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My Life Was Forever Changed After My Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

Eight years ago, my life changed forever.

That was when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II. After so many years of struggling, it was a relief to finally find out what was wrong with me; until the utter fear and desperation of living with a mental illness enveloped me as I had no idea what to do next. I knew my life was thoroughly altered, and that no one would look at me the same way again …

For years, I had struggled with depression. I would talk to my doctor, take the pills they prescribed, and never talk to them again. In fact, I would start feeling so very amazing, that I would stop taking the medication – because little did I know I was then in a hypomanic episode, making bad decisions, but feeling oh so wonderful! I was part of a work-life study for the University of Calgary, and they asked many questions about mental health. The last time I talked to them, I must have been in a stable state of mind, because the questions they asked triggered me to be concerned about my mental well-being, and I talked to my doctor. She referred me to the most amazing psychiatrist, and I was fortunate to be able to meet with her within a very short period of time, which doesn’t always happen. I still work with my same psychiatrist to this day.

Every day for me is a question mark. It is a constant guessing game; sometimes it is like looking at a complete stranger, except that stranger is literally in my own mirror, staring at me, daring me to guess who I see. One moment I am content, happy to be in my own skin, while moments later, some little thing will happen and my mood switches immediately. This is called a mixed-mood episode, and they are unpredictable, unstable, and unwelcome; yet treatable with my doctor’s help and regularly taking my medications. But will today be the day that I feel good because it’s a normal mood? Or is it because I’m becoming hypomanic, with so much energy that I stop sleeping, about to do extremely reckless and careless things that will hurt myself and those around me, and that I will later regret? Am I sad because the weather is a little dreary, or is it the beginning of a depression so deep that suicidal thoughts creep in like fog, showing me images of no one but my immediate family coming to my funeral? And the most important question – is this the beginning of something long term where I need time to heal, or can I tough it out and see where things go? Toughing it out sometimes makes it ten times, a hundred times worse.

But taking time off to heal? That causes guilt that I let my coworkers down, let my parents down, that I can’t handle life anymore. I’ve taken anywhere from a few days off, to several months off. It is never any easier, it is never any better. The hard part is knowing when to take that break. I remember the first time I was taken off work was because I was forgetting my 45 minute drive to work, not even sure if I stopped at that light or followed the rules of the road, and even when I did remember, I was thinking the whole time, “If I drove into the ditch, would anyone care? Would anyone notice?” Each time I’ve been off work, I eventually recognize that this is the best thing I could have done for myself, that I was becoming unable to do my job effectively anymore, that if I hadn’t rested and reset my brain, I could have caused irreparable damage. Mental health days are my saving grace – I recently had to take one because I simply could not face the day, no matter what I did, and needed to take care of me. But I have to lie and say “I’m ill” because of the stigma.

Few people know my story. They may know little bits and pieces, but they don’t see that I present a façade each day to them. On rare occasions, my true self comes through, but they don’t know how exhausting it is to always be a happy, relaxed, put together and organized person each day; to pretend that my inner monologue isn’t angry – not at them, but screaming in fury nonetheless, aching for the rage to be released; to pretend that tears aren’t threatening to fall like uncontrollable rivulets of water down my face at any moment; to pretend that I don’t have so much energy that I could run for hours and never stop for a breath. And the worst part is, that because of a wonderful chemical imbalance in my brain, I have absolutely no control over any of this. Sometimes I feel “normal” but it’s not the same as what others experience. But I cling to it like a favorite blanket so I will remember the feeling when I’m struggling.

I trust my coworkers; I know they like me for me. They see how amazing I am at my job, and they honestly appreciate what I do for our clients. But I can’t tell them. The stigma is still too great; I fear they will look at me different, that the stigma of a mental illness, an invisible disability that they have trouble understanding, will taint how they treat me if I seem a little off, or need to take a mental health day. I don’t want or need pity; I need understanding. I’m glad we participate in Mental Health month, because it gives me the opportunity to share my story, and to hopefully increase awareness. I know that 1 in 5 people, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, will experience a mental health challenge this year; I experience it year after year, but consider how many people you work with. I work with about 45 people, and I am only one I know that’s struggling in that 45. Who are the other eight that are experiencing issues this year – without the threat of COVID-19 hanging over them? I know you are there, I know you are silent, but you are not alone.

I wish I could tell everyone I know about my mental health challenges. I am not ashamed, I will tell anyone who asks me anything they want to know, as I firmly believe we need to end the stigma around mental health disabilities. I am perfectly capable of looking after myself, of working at a great job, of being a fully functioning member of society, of having healthy relationships. My bipolar does not define who I am. But it does determine how my life is structured. And that structure is pretty rigid. In order to maintain my stability, I must have control over many aspects of my life, including being organized in my thoughts, in my home, in my eating, in my social life, and most importantly, in my work. This has made me pretty efficient at my job, so I’m grateful for that! But sometimes, it’s a little weird to have to plan when I will clean my home because if I’m unstable, it simply won’t get done, and that chaos creates even more instability in my mental health.

Everyone’s illness is different. There is no one right answer, and when my mom asks how she can help me on my bad days, many times I don’t even know. What worked last month may not work this month, but just that quiet persistence of being there and trying hard to understand has made the difference.

If there is one thing I would say to people with a mental health challenge it is this: do not stop fighting for yourself. You are worth it, and more importantly, YOU ARE STRONGER THAN THE STRUGGLE.

What I would say to those who have not yet experienced a mental health challenge is please don’t judge us, don’t write us off as incapable, untrustworthy, or undependable. We are going through more than you see, more than we say, and sometimes the guilt and shame we put on ourselves is way worse than anything you could do or say to us. Do not treat us differently, please do not use “that voice” if you ask if we are OK, but know we want to feel like someone cares, even if we keep our happy mask on. Understand that you cannot fix us, but we can really use a smile from you, a quiet ear, or just someone to sit with us for five minutes so we are no longer alone …

Photo credit: Juergen Bauer Pictures/Getty Images