My Bipolar, BPD, OCD, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobic Life’s Journey; Thus Far
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
Before I begin my story, I want to emphasize that I have an amazing mom and stepdad who raised me. They are only human and some of the things that affected me as a child were never their intention and many things that occurred were completely out of their control. I am fortunate to have a close loving relationship with those in my life who I consider family. My family has stood by me through my darkest hours and I am forever grateful to them for that. There wasn’t a guidebook for what I was going through and they always did what they thought was best for me.
I am a thirty-eight-year-old mom of three and wife of twenty years who happens to also have mental illnesses. I have been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, borderline personality disorder traits, obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder with agoraphobia. Being mentally ill is not something that I asked for or caused to happen. Mental illnesses occur due to a combination of genetics and environment. Reading other people’s mental illness stories has been an inspiration to me and has helped me feel less alone. I want to share my experience living with the mental illnesses I have in the hopes that someone out there will relate, feel less alone, and know that there is always hope.
The first panic attack I remember having was when I was four years old. It is still vivid in my mind. My mom and I lived with my grandma at the time sharing a room and bed in her home. I woke up from my slumber with a start and a sinking feeling that something wasn’t right. I reached over for my mom, but she was gone! I jumped out of bed and in that moment, I knew she was gone forever. My heart was a rabbit racing, my body molten lava; I sat on the floor crying and trembling. My grandma heard me from her bedroom and came to me. She scooped me up into her arms to soothe me. My mom had just gone into work early that day but the change in routine filled me with dread the likes of which I had never felt before. From that moment forward I lived in fear of feeling that horrible panic again. That fear only led me to panic even more. In my young life, I’d already been through some trauma in the form of emotional and physical abuse by my first stepfather, who my mom had married and quickly divorced earlier that year. The marriage was short lived, but the damage was long lasting. My reaction to this simple change in routine was the start of that trauma coming to light in the form of panic attacks and anxiety.
At age six we moved out of my grandma’s house when my mom married my step dad who raised me from that point on. He had five kids from a previous marriage and he and my mom ended up having a child together too. There was a lot of discord when our families’ first blended and I struggled to adjust. It wasn’t always smooth sailing but I’m happy to have my dad in my life and to have had siblings to grow up with.
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I did rebel, often sneaking out or lying about where I was going. At a young age, still a preteen, I lied and said I was going one place but went another. I ended up being sexually assaulted. My brain seemed to snap after. Even now it is difficult for me to talk about. I held a lot of blame towards myself for a long time for being where I should not have been with people I should not have been with. I felt a lot of shame that I didn’t know how to process. No means no at any point in time and it’s as simple as that.
From age thirteen on I developed an intense resistance to anything out of my control, even small changes in my daily routine became triggering making me anxious and depressed. My mind became flooded with graphic, vivid worst-case scenarios constantly that I couldn’t turn off. My behavior changed. I became withdrawn and started to dissociate a lot during this time to avoid feeling the intense emotional pain that was overwhelming me. I started to self-harm to turn my emotional pain into physical pain which is something I could process better. I started drinking and dabbling with drugs. I wanted to feel any way other than the way I was feeling, and drugs and alcohol could do that for me.
While engaging in all this maladaptive behavior I was still shy, naïve of many things, and a people pleaser who hated letting people down. I’d be an honor roll student and also get suspended. I’d be the friend people turned to when they needed someone, but also have such a temper I’d fight with anyone who disagreed with me. I was usually quiet, sweet, and kind, but could also be angry and spit venom with my words. I didn’t understand how there could be so many contradictory things within me. I felt like I lost myself or maybe never really knew who I was to begin with.
Getting through school was a challenge for me with everything I was going through but at age seventeen I managed to graduate and took a job as a hostess in a restaurant. It was through work at just age seventeen that I met my husband of now twenty years. We fell madly in love and wanted to settle down together. When I turned eighteen, we got married and jumped into full on adulthood. I was born and raised in Southern California and he was from Missouri. He wanted to move back to the Midwest, so I went with him. Once there our bills and responsibilities piled up fast. At age nineteen I cracked under the pressure and had what I now know was my first manic episode.
Mania is a freight train moving full speed ahead. It’s a rush of energy that can be euphoric one minute and dysphoric the next. When manic, my self-confidence soars, and my anxiety dissipates. I burst through my natural introversion and want to be social. I want to party and drink copious amounts of alcohol with a sprinkling of drugs. I want to start a million hobbies all at once. I’m fleetingly obsessed with each hobby and start too many to ever finish. My drive to get things done is insatiable. I want to make huge changes. I’ve quit my job numerous times during mania, to start new ones that are in my mind “bigger and better,” for me. My mind swells pregnant with so many thoughts that I can’t contain them all. My speech becomes rapid fire when trying to form my thoughts into words. I teeter on the edge of reality and the brink of psychosis. Eventually gravity catches up to me bringing me to a screeching halt.
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What goes up must come down and the crash into depression is indescribable oblivion. Depression makes me want to simply vanish into thin air. I can’t find meaning in my life no matter how plain the reasons to go on are laid out right in front of me. I have no motivation to bother with basic self-care let alone anything beyond that. I alternate between sleeping excessively and insomnia. My anxiety returns with a vengeance and rumination starts full force. My mind tries to live in the past, present, and future all at once but it can’t exist in all three places and remain sane. It takes me away from the present making it hard to enjoy any good things happening in it.
As I’m sure you can imagine these ups and downs are not easy on me, my relationships and especially not my marriage. This first cycle into mania was a shock to us both. Neither my husband nor I knew how to handle what had happened. Over the course of a few months I stabilized, and we hoped it had been a one time breakdown. Everything was peachy for a few years. We settled down and decided we were ready to start a family. At age twenty I gave birth to twins and age twenty-five my youngest was born. They are the greatest accomplishments of my entire life and always will be.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any manic episodes during the time when my babies were very young. I did have some minor to moderate episodes of depression but pushed through them the best I could because I had three babies to take care of. Suddenly at age twenty-seven, I slipped into a depression so severe that I couldn’t keep pushing on like nothing was wrong. It was a scary and dark place to be in. I was fighting the depression so hard for my babies, but I felt like I was drowning in the darkness. My husband didn’t know how to pull me out and I didn’t have the energy to even try to claw my own way out. My husband did the most drastic thing he could think of to help me and that was to take me back home to California to be near my family.
Once in California I sought treatment for my depression and was put on an antidepressant. Big mistake! The antidepressant triggered a severe mixed manic episode. A mixed manic episode is being up and down at the same time. It’s the most terrifying place to be in. Extreme low and high feelings fight a battle to the death in your head. The negative inner dialogue of depression constantly whispers damaging thoughts into your ear, and you believe them. Dysphoric manic energy is also there to make you more likely to act on the thoughts through self-harming behavior. The antidepressant triggering a mixed state episode led to my bipolar I diagnosis. I learned that antidepressants often trigger mania or mixed episodes in people who have bipolar disorders unlike people with major depressive disorder. The class of medications I needed was mood stabilizers.
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I was started on a mood stabilizer and within a couple weeks was feeling much better. So much better in fact that I started to question whether I even had bipolar disorder or any mental illness at all for that matter. I decided to stop taking my medication. It was the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last by any means. Seeking treatment when I’m in a bad place and complying with medication only until I felt better again became a common practice for me. Over time, my cycles became more frequent going from years apart to as many as four a year. I suffered, my family and friends suffered, anyone who was in my vicinity suffered when I was in an episode. Bipolar disorder is a progressive illness that often peaks in the mid-thirties from what I have read. This has rung true for me.
At age thirty-six, I had reached a state of complete disaster and didn’t know how to ever get back to being the person I wanted to be, the person the people in my life deserved. My episodes were more frequent and closer together than ever before. I ended up having the most severe mixed state episode I have ever had at this age. I was trying to balance family, work, and college at the same time and became unraveled in doing so. I was drinking excessively, which seems to be interconnected with my episodes of depression, mania, and mixed states. The drinking made me uncontrollably reckless and impulsive as well as numbed me to the feelings of the people I loved and how my bad behavior was affecting them. I felt rage and was hostile at times. One of the most inexcusable things I did was get so wasted on Christmas Eve that it ruined everyone else’s holiday. I was so intoxicated I entered a drunken delusional state and verbally attacked my family and guests without any provocation. It was one of the lowest moments of my life. To say I felt like shit is a gross understatement. I thought that the best thing I could do for the people I loved was to not be in their lives anymore. I was out of control and had lost all hope. During this episode, I attempted to end my life.
The horror of these events is what led me to finally take a good hard look at myself and admit that I needed to not only get help but take it dead seriously. My life was in shambles and my very existence was at stake. I decided I needed to seek drastic treatment. I found a residential DBT program and voluntarily admitted myself there. The DBT program helped change my life for the better. Living there for a couple of weeks and then going to their Intensive Outpatient Program for a couple weeks more after allowed the professionals whose care I was under to fully see the big picture going on with me. This insight into my behavior is what led to me finally being diagnosed fully and on the right medications and treatment. I made lifestyle changes like becoming sober and being medication compliant. I knew that it didn’t matter if I was fine when I drank nine out of ten if the one out of ten times ended with devastating results. I also knew medication was non negotiable for me to stay stable. I learned skills to use to replace the maladaptive skills I’d been using, and how to manage my intense emotions better. I discovered what a life worth living looked like to me and how to build it.
Slowly but surely, I have pieced myself together. Recovery to me in this moment means I still have struggles but am better equipped to handle them when I do. My episodes are less frequent and less severe when they do occur. Despite it all, I am so grateful to still be here. I will continue to live and to keep growing as a person. I have a great team of physicians, professionals, and a support system that help me maintain the progress I’ve made with managing my illnesses. I am a better mom, wife, friend, and overall person in recovery. My story isn’t over yet and I hope reading my story thus far inspires you to keep living yours if you’re going through mental health issues. There is always hope even at the worst of times. Things can get better and I am living proof of that.