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What It's Really Like Living With Rapid Cycling Cyclothymia

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When I tell people I have rapid cycling cyclothymia, 9.5 times out of 10 they give me a blank stare; the remaining 0.5 being those in the medical/mental health field or those who have a cycling mood disorder themselves. In fact, as I type, my computer’s spellcheck keeps putting the squiggly red underline beneath the word, which indicates “this isn’t a word.” I thought, since there seems to be so little information on this illness “out there,” that I’d write my description of what it’s like living with rapid cycling cyclothymia in the hopes it might help people understand a little more about it.

Before I go any further, I feel the need to preface the rest of this post with this statement: I’m not a mental health professional. I’m not using technical terms other than the very basics, and by no means should anyone read this and try to diagnose themselves with cyclothymia or any other disorder based on my story. This is my description of my condition as I’ve experienced it through in my own words.

With that out of the way, here we go. Cyclothymia is a mood cycling condition that’s “milder” than the better-known bipolar disorder. I put “milder” in quotes because what I go through isn’t always mild. It’s just not as severe as other conditions in the mood cycling continuum. As I mentioned above, cyclothymia is rare. While it’s not included in many studies, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the prevalence, I’ve found multiple sources that put it between 0.4% and 1% of the population. My variety of cyclothymia is the rapid cycling form, which means that my depressed and hypomanic cycles can happen much faster than the those with the “traditional” form of a mood cycling disorder. Technically, a rapid cycling mood disorder is defined by four or more manic, hypomanic, or depressive episodes in any 12-month period. To give an idea of how rapid my cycling is, I can wake up depressed, be hypomanic by noon (particularly if I don’t take my meds on time) and be depressed again by bedtime. While it often isn’t quite this rapid, any one cycle rarely lasts for more than a couple of days, a week at most.

People often ask me what my mood cycles are like. I describe the hypomanic cycles as such: Think about drinking a pot of coffee (or two) all at once, assuming you don’t do this regularly, and then having to sit at your desk, work and go about your daily routine. You feel anxious, energetic (though not always in a good way), sometimes irritable, jittery. It’s difficult to focus or concentrate, you feel like your head is swimming, like you could run ten miles (again assuming you don’t normally do this — I don’t). The depressive cycles feel… well, depressive. I tend to lack energy, feel unmotivated and down. I often feel worthless, wondering if there is a point to even going about my daily activities. Probably the most frustrating depressive feeling for me in a depressive cycle is the apathy, the nothingness. I am generally an extremely passionate person, full of emotion and with a big heart. To feel like I don’t care one way or the other about things is almost frightening for me. Often, it’s as if my body has been drained of all emotion.

While I’m discussing the cycles themselves, let me place a huge misunderstanding to rest: Even the most rapid cycling of rapid cycling doesn’t suddenly become hypomanic or depressed mid-sentence, or at least I’ve never heard of or experienced this. Using the coffee comparison from earlier (I really like coffee), you don’t take a sip and suddenly bounce out of your chair. You start to feel the effects gradually. A cup of coffee is probably fine, and two might make you a little extra energetic, but by the time you finish the whole pot, you’re probably in a state you don’t want to be in, or at least one that makes it tough to sit down and concentrate. This is how a hypomanic state comes on. The depressive cycle is similar, though for me personally, I tend to feel most depressive states when I wake up in the morning. I’m not sure if this is common or not. They’re also a bit tougher to distinguish because maybe I’m just overly tired and feeling lazy, or maybe I’ve had a bad day/week and I’m down about it like anyone (i.e., someone without depressive issues) would be. I’ve learned to separate these feelings, but it takes a lot of practice and I’m still not 100 percent accurate in my determinations.

Life with rapid cycling cyclothymia means every day is a surprise, for better or for worse. No two days are exactly alike, and no two people experience it exactly the same. But with so little information available on the illness and the rarity of it, I thought it might help others to hear my experiences so that if they, too, are struggling with this, they are reminded they are not alone.

A version of this article was originally published on the author’s blog.

Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

Originally published: August 22, 2018
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