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7 Lessons Learned From My Bipolar Diagnosis Journey

I thought I had depression, and that’s what I was first diagnosed with. Later, I learned that I really had bipolar disorder, type 2, with an anxiety disorder on top of it. Here’s what I learned on my journey to a proper diagnosis.

1. I began understanding past behaviors. 

Once I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a lot of things from my life started making more sense. I finally realized some of the inane things I thought and did as a child/teen were attributable to hypomania. Being silly happy when I won a goldfish at a carnival, carrying it before me, grinning like a loon. Near-constant mirth when I read a novel parody, laughing long and loudly every time someone used a word or phrase that reminded me of it. Luckily, I didn’t have any money to spend, or I would have done that too, based on my later behavior. Even things I did as an adult before my proper diagnosis made more sense — flight of ideas, pressured speech, and the like.

2. Getting a second opinion is important.

Going to a different psychiatrist and finally getting the right diagnosis was, in many ways, like getting a second opinion. We don’t often hesitate to get a second opinion on matters concerning our physical health (and insurance companies may require it). Why can it feel different when it comes to our mental health? I’m not saying doctor shopping is a good idea or that a diagnosis of depression did me no good at all. It just took a different psychiatrist to put together all my symptoms in a way that made sense to me as well as to him.

3. The aha moment with the right diagnosis.

When I got my bipolar diagnosis, it was like a wake-up call. I instantly understood that my psychiatrist was right. Once I had that insight, I was able to explore my actual disorder in various ways — further sessions with him and with my psychotherapist, reading books and reliable online sources, sharing with other people who have the same diagnosis and listening to their experiences.

4. Figuring out the right medications takes time.

I had been taking medications for depression for many years. Then I learned I might — did — need treatment with anti-anxiety medications, mood levelers, and other kinds of drugs that specifically targeted bipolar symptoms. I still needed meds for depression, but I needed a “cocktail” of drugs that addressed all my difficulties, not just one.

5. Going on maintenance meds once stable helped.

The process of settling on that cocktail of meds took a long and difficult time, but once I had the right diagnosis and the right meds, I was able to cut back to seeing a psychiatrist four times a year to get renewals on my “maintenance” medications. The process that stabilized me also allowed me and my doctor to make “tweaks” to the dosages to correspond with increased or lessened symptoms.

6. New revelations didn’t stop after a new diagnosis.

My learning about my disorder didn’t stop with my new diagnosis. Recently, I learned my depression could be what is called dysthymia a type of depression that is roughly equivalent to the difference between mania and hypomania in bipolar II. I wasn’t sure this applied to me, as my depressive episodes seemed long enough and severe enough to be considered major depression, but after consulting my therapist and other reliable sources, I began to see how a dysthymia diagnosis actually did correspond to my symptoms.

7. The right diagnosis gave me hope.

The most important thing the right diagnosis gave me was hope. Properly understanding my disorder and the correct treatments for it allowed me to hope I could achieve stability and healing from all the years when I didn’t realize I was struggling with hypomania as well as depression. I could at last look forward to a life where my disorder didn’t control me. With help from my psychiatrist and the medications he prescribed, I have been able to live a content and productive life. Work, stable relationships, and the other benefits of having proper treatment are achievable — and I have largely achieved my goals in life.

And my new diagnosis has been responsible for it.

Getty image by Francesco Carta fotografo

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