A local woman shares her experience to help others.
March 30th is recognized as World Bipolar Day. It falls on the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after his death. The goal is to raise awareness and work towards eliminating the stigma associated with the disorder. It’s very important since this mental health condition impacts the lives of nearly 6 million Americans. It is also misunderstood because many people have a stereotypical picture of the condition. It doesn’t always present like you see in the movies or on TV.
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes extreme shifts in a person’s mood, energy, thought and behavior. People with this illness alternate between “highs” known as mania or hypomania or depression. These periods can last days, weeks or even months. There are different types of bipolar disorder as well; the two main ones are bipolar I and bipolar II. Each one has different levels of severity and slightly different symptoms. You can read more about the specifics and symptoms on the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance website.
The good news is with proper treatment, people can and do live fulfilling and successful lives.
We spoke to a Fairfield County woman who is proof of that. Read the interview below to learn about her experience with bipolar disorder.
To start, what is your diagnosis?
I am diagnosed with bipolar type II. This means I experience hypomania, which isn’t as extreme as mania.
Tell us about your path to a diagnosis. What were you experiencing?
I had experienced anxiety since I was a young child and depression since the age of 14. Depression was my main symptom for many years until around the age of 27. I began experiencing new, very intense feelings. I had days where I felt crippled by depression, where suicidal thoughts flooded my mind. I felt physically heavy, like my legs were lead. I could not stop crying and I was constantly anxious to the point of panic attacks multiple times a day. Then I had other days that I felt incredibly energized, and my mind was filled with tons of ideas. I couldn't keep a thought in my head. I felt like my brain was racing and I could almost see the thoughts whizzing by. I would start a project and interrupt myself to start something else because the thoughts and ideas kept coming. I spoke faster and moved faster. Some other days I felt intense anger and agitation. My heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest, and I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I also had a very short fuse and got very angry easily.I never knew which version I was going to wake up to and it changed frequently.
What made you seek help?
At the time I was being treated by a primary care doctor for depression, but once I began experiencing the extreme moods, it became difficult to function and I was having a hard time focusing and functioning at work. I went to work, but it was very difficult to focus on my projects which caused more anxiety because I was afraid people would find out. I had never seen a psychiatrist up until that point. What pushed me to do that was when I had the worst panic attack of my life and I was at work. I couldn’t hide it anymore and I knew I needed help.
Can you tell us a little more about hypomania and how it presented?
Initially it was racing thoughts, inability to focus, tons of ideas and then the agitation mixed in, which was in the form of a short temper and also physical agitation, like I was revved up. I also did some things that were a bit out of character or impulsive during those times, but they weren’t odd behaviors to the outside world. For example, I joined a kickball team, I spent more money than normal, but not extreme, I dyed my hair bolder colors and I was louder. These things in conjunction with the cognitive trouble and agitation all led to my diagnosis.
Why was it important to see a psychiatrist? What would you tell other people?
In my experience, the primary care doctors I saw understood depression, but didn’t ask the right questions to know if it was truly depression or something else. A psychiatrist specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. They are aware of the nuances and know which types of medications to try. Bipolar type II is also a bit tricky. People often only go to the doctor when they are experiencing depression and not hypomania because depending how it presents, it might just seem like you have extra energy or feel really happy and excited. For me, the intense agitation, which is also part of hypomania, made me realize that something else was going on. I always tell people, you see a specialist to treat a complex heart problem, so why wouldn’t you go to one for your brain? It’s just as important. It is crucial to find a doctor who you are comfortable with and who listens to your concerns.
How did you react to your diagnosis?
I was actually relieved because I felt like now that I knew what I was dealing with, I could get the right treatment. I beat myself up for many years because I thought I was doing something wrong, but I just wasn’t being treated for the right thing.
Tell us a bit about your life since the diagnosis.
It has been ten years since I was diagnosed. Within that time, I got married, had a son and started my own business, which has given me more flexibility than the pressure of a traditional full-time job. I have definitely experienced ups and downs through the years, which have required medication adjustments, but I am in a good place now. I have worked with a therapist since my diagnosis and they have helped me identify triggers and problematic thought patterns. They have also helped me develop coping skills.
One of the things that has taken me a long time to accept is that bad periods still happen, but it doesn't mean that I did something wrong. For the longest time I tried to figure out why I was feeling so bad and why it was happening at that point in time, but I have come to realize, sometimes it just happens without a reason; it’s part of the illness. No treatment will make it disappear, but the proper treatment has significantly reduced the amount of tough times and has allowed me to get through them easier than in years past. I am also very aware of signs that I might be heading towards difficult times so I can communicate with my doctor and therapist to catch things before they get too bad.
What advice do you have for others?
Don’t give up! When you are at your lowest point it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you can feel good again. You just need to find a doctor to help get you on the right path. I would also say that you need to be patient with the process (even though it’s hard!), especially when it comes to medication. It can be a bit of trial and error, which is challenging, but find a doctor you trust and stay in very close communication. When it comes to therapists, if the first one you go to isn’t a good fit, try again. The right one is out there. Lastly, communicate with your family and friends. Find a few people you can trust and confide in and accept their help and support and ask for help when you need it. Know that wellness takes work, but with support, it gets easier over time. Mental health disorders aren’t character flaws and you don’t need to be defined by them. You are more than your illness!
If you see signs of depression or bipolar disorder in your child/teen, be sure to reach out to your pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional. Mental health disorders are easier to treat in the early stages and you can prevent years of suffering. Check out the following resources: