Thank God. That’s how I felt when my new psychiatrist diagnosed me as having Bipolar II. I’m so relieved.
I imagine many people who’ve received such a diagnosis understand how I felt that day. And those who hadn’t spent their lives questioning previous diagnoses? Well, they might wonder how anyone would consider it good news.
A week shy of my 47th birthday, my psychiatrist handed me the lens through which I could look back on my life and begin to accept and forgive myself. But there was neither a chorus of angels nor beams of light shining down from heaven. Clarity and hindsight? It’s excruciating.
The process of processing
Over the next several months, I balanced self-forgiveness with gut-kicking, cringeworthy epiphanies. I mourned the life I might have lived had I been correctly diagnosed earlier, and I relived heartbreak all over again when I re-evaluated failed relationships.
How much could I attribute to Bipolar II? After all, like others with or without mental illness, my upbringing and life experiences shaped my behavior and personality. Crappy family dynamics, attachment issues, confronting a sexual abuser, a failing business (or two). At one point in my mid-30s, the fallout from these experiences came to a head and I went fetal. Caught In a deep depression and black eddy of self-loathing, I couldn’t reach out for help on my own. Friends who knew me best when I was hypomanic thought of me as a “warrior princess”, and couldn’t grasp that I’d become helpless. “You’ll bounce!” they’d say. “Let’s go out to breakfast, you’ll feel better.”
Other friends resented me because once again, I was in “ghosting mode”. Because that’s what I do when I’m in those troughs. Nobody wants to be around a downer, right? That’s what we’re told growing up. Besides, I could barely take a shower, much show up to a good friend’s birthday party.
Nobody wants to believe that by default, they’re an asshole. Anyone with self-awareness and empathy wants to become a better person. Our entire lives, those of us with mood disorders tried to change, but cycling through the severe lows of depression and the rush of hypomania is challenging enough when we’re aware of our patterns and have the tools to manage them. When we think we’re just bouncing between burnout and raging success, we see ourselves differently.
We’re weak. We’re dramatic. We’re feeling sorry for ourselves. We’re selfish for wanting to die.
Only after a massive, chest-exploding panic attack sent me to the E.R. (I thought I was having a heart attack) did I realize I needed to get help. The cycle of guilt and loneliness had become too much. I knew if I was willing to take myself to the hospital, some part of me wasn’t ready to give up.
If therapy isn’t helping, is it my fault?
What if, after seeking professional help, we put too much faith in our mental health providers and not enough in our own instincts?
A friend of a friend referred me to Dr. Bob (definitely not his real name) whose website listed him as having a Ph.D. in psychology. He offered testing and evaluations, and on my first appointment, he handed me several questionnaires. The results? I was under a tremendous amount of stress, definitely depressed, showing signs of suicidal ideation, and suffering from extreme anxiety.
Thank you, Captain Obvious!
He recommended twice-weekly visits for the first few weeks. Fair enough, I thought. I sure felt like I needed all the help I could get.
My insurance didn’t cover his $150-per-session fees, so my mom agreed to foot the bill and Dr. Bob and I went to work. He wasn’t licensed to prescribe medications, but he shared his suite with a nurse practitioner who could. She immediately put me on an antidepressant, and Dr. Bob requested that I order pretty much anything ever produced by John Kabat-Zinn, the father of mindfulness meditation: CDs, workbooks, the works.
It helped. I learned to recognize and shut down the nasty “inner critic” that constantly told me I was worthless. After a few weeks, my mood changed dramatically, and Dr. Bob encouraged me to pursue recreational interests “just for me”, as I’d dedicated the past few years to getting my then-boyfriend through a contentious divorce and custody battle, and my mother through the stress of her husband being a white-collar criminal.
Not only was I handling things, I was killing it. I got a new job, took up beekeeping (!) and my friends announced that the warrior princess had returned. After a couple of months, I took a break from counseling… and a half-year later, I crashed once again.
The cycle continued. Over and over.
I know now that patients will seek therapy when they’re down, but often not go when things are going well. This is how my current doctor soothed my frustration when I got my new and improved diagnosis. But back then, I felt I was letting Dr. Bob down. Wasn’t I meditating hard enough? Why couldn’t I make myself better? I asked Dr. Bob several times if he thought I might have something more serious than a major depressive disorder. He insisted I didn’t.
In spite of going overboard with certain interests—I was aware of how obsessive I could get—he brushed it off as my being curious and passionate. I was getting better! But on the downswings, I was back to feeling like a loser. I felt I was letting him down, especially since he was now charging me on a sliding scale since even my mom had given up on my recovery. Inwardly, I doubted my erratic behavior was “just who I am.”
On my last visit, I worked up the nerve to ask one last time: Was this just clinical depression and anxiety? It wasn’t just my paranoia; I could tell he was frustrated and annoyed by a lack of faith. Then he dropped this bomb:
“I don’t really believe in the DSM-5 criteria anymore; I think more in terms of (some weird system using Venn diagrams). Really, I think you have histrionic tendencies. But that doesn’t mean you’re histrionic!”
Histrionic?!? I knew what that meant, at least in terms of vernacular language. I was horrified. To me, it meant I’d made all this up, that I was just overly dramatic. It would have been worse if he’d said I was officially narcissistic or borderline. I interpreted it as an unsolvable character flaw. So I left and never saw him again. I felt I was a lost cause, and that I’d soured yet another relationship. I even discontinued my meds, which of course I had to do since I was once again without health insurance, and obviously, they weren’t working anyway.
Stress vs sanity
Life went on, and so did my mood swings. I continued to believe that the peaks were phases of extraordinary brilliance and productivity, though I made massively horrible decisions. Taking a mortgage on my home to invest in a doomed business. Booting people out of my life—for better or worse. Being irritable with those who stuck around. Dealing (badly, and angrily) with enormous family-related stress that, if adapted for television, would have been a crossover between Game of Thrones and Arrested Development, party magician, indictments, fealty demands and all.
I got my heart broken in a whirlwind romantic relationship and immediately jumped into another. And I ultimately decided to sell the house before I defaulted, dragging my poor boyfriend to a small town in another state. I went from barely-able-to-ready-my-house-for-listing to I’m going to conquer the world! But I quickly spent the proceeds from my house on 20 undeveloped acres and the ridiculous notion of building a cabin and small farm from the ground up—by myself. I barely got started before, you guessed it, I went down in flames.
And now, we’re back to the beginning, when I found Dr. Ben (and yes, I made up his name, too.)
So what now?
My new doctor explained to me, without disparaging Dr. Bob, that his science-enhanced Psy.D degree and status as a clinical psychologist gave him better insight into diagnosing mental illnesses. I’m fortunate that he’s a pharmaceutical nerd, and that a combination of Lamictal and lithium worked beautifully straight out of the gate. I know through support forums that some patients go through years of trial and error with their meds.
Dr. Ben recommended that I see him as well as a therapist, as CBT really does play an essential supporting role in mental wellness. I’ve been learning to trust myself again. No, good ideas and excitement aren’t necessarily hypomania, but it’s good to have trusted loved ones to advise. Which, of course, forces me to learn how to ask for help from those I’d mistakenly assumed would consider me a burden.
A little anxiety is good—it prompts us to meet deadlines, remember to turn off the stove, and behave like decent humans on an everyday basis. But the overwhelming fear I used to feel was gone, and I’m learning to tell the difference between situational blues and a chemical dip in my mood.
I’ve made my inner voice my bitch and nurtured what I call the internal “big sister”… and she’s nothing like the toxic relatives who, with reliable advice, I removed from my life.
I now feel safe holding my doctor accountable. He’s great at explaining things, but I had to insist, against pushback, that he remove a third medication to my cocktail because the side effects were too much to handle. I’ve also given him grief for consistently being late. I’ve had to tell him that I’m not interested in discussing which celebrities or fictional characters might also be on the spectrum, and that it probably would be unethical for him to hire me to ghostwrite his book.
He’s an odd duck, but everything about him, other than his inability to tell time, has helped me restructure my life and the way I identify as a human being. I’m making progress in my efforts to forgive my cringe-worthy behavior and face forward. I feel less sorrow that my diagnosis didn’t come earlier, as I focus on what I can do now and the gratitude of having a new start. Have I lost some of the characteristics that made me a warrior princess? Sure. Have the meds had their side-effects? A few, but the benefits leave them in the dust.
Bipolar II is limiting, but I’m finding the workarounds. I’m fortunate to have found flexible work as a freelance business writer, and I recently accepted a position as the caretaker of an enormous unoccupied ranch where they owners simply want me to mow the grass, use the garden space, fend off tweakers and make sure the place doesn’t burn to the ground. I think I can handle that.
My boyfriend’s still around, though he’s just as wary as I am that inspiration equals illness, so I’m constantly reassuring that I won’t be signing up for a Martian colony anytime soon. And instead of feeling bad for putting him through all this, I’ve decided it’s his choice. And if he’s still here, it’s because I’m worth it.
Which is nice, because after nearly 50 years, I feel the same way.
*Blog by Michelle Halsey*
About the Author:
Michelle Halsey is a freelance writer living somewhere in Montana, a move that turned out not to be as big of a mistake as she’d thought. When she’s not writing for her business clients, you’ll find her messing around with sustainable forestry and gardening practices, both involving chainsaws and shovels. But it’s okay; her psychiatrist approves.
Follow along with Michelle’s journey at https://www.freshorganiccontent.com/