My Journey to a Bipolar Diagnosis
When I was eleven, I didn’t know what depression was. I didn’t know what bipolar disorder was. All I knew was the sense of desperation I felt sometimes, the beauty I saw at times, and the fact that when I cut myself, everything was better. But I was an actress, and I could pretend all was right with the world. I could hide behind a smile and a twinkle in my eyes. If someone got close enough to see the sadness, I pushed them away. It was the sole most simple-minded and destructive production ever. I was constantly at war with my peers, my parents, .and most of all, myself. I played the part of a confident, unique pre-teen, and nobody knew the difference. But inevitably, I was discovered, and that was when my life really began.
I’m still learning about everything. I’ve been in therapy since I was thirteen, medicated since I was fourteen, and messed up my whole life. That’s just the way it is when you have a genetic “invisible illness.” It’s not something you can avoid, it’s in your blood. The world is a different place, and you know it. You’re teased unjustly, abused, and don’t understand a thing about yourself. It’s confusing to live in that world, as far back as you can remember. You don’t develop like all the other kids do. You start missing social cues, become awkward, don’t make friends. . .you’re just different. And it hurts, but you don’t know that. Nobody teaches you about emotional pain when you’re seven.
Even when you enter the mental health circuit, things are confusing. I was thirteen when I was misdiagnosed with depression. Psychiatrists don’t like to diagnose bipolar disorder in younger patients, it’s too risky a diagnosis and the medications are dangerous. I was treated for severe depression, anxiety and delusions, but no one acknowledged the way my mood swings. Mania and depression weren’t words in my vocabulary. It was all a part of the world I didn’t understand. I was sad, I was happy. Celexa, Zoloft, Wellbutrin—on and on—I bounced from anti-depressant to anti-depressant. Nothing worked. That’s when they started kicking it around: does she have Bipolar Disorder?
I was eighteen when I started college at Temple University. I started seeing a psychiatrist there, who after one session said quite simply, “I think you have bipolar disorder.” The next time I saw him, there were sheets to fill out, tests to be done, and in a grave tone of voice, a simple word. “Depakote.” Depakote is a mood-stabilizer for the treatment of bipolar disorder. It’s an unconventional first line of defense, but after talking to my doctor, he explained that he thought Lithium, a more traditional first-time treatment, would be risky to put with some of my other medications. My doctor gave me a couple of pamphlets on bipolar disorder, a printout about Depakote, and sent me on my way.
My world got a whole lot more confusing, but a whole lot clearer too. Because all of the reading, all of the pamphlets, and research I did on my own, made sense. I had the unspeakable Bipolar Disorder One. Which meant that I lived in a cycle of bouncing off the walls, seeing beauty in everything, smiling, and then cutting, hearing voices, and trying to take my own life. I cycled. And I cycled quickly. My doctor wasn’t the best at listening to me, as was the case with most psychiatrists I had met up until this point. And month after month I’d go back to him, telling him that the Depakote wasn’t doing its job, and he’d just fiddle with the dosage or fiddle with my other medications. None of it was working, and I was just getting worse and worse. Everyone knew something was wrong beyond what I was telling them and I knew it was only a matter of time until I crashed. At that point, I was quickly losing friends, dating an abusive girl, and all in all, not doing very well.
There are times during your life where everything kind of slows down and you can see all the color and beauty seep away from the edges of everything. At least, that’s the way my life is. And then the edges become brown and crinkly, like an old picture set on fire. And then it all just spreads throughout the rest of your life, until the entire thing is brown and crinkly. You kind of take a step back and look at it, wondering at what point you let your life come to this. . .whatever this is. All those cries not listened to, having no one to talk to, pretending everything is okay. It seems manageable at first, but when you put it all together, bad things start happening. It’s like looking at these freeze frames from your life, and trying to figure out where each frame fits in. That time you took apart that razor and cut. When you stopped talking to your best friend. The moment you started hearing voices again. When you stopped taking your pills regularly and decided to take them all at once.
I ended up back in the hospital, for the first time in six years, two months after I turned twenty. “Misdiagnosis,” they said. “Wrong medication,” they said. I wasn’t especially fond of any of the psychiatrists, but I did as they said. And as my diagnosis changed from Bipolar Disorder to Borderline Personality Disorder, and I finally got put on Lithium, among about a million more pills, and told to go to a different kind of therapy, I was sick of it all. I had only just claimed my Bipolar diagnosis, who were they to change that on me.? Couldn’t anyone make up their damn mind? I was tired of being confused all the time. I took my pills like a good little girl, pretended everything was okay, and only cried in the dark.
Eventually, my diagnosis was switched back to Bipolar. Finally, something I could own. Because I wasn’t afraid of it like I had been at first. Bipolar Disorder had become a part of me, and it was a part of me I didn’t want to give up. It was a diagnosis that made sense, and in my world where nothing had ever made sense before, anything I could cling to was something. Something I could educate myself on, grow with, not have constantly switched on me, that was all something I refused to take for granted. And every time I was back in and out of the hospital, and lost sight of my dreams, I still had things I could hold on to. And things never went according to plan. I had to move out of my apartment and in with my mother. I had to stop going to temple. I was depressed, I was manic, I was everything. But in some way, it was really beautiful. And I learned, and I grew. I let go of dreams I shouldn’t have. And I found them again.
I found myself between the pages of the memoir An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison. A woman’s struggle with her Bipolar Disorder, and her accomplished dreams. Sometimes this is all I have to get me through the pain. A book by a name of someone I will never know. But if she can do it, I can as well. So many people have been through my plight. And though not all of them can say they’ve made it, so many can. I refuse to end up another statistic, dead by my own hands by the time I’m twenty-five, thirty, or forty. I have dreams. And I have people who need me. Dr. Jamison grew from someone like me into a college professor and psychiatrist. It has been my dream for years to someday become a college professor. Would I really let my mental illness get in the way?
It has been five years since I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I am not ashamed to talk about it anymore. It is a part of me, it makes up this greater knowledge of who I am. I can hide it, people don’t have to know that I have a mental disorder, but I don’t care if they know, because it has made me a stronger, better person. I know how to pick myself back up when I fall. I can do so much more than others my age can, because I have lived to hell and back. And to be able to feel, and live, and smile, and cry, and every other emotion that I experience is a miracle. Not only because I am still here to feel it, but because I am alive enough to let myself experience all these things.
Bipolar Disorder is a flowing, moving thing, and although I am still learning about the illness and myself, I am also learning that it is something I can manage. I am not being held captive by my mental illness, I am holding it in the palm of my hands, and it beats with the same regularity as my heart.
I still take my medication and cry in the dark, but I laugh in the dark too. I take things as they come, be it good or bad. I feel pain, and I feel pleasure, I can smile and frown and do everything in between. I have learned that Bipolar Disorder is not a hinderance as much as it is a learning experience, something that I’m “stuck” with for the rest of my life. It is something that will help me learn and grow, and become the person I want to be.
Bipolar Disorder isn’t me, it’s something that makes up who I am, and I am beautiful. I really hate ending things on a negative note, so I won’t. I am different. I see things differently from everyone else I know, but that doesn’t mean I’m ruined or anything. It just means I have a whole different perspective on life to share. Why should I keep it all inside when there’s so much to get out? To share with the world, and to help make the world a better and a more understanding place? Because I’m not the only one who has to learn and grow. There needs to be awareness, and everyone needs to fight their fears. As for me, I have truly learned that I am beautiful when I allow myself to blossom.
Zoe Goldberg is a 25-year-old mental illness Amazon Warrior. Her main aim in life is to raise awareness of mental illnesses and help others who are surviving them. When she’s not writing, she’s trying to convince her corgi that he wants to cuddle with her.
(Image via Shutterstock)