I’m not really mad (am I?), I’m just using provocative blog post titles because it entertains me. This is a long one, but the back story here provides some context for the rest of my musings on this blog.
Once upon a time, when I was 13, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I self-harmed from age 12 to somewhere around age 22, mostly cutting but eventually also burning, which involved less mess and more pain that lasted longer. That’s what landed me in the psych’s office: my mom got suspicious and read my diary, which I resented for years but realize was a perfectly appropriate thing for her to do under the circumstances.
I went to therapy for awhile, which did little good because I was resentful and pretended my way out of it. I was on antidepressants for awhile as well – ye olde fluoxetine, since Prozac was the hot new thing at the time – but I can’t recall anymore exactly how long that lasted. The depression never left. Despite the treatment, I kept on hurting myself worse and worse, and have some pretty ugly scars to this day.
I eventually made a couple of suicide attempts that I managed to hide well enough to stay out of the mental hospital, of which I was terrified. I never told anyone that I had tried to kill myself until many years later. Although I was scared of my worsening self-destructiveness, I was even more afraid of what would happen if I admitted to it. The depression waxed and waned. Things got better in my senior year of high school, as I prepared to escape to college.
Manic symptoms really started to emerge when I began my undergraduate studies, but I had no idea just how abnormal my moods and behavior were because I hadn’t felt “normal” since I was about 11. I thought I was just being an average college student, with weeks of all-nighters (no speed involved) and wild partying. Just like everyone else, right?
The periodic suicidal moods were clearly not normal, of course, so I went back on antidepressants. After an antidepressant triggered psychotic symptoms when I was 19 (completely sober, and before ever trying illegal drugs) I went running for help – hearing voices when no one is there is scary! The professionals were utterly dismissive of my best guesses as to what was wrong, and told me there was no way I had either Bipolar Disorder or ADHD. They literally said that even if I did have ADHD, I had figured out how to compensate by now, and didn’t need treatment. Despite the fact that my academic performance was suffering mightily and I was extremely distressed and unable to keep up with classes. They also ruled out schizophrenia (apparently I tested positive but my responses invalidated the results), and simply scratched their heads when they couldn’t really figure out what was wrong, so I just kept changing antidepressants to little effect.
I didn’t know any better at the time, so I believed them, and things just kept getting worse throughout college. I couldn’t articulate my symptoms very well because I had lived with them long enough that I didn’t realize most of them actually were abnormal. I was manic a lot of the time. Despite being a genuinely good kid who would never normally do these things, I was very promiscuous and screwed literally anyone who would let me in his or her pants, racking up an embarrassingly long list of sex partners. I was binge drinking up to a fifth of hard liquor a night on weekends – until I discovered pot, that is, and started trying hallucinogens. I held up to three jobs at a time to try to keep up with my senseless and excessive spending (which took years to pay off), had wildly inconsistent academic performance, and got arrested again, but this time was charged as an adult.
I was completely out of control when I met my husband, but by some miracle, I still recognized that he was The One. An even bigger miracle was that he didn’t think I was too crazy to tolerate! I managed to finish my BA (just barely), moved in with the boy, and life settled down almost immediately. I strongly believe that this was a literal lifesaver – I was on the fast-track to annihilation, but adapting to my husband’s very normal lifestyle really helped my symptoms subside. The relief was also due in part to a switch in medications to Welllbutrin, which doesn’t turn me into a raving nutball like the other antidepressants did.
Shortly after that, however, I found myself unable to handle a normal work environment, and was diagnosed with ADHD (vindicated!) The meds made such a huge difference in my life that I can’t begin to describe it. Just pop a couple of pills and normalcy ensues, or at least that’s how it seemed. With newfound confidence after the trainwreck of undergrad, I enrolled in graduate school, zipped through my MS program with flying colors, and got early admission to the PhD program of my choice. Everything was going so beautifully.
We moved from our home state to New York, and suddenly, everything was not OK. The stress of the move, buying a house, starting a new (higher pressure) degree program, and losing my entire in-person social support network was really hard to handle. I started having panic attacks that I wouldn’t admit were panic attacks. I started describing my condition to the prescribing doctors as depression and anxiety, because the anxiety had gotten so severe; unspecified anxiety is what ended up on my charts.
I also started traveling a lot, and with that, began noticing this bizarre pattern: for no reason I could fathom, I would hardly sleep during the entire trip but felt beyond fantastic even though my eyes were burning for lack of rest. I would drink like a fish in the desert (far in excess of my normal tolerance), became the life of the party and was suddenly full of sparkling wit. I had truly brilliant insights into my research and amazing mental clarity.
When I got home, I’d immediately crash into a depressive period, but I easily rationalized away all these strange symptoms. It was just the excitement of travel, the stimulus of social interaction and heady intellectual dialogue. Eventually I started to notice that anyone keeping similar hours was suffering mightily from the lack of sleep – but not I. Still, no alarm bells were ringing. Clearly I just didn’t need as much sleep as they did, and could operate at a substantial deficit for a week at a time without much trouble. It was so much fun!
During a visit to our home state in 2010, a close friend disclosed her recent diagnosis of Bipolar II and the resulting changes to her life. The symptoms she described made my neck prickle and hair stand on end. She could have been describing me, save for some specifics. I was suddenly terrified, like all the self-diagnosing hypochondriacs out there, but after doing a little research of my own and thinking back over the insanity of my college days (yeah, that really wasn’t normal) I decided it was best to rule it out. Back to the mental health professionals…
It was a messy, long, difficult, confusing process that took almost a year and involved no less than 5 separate psych evaluations, but eventually I started to believe them when they kept telling me I was bipolar. In some ways, the diagnosis was a huge relief; there was a real, valid reason I was feeling so awful and strange, and why the depression wouldn’t go away even at the maximum dose of the only antidepressant that had ever worked. Suddenly my entire life made so much more sense and I realized that I wasn’t to blame for a lot of my intermittent “bad behavior” because I was simply off my rocker at the time and had no comprehension of the fact that I was doing really stupid things.
In November of 2011, at age 33, they finally convinced me that I needed to accept the diagnosis and make some significant changes. I started mood stabilizers, started therapy, and was re-diagnosed with ADHD via the CPT II test. So far, the meds are helping – going back on ADHD meds makes a huge difference yet again; I had only stopped taking them to rule them out as a cause of mania, which was clearly not the case when I continued having ever more severe mood swings. The Lamictal also seems to be doing something good for me, as symptoms that I (yet again) didn’t realize were symptoms have improved dramatically already. I’m not yet stabilized, but getting there.
Although I still question my diagnosis at times – this is still pretty new for me, despite spending a year trying to disprove the hypothesis – I just look back at the last year of mood charts I kept. I’m a scientist and data geek at heart; I would never fake data, and looking at those charts, running correlations and F-tests, makes it impossible to deny. As I learn more about bipolar disorder and the meds start addressing symptoms that I had believed were just the way things are, I realize that there is no error this time. It took more than 15 years from my first manic symptoms to a proper diagnosis, but I finally have hope for a more stable, saner future.