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How Understanding Myself and My Bipolar Diagnosis Helped Me Thrive

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I entered my final semester of college in the spring of 2019. It was a much anticipated and seemingly allusive achievement I had been struggling towards for nine years. At the time I was being treated for generalized anxiety, depressive disorder and ADHD, treatment I had been receiving for over a decade. I experienced minimal and short-lived improvements after trying various medications and behavioral therapy methods.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I remember I was about a third of the way through the semester when I could feel myself starting to breakdown again. I was struggling to make it to class each day, either because I had little to no energy or because I was having debilitating anxiety and couldn’t even get out the door. I remember being so exhausted and burned out that I went to the health center convinced I had mononucleosis (mono). I really wanted it to be mono, because then I would have a clear cut explanation for my fatigue. The nurse informed me that the test came back negative and I immediately burst into tears. I could not be falling into another depressive episode, not when I was so incredibly close to achieving my greatest goal at that point in my life.

My psychiatrist decided to up my antidepressants to try and mitigate the debilitating symptoms of my depression, but I was not getting the results I wanted or needed. Finally, after a couple of weeks my mood started to improve, and my energy went back up. I was so relieved. However, the energy kept getting higher and higher. I started only getting a couple of hours of sleep and not feeling the effects the next day. I went three days with only eight hours of sleep total.

During those sleepless nights I was researching and creating a whole business plan for the bookstore I had suddenly decided I was going to start. I was also planning out my own beauty YouTube channel I was going to start. I was constantly purchasing makeup; I probably spent roughly $500 on makeup in one month, buying new products I really didn’t need. I was purchasing things online daily, the empty cardboard boxes piling up waist high in my entryway. I have had issues with impulse control in the past. I have also had times where I came up with elaborate creative passion projects I threw myself into for a week or two and then promptly forgot about. I had always attributed this to my ADHD.

However, as I went through this period of excessive spending and grandiose ideas, something started stirring in the back of my mind. I kept thinking about my close friend who had been diagnosed with bipolar I after a manic episode that caused hallucinations. I knew there were two more common types of bipolar disorder, bipolar I and bipolar II. I remembered from my various psychology classes the main differences between the two: mainly that bipolar II was often characterized more by the depressive episodes, and manic episodes were classified as hypomanic episodes as they weren’t as severe.

Something suddenly clicked. I started researching bipolar II, referring back to all of my psychology textbooks, I read multiple articles on the Mighty about other people’s experiences with bipolar II, and I reached out to my friend who had been diagnosed with bipolar I. It suddenly all made sense. The debilitating depressive episodes that would suddenly turn into periods of extreme energy and grandiose ideas and limited (or nonexistent) impulse control, the medication not being as effective as it could be…

I checked so many boxes for a bipolar II diagnosis.  At first I was really scared to bring up my suspicions with my therapist; I realized I myself held a stigma toward bipolar spectrum disorders. To me they seemed more unpredictable and harder to treat than depression or anxiety. So I went back to my friend and asked her more about her experiences, and after hearing her describe how the diagnosis had changed her life for the better I finally had the courage to face something that intimidated and scared me.

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I brought it up with my therapist one session, and we both looked over the DSM-5 to see how many of the symptoms I exhibited. She wasn’t entirely convinced, but was more than happy to explore the idea and encouraged me to talk about it with my psychiatrist. During my next appointment with my psychiatrist I brought it up, but shied away by saying “maybe I’m way off base here,” or “this could be a stretch.” But he listened to me as I shared my theory. As soon as I was finished he told me not to discount the idea, I knew my symptoms and experiences better than any outsider no matter how trained they are, and it was something worth seriously exploring. He immediately put me on a small dose of a mood stabilizer, to see if a drug used to treat bipolar spectrum disorders would help me.

A few weeks went by, and I started to notice small changes in my mood and behavior. After a couple of months of slowly increasing my dosage, I knew something was truly different. It felt like a weight had been lifted off of me. It was almost as if the dark haze had cleared out of my brain, allowing me to feel and experience things I never had before. Things that had previously felt impossible were suddenly manageable.

For the first time in my adult life, I realized that I was functioning, truly functioning. I never knew that my brain was capable of allowing me to feel so stable. I still had highs and lows, but they were no longer completely consuming me. I was able to do things to help alleviate depressive symptoms that had been hard for me to do in the past, like working out and spending time with my friends. That’s when I finally knew we had been trying to treat the wrong disorders for years. The comorbidity rates of bipolar disorder and other disorders such as anxiety, depression and ADHD are extremely high, something I had even researched for my senior project but hadn’t applied to myself at the time.

I will be forever thankful I happened to be pursuing my bachelor’s degree in psychology and that I was brave enough to go to my therapist and say “Hey, I know I am nowhere near qualified to be diagnosing anyone, but these are my symptoms and I really think there could be a connection here.” I am lucky I had therapists and psychiatrists who took me seriously. I am lucky I had a friend who was open about her experiences and helped me get past my fear of possibly getting a new diagnosis of something I didn’t fully understand. I’m lucky I have a family who never stopped believing me and believing in me. Just to be clear, self-diagnosis is rarely a good idea and runs the risk of detrimental effects. That said, you know your experience better than anyone else, no matter how many degrees they have. Having the courage to speak up and advocate for yourself with someone qualified to diagnose you is what can help change your life forever.

I still struggle with my ups and downs, there are still days when depression gets the better of me, but the severity and longevity of these episodes are so much less than what they were. I am in a healthy, stable relationship for the first time in my life. I am successfully working at a job without burning out for the first time in my life. I have suddenly started to love working out because of how good it makes me feel physically and mentally. Most of all, with my increased insight into why I am the way I am, I have learned how to love myself more than ever.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Originally published: June 29, 2020
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