. It was so bad that I found myself not being able to remember when I last ate unless I thought about it very hard and realized it had been two or three days. It was so bad I found myself not being able to remember if I had showered that day or not. And this is significant because I’m very particular about self care. It’s one of the few things that if I do nothing else in a day, I’ve always been a stickler to accomplish. To make matters worst, when I wasn’t feeling depressed, I had these episodes that would last several days to a week where I felt invincible, would engage in risky behavior like driving under the influence at high speeds (not something I’m proud of or recommend) for one, would go out and spend tons of money (in just this year alone I’ve racked up about $15,000 in credit card debt) and wouldn’t sleep, often for days at a time. I kept myself fueled with caffeine and energy drinks. I was cycling. This was happening at least two or three times a year. I did have periods where I felt basically baseline. I wasn’t manic, I wasn’t depressive, I was sort of just blah. Interestingly, during my manic episodes I also didn’t eat because I felt I didn’t have to, I felt too energized, too antsy to slow down and waste time eating. I also didn’t sleep, as I mentioned above, while during a depressive episode it was all I could do to go to work and it got bad enough that I was sleeping all day during shifts then going to work and falling asleep at work too. I felt tired all the damn time.
The scary thing for me was when I had mixed episodes. This has only happened to me a few times. Over the past decade or so that I’ve been dealing with this I grew comfortable with at least knowing whether I was up or down except for those times when I felt both at once. Forget how confusing and frustrating bipolar already is. Mixed episodes is a whole new level of confusing and frustrating. During these times, I felt a constant euphoria, invincible, energized, ready to take on the world while at the same time feeling a crushing sadness I had no explanation for, a terrible guilt for something I couldn’t even articulate, specifically to myself. It was during these times that I drank heavily and engaged in self harm. Those were dark days and finally, I decided to reach out for help.
I’ve been in counseling for about six years now but for me, counseling isn’t a cure or even a treatment. It’s just a process to help a person work through trauma, to understand themselves better or to understand the world better. It’s just a person you can go to who you can talk to and share your most private thoughts, someone who is free of judgement (hopefully) and who will validate you.
Speaking of validation, when I told my roommate about my diagnosis, as an explanation for why she hadn’t seen much of me, her response was, “You seem so normal though!” At first I thought it was her clumsy attempt to help me not feel like I was a freak or that there was something wrong with me. Maybe it was. But then, she had to go on and say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, just because you’re struggling right now doesn’t mean you have bipolar.” I was somewhat taken aback. I told her this wasn’t something that just popped up; I’ve been battling it for almost fifteen years. Her response? Well, don’t let doctors tell you what you are and put labels on you. A fair point, but I would argue that it’s not healthy to go days without eating or sleeping, drinking heavily, driving recklessly, spending myself into debt and cutting up my arms and legs. I would further argue that it’s also not healthy when I’m not doing all those things I’m instead sleeping for hours and hours, sometimes two days consecutively, not eating, not taking care of myself. She then just said I should do more research, instead of just accepting what a doctor told me and that I should talk to her mother who (her words) “actually was bipolar”, implying she really didn’t think I was bipolar and that I was clueless about what was happening with me, even though the biggest expert would be me, because you know, I was the one experiencing it… I should do more research, I who has studied mental health for many years, probably over a decade. I started reading anything I could get my hands on about it since I was thirteen. I grew up in a household that didn’t address mental health and also didn’t trust doctors. So, my trusting my doctor’s diagnosis is actually a rare state for me.
Previous doctors couldn’t and still can’t identify a diagnosis for my chronic body pain although my current doctor has said it could be anything from Rheumatoid Arthritis to Osteoporosis. That experience, when I was in so much physical pain all the time left a bad taste in my mouth. So, trusting my doctor now, with this mental health diagnosis is actually a leap of faith. It’s not me diving headlong in a pool of which I can’t discern the bottom. Additionally, it’s taken me almost fifteen years to acknowledge something was wrong and actually seek help. So…case in point.
Her reaction however is not surprising. I’m sure she may have had some hair raising experiences with her mother, some of which she had shared with me. Therefore, she has preconceived notions about the mental disorder. But everyone doesn’t present the same way. Sure, there’s people who are bipolar and really go into a tailspin if they stop taking their meds. I mean, I’ve had friends in the past who were schizophrenic and sometimes felt they were a little off but in some cases didn’t know until they told me. Everyone’s inner demons aren’t readily apparent. On the flip side, just because someone’s demons don’t seem to manifest outwardly doesn’t mean they’re not there. I recently learned my dad has struggled with depression for many years, after thinking for so long, almost all my life that he didn’t believe in mental health, let alone depression. Case in point, again.
All this being said, I’ve come to terms with my demons. They don’t make me less of a person, in fact, something that’s given me a lot of perspective is realizing other people have demons too. I’m not alone. I’m not a freak. I’m not a lost cause and neither is anyone else. Sure, people will judge. I always say if people look at you and judge, such as, I don’t know why you’re so depressed I don’t get depressed like that, they’re probably a liar. That’s not to say everyone has depression but everyone has probably felt a great sadness at some point in their life, whether it was the passing of a loved one or pet, the loss of something, including but not limited to their job, money, their house, any other non person thing, witnessing some tragedy, experiencing trauma or abuse of any kind or anything else I forgot to mention. Even if they experienced those emotions as a child, even if it was losing their favorite toy. Of course, one could argue, losing a toy may not feel as bad as losing a loved one or being raped or seeing your best friend murdered. I urge everyone to think of it in context. Of course, also, the feeling of losing something inanimate may not be as strong as losing a loved one. Or, losing a loved one may cause great feelings of sadness but not depression. The point is that everyone has felt sadness at some point. Everyone has felt anxious at some point. Everyone has probably felt afraid at some point. Everyone has experienced these emotions to some varying degree more or less at some point, at least once in their lives. Therefore, it behooves us, especially those of us who don’t struggle with a mental health disorder to have compassion on those who do.
I say this and I include myself in that charge. I get anxious but I don’t have an anxiety disorder. I don’t have dementia. I don’t have schizophrenia. I don’t have borderline personality disorder. I don’t have narcissistic personality disorder. But I do know at least one person in each of those categories. And I’m not too proud to share that I have had my moments where I wasn’t always as understanding and compassionate as I could have been. I have however come a long way and learned to try to have sympathy towards that person. My experience working as a CNA taught me a lot of things. I didn’t understand dementia at first. I’d read about it but hands on real life experience can often teach more than a text book. I recall times when my residents frustrated me, especially when they were combative or verbally abusive. But I quickly learned to try to simplify what they were feeling, not aloud, but privately. Such as when a resident was out of their bed wandering the hallway and reacted angrily when found and redirected back to bed. I would think to myself, they’re disoriented. The disease causes them to forget where they are, what day it is, who they are sometimes. I tried to imagine how I’d feel if I woke up and found myself somewhere that didn’t look familiar and could remember who I was or what was happening. Funny enough, that does happen to me occasionally but once I’m awake, the feeling dispels quickly, usually within seconds. I tried to imagine what it would be like if the feeling didn’t go away. Then, it helped me have more compassion for that person. Instead of loudly or angrily telling them to go back to bed, I learned to take the time to talk to them, reassure them, maybe even explain several times where they are, what they’re doing, who they are, that they are safe, that it’s night time and gently accompany them back to bed. The results were always better.
We can all show more compassion by thinking of a time when we were worried about something, sad about something, afraid of something, angry about something, then try to multiply that feeling by ten when dealing with someone with a mental health struggle.
Anyway, this has been all over the place and I apologize sincerely for that. However, that’s just how my mind goes. I’m all over the place. My thoughts are always running a mile a minute. “My mind is like an internet browser — I have 23 tabs open, 4 are frozen, and I don’t know where the music is coming from.” (obviously the meme of Zendaya saying that isn’t accurate, apparently she never said this, further digging has revealed it’s from a joke on Tumblr from 2009, not sure of the exact source but definitely not my original quote). However, the main point I wanted to make and subsequently have been laying the foundation for is that no matter how a person looks or acts, the real immensity of whatever they’re struggling with isn’t always apparent.
As someone who is intensely private specifically with those closest to me, hearing, “oh but you seem so normal, I’m sure you’re just being too hard on yourself” feels very invalidating when I take the risk to trust someone with details about my personal mental health struggles. It’s like someone telling you they have cancer and you saying, “but you look healthy”. Of course, you may be saying it to make me feel better, sort of like, well you still look great despite the circumstances but it can also feel on the part of the listener that you don’t believe they have cancer. This is a prevalent misconception. They don’t look sick, why are they on disability? We had a neighbor growing up who was semi-retired and on disability and my parents always judged him for it even though they didn’t even know him personally. Sure, he could have just been a lazy person who didn’t want to work. But it was also possible he had disability for a perfectly legitimate but private reason. Ironically enough, my mom works from home and someone could argue that she must be lazing around at home because they never see her go to work but that couldn’t be further from the truth since she manages housework and a full time work from home job.
Appearances can be deceiving. We should spend less time judging and more time focusing on doing right ourselves and doing right to others. This is something I’m always working on. I wouldn’t say I’ve reached perfect execution just yet.