Jonathan and I left Charlotte just as the sun was setting and a few storm clouds were rolling in. We’d spent a wonderful day with some dear friends and now we were driving the hour and a half back home. As we merged onto the interstate, the sky let loose and rain started pouring down. It was raining so hard, we couldn’t see more than 3 or 4 feet in front of us. Even though Jonathan was driving, my breaths started coming faster and my palms started to sweat. When the lightning strikes were followed by immediate crashes of thunder, I asked Jonathan to pull off at the next exit. As we inched our way towards the next off-ramp, a bolt of lightning ripped through the sheets of rain with simultaneous thunder so loud it rattled my teeth. Some almost animal instinct took over and suddenly I was screaming. Pure terror gripped every inch of my body and I shook so hard my teeth chattered. I was vaguely aware of Jonathan’s hand clamped down on my knee, but I couldn’t stop screaming and sobbing until we had pulled under the awning at a gas station a few minutes later.
Throughout this entire experience, I intellectually understood that we were not in significant danger, but my nervous system had kicked into override mode and there was no amount of reasoning that was going to turn it off. I wanted with everything in me to be OK, but I was most definitely not OK. All we could do was wait out the storm.
It’s been a long time, friends.
I have wrestled with both wanting and not wanting to write this post for months. There are at least a dozen other posts I’ve wanted to write and felt that I couldn’t, because writing anything without writing this first felt dishonest. At first, I didn’t write because it took me some time to process and accept and articulate what all of this meant. And then, I didn’t write because I was afraid. I have been afraid of what you will think and how you will respond. Of the labels and the judgements you might make because of stigmas and assumptions and misunderstandings. But truthfully, my biggest fear has been of how this may impact my current job or future job prospects. I am terrified that someone will find a way to twist this honest admission of struggle into incompetence.
Over the past few weeks I’ve felt increasingly convicted that it is time to write about this, if not for myself, then maybe for one of you. I can’t be a slave to fear anymore. If writing this means that one person feels less alone, then it will be worth it.
In March I was officially diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and bipolar depression. The anxiety and panic disorders were old news (see panic attack because of thunderstorm), but the bipolar thing threw me for a loop. I mean, bipolar people are like, legit crazy, right?
Which is why I initially fought with my psychiatrist about it.
Dr: You’ve identified periods of depression you’ve had consistently for about 10 years, and you said you recently came out of a depression. Have you ever had a manic episode?
Me: Definitely not.
Dr: Manic episodes are characterized by decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts and ideas, talking more than usual/more quickly than usual. Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities like spending sprees.
Me: I mean, yes, sometimes, maybe, for a few days or a week or whatever. After I finish being depressed. And I just feel so much better. And then I have lots of energy. And lots of ideas. But I mean, that’s only natural, right? And then I want to go shopping. But I return half of the things the next week!
Dr: Increase in goal-oriented activity?
Me: Does this sticker chart I just made for myself where I give myself stickers for things like “showering” count? (Produces sticker chart)
Dr: I’m going to say yes.
Me: Ok then.
Eventually I gave in and she explained to me that my particular bipolar disorder is a form of depression. People who suffer from depression generally fall into three categories. Category 1 are people who have a pretty normal baseline, suffer from a depressive period where they fall below the baseline, then come back to baseline. Category 2 are people who sort of exist at a consistent emotional level that is below the average baseline. And Category 3 are people who have a normal baseline and periodically dip down into depression, but sometimes instead of coming back to baseline, spike into hypomania before even-ing out. I’ll give you three guesses as to which one I am. It is also possible to experience depression and mania at the same time in a mixed episode where you feel frantic energy, like you are on speed, but also feel overwhelmingly sad. In my experience, these are the worst.
In some ways this came as a huge relief—for years I had believed that everyone else experienced the same intensity of feelings that I did, but that for some reason, I was just incapable of dealing with ordinary life, ordinary stress, and ordinary emotions the way everyone else seemed able to. The assurance that what I feel and experience is, in fact, more extreme than the average person, was somewhat comforting. To be able to say, “I’m not just bad at adulting, it’s legitimately harder for me than for some people,” was a huge relief.
In another way it brought a huge amount of shame. I was raised by strong parents, in particular a strong mother, who instilled in me the belief that willpower and discipline could cure most ailments. If I complained of cramps, she’d advise me to do crunches. If I was feeling sort of unidentifiably achy and feverish, she’d advise me to run around the block to “sweat it out.” And while she certainly acknowledges mental illness as a legitimate condition, she also believes in self-sufficiency. Her response to this situation was supportive, but something along the lines of, “You have to do what you have to do, but I believe in resilience, and someday you will too.” I couldn’t help feeling that I was lacking some critical measure of resilience that would have solved everything.
I was also ashamed of having this label fixed to me publicly. While I have written openly about anxiety, panic, and even depression, something about the specific words “bipolar disorder” felt different. Anxiety and depression are feelings that most people experience to some degree within their lifetime, even if it’s never a chronic struggle or doesn’t manifest in panic, but “bipolar” was something different. At best, it’s a punchline, and at worst, the type of condition that a Jekyll/Hyde style villain in a psychological thriller suffers from. There is a stigma associated with the word that I was not was not prepared to take on. I didn’t know how I felt about having that label, what it said about me, and how it would change the way other people viewed me.
Seven months later I can say that it has changed everything, and it is has changed nothing. A diagnosis is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is simply a name for things that have been true about me for years, how I am wired, and how my brain works. Understanding this truth about myself has given me greater self-awareness and self-compassion, but it has also challenged my own ideas about mental illness and the stigmas that go along with them.
In the deepest core of my being, I believe that courage is the antidote to fear and that bringing things into the light is the only way to live wholeheartedly. So here is some truth to combat the lies of stigma.
In case you were wondering, this is what a bipolar person actually looks like.*
I have a meaningful job where I feel like I am impacting lives every day. I love it, and I am excellent at it.
And for the last three months I have woken up almost every day with such a incredible heaviness and sense of dread that it has been difficult to get out of bed, much less go into work.
I have been in a committed relationship with my husband for 10 years (married for 7) and I think he is the greatest human being I have ever met.
And I am often so exhausted after a day of managing my anxiety enough to fulfill all of my obligations that I can’t muster the mental or emotional energy to talk about his day or even share what happened in mine. My moods also change very rapidly, so a casual date night can turn into a SERIOUS DISCUSSION OF ALL THE PROBLEMS (INCLUDING CRYING) at the snap of a finger.
I have wonderful friends who love me beautifully, and more than I deserve.
And I often feel worlds away from them because the reality of my every day life and what is going on in my head makes me feel like I live on a different planet than they do.
I love having adventures and trying new things. I think I’m a pretty fun person.
And I get a splitting headache and heart palpitations after being at large group events, like office Christmas parties or school-wide bowling. I get physically ill when traveling internationally, even though it is my favorite thing in the entire world.
I am learning to make peace with who I am.
I learning to seek help when I need it and to accept that not everything can be solved with willpower. I believe that I can learn ways to manage my mental health and for me and my loved ones to be healthier and happier, but I also accept that I may never be entirely “better.”
These October mornings, when I wake up with a pit in my stomach and a heaviness in my belly, I say to myself, “You do not have to be better. You only have to be brave. And you have been brave for so long. You are stronger than you think. You can do it again today.”
Whatever your mountain is today, please remember. You are not alone. You only have to be brave. Just for today.
*As a disclaimer, mental illness is a very individual experience, and there are many types of bipolar disorder. My symptoms and experience of bipolar disorder are not identical to someone else’s. For example, I’ve never suffered from psychosis, though many people do. My depression is primary and is heavily influenced by my anxiety. I am not in any way claiming that my experience is the definitive for people with bipolar disorder and I have no medical or professional training in dealing with these illnesses.