It’s been 3.5 years since my diagnosis.
My original reaction was *TRIGGER WARNING* a suicide attempt *END TRIGGER*. Having been diagnosed with major depression in 2004, I took years to learn what it meant, how I can fight it, what I can do about it. Depression became a part of my personality; I tamed it, and I was victorious. Or so I felt. The six months before diagnosis were my best period ever – I thought. It was blazing hypomania, and everything about it felt perfect. I thought: this is the real me, finally. Free of fear, free of tiredness, full of ideas. I spent money because I knew Gods would make sure I get more of it, and soon. I tried to start two businesses at once (graphic design and coaching, and I knew nothing about the latter but people loved confiding in me so I felt qualified enough), while juggling a part-time job as a bartender AND learning what my dream career was. I slept 3-4 hours per night, overexcited with all the ideas and power I seemed to have. I have never been more creative, seductive, simply happy.
And then a mixed episode hit and I was majorly confused. I thought my antidepressants stopped working for some reason. I went to a psychiatrist demanding a fix. Instead I got a new diagnosis, and was told that the period when I felt so good was actually an illusion. It was all fake, chemistry malfunctioning in my brain. I was absolutely heartbroken. It wasn’t only that I had to learn living with a new word in my medical dossier; it was the fact that while depression can be cured and not return, the same is not true with bipolar.
Like all types of grief, I started with denial. Of course bipolar is a life-long debilitating illness – for other people. But I read Kay Jamison-Redfield’s book and I was determined to become, like her, a success story. I was going to conquer it. I took two months to completely stop drinking, I was free from drugs for quite a while already, I went to bed with a sleeping pill every night and slept my 8-9 hours, I exercised a lot. I thought: this is going to fix me, and I will be alright and go back to my old life. When my first therapist said “you might never work full time again, at least not a designer, with all the stress and deadlines” I lightly dismissed him as a very negative person. Of course I would go back to my old life, once the meds kick in.
This didn’t happen, and it started the anger phase.
“Why me?” I asked him one day. “Go home and write a list of reasons why it should be someone else,” he responded. I was sitting in front of a new document in my text editor and couldn’t write anything, because, of course, I couldn’t wish bipolar away, and I couldn’t wish it to someone else instead. People who get cancer aren’t asked either. Or people who have car accidents. Or diabetes. Or multiple sclerosis. We all get hit, randomly, and we think it happens to other people until it happens to us. I understood it, but I didn’t enjoy it.
I raged against bipolar itself, the idea of me not going back to work, the idea that it’s going to last all my life, that it can control my life and there’s not much I can do about it, against the side effects (especially weight gain). I was furious that my life was going to change irreversibly. Denial and anger mixed in me. I hated everything, and I think the thing I hated the most was the fact that my hypomania wasn’t actually my normal state. I wanted to be free of fears and phobias, to sleep three hours and beat my records at the gym every week, to be able to seduce any man I wanted (except those who had bad taste, i.e. didn’t fancy people like me). The rebellion had absolutely no result whatsoever except making me feel worse about myself. It was like the old depression, which poisoned me with thoughts like “you’re faking it”, “you’re not trying hard enough”, etc. I cancelled appointments and I was angry that I had to do it. I had to tell my partner – there was no way I could possibly hide it from him – but I resented it. I peppered my bipolar confessions with “but it will be over soon” and “I’ll go back to normal, you’ll see”. I became a moderator on a forum about bipolar and found myself looking down at people who have been fighting it for ten or more years. They just didn’t do it well enough, but I would.
This didn’t happen, and so bargaining began.
I decided that I had an agreement with my illness: I would follow my doctors’ recommendations to a T. I skipped parties, stopped using alcohol and other substances, limited my caffeine intake, took my pills religiously (in those 3 1/2 years I forgot once). I resented having to apply for benefits but I knew – so I thought – I’d be off them very soon. Because I did everything, and so the universe owed me a magical fix to all my problems. My part of the deal was 100% done, so bipolar should go away. I read about people who were addicts and kept on using drugs and alcohol and wondering why the meds don’t work. I knew that if I do all that I am supposed to, I will be fixed and get my old life back.
I started a volunteer job as a part-time programmer. I worked tirelessly into the night, much more than I was supposed to, and the feedback I got was a mix of shock and irritation: I was making lots of errors simply because I wanted to do it fast and prove how perfect I was. I wasn’t. And within a few weeks anxiety and depression struck again. As you can guess, I was furious at the universe, my own brain and doctors. Obviously they weren’t fixing me even though I decided they would. I ended up quitting the part-time job when I pretty much pushed myself into another ultra-ultra-rapid episode, and of course I resented it.
Depression phase struck. I did all that I could and I didn’t get the result I expected. What is the point, I thought. At this point we started changing my meds, taking me off the antidepressant, which strangely resulted in mania. Not the nice one. I was fearless, frustrated with world and people not moving fast enough, I drove my bike into someone because he committed the crime of walking too slow. I slept with so many people I lost count – within four weeks. I didn’t feel any guilt or shame about my partner. Or, for that matter, anybody else. At some point racing thoughts became so difficult to live with I smoked a joint (which worked) and since I already relapsed on drugs I could as well go and get a bottle of whisky. A day later I was hospitalised and went back into denial and bargaining: those people are going to fix me, finally I am being taken seriously enough, this will work. I met someone who spent two weeks in hospital, went back to work, and within two weeks was back in the ward, where he was for months already. This wouldn’t be me, of course. I’d be sensible. (I had no idea what that meant at the time.) I’d be good. I’d do good. I’d get fixed.
This didn’t happen.
I was put on lithium, which works for a lot of people, but it didn’t work for me. It made me gain so much weight my knees started aching all the time. I’d wake up and my knees would be aching already. I tried to work as much as possible (this is when I wrote the book), I fought and fought. And I got some results, but – according to my judgement – not enough. I had to recover 100%, I had 80% and it wasn’t enough. Curiously enough, I was able to advice everybody else to take things slow and not overdo stuff, but somehow the standards I had to comply to were much higher.
I was furious again: about my relapse. I was doing so well and then suddenly I do drugs and get drunk again. I had no control over what I did in the manic period and, guess what, I resented it. I finally started feeling guilt and shame when the mania ended, and they brought depression along. I didn’t even realise I was grieving. I just wanted it all to end (not with me dying, but going back to what my life used to be – my “normal life” which was essentially the hypomania period from 2012).
This didn’t happen.
I spent the following 20 months fighting. Taking my pills. Working on my sleep. And finally it seemed to work. I had 4.5 months of absolute stability. I was taken off lithium and lost 7 kg within 10 days – water weight, of course, but my knees stopped aching and that made me happy enough. I was working out a lot and got upset about the fact I couldn’t lose more weight no matter how hard I tried, so I stopped trying and started eating pizza again. (My weight didn’t change either but at least I felt happier.) And then I had a MAJOR stressful event which threw me straight from my stability into ultra-ultra-rapid cycling again. Again, I felt no fear, but a lot of aggression and anger. I had great ideas, but they were dangerous to me and other people. I started drinking again. Spending money I didn’t have. At one point I found out what lamictal does when you’re hungover (spoiler: don’t try that at home).
And then the mania ended again and I found out I felt very different. I realised that it wasn’t me doing all those terrible things; it was “the crazy”. I had no control over myself, things, people and places when manic. When after eight weeks I got back to stability (aided by bumping seroquel from 200 to 600 mg) I understood: this is going to keep on happening. I don’t do anything to make it happen. I do everything as recommended by doctors. It sometimes stops working. But it’s not my “fault”. I am 100% disabled, living off benefits and it’s not just so I have time to write and work on my dream job (which isn’t doing well at all either in bad periods, and it’s my absolutely favourite thing to do). It’s for a reason. That reason is bipolar. And suddenly I realised: I finally got to the acceptance phase.
I feel much better now about myself. I finally gave up hoping that I’ll be the one success story, that I will get fixed. I had no influence on that major stress event whatsoever, and it threw me off the tracks immediately. This was not my fault. Relapsing on alcohol was not my fault. Being manic was not my fault. Once this period ended I immediately quit drinking, resumed my NA meetings and got back to previous “normal” that lasted for 4.5 months. I felt proud: I never stopped taking my meds, I did the least harm possible to myself and others. It will happen again, and it will not be my fault either. No more than a person who had cancer having it return after a period of remission, I had no say about when mania strikes. I do my best to stretch the good times – the stable times.
I have been rewarded for my hard work. I used to think this reward wasn’t enough, because I made a deal with the universe, but I missed the crucial fact: universe didn’t sign on the dotted line. But I have my full range of emotions, I can read, write, go out in the afternoon rather than at night. I have a great supportive partner and a circle of friends who all know about my illness and do their best to understand it and help. I work twice a week (if depression allows) doing my dream job, even though due to illness keeping me at home for longer periods I am not very good at it. In hypomania I wanted to become so good that I was going to pitch a reality show about myself. Once the terrible period after the stress event ended I realised that disability means disability, and that it means I might never become perfect, which means I can do the work and enjoy it rather than try to make it a full time job – when two days per week are very often too much.
It’s a newfound state for me, acceptance and surrender. I stopped fighting Mike Tyson in the ring – the only way you can not lose is not to enter the ring. I continue taking my medication and seeing my doctor and therapist. I’m as happy as can be; I am currently having my spring depression, which comes every year, but this time I don’t have suicidal thoughts and I don’t mentally flog myself for being depressed; I have reverse SAD going on, and I’ve had it for years. It always passes. I have my mood charts as proof. I don’t like it, but I can live with it. When you stop keeping your expectations at 100% and being upset about only making it to 80%, your life becomes much easier. In the last days it took me a few hours before I was ready to shower and get dressed. I didn’t do much more than that. And it’s OK. It will change. I will do better again, and then I will do worse again. It’s OK. I can live with it. I don’t have a choice anyway. I’m going to make the most of my life, even if the most isn’t everything I want. I stick with “need” rather than “want”.
Even now, depressed and anxious, I can say: life is good. It’s as good as it can be. I do my best, and in return life does its best, and sometimes it’s not enough but this too shall pass. I might never return to work full-time, or at all. It’s OK. I was the only person forcing myself to do it, and now that I gave up forcing myself I can live in peace with myself and the world. Denial, anger, depression and bargaining are done – at least for now. The last phase of grief is acceptance, and even though it took me three and half years, I finally arrived there. I am going to write another book, about depression, and if it takes me five years it’s going to be finished at some point. I don’t have a schedule or deadline.
It will be alright. It already is.
Illustrations above come from “Hyperbole And A Half“, blog by Allie Brosh. Allie has spoken openly about the fact she doesn’t mind her illustrations being used. Still, you should buy her book because it’s awesome, and in addition to chapters that will make you laugh for hours it also contains possibly the best description of depression I have read in my entire life. Allie’s second book was scheduled for March, and it has been moved to October, and I am guessing her depression might be the cause. I hope she knows that she is loved by MANY people, and that we all can wait.