Bipolar Disorder and PTSD – How I Accepted My Mental Illness Before it had a Name
Nobody wants to have a mental illness. Nobody says, “Wow! I think a schizophrenia tank top would look amazing on me!” Nobody says, “I should buy this new depression romper; it will really help me get laid tonight.” Before I had a name for my mental illness, this is what it felt like: playing diagnosis dress-up, trying on labels, seeing how they fit, and feeling lost—like there was nothing left in my closet to wear. I felt like I was putting mental illness on, in front of a mirror, that I was asking for it.
I have struggled with bouts of depression for as long as I can remember. I didn’t know it was depression because of the toxic environment in which I was raised. I just thought I was reacting appropriately to my surroundings. My father was a drug addict who struggled with his own (undiagnosed) mental illness. He was angry and he abused my family; financially, physically, and emotionally. To this day, when I think of my father—or the possibility that I might one day run into him—my PTSD goes out of control and I’m right back there again; and living in the present is almost impossible when that happens.
I’m sitting there at the dinner table, stuffing my mouth with food to prevent having to reply to yet another insult or another interrogation; another test—tests that I had to pass or I might be kept up all night with him badgering me. Watching him take pills to get high and then passing out from a combination of opiates and sleeping pills. Sexual innuendos and, sometimes, touches. Twisting my arms—poking my body. Inspecting the flaws making sure to let me know I was, in fact, flawed. Baiting me to fight back and, when I did, providing me with a terrifying threat. Forcing my siblings and I to protect each other only to be torn apart. Lost in an apartment; silently screaming for help with no hope in sight.
I haven’t spoken to my father in over three years, and I have no intention of ever speaking to him again. He was never a father anyway; he was just a roommate, and a shitty one, at that. He did not help me with my education, he did not offer parental advice, he wasn’t nurturing, and he did not provide me with a safe and affectionate home environment. He did everything in his power to break me. He got away with murder; manipulating the system and making him untouchable in the eyes of my mother and law enforcement—forcing me to leave, because that was the only way out. The one thing I can thank him for is the fact he made me resilient.
I recently found out that I have bipolar disorder, type two. Through my research and talking with my doctor, I learned that, with bipolar type two, one stays in a depressive state most of their lives and may never have manic episode, or they may experience rapid cycling more often or not at all. It short; any one of these combinations is exhausting, and all have equally negative impacts on one’s life. That is certainly the case for me.
I have always suspected that I had bipolar disorder. My mood swings were always severe, my thoughts were always racing, my irritability was overwhelming, and my relationships and friendships suffered. The first significant manic episode (I know now what call it) happened when I was about twenty-one. After I was raped by an ex-boyfriend, I decided that I would be drunk the entire month of February—my birthday month. I stayed up all night and wasn’t tired during the day. I ripped my room apart and then put it back to together. I made a million plans and committed to projects and events. I didn’t go through with any of them. I had nightmares and my paranoia was off the charts. One night, I saw a cockroach in my room and convinced myself it was out to get me. I passed out from exhaustion and panic. I called my mother, screamed at her, and hung up: that was the sum total of our mother-daughter relationship during this time. I couldn’t carry a conversation without crying or accusing the other person. I cut myself. Then, suddenly, this mania would disappear and the depression would return. I wouldn’t wash my hair, I wouldn’t eat well, or I would eat too much and binge and purge. As far as I can recall, I have only experienced one episode as drastic as this.
Another aspect of bipolar disorder type two is that, when one is experiencing a “manic” episode or that feeling of being “up”, it can commonly be confused for finally “feeling normal.” This was a pattern with which I was familiar.
I just thought I had a lot going on—this was just who I was. I thought it was my fault. I even stopped seeing a therapist because she told me, “You could be manic-depressive,” I thought, “Wow, how could you?” It would take me years to pursue therapy again. I ended my most recent therapeutic relationship because the therapist made a sarcastic statement when I asked him if I needed medication. “Well, are you up for hours on end?” he asked. “I mean, I think you’re fine.”
The next day I texted him and refused to see him again. He asked me, “Why? Can we talk about it?” I said no. “It would be worth having a last session to discuss what happened in therapy,” he replied. I said no.
I wasn’t fine. I was suicidal and I had started cutting myself again. I was so far into the cloud that I would be at work, looking out of my office window and thinking, “I can just jump off the roof.” That thought, instead of terrifying me, gave me a sensation of relief. Some days, I crossed the street carelessly in the hope that a car would hit me. In the shower, I screamed into my hands so I wouldn’t make any noise. I contemplated hanging myself. I would hold my breath, testing how long I could stand to not breathe. The only thing that kept me from killing myself was looking into my partner’s eyes. I would tell him that I was making him dirty and that he should leave me. He never did. He would hold me while I sobbed and would helplessly reply, “I don’t know what to do for you, but I’m here.” I never fully shared with him what I was experiencing until after the fact. I didn’t have the words to describe it other than, “I think I’m really depressed and numb.” But the truth is, I didn’t actually want to die, I just felt like I was dying and had no way to ease my pain. My partner even told me one time, “I’m going to make this about me, and I know that’s not fair, but you can’t do anything to yourself because I wouldn’t be able to go on. I need you.” That’s when I realized I really needed to seek help. I was hurting the person I loved more than I ever loved myself. I didn’t even love myself enough to call the suicide hotline. I thought, “What’s so special about me that I should be helped?”
I went to my primary care physician and talked to her about my depression. She in turn asked me questions about my family’s medical history—specifically my father’s medical history. I didn’t really know anything because he wasn’t diagnosed. I told her what he would be like in detail and I told her about his drug abuse: cocaine, alcohol, and prescription medications. I told her that he was terrifying and we never knew what would happen when he was home. Would he be energetic and animated or menacing, spiteful, and emotionless? Would he lock himself in his room or come out to interact with us? Would he blast music late at night keeping us up or would he let us be? As I told her these details, I couldn’t help see the similarities between me and my father. That scared me.
After hearing me out, she took a moment and told me that she could prescribe antidepressant but she wouldn’t because she thought there was a good chance I had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. My stomach sank. I laughed. “Really?” I asked. She told me that if I took antidepressants, the side-effects might catapult me into a manic episode.
I had a problem. It wasn’t a bad problem, but it was more of a… complex problem. It necessitated me looking inward and accepting that this wasn’t something I could solve on my own. I needed help. I needed to believe it wasn’t my fault. I was not to blame. I also needed to acknowledge that if I felt shame and guilt it wasn’t necessarily my fault or the result of something I had done. It was from my past trauma and the unhealthy ways I learned to cope with it. It was a mental illness that is a neurological disorder. I had never had a potential name for what I was experiencing and now I did. I felt validated and in control.
My PCP referred me to a psychiatrist. She was lovely and had steady, careful speaking voice; like a warm blanket in winter. Her office had an abstract painting that resembled someone eating themselves, which was not as comforting. I sat in a large black chair which was significantly lower than the desk she sat behind. Basically, I felt like a well taken care of four-year-old at the doctor’s office. She asked me a series of questions which seemed like the same question over and over again. It felt like a test and I was trying to get the “right” answer each time. I wanted to pass the test just as badly as those tests at the dinner table. She kept asking me to remember the pattern of my lack of sleep and mood episodes. I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know that mattered.
After the questions ended she took a moment before saying, “Okay, so hear me out. This doesn’t define you and I hate labels like these because I don’t think they properly describe what a person is going through. But you are having symptoms of a bipolar disorder. Leaning toward bipolar two.” I started to cry. Then she said, “There are a few things we can discuss about medication and it’s okay because you came here today because the things you are experiencing have become too hard for you to manage. That is okay.”
It was true. I couldn’t manage it anymore. I felt like I was dying. She prescribed a medication. I went to fill the prescription that afternoon. I began taking it the next day. I now had a name for my mental illness. I now had a path that I could follow.
I have always been very dramatic person. I’m very melancholic. I love feelings and talking about feelings and analyzing feelings, which means it’s very on-brand for me to live with the diagnosis of bipolar two. What I’m saying is; all the pieces are fitting together and a lot of things now make sense. Before I had my diagnosis, my life was chaos. Now, that I’m on medication and have a new way of taking care of my mental health, my life is still chaos but in a different way. I’m a performer and writer and I am constantly putting myself out into the world in vulnerable ways like, for instance, performing a stand-up set about how my vagina talks and teaches me very valuable life lessons. I am still a “mess” but I don’t have the feeling that makes me want to jump out of my skin or out of a window or end a friendship because I am paranoid that the other person hates me or racing thoughts picking apart a small insignificant interaction leaving me up all night crying. I’m living my life now aware what are normal aspects of my personality and what are symptoms of my mental illness.
Now that I am on medication, I definitely feel a difference. I have not found the perfect therapist fit, so my journey to recovery isn’t complete—maybe it won’t ever be. But, with medication, I can now deal with things that come my way that, before, would have crushed me. I can now cope with my mood and life’s hurdles on a daily basis. Some days are worse than others. I always felt that I would be perceived as weak if I took medication but now I feel empowered. I am finally taking control of my life. Recovery is a daily fight, and takes patience, strength, and a belief in change; but now I have hope.
My days no longer consist of trying on outfit after outfit only to discard them in a pile of misdiagnosis on my bedroom floor. I no longer feel like a part of me is missing. These days, it’s comforting to wear my diagnosis proudly and know it doesn’t define me. It’s empowering to know that I’m finally getting the chance to discover who I am outside of the debilitating symptoms that once controlled me.