“Bipolar disorder?” I gasped, gazing at the paper my psychiatrist pushed toward me. “What do you mean?”
“That you might want to consider it.”
“I’m not bipolar!” I insisted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“I’m only saying you might want to consider it, Shalimar, that’s all. I need to prescribe you a different medicine. The one you’re taking right now won’t work for you.”
“No! I don’t want to take another medicine. I want to stay on what I am on right now.”
She gave me an annoyed glance, and peered at her computer.
No matter how I looked at her, I could only see her grinning smugly at me, taunting me with that kind of diagnosis. I’m not…bipolar! I’m just, well, depressed. Just depressed, like I’ve been all these years. I can’t be bipolar. That’s…well, that’s crazy!
I’m not crazy…
As soon as I left the office, I vowed not to return again to that woman, the woman who wrongly diagnosed me. And so, I went to my car, and sat down and cried because I was alone, bipolar and hopeless.
Yet despite my vow, I returned to my psychiatrist and took the medicine I had chosen for myself. However, as I returned to her, I came to resent her. She didn’t exactly have a bedside manner, speaking to me in a blunt and annoying matter of fact tone. She wasn’t the boss of me! I wasn’t going to do what a stranger prescribed me.
So I became non-compliant. That is, I skipped doses and eventually stopped taking the medicine.
It was through my choices that I came to experience the first mixed episode of my life. A mixed episode, a characteristic of Bipolar I, was a combination of depressed and manic moods. The time period this lasted — for about a good year–was one of the worst times in my life.
An episode of bipolar disorder is hard to describe. Heck, any kind of mental illness –bipolar or not, is difficult to describe.
My first discrete mixed episode occurred during the summer before my junior year of undergraduate school. Almost without warning, my moods began to shift, darting between hostile and depressed. I suffered from delusions, believing I was possessed by the devil. And still, on other days, I believed I was a holy savior sent to save all humanity. Still, I believed I was evil, and sought to purify myself through intense prayer and confession.
While these are the most prominent (and startling) examples of tricks my illness played on me, it was the little things, the difficulty leaving the dorm, the inability to concentrate and the feeling of isolation that really kept the illness going. It seemed like it would never run out of steam until one boring September day, when it abruptly ended.
After going through all this, I finally, finally began to think, “OK, maybe something is up.” The first thought, naturally, was my psychiatrist’s idea that I was bipolar. For a while, I began thinking of myself that way, really truly believing that I was bipolar. Yet my thoughts shifted from day to day. One day, I believed I was bipolar, the next I rejected the diagnosis. So I had kind of a flip-flop attitude.
So after not seeing my psychiatrist for several months, I came up with the idea to confront her and demand she tell me why she thought I was bipolar.
As I entered the office, I felt tense and nervous, tangling my hands together and sitting with crossed legs. Finally, my wait ended and I entered her office, taking a seat across from her.
“So….what makes you think I’m bipolar?”
Frustrated with my doubt of her diagnosis, she answered briskly.
“Because you are! You behave like it, think like it, act like it. You are bipolar.”
As she dug into a deeper explanation of why I was so obviously bipolar, I listened, and thought more.
Maybe…I was? It would make sense, given all the grief I’d just experienced.
So I got decided to accept my diagnosis and get better.
I agreed with my psychiatrist. I took my medication. I took care of myself.
But I was still sick. My brain gave me a constant reminder that something was fundamentally wrong with me. I was a flawed person, forever to sit in the shadow of my disorder. Still, I had better days and would doubt my own illness. Sometimes I imagined I was just the victim of a giant prank and that I would wake up one day to find out I was normal. So I spent hours on the computer, googling my symptoms, hoping to find this.
Yet I eventually concluded I was “abnormal.” I then agreed to read a therapy-based book my psychiatrist recommended. At first, I doubted the power of the lengthy 700 page book. But I pressed on, hanging onto a shred of hope that I recover from abnormality. And the therapy worked, much to my own surprise. I began to improve. The negative thoughts plagued my mind began to disappear.
It was then, only then, that I began to realize there might be more to me than my illness. Yet I still clung to this with a vice grip. However, one night, I had a realization; a realization that over-identifying with my mental illness might be unhealthy. Although good, the thought was like a punch to the stomach. Curled up in my bed sheets, I began to cry, not only because the identity pulled me back, but because I realized I could be more.
Immediately, I phoned my boyfriend, telling him about my fear that I couldn’t become something more. As we continued to discuss, he gently suggested I consider all the other identities I had besides being sick. We brainstormed and I came up with these: a woman, a Catholic, a lover, an artist, a friend, a flower. As I slowly thought of myself in those terms, I felt a light began to bloom inside me. I was suddenly larger, more than I had ever been. I wasn’t just larger, I realized, I was free.
To this day, I remind myself of my identities and how I am more than I think. I do things that make me happy: I take my meds, dress in nice clothes, take care of myself, spend time with my boyfriend and write, most importantly. The sum of these things put me on the path toward healing. Yet, I believe healing is a process, and not a goal. Although I struggle some days, I remind myself that I am still healing from my own thoughts and my own illness. Thus, I believe I am better than what I was, and I find this to be true. Always.
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