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.
For some of us, this is a question that our families or loved ones ask us. For some, like me, it’s a question we ask ourselves. We’re taking our pills. We’re sleeping eight hours every night. We aren’t doing drugs or drinking. So why the hell can’t we just get stable?
When I published my book, one of the people who read it told me that it felt very strict, particularly in the guidelines about not drinking. Personally I haven’t had a drop for over a year now. I haven’t used any illicit drugs for many years. I religiously take my pills (since diagnosis in 2011 I forgot my pills only once) and no matter what, sleep eight-nine hours. Every. Single. Night. Yet I am still rapid cycling and finding it hard to keep appointments, because while on Tuesday I felt great making an appointment for Friday, on Thursday evening I turned into a plant and stayed in this state until Saturday, when I jumped out of bed energised by the thought of buying a new Macbook Air. (I can’t afford a Macbook Air.)
Yahoo! Health published an article entitled “What People Get Wrong About Bipolar Disorder”. Unfortunately, the article gets quite a few things wrong. The damage is done – Yahoo! Health has a much, much bigger audience than my little blog – but I’ll try to explain the inaccuracies anyway.
It’s strange to see Amelia Davis, MD, the medical director at Rosewood Ranch in Wickenburg, Arizona, get things wrong. But then, during my hospital stint I met a psychiatric nurse, a man around 60 who looked like he’s been working there for a while, who explained to me that “sometimes he gets depressed too, but then he just pulls himself up by the bootstraps and all is well again”. You’d think he’d know what depression is. You’d be wrong. Also, I have a strong suspicion that it’s mostly not Dr Davis that gets things wrong, but the journalist.
Now, without further ado, let’s look at the article.
Hello and sorry about a break in posting. My bipolar was acting up (I’m sure you can relate). I’m back though, with a question from a reader:
Hi, I would like some advice. My girlfriend Jane [name changed] is showing symptoms of bipolar. I think she’s hypomanic (but I am not a doctor). I’m scared, confused and I don’t know what to do. Could you give me some information? Most of all, what can I do as her boyfriend, and how to help rather than harm?
Lost in Miami
I’m not a doctor either but here are my thoughts.
First of all, symptoms resembling hypomania do not have to mean bipolar disorder. They can also be a sign of thyroid problems (I found this hard to believe for a long time until I met a few people who, indeed, exhibited all symptoms of bipolar, only to find out they had malfunctioning thyroid). They can also feature in other illnesses, such as borderline, schizoaffective disorder or schizophrenia. Only a professional can give you a clear diagnosis.
An article popped up in my Google Alerts:
A study of the medical records of 150,000 individuals has found that the relatives of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely than the general public to be creative professionals such as actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists or writers.
The researchers cannot be sure whether the link is due to the shared genes of the family relatives or a shared upbringing and environment, but they suggested that it could be explained by similarities in the way the brain works in creative people and in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
My Google Alerts have been flooded by articles about Scott Stapp, the singer of Creed, getting a bipolar diagnosis. Most of them, surprisingly, got it right, but the article published at Chinatopix raised my eyebrows.
Ms. Soledad Mayo informs us:
Creed lead singer Scott Stapp revealed to the People magazine that he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder due to drug use and that he is now undergoing therapy.
The former Creed frontman said that he had been hallucinating because of drug abuse. Scott Stapp recalled how he drove around the country for a month following an angel who was sitting on the hood of his car.
Apart from the fact that this is, in fact, not what Stapp has said, it shows a dangerous lapse in understanding what bipolar disorder is, and what it is not.
Very often I meet people with bipolar who are convinced they are unloveable, will never have a relationship, marry, etc.
Perhaps I am not an objective judge of such statements, seeing as I am in a 3+ year relationship, during which I got diagnosed, landed in depression so deep I couldn’t walk without help, mania that got me into hospital, fought (successfully) a substance abuse problem and remain without steady employment. Our relationship survived all those things and remains in great shape. *knocks on wood* So my answer to that is, basically, no. You are NOT unloveable. You CAN have a relationship. You CAN get married. Have a house, children, garden, whatever else your heart desires.
Having said that, bipolar is going to make it much more difficult.
Caution: The post below may be triggering to people currently suffering from depression
Wait, you could say. There are people dying left, right and centre. Surely depression isn’t as bad as that.
Thank you for reminding us about the fact we are (mostly) privileged. We (mostly) have health insurance, (mostly) are not refugees, in our countries there is (mostly) no war. We use this knowledge to make ourselves feel worse, or, more precisely, our depression does. Marian Keyes, a famous (and brilliant!) multi-million selling writer, wrote once:
It has been like being poisoned, it’s felt like my brain is squirting out terrible, black, toxic chemicals that poison any good thoughts. I’m well aware that I have an enviable life and there are bound to be people who think, “What the hell has she got to be depressed about?” But whatever has been wrong with me isn’t fixable by an attitude shift.
To me, the worst thing about depression is that it eats at the very core of our souls. In stable, “normal” state, we are certain of some things. My boyfriend loves me. I love photography. I’m writing a novel and I’m 2/3 through. I’m having friends coming to dinner on Friday. My parents love me. Those things are so obvious we don’t even bother actually thinking about them, they are a built-in spine of our existence.
Oddly enough, one of the symptoms of both unipolar depression and all phases of bipolar disorder is the idea we aren’t sick.
In depressed phase, it is associated with lowered self-esteem. Together with all other negative thoughts comes the idea that we are just lazy, and we’re just pretending, and we don’t have depression at all. (This is greatly aided by having relatives or friends who provide us with helpful phrases along the lines of “why don’t you just pull yourself by the bootstraps” and “you know, you could just try not to be depressed”.) And so we find ourselves on the floor, curled into fetal position, thinking we’re just imagining all this and in fact don’t have any reason to feel bad, so why don’t we get up and do something. Then we don’t get up and we don’t do something, because depression won’t let us move.
I often speak to people who don’t understand the nature of depression at all. They are convinced they’ve been depressed — “once after a break-up I cried for three days and listened to Nick Cave a lot, but I just pulled myself together and stopped being depressed”, which kinda suggests you’re just too weak or lazy to un-depress yourself. All it takes is pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, they suggest. Why don’t you stop being depressed? It’s easy!
Except, of course, it isn’t, and they have no clue what they are talking about. Bipolar depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. (Apparently latest studies suggest it is a sort of inflammation.) You can’t stop being depressed any more than you could stop having cancer. There are ways to improve your mood, but when you’re in the darkest pits, those ways aren’t likely to work. For instance, physical exercise helps, but knowing that doesn’t help much when you can barely get dressed without assistance and taking a shower seems to be the same level of difficulty as climbing Mount Everest without oxygen tanks.