I had a rocky start to life. Colic, sleep dysregulation, separation anxiety, utter fear and unrest, all before the age of 5. I saw child psychologists, school psychologists, and even had meetings with teachers. Nothing helped. My moods were unstable since square one, and no one seemed to have an answer. “More discipline, more rewards,” they would say.
The depression and anxiety became overbearing in high school and I began to contemplate ending my life. “Contemplate” might not be the right word, more like “obsess” or “fantasize.” I didn’t receive treatment during those years. Sleepless nights became the norm, with spikes in creativity and grandiose thinking. Then, I would plummet back into a black depression.
As I got older, my mood swings became more severe and I felt as if I was living on the edge of a very unforgiving cliff. I received one antidepressant, was allergic to it, and afraid of it (and it made me made me manic). I vowed never to go on medication again.
My Diagnosis & Treatment
By the time I got to college, my anxiety was unbearable, and I gave into seeing a psychiatrist. After 2 hours of intake, a few doctors consulted outside the door, just barely within earshot. One came back in, we’ll call him Dr. S. He proceeded to tell me that I had Bipolar Disorder, characterized by hypomanic or manic episodes lasting at least a week and swings to depressive episodes that could last months.
Things finally made sense, and I had a label and a name for what I had been feeling all along. Then came the hardest blow: “People with Bipolar Disorder do best when they stay on medication for life.” They were going to start with lithium (isn’t that the stuff in batteries, I thought?). I was terrified.
A start with one drug turned into a weekly meeting with Dr. S, who would add or tinker with the dose of a drug literally every week for my 4 years of college. I was never stable, always fearing the effects of the next psychotropic medication. I was hospitalized at least twice a year in locked psych wards. My life felt out of control and in limbo.
Fast forward to new doctors and new surroundings in grad school. My doctors have found a relatively stable regime. However, the medications have led to significant weight gain, affecting my self-esteem in a major way. Lithium, the “gold standard” for Bipolar Disorder, has always remained in my medication cocktail. And while it has helped, it has also caused hypothyroidism – which means I have another medication I’ll have to take for the rest of my life.
What I learned from Bipolar Disorder
The message that Bipolar Disorder and treatment are life-long endeavors is overwhelming. It has made me sad, angry, and sometimes I let myself feel hideous self- pity (why me?). The medication side effect profiles can affect sleep, weight, appetite, feelings of emotional numbness and dissociation, etc. It feels as if my entire sense of well-being depends on neurochemical processes rather than my engagement with the world and my relationships. I’ve lowered my standards of health, and I often feel that I will never get back to the vibrant person I once was.
But make no mistake, there is light at the end of the tunnel. If you or someone you love is struggling with a mental disorder or is in the throes of a medication change, make the extra effort to check in with them. Bipolar Disorder and other disorders can be incredibly isolating. No one should have to suffer alone. A support network such as mental health forum, regular therapy, and self-care such as playing music, meditating, etc. can have a tremendous impact on someone who is struggling.
One last suggestion: Keep informed about your disorder, new medications, new therapy modalities and join bipolar disorder forum. Maybe someday we will be able to say, “Bipolar Disorder isn’t forever.”