when a mental health disorder diagnosis is one of the best days of your life.
I couldn’t be more grateful for my Bipolar 2 Disorder diagnosis exactly a year ago today. It was a relief. A gift. A release.
A welcome explanation of unexplainable things. A pressure release for all the pent up questions, tears, fears and wonderings. It released me from a burden that was getting almost too heavy to bear. An unseen mass sitting on the back of my neck, grinding me into the ground. I couldn’t see it, I didn’t know what it was, but I felt its weight daily. The diagnosis enabled me to dump the mass onto the ground in front of me. Off my back, out of the darkness and into the light of understanding. I could see it. Know it. And finally begin to understand how to live with it. The burden did not disappear. But it is no longer an unseen force wreaking havoc in my mind and emotions. We coexist now. Ours will be a lifelong journey together. One I have just begun.
As welcome as that diagnosis was, the journey hasn’t been painless. There has been a steep learning curve. A time of devouring anything and everything I could find to help me make sense of this new-to-me reality. I have been struggling with bipolar disorder for quite some time, I believe. I can’t know for certain when it all started but I am beginning to be able to track seasons and cycles and identify “episodes.” I am still learning how to identify its effects on me on a more regular basis. I wrote a poem a while back called “Is it Bipolar just a bad day?” Because I have to ask myself that many times over. Also, “ Am I really happy/excited/productive or is it just hypomania?” It is a lot of mental and emotional work to navigate and manage this disorder.
I have a therapist, psychiatrist and a working dose of medication that mostly keeps me stable. Ironically, that is one of the hardest parts of accepting this diagnosis. Stability. The lack of the highs. The absence of hypomanic episodes.
Because they are amazing. I have never felt better, happier, excited, passionate, creative, zealous, intelligent, relational, euphoric than when I am swinging high or hypomanic. I have my best ideas, my favorite dreams, and the most productivity during these times. I miss them like someone misses sugar in the first week of quitting sugar. I miss them like I miss warm sun in the winter. I crave this bipolar high like you wouldn’t believe.
Over the last year of educating myself about this disorder, I have come to understand that my sense of confidence and worth has always been tied to my highs. What I produce, what I dream up and set in motion, what I can write and express, and how I feel. All of it is tied to the high. I once described a 6 week hypomania episode as “finally feeling like myself again... my best self.” So perhaps you can imagine the struggle when I am stable. It’s not just working for more ideas and positivity and happiness and creativity. It’s the feeling of basic confidence and worth as a human being that suddenly disappears when hypomania disappears. This is the struggle. It’s complicated, layered and extremely personal.
Why don’t I just ride the highs, you ask? Why bring myself down to stable if I am living such a “wonderful life”? Because once you identify the bipolar disorder order of things, the old adage rings true... what goes up must come down. And coming down off a bipolar high, especially as high as actual mania is a soul crushing dive into darkness. It’s brutal. And it happens in the breath of a moment. I can go to bed off a nicely high day or week or month and wake up in the darkness the next morning. Snap. Boom. Click. That fast. Sometimes there is more of a ramp up and ramp down. But in my experience it can come like a tidal wave. Before I realize what is happening, I am already swirling under water trying to find my way up. Sometimes the depression is minimal... just a low grade fever keeping me down, a slightly cloudy gray day blahness. But other times it is a “what is the point of waking up to live another day like this” kind. The former feels like a wet blanket over your shoulders, weighing you down, turning your colorful world to something more akin to the old fashioned hand tinted photographs... not full color but not black and white, just some shades of pastels. The latter feels like a prison. Solitary confinement in a dark mind that won’t let you even peek out a window at the colorless landscape. At this point, there is no reaching out, asking for help, or taking walks and vitamin supplements to help. At this point it is about finding chemical balance for your brain and riding it out. This is when suicide or self harm becomes what seems like the only viable option for release from the pain and dark for many people with this disorder.
Thankfully, I have not been suicidal or engaged with self-harm. I hope I never do. I have dealt with suicidal ideation in such a way that I wasn’t actively imagining or thinking about it but my thoughts went on a loop that I couldn’t seem to get off of even when I tried. That scared me enough to be more vigilant about even the faintest hint of ideation. But I get it. Although I didn’t want to kill myself, I did want to stop living this meaningless life. To just go to sleep and not wake up. To be delivered of the darkness of my mind and thoughts which also controlled my feelings. It’s real. It’s scary.
I once read about how real bipolar feelings feel. I thought that was a silly statement. A feeling is a feeling. Now I know. Bipolar feelings suck every last ounce of oxygen from the room. They take up all the space. They are supersized and super strong. There is no negotiating with them in the moment. There is no “calm down, you are blowing this out of proportion” in the midst of feeling the big ones. You can’t convince me that this feeling that is so real it feels like I could reach out, touch it and cut through it with a knife, is not as real or true as I feel and think it to be. After the feeling has deflated a bit, and they almost always do, I can be gently persuaded that maybe, just maybe I misjudged the reliability of that feeling. But sometimes those big feelings lead to choices and words and fights and pain that has lasting effects, long after the feeling dissipated and is revealed for what it really was.
And so, I stay medicated. Because the same medication that keeps me grounded from flying off into the bipolar heights of mania is also keeping me afloat out of the depths of depression. In case you were wondering, no, I can’t just take an antidepressant to prevent depression but allow hypomania highs. They have a different chemical effect on bipolar disorder brains than simply depressive disorder brains. It’s technical and sciencey, so I won’t try to explain it. Often times antidepressants can send someone with bipolar into a raging mania while also not preventing the inevitable depression to follow. I try to stay stable. Sometimes I have talked myself into stopping the meds. It’s the same script for all of us... I am doing better! I feel great! Maybe I don’t need them anymore! I will keep a close eye on myself. I can tell if I start needing them again. Bless. I need them. I probably always will. I will keep missing the highs. I do have good days with more of an “upbeat” mood, when I feel lighter and happier, more productive. That’s part of the stability. I am grateful for those days and weeks, but now that I have tasted the highs mania can take me on, I fear I will never stop longing for one more hit.
And perhaps, today, on this one year anniversary I can say with all of my heart that I am so damn grateful to have had this mental health diagnosis last year. I can’t imagine how hard this quarantine would have been without medicinal and self-educated stability. I don’t even want to try to imagine it. I have noted a few times, always with surprise, at how I am actually doing pretty well. I can remember back to times that this particular scenario (being stuck at home, homeschooling three kids with no where to go and no one to see) would have been devastating for all involved. Instead of feeling like I am falling apart into a million pieces, like I am a constant failure of a mom and person, like I can’t get out of bed or function around the simplest of tasks, like I would be better off just sleeping as much as possible to avoid it all, raging, angry, and full of shame on the other side of it... I feel at rest, at peace, stable, competent, able, and even am enjoying things at times, too. I have lost it a fair amount of times. I have put myself to bed a few times. I have yelled and apologized a lot. But those are just resets, blips on the radar and haven’t colored the whole of this time. I have smiled a lot, laughed a lot and truly enjoyed some great moments.
I also want to acknowledge that all of this... the diagnosis with a psychiatrist, therapy, medication, time to study and reflect, staying home, resting, resetting, and everything I do to manage this in my life is a huge privilege. And that millions all over the world don’t have access to the same options I have been given. My heart truly breaks for those who are ravaged by this and other mental health disorders without having access to the tools to heal and manage. That’s truly a grave injustice. I can hold space for the truth of that while also gratefully utilizing the tools I have been given access to at the same time. And I do.
I know this quarantine can be a toxic environment for many with mental health issues. The solitude gives space for rumination and negativity. The constant access to news and tv and shows and everything digital can be an escape and reprieve or take us to even darker places. The lack of face to face connection with mental health professionals and possible interruptions in medication regimens can have catastrophic effect.
Keep checking on your friends and family with mental health struggles. Don’t expect them to reach out for help. They won’t. They can’t. Reach out, check in, watch a show together apart, read a book together apart, FaceTime, drop off some food or other stuff on a doorstep. Send a podcast or article. Mail a honest to god real letter. Force feed them anything Brene Brown says or writes. Buy boxes of Glennon Doyle’s book “Untamed” and give them out like candy. Have touch points in the week. Ask hard questions. Press in but don’t suffocate. Don’t go away easily. Don’t preach. Listen. Be there.
Obviously I am still an infant in my understanding of this disorder, but I am on my way, on a good and safe and stable road, able and willing to do what I need to manage it in a healthy way as much as possible. And mostly I am just so grateful to not have this beast on my back anymore.
END NOTE: Writing about personal mental health issues is a very vulnerable process. I do not put this post out there lightly. There was about a month between when a therapist casually dropped the idea of "bipolar disorder" on me and when I got formally screened and evaluated for the disorder by a psychiatrist. During this time, I frantically researched everything I could about bipolar disorder. The medical and psychology websites were helpful in explaining the disorder in scientific and medical terms, in describing the diagnostic process, in identifying the various kinds of bipolar disorder (4 and counting). But it was the personal blog posts, the personal youtube videos with people being open and honest and extremely vulnerable about their journey to and through a bipolar disorder diagnosis that I found the most comforting, illuminating and hopeful. In their stories I finally felt seen and known, even by a stranger from afar. They gave me the courage to get to a psychiatrist for a formal evaluation. Their experiences helped me begin to understand the unexplained pain in my own life thus far. And so it is in that spirit that I share my own story and journey.