USA TODAY US Edition
My painful struggles with bipolar disorder
On New Year’s Eve 2007, I arranged the pill bottles in a neat row and considered my options. I could take one brand at a time, or I could swallow them all at once. With wine or beer.
The names of my prescription drugs for bipolar disorder stared back. Cymbalta. Lamictal. Xanax. I marveled at the power we place in the hands of our most at-risk patients. I took a deep breath and called a suicide hotline.
I can’t remember what the woman on the other end said, but she listened as I talked. And talked. About how I didn’t like my job, about my recent breakup, about the depths of my loneliness, and about my desire to die.
The official term for what I was experiencing is “mixed state” — a combination of mania and depression — which explained my non-stop rambling and thoughts of suicide in one fell swoop. It was the most scared I had ever been in my life.
Each year, about one in four adults — 62 million Americans — will experience a mental health disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. I’m among the almost 3% of American adults diagnosed as bipolar.
First episode in high school
I was in high school the first time I got depressed. I was an honors student, captain of the cheerleading squad and editor at the newspaper with a caring boyfriend of almost two years. Life was (supposed to be) good. Yet there I was crying every night.
My brand of bipolar is classified as Type II: Deep depressions punctuated with bouts of what’s called hypomania. In between, I’m theoretically normal. People with bipolar II do not experience full-blown manic episodes, but we have the elevated mood or irritability that comes before it.
Regular manic depressives, those classified as bipolar I, will say hypomania is the best part of the disease. You’re confident, interesting, entertaining and witty. I’ve experienced this, but my hypomania usually manifests as rampant irritability.
It’s only after these episodes are gone that I’ve been able to identify these moods. As things come back into focus, I’m overwhelmed with shame. I can’t even begin to think of all the co-workers, friends and family to whom I owe an apology for something I barely remember doing.
Have you ever believed someone was out to get you? Someone suggesting I try something different at work means they want to ruin my career. My boyfriend forgetting to tell me he loves me means he’s going to dump me. A perceived wrong tone in my mom’s voice is a sign she’s disappointed in me. I feel constantly judged and can never measure up.
Some stories of mania are riveting, filled with wild spending sprees or drug-fueled sexual binges. I don’t have those stories. I have tales of being repeatedly paranoid, angry and irritable — and I’ve lost at least two jobs because of it.
I didn’t take the pills in 2007. I talked to the suicide prevention counselor until I felt confident I could make it through the night. I took the prescribed doses of my medication and fell asleep. So where am I now? Better. One part of the answer was finding the right drugs for me. The other part was gaining a true understanding of my diagnosis.
I hope I’m helping. It was an article about depression that prompted me to seek help 10 years ago, though years passed before I found the right mix of medication and treatment to get my life in order. I want to dispel the myth that all people with mental illness are unproductive or threatening members of society. Maybe someone will see this and find hope, rather than fear, in their lives.