According to National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), more than 2.3 million Americans have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, though their website says the number of affected is even greater. So why is it still so stigmatized?
Today, we’re breaking some barriers, and discussing a mental health condition that needs more representation. Bipolar Disorder is often referred to as a mood disorder, and is characterized by extreme shifts in mood, with patients cycling between high moods (mania, or hypomania for those with Bipolar II Disorder), and low moods (periods of depression).
This drastically affects a patient’s energy levels. When manic, behavior ranges from a dramatic increase of energy to heightened feelings of euphoria, a decreased need for sleep, paranoia, rapid speech, and poor decision making. When experiencing a depressive episode, behavior is marked with feelings of hopelessness, self-deprivation, loss of energy, negative thinking, suicidal thoughts, and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. Both experiences and specific diagnoses vary from person to person.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder in September of 2020. So what’s the difference between Bipolar I and Bipolar II Disorder? Those with Bipolar I tend to experience more extreme manic episodes, while those with Bipolar II tend to experience hypomanic (less severe manic) episodes but with more severe depression.
The catalyst for my impending diagnosis was a two week long episode in which I: cut and colored my hair pink, got my nose pierced, got a new tattoo, and had a whirlwind-almost-romance with someone I fell for on TikTok that ended before it even began. I wasn’t getting enough sleep – instead staying up all night FaceTiming my TikTok crush, working, resting for an hour or two, and then repeating the process. Despite the lack of sleep, I was talking fast and soaring through my projects at work. I wasn’t eating well because I was so riddled with nerves and excitement. It was great in that moment...until I came crashing down. I later learned that what I had experienced was a hypomanic episode, and in the case of patients with Bipolar II, is actually less severe than those with Bipolar I.
I originally sought a therapist because I thought I had ADHD. My mind never seemed to shut down. I jumped from idea to idea, project to project, yet never saw anything to completion. My brain was constantly frazzled. My mind was never quiet, but my body was tired. I was easily irritated, constantly annoyed - a coworker could breathe in my direction and I would become infuriated. I would face a minor inconvenience and suddenly, without warning, rage was tearing through my body. Comparing myself to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might seem a bit dramatic, but those moments of sudden and intense rage began to scare me. I was no longer patient and understanding. I was no longer smiling or saying hello to passing strangers in the grocery store. Instead I was angry at their existence. I was becoming unrecognizable.
At a doctor’s appointment with my Primary Care Physician (PCP) I expressed my growing concerns. In the days after my episode, I had gone from feeling like I was on top of the world to feeling like I was wrapped in the darkness of my mind. I asked if there was a test I could take, anything, that would give me the answers I needed. He gave me the name of a counseling service in a town about thirty minutes away from where I was living. I worked up the courage and called to make an appointment.
The receptionist was cheerful and helpful. She got me on the schedule and gave me information about the testing process. I would have a consultation with the director, take a few written tests, and then meet again with the director to go over the results. Even with insurance, the test was going to be $150. I was living on my own, completely, for the first time. Not only that, there was a global pandemic raging around me. I couldn’t really afford it, but honestly, I couldn’t afford not to.
In the moments leading up to the final consultation with the director, I was incredibly nervous. I felt like a contestant on a sick, twisted game show with a horrible prize. Congratulations! You just won a lifelong mental illness! I was scared, but more than anything, I wanted the truth. I needed the truth. I kept thinking to myself: There has to be a better way of living than the way I am right now.
I received my diagnosis over a Zoom call. When she said the words,“bipolar disorder,” it wasn’t the diagnosis I expected, but I wasn’t surprised. Pieces of my past started falling into place – specific memories, certain behaviors; the things she was saying made so much sense. I had suffered from periods of depression before, but skimming through my memories, I noticed that they always seemed to fall right after moments of intense joy and euphoria. I don’t remember which of my doctors said it, but bipolar disorders can be difficult to diagnose because they’re often overlooked as depression. Who goes to the doctor when they’re happy?
Now that the beast had a name, I began to take control of it before it could take any more control over me. I approached my diagnosis with Bipolar II the same way I tackled cancer.
As someone who had cancer (Hodgkin's Lymphoma) when I was thirteen years old, it was a journey I felt familiar with. When you are diagnosed with cancer, you meet with a team of doctors whose main goal is to help you kick cancer’s ass. You create a battle plan, and there is one thing on your mind – SURVIVING the brutality that is cancer.
My diagnosis with Bipolar II was an act of war, and I was NOT going without a fight. If I wanted to survive, I would have to create an epic battle plan. Therapy: check. Medication: check. Lifestyle change: well, every day is a work in progress.
For my second approach, I thought of AnnaSophia Robb portraying Bethany Hamilton in the movie Soul Surfer. If you aren’t familiar with Bethany’s story, she lost her arm in a shark attack while surfing when she was thirteen years old. She could have easily given up and never surfed again, but instead of quitting, she learned how to adapt to a different way of living. It took her some time and lots of perseverance. Were there times she wanted to quit? Probably, but eventually she returned to the water, to her passion: surfing.
While this wasn’t cancer or a shark attack, I still had to re-learn how to live my life for my survival. I would have to learn how to do some things differently. I would have to fight every day if I wanted to survive.
According to Eleanor Worsley, in her book Life With Bipolar Type Two: A Guide to Stability, a person with bipolar disorder will spend around half of their life in a state of depression. When depression comes knocking, that unwelcome guest kicks down the door. It is hard to take on the world when it’s taking everything in you to breathe air into your lungs. Everything I do from now on must be carefully calculated or else I could fall into an episode.
Not enough sleep? Hypomania.
Too much sleep? I might fall into a depressive state.
Can’t find the energy to feed or bathe myself? Let the self-loathing begin.
Excessive spending, sudden impulsive behavior, feelings of euphoria and a god complex? Safe to say I am in a hypomanic state of mind.
Bank account? Broke.
Relationships? Well, I opened my opinionated mouth, said something I shouldn’t have, and I have unintentionally hurt someone I love.
Then all of a sudden…the things that once brought me joy begin to feel like work? Life seems pointless, so why bother?
It is a vicious cycle. But that is my life. This is my journey. I take it one day at a time. My diagnosis may have taken a lot from me, but I will not let it take more than it has. I am not my illness. As I close, I leave you with some parting wisdom:
1. BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE! No one knows your body better than you. I could have had my diagnosis a lot sooner if I had just listened to my gut. Instead, I listened to a coworker who told me that my symptoms sounded a lot like sleep deprivation, and that maybe I just needed a new mattress. I got a new mattress, was out of pocket $800, and still felt like shit. By the time I finally got around to seeing a doctor, my symptoms had worsened.
2. If you meet with your doctor, and decide that medication is the route you need to take, please know that there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with taking meds. It does not mean you are less than, it does not mean you lost against your beast – it just means you need a little extra help that your brain isn’t giving you. You have to do what is best for YOU, and sometimes that’s taking a doctor prescribed medication.
3. Knowledge is one of the greatest skills you can possess. Learn everything you are able to about your diagnosis, whether it is bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression. The more you know, the better you are able to help yourself.
4. The beast that is bipolar disorder can be downright cruel, but please remember when times are dark that you are oh-so-special, you are loved, and more than anything your life matters. Help is always out there.
Resources I used to help me:
Written by: Taylon Black