After the ship of my old life had been shattered on the rocks of hospitalization, I was dragged aboard a new, unfamiliar vessel, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Fully coming to terms with my diagnosis would end up taking several years.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
While still in the hospital, after medications had grounded me once more in reality, my doctor tried to explain to me that in bipolar disorder, what goes up must come down. A depressive episode almost always follows on the heels of a manic one. But I was still hypomanic, and thus cheerful and optimistic and feeling great. I assured him that I was overall a very happy person and I was sure I’d be fine. And I wasn’t deluded in thinking this. I was going on experience. For most of my life I’d been a happy, well adjusted person. Happy was my norm. I had no way of knowing just how radically that would change.
Not surprisingly, I did experience a depressive episode a couple weeks later. At the time, I thought it was the worst experience of my life, mainly because it contrasted so drastically with the euphoria of the preceding manic episode. But looking back, I can see it was pretty mild. It only lasted a little under two weeks, and I didn’t end up needing antidepressants. After that episode, God granted me 7 months of almost total stability. This allowed me to get back on my feet and start trying to live my old life again, but it did nothing to prepare me for the reality of my disorder.
By the time August rolled around, I was completely adjusted to my disorder (so I thought) and not the least bit embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about it. It was a bit like a cool new label that put me in a separate category from most people– like a weird sort of bragging right (boy, did that ever change over the next several months…). My best friend, who had been diagnosed with ADHD within the same month that I was diagnosed with Bipolar (funny how these things work out), was amazed by my nonchalant attitude towards my disorder. She had been having a difficult time coming to grips with her own diagnosis without it completely destroying her self-esteem.
The difference between her and me was that she had been struggling with the effects of her illness every day of her life without fully understanding it, and now she was still having to deal with it every day but with the added bonus of having a label slapped onto her that essentially declared her “defective” because of it. There was no way to deny the reality of it. It was part of her life 24/7. The fact that she was a straight-A student, whom her friend’s thought the world of, did nothing to ease the initial sting of the diagnosis. She did eventually come to grips with it, and even met and befriended some fellow sufferers of the disorder, but adjusting to the diagnosis of a mental illness takes time.
For me, the fact that I had a mental illness hadn’t yet sunk in. While the events surrounding my hospitalization had been very dramatic, the disorder seemed to have vanished into thin air after a month had gone by. Once I stabilized, it was as if it had never happened. The only changes in my life were that I was now on medication and I had to monitor my sleep and stress levels to avoid triggering another episode. Other than that I felt normal. It wasn’t compromising my ability to function like a normal person. I didn’t feel the least bit embarrassed about it.
In the fall, that changed.
Part-way through September, 2012, I crashed into a depressive episode. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of what would turn into nearly two years of rapid-cycling. After September, I went on to have 12 more episodes over the course of the next year, and 6 the year after that. The first year of that very nearly killed me. From December 2012 to May 2013, I went straight from depressive episode, to hypomanic episode, to depressive episode, to hypomanic episode, with only a day or two of stability here and there. The depressive episodes typically dragged on for close to a month, while the hypomanic episodes usually lasted a couple weeks. If I hadn’t had a very effective antipsychotic medication (Zyprexa), the hypomanic episodes would almost certainly have progressed into full-blown manic ones, and I likely would have had to be hospitalized again. Thankfully that didn’t happen. But most of the hypomanic episodes were dysphoric. In other words, they were mixed episodes. So to say that they didn’t lead to euphoric happiness would be a very impressive understatement. I was miserable.
It was around this time that I began to feel very insecure about my disorder. When I was stable, I had successfully taken several university correspondence courses and passed with flying colors. In 2013, I failed a university course because I was hypomanic for my midterm and depressed for my final. I began to think I would never be able to attend an actual university. If I couldn’t handle just one correspondence course, how could I possibly handle a full-time course-load on a real campus?
I withdrew from all my friends except my previously mentioned best friend (most of my friends at that time were not a very positive influence anyway). I muddled along putting one foot in front of the other, and stumbling into a number of pitfalls along the way. I came to have a very intimate understanding of why people self-harm, and thoughts of suicide were rarely far from my mind. As far as I can remember, my faith life did not deteriorate, but it certainly didn’t improve either. To be honest, I’ve forgotten large chunks of that period, especially some of the depressive episodes, and what I do remember is foggy at best. The only reason I know most of what took place in my head in the years of 2012 and 2013 is that I kept a journal. It was one of the coping mechanisms I latched on to.
The year 2014 marked the beginning of my recovery. It was a much stabler year, thanks to changes in my medication. The first mood stabilizer I was put on when I was diagnosed was Lithium. It didn’t work, and over time it began to give me alarming muscle weakness as a side-effect. Any muscle strain at all caused me to shake like a leaf. I looked like a caffeine addict whenever I so much as raised a tall glass of water to my lips, and walking up a single flight of steps left me gasping for air and utterly exhausted. Thankfully those symptoms went away when I was taken off the drug. The next mood stabilizer I was put on was Lamictal. Once I reached a high enough dose, it worked marvels. I’m still on it now, and I don’t experience any side-effects from it at this point. But it took quite a while to build up the dose to the level at which I’m currently taking it, and I experienced some strange initial side-effects until I adjusted to it (disorientation, lightheadedness, panic attacks). It controls the depressive episodes better than the manic ones, so I still have Zyprexa on hand to cut off hypomania before it progresses too far. I’m also on Wellbutrin (an antidepressant). This combination of medications works very well for me. Over the past year (2015) I’ve only had one hypomanic episode, and one depressive episode. I don’t have any side-effects (well, Zyprexa can turn me into a zombie, but that’s kind of the point. Thankfully I don’t have to take it much). I am very, very blessed to have discovered this in only a few years. I know many people have a lot of trouble finding medication combinations that work, and many of them have to deal with unpleasant side-effects from them.
December 23rd, 2015 will mark the end of the fourth year since my diagnosis. A lot happened in those 4 years that I’m not going to try and summarize here. Some of it will appear in future posts if it’s relevant to the issue I’m discussing. To wrap up, I am finally adjusted to my disorder. Having experienced the full range of symptoms that it can throw at me, it’s no longer a frightening thing. I’m comfortable talking about it. I’m back to living a relatively normal life. I’m happy again. Whether that will last or not is in God’s hands, and I’m content to leave it there. One of the most important lessons my disorder has taught me is that we have to live in the now. The future is impossible to predict. Life is much less stressful when we let go of the illusion that we’re in control and instead trust God to take over the navigation of our vessel. He knows where we’re supposed to be heading, and he will give us all the grace and support we need in order to get there. We just have to be willing to accept it.
Take care, and God bless.