bipolar: it’s not what i thought

(originally published on Medium in September 2018)

Until recently, when I heard the word ‘bipolar’ my mind would always conjure up Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the main character of the TV show, Homeland. Carrie is an obsessive and, let’s face it, completely useless CIA agent who suffers from bipolar disorder, something she has been managing on and off with medication since college. Carrie’s bipolar is depicted as hysterical; she often goes off the rails and does reckless stuff that no real-life CIA agent would ever get away with.

Bipolar in the media is often exhibited as erratic and intense. A character with the disorder is usually a burden on those around them, someone to be watched and tiptoed around lest you set them off. I hate to use the word, but people with bipolar are mostly portrayed as ‘crazy’.

So when I went to see a new GP to talk to him about trying a different medication for my chronic depression, and he suggested sending me to a psychiatrist because he thought I might be bipolar, I laughed at him. No way was I bipolar; I’d never run away and holed up in a motel room having sex and jumping on beds with strangers for a week. And besides, I’d been seeing my old GP for 10 years, surely she would have picked on something like that. Turns out the difference between the two GPs was as simple as asking the right questions and listening for the key words. My new GP picked up on two particular words during our initial consultation: waves and impulsive.

My new GP asked me about my depression; something I have struggled with since I was 18. His ears pricked up when I mentioned that it came in waves. I was depressed more often than not, but I did have times where I was fine, sometimes even great. He asked me what I did during these good times… which led to key word number two: I did impulsive things. Not crazy things that hurt other people, but spontaneous decisions without thought for consequences.

When I was feeling good, I online shopped and I ate bad food – nothing unusual about that – but I also booked holidays I couldn’t afford, and I bought an apartment off the plan despite having no deposit and being in considerable debt. Money and I have never been friends – I have been in constant and excessive debt since I got my first credit card at 20. I always thought it was because my parents were strict with finances, so when I got my own money I wasn’t sure how to use it. I occasionally wondered why the same couldn’t be said for my siblings, but pushed that thought to the back of my head because spending money is fun and makes me happy.

My impulsivity – which I like to say is me being ‘spontaneous’ cos it sounds nicer – can also be seen in my eating habits; I want it, I eat it. I have always been eat first, worry about calorie and health stuff later. I am also an eat first, worry about the fact that every other time I have eaten this food it has made me sick or vomit later person (I often remember this fact as I am throwing up into a restaurant toilet). My brain can’t quite make the connection between action and consequence.

Other things came up in my discussion with the psychiatrist, including my sleeping habits (insomnia and then oversleeping), my penchant for big ideas and taking on too much work or study, my sudden influx (and then decline) in motivation, and my rapid excitable speech.

On the flip side, other times I withdraw from society and socialising, I procrastinate and have little motivation or the ability to concentrate, I feel worthless and doubt myself, and I am overly tired and cry for no reason.

Up then down. Up then down. Waves.

A perfect example: I come up with a great idea for a script, I write down the outline and get excited – this is going to be the greatest screenplay ever – and then the next day I hate it, and myself, and I can’t be bothered to do any more work on it. Now, I realise I am not the first creative to have thoughts like this; the difference is that for me it happens all of the time and, even though I know I am being silly, I can’t stop these thoughts and feelings once they take over.

So. At the tender age of 33, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II. I didn’t even know there were two types of bipolar. After I was diagnosed I did some research: type 1 has extreme manic episodes, and type 2 has less intense and shorter hypo-manic episodes. It took googling and research to understand the illness and the difference between the two types of bipolar. A lot of people – my parents included – have said to me “you don’t have bipolar”, because they too have a perception in their heads of what it is. Media had taught us one thing, but research taught me the truth.

For me, mental illness is not an excuse, it is an explanation. Finding out why I do some of the things I do, was revolutionary for me. I’d never considered I may have bipolar disorder, but I knew something was different about me. Looking at the list of symptoms for bipolar II was like a checklist for who I am as a person; suddenly everything made sense.

I am spreading the truth among those I know and hopefully, one person at a time, societal views of this disorder will change and more people will seek help for it.

With a new sense of self-awareness, I have started a medication called lamotrigine for my bipolar disorder and am about to start seeing a psychologist. I am looking forward to seeing how it goes. Stay tuned.

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