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.
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.
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.
Andreas Lubitz’ name started appearing in my Google Alert a few days ago with speculations on whether he was depressed, or, in fact, bipolar. But a confirmation showed up yesterday:
A friend has told me he met a really fantastic girl. She’s everything he dreamed of. They’ve been dating non-committally for a few months, and now he asked her to be his girlfriend. Her response? “I can’t be anybody’s girlfriend,” she said. “I have bipolar disorder, and it’s a terrible illness. I’m just not fit to have a relationship, any relationship at all.” He asked me how he could convince her. “You’ve got bipolar,” he said, “and you’re in a relationship. It’s possible to have a relationship while having bipolar, right?”
Of course it is. But then the problem with bipolar disorder is that it doesn’t actually make anything impossible. You can be a respected professor of psychiatry like Kay Redfield Jamison. You can be a super-popular actor and TV personality like Stephen Fry. You can be a chart-topping singer like Robbie Williams. You can be married, have kids, a good job. It’s just that for us it’s harder than for “normies”, and some of us overestimate the difficulty level based on what we heard and read about ourselves. And this is where internalised stigma comes in.
According to www.dualdiagnosis.org, 56% of people with bipolar disorder suffer(ed) from addiction to drugs or alcohol at some point. According to www.drugabuse.gov, the rate for general population (in America) is 8.9 percent.
Obviously there is something about bipolar disorder that correlates with high addiction rate. While I am not a medical professional or addiction counsellor, I will hazard a guess that bipolar makes you predisposed to addiction, not the other way round. There are some drugs that can trigger a bipolar episode (in particular marijuana and LSD), but they do not create bipolar disorder in a mentally healthy person. They may only make it manifest earlier.
There are a few obvious reasons why bipolars tend to become addicts. One of them is self-medication. I used to self-medicate my depression with alcohol for years – it seemed to be the only way to make the black dog go away for a few hours. I knew that alcohol is a depressant and on some subconscious level I probably realised that I am making things worse for myself long term, but at those times the only thing that counted was quick relief which the bottle provided. The same scenario happened daily: I’d be terribly depressed, I’d get drunk, depression would be replaced by euphoria, I would do some really stupid things, go to sleep, get up in the morning and scream “F–K!!!” (I never blacked out; I always remembered what I did the day before, and it was always terrible and make me more depressed.) Repeat. Repeat.
One of the readers of “Bipolar For Beginners” has been chatting with me online the other day, then she mentioned she was having a glass of whisky as we spoke.
My automatic reaction was “don’t do it!”. Alcohol stops correct processing of medication by the brain, and in conjunction with Depakote/Depakine it wrecks your liver real bad. Unfortunately, alcohol is also something people enjoy. In fact, even while I was on Depakote, my doctor told me it would be fine for me to have one beer per day. It’s just that at the time I weighed over 100 kg, and so one beer was hardly going to make a noticeable effect, so once I finished my pint all I wanted was another one.
Another piece of advice which is easy to dispense but not so much to follow: “Avoid stress”. We can do certain things to limit the amount of stress. We can look for a less stressful job, avoid watching or reading things that we find triggered. But let’s say your brother contracts a deadly illness. How exactly are you going to avoid stressing over it? Or – an example from real life – your parents constantly smoke weed, and you live with them. Your friends smoke too. How easy is it going to be for you to avoid using yourself?