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Why I Found Out I Had Bipolar Disorder 13 Years After My Diagnosis


I woke with a familiar buzz in my body a few mornings ago. I greeted it the same way anyone would greet an extra boost of energy, especially since I’d been in the throes of a deep depression in the days before. With four children and a husband, I was struggling to stay on top of the housework. The dishes and laundry were piling up; the floors hadn’t been properly swept in a while; and the house, in general, felt as if it were falling apart around me. So this buzz, this energy — it felt like a saving grace.

I woke with a single-minded purpose to get my house cleaned — more specifically, to scrub the walls of my house. I met my tasks with tunnel-vision. Anything that distracted me from my tasks made me explosively angry. I couldn’t be bothered with the petty fights my children were having. I couldn’t be bothered with the dog howling in the background. Even the phone ringing was enough to set me off.

When my husband came home from work that evening, he remarked on how quiet but restless I was. He asked if I was angry, if everything was OK. I blew him off as I filled up another bucket of cleaning solution and set about scrubbing the baseboards in the guest bathroom.

This wasn’t the first episode I’d experienced. The one before it, a few weeks ago, ended with me removing the banister on our stairs so I could bring one of our couches down from the loft (by myself), and setting up a new entertainment system in our front room, all in the span of an hour.

Doesn’t sound so bad, right? To me, it didn’t. I was getting things done. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with how I felt — the restlessness, the need to move, to do something. It never occurred to me as unnatural because I’ve dealt with it my entire life, and while there have been many times, even recently, that it’s gotten me into trouble, for the most part, it’s allowed me to be productive.

That night, as I laid in bed with an exhausted body and a bustling mind, I wondered if something was wrong with me. I’d spent so much of my day yelling at my children because they were distracting me from my task, a task that had no deadline, a task that could have easily been set aside while I tended to whatever it was they needed. I felt horrible and disgusted with myself. Surely good, healthy moms didn’t act as I had toward my children.

As the night went on, and I still couldn’t sleep, the feeling something wasn’t right only intensified, almost to the point of panic. I wondered if it was some odd symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I was diagnosed with at 15. I wondered if it was something else, something worse. And this thought festered in my mind until the next morning, when I texted my mom and asked how to access my medical records from the hospital where I received post-trauma psychiatric care — the same hospital where I was diagnosed with PTSD.

There were six things listed on my file, two of which were related to my pregnancy with my first son. The other four, however, were added at the same time in 2005 while I was in psychiatric care: child sexual abuse, mood problem, PTSD and headache. In that order.

I stared at the words “mood problem” for a long time, working up the courage to click on it, and when I did, it brought up a tab on bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 13 years ago.

I had no idea. From my recollection, the words “bipolar disorder” were used once during the duration of my treatment but was never posed to me as an official diagnosis. But here it was, in black and white; I had, in fact, been diagnosed with it.

Thirteen years without treatment.

Thirteen years thinking these ups and downs were a typical human response, that everyone went through it to the degree that I did, and maybe mine manifested differently because of the PTSD. Thirteen years of wondering why I would spend days and days of sleepless writing only to destroy every bit of what I wrote a week or two later; of wondering why I got so restless at times, and if I wasn’t restless then I was sedentary, with very few intermittent moments of “normality” thrown between the two extremes.

Why hadn’t they told me? Why hadn’t they told my mom, who also had no idea? How could I go so long without knowing? Had my mind simply skipped over it? There was a point of denial even with the PTSD diagnosis. When they put me on antipsychotics, sleep medication and mood stabilizers, I was in denial. Maybe I just completely blanked it out. Maybe I knew at one time but purposely forgot?

Either way, I found out yesterday. A little more than 24-hours ago.

I don’t know where to go from here. I am uninsured, unmedicated and I’m scared to death I’ve screwed up my kids because of my ignorance, because all this time I’ve been living with a condition I didn’t even know I had. I’m eating myself away with guilt, both for my shortcomings as a parent and because both my father and my sister were diagnosed with bipolar disorder — he has type two, she has type one — so part of me feels like I shouldn’t be so shocked. I should have found out sooner.

At the same time, I know this isn’t a hopeless situation. I have a new piece in the puzzle. I can get help. I can learn more about condition, and about myself. I can learn, just like with PTSD, my triggers and how to better cope with them. I can get better so I can be better for my husband, my children, my family and friends, and for myself. Already, I am determined this is not going to be my excuse, but my reason to push harder, try harder and hold myself to a higher standard, even on the days when I fail to meet even the minimum.

My name is Kristy Herbeck, I have bipolar disorder, and this is day one of a long journey.

Wish me luck.

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash