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What Receiving a Bipolar Diagnosis in My 40s Says About Me

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I’d been struggling again. And was feeling suicidal. So I decided to make an appointment with yet another psychiatrist. It had been three years since my last psychiatric evaluation. I was long overdue.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

It took me months to get in with this new natural psychiatrist. Then I was assigned a PA. I like the PA I see. She listens. And seems to genuinely want help. Not something that’s always easy to find.

During my first evaluation, she prescribed me neurotransmitter and herbal supplements. And while both have done wonders, I still need to be on medication, and I still need to use medical marijuana for emotional and hormonal support during my period. Things I always attributed to helping with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). But now there was a new diagnosis looming: bipolar disorder.

I first saw it on the paperwork where, “used to treat bipolar disorder,” was written in the directions for one of my supplements. So I asked my PA during my next appointment, “Am I being treated for bipolar disorder?” And she said, “Yes. Bipolar II. Because of the highs and lows. The drastic mood changes. The erratic sleep patterns. The general disposition.” All of which I always considered to be just my general disposition. My way of being.

Sure sensory processing disorder (SPD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) described parts of me, but those disorders made sense. And so did my PTSD and PMDD diagnoses. But the bipolar II diagnosis was the most encompassing of any of them—it accounted for the way I live my entire life. For what goes on in my day-to-day. And having there be a textbook definition for people like me was even more overwhelming. The most I’ve ever felt like a lab rat.

Bipolar II is the diagnosis I struggle with the most. Even thought it is the most accurate when it comes to describing how I am, it is the scariest diagnosis yet. In everything I read, bipolar appears to be one step away from psychosis. It feels like it’s the next level of diagnoses. More daunting. Haunting. And I’ve witnessed how real and terrifying delusion and psychosis can be. Both directly and indirectly. And the bipolar II diagnosis felt like one step closer to all of that.

But I’m the farthest from delusion and psychosis I’ve ever been. Within myself. Within the circle of people I choose to surround myself with. Arguably, upon receiving a bipolar II diagnosis, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I think it’s just that, for the first time, I’m being properly diagnosed. But I’m realizing that the diagnosis doesn’t really even matter.

The only thing that matters is the progress we are making within ourselves. Not the labels we’ve been given. The sentencing of five years to life of yet another diagnosis. As if we’re being punished for another crime we didn’t commit.

What I’m learning is that my diagnoses are all part of the same concept. They are all medical ways of classifying the rerouting that happened in my brain as a result of trauma. All ways of making sense of my long list of symptoms. And providing me with treatments. The dozens of things I need to do each day to keep myself in check.

My symptoms are more a list of the pain I need to learn to manage. Navigate the highs and lows. The ups and downs. Where moods are affected. So are sleep and health. Relationships and jobs. And my sense of self. It’s how I’ve lived for so long that I struggle to describe the symptoms because they are just part of what I know life to be. And if I’ve survived this long with bipolar II without diagnosis or treatment, then imagine how well I’ll do now, in my 40s, with the proper care.

I see that, if I can think of my diagnoses as ways to understand myself more than as my crosses to bear, I can learn to accept them. To embrace them. And to be thankful I live in a time and with the privilege and the resources to understand them. To make my life better. Comfortable, even.

And I’m learning that having a bipolar diagnosis in my 40s is the diagnosis I’ve probably always needed. The one that explains me the most. The highs and lows. The struggle for contentment. But I’m realizing that if it says anything about me, it’s that I’m resilient. I’m strong. And I can manage anything that comes my way.

If you or someone you know struggles with bipolar disorder, here are some tips for ways to help yourself.

1. Have a contingency plan for when you have an extreme low.

Especially if it involves an argument with someone you live with. When my husband and I get into arguments, I often hit a low. And with him in the house and us arguing, it becomes difficult for me to self-soothe. And when we would fight during the pandemic, I had nowhere else to go, so I started going to a nature trail near our house. I leave my boots and socks in the car just in case. I even have an emergency kit with calming sprays and Kleenex in my purse. So when I hit the low, and I have nowhere to go, I can head for the trail. Go for a walk. Connect to nature. And reconnect to myself. Not all contingency plans involve leaving. When you can stay in your home, know what you need to do to get yourself out of your low. I usually use my weighted blanket, journal, do yoga, watch TV, etc. and wait until I feel my mood has stabilized.

2. Be aware of what happens after you experience an extreme high.

I realized long ago that my happiness can be dangerous. That it often comes with consequences. And I’m aware that when I am extremely happy, something can quickly suck me into an extreme low. Like an undertow pulling me under. Being mindful of this helps me to navigate the low that ensues. To know that it does not mean I should take my life. To know nothing extreme is necessary. It is simply a crash from my happiness. And I will feel better soon.

3. Take care of yourself.

I’ve learned that the best thing I can do for myself is to practice self-care. To meditate, eat well, journal, exercise, drink water, rest. To do the things that make me feel better. This means taking my supplements and medications every day too. Self-care also helps me climb out of my lows. If I wake up not wanting to get out of bed, it’s getting out of bed, bathing, and getting dressed that make me feel better. I hope you’re able to embrace the things that make you feel better too.

4. Be curious about yourself.

For me, this means journaling, reflecting and participating in psychotherapy. Journaling every day. Reflecting every week. Sitting in psychotherapy at least once a week and talking about the things that come up for me. Being open to receiving feedback. Learning that I am wrong sometimes and make mistakes but that doesn’t mean my life is not worth living. It means I’m human.

5. Move your body often.

Even if it’s just stretching or going for walks. I find that if I keep myself physically active, I manage the highs and lows better than if I stay too much in my head. So instead of sitting in front of the computer all day, I’ll do chores around the house and work on my phone. If you have to be in front of the computer, then take breaks often. And make sure you are physically moving during your break and not just jumping onto another screen.

6. Keep a journal.

I journal first thing in the morning and then throughout the day. I have a journal that I write in by hand and a journal I keep on my phone. When things start to feel like they’re crashing down, I write. I reflect. I remind myself of what to do to get out of my low. It’s like I leave my future self notes to find. And when I find them, they help me remember who I am and see through what I’m struggling with. During exceptionally difficult times, I even write notes and place them around the house. Reminding myself of the self-care tools I have available, which work as a directive by giving me things to do to help keep my mood balanced.

Bipolar is tough. And there’s no way around it but through it. If you’re fighting the battle too, know I’m in it with you. I wish you light, love, and a safe journey. You’ve got this.

Image via contributor

Originally published: October 5, 2022
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