It has been almost two years since I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD and generalized panic disorder. I can be pretty open about mental health and my diagnosis. However, I almost never share the more extreme parts of my illness, or I hide it completely due to the stigmas attached to it.
After years of being misdiagnosed and going on and off antidepressants, I was finally given the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. That was a huge breakthrough for me. It made the way I felt and the severe mood swings I would experience feel validated. There was a reason. I now had words to explain what I was going through: mania, depression, hypomania.
I now know why all of the medications I’ve tried over the years never worked for me. Like most people with bipolar, I had been diagnosed consistently with depression and anxiety disorder. The reason for this common misdiagnosis is due to the fact that most people with bipolar don’t acknowledge or recognize the mania. For many—not all—mania is relief from the depression. You feel good, productive, accomplished, unstoppable. However, the mania can also be dangerous and is always met with an inevitable crash because your body can’t withstand that type of exertion without rest. So, when I would plunge into severe depression and couldn’t take it anymore, I would go see a doctor.
The antidepressants never worked, and the antianxiety medications made me a zombie. Often times, I would get worse, but the doctors always told me it was because I stopped taking the medications. I found out recently that antidepressants can actually throw someone with bipolar into mania or depression. Again, I finally felt validated.
Still, I found that the validation I felt, or the acceptance of this diagnosis, was not felt by everyone. There are many reasons for this: lack of knowledge, bias, misconceptions, etc. Below are some of the responses I have received after telling people about my bipolar diagnosis. Some people have been supportive, some well-intentioned, others ignorant, or just plain hurtful. A few of the responses I have received are listed below.
“You don’t have bipolar.” “You seem normal.” You don’t seem crazy.”
I’m not crazy. I have a mental illness. I don’t announce it to the world when I can’t get out of bed for 48+ hours or that the reason I have recently taken up so many hobbies or work so many hours is actually one of the many, many symptoms of a manic episode.
“You didn’t seem like you had bipolar until you were diagnosed.”
This one hurts a lot. I have finally, for once in my life, had my feelings and emotions validated. I understand better why I am the way I am, and for the first time, I can actually work towards a proper plan to treat it, or minimize it. I was also very good at hiding it most of the time. This response completely crushes that feeling.
My mania was controlled by being massively sedated, and I learned that no one wants to talk to you when you’re depressed, so I would just disappear during those times. Now, I am learning to cope and experience the emotions and moods that come with my illness.
Now, I must learn to cope and experience the emotions and moods that come with my illness. I am experiencing a lot mentally, emotionally, and physically due to new medications, quitting antianxiety medications and actually being allowed to claim bipolar and feel it’s heavy full weight and the burden it bears. This means those mood swings, emotions and deceptive thoughts must be felt for the first time in a long time and that’s extremely challenging to say the least.
I talk about it because I trust you, I need support, or I want to explain why I have been acting the way I have lately. Having bipolar disorder can put a massive strain on relationships. There’s nothing worse than seeing its effects and not knowing how to stop it.
“I feel like bipolar is just an excuse.”
I am responsible for my actions. I will own up to those actions, accept that I am accountable, and work as hard as I can to fix it. It’s not an excuse, but it is a cause. A lot of times, especially in the past, everything is blurred by the mania or depression, and I don’t see the effects of my actions until clarity returns.
Believe me, it’s as frustrating for me as it is for you. The guilt, shame and self-hate can be so real. This is why many of us end up isolating ourselves. Sometimes I feel that all I do is apologize, even if I don’t know why. I know that this makes it seem less sincere, but I can’t control the intense feelings of guilt. Don’t be afraid to tell me when I’m doing something wrong or if my moods are affecting you. I don’t want to make you feel the way that I do. But don’t tell me that bipolar is just an excuse. It’s a reason, and I want you to know that sometimes the bipolar causes me to act in a way that is not me. I have been working on it desperately.
“That’s the bipolar talking.” “Have you taken your meds?” “Maybe you’re just imagining it.”
My feelings are real and not always a symptom of my mental health condition. Everyone gets angry, sad, excited, passionate, etc. Believe it or not, my emotions are not always synonymous with my illness.
“You don’t need medication.” “Just think positive.” “Just calm down.” “You need to do yoga.”
You have no idea how frustrating and exhausting the years of trial and error in medications and treatment are, or how frightening the side effects of certain medications can be. Still, I continued to seek treatment because the symptoms of not treating the illness were far worse. I held that mentality before. “I don’t need meds. I feel fine.” This was typically when manic. I was wrong. Even though there are many other things I do to help manage, I do also need medication.
A lot changed for me after coming off of antidepressants and benzodiazepines. I had more energy. I talked faster than I already did. I wanted to do and accomplish more. I was more excitable. I was more agitated. I would get easily frustrated. For good and for bad, a lot of the symptoms haven’t and will never completely go away. I would take things out on my husband, my mom, my family, and my friends without realizing it, or I completely isolate myself when I do.
I was prescribed medication to treat my ADHD. Now, not only was I dealing with the stigma of having bipolar, but now I had to deal with the stigma of the medication to anyone who knew. People started looking at me differently and attributing a lot of my actions, and even accomplishments, to either the illness or my medication. “That’s why you’re so productive.” “That’s why you’re so sped up.” “You don’t need that.”
Actually, I do. It doesn’t affect me in the same way that it affects people who don’t have ADHD. I’ve always had a hard time focusing, sitting in one place, being on time, staying on task. This gets even worse when I’m manic. Medication isn’t a cure all, but it can help manage the extremes of my condition. You’re not in my head.
Before my medication, there were times that I would self-medicate. I would drink too much, or make reckless decisions. The guilt that would follow would be unbearable. All I would feel is shame. Then the cycle would repeat until periods of stability. This is an impulse and cycle that I do not miss.
For the first time in a long time, I am learning to deal with my feelings, emotions and moods. It hasn’t been easy for me and it hasn’t been easy for those close to me. For that, I am sorry. The ones that stuck around, were there to listen, or to offer support, have been critical in this journey. Mental illness can be extremely lonely.
I am particularly grateful for my husband. He bears the brunt of my illness the most and it kills me. He does it graciously. He’s understanding. He doesn’t take it personally when I’m in a mood. He doesn’t judge. He listens. He encourages me to get better. He has had such a positive impact on my life, my health, and my happiness along this journey. I am in awe of his patience, supportiveness, and kindness. I appreciate him more than he will ever know.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone you have it. They’ll judge you and treat you differently.” “I wouldn’t tell your boss. It could affect your job.”
Sadly, this is often true. I’ve experienced it first hand and usually the ones who give this response are others that have dealt with the repercussions of disclosing their mental illness. I’ve done this many, many times. I’m quite good at it. I push through it. I smile when I am miserable. I slink off somewhere to manage an anxiety attack. I don’t talk to anyone when I am depressed.
When I reveal it, it is often not met kindly. However, that’s the reason I have decided to talk about it even more. The stigma is there because most keep quiet. This is what emboldens me to share my experiences. You never know who is suffering mentally. You can say you have a physical disease and most often, you are treated with concern or empathy. If you mention a mental disorder, the subject gets changed or the conversation get quiet. It’s an isolating experience.
Bipolar disorder doesn’t define me. There are also many good qualities that I have. I am passionate. I am adventurous. I am inquisitive. I am empathic. I am creative. Most importantly, I am strong.