Its all a matter of perspective. What to some would be the worst news they could get, was to me, the best. In September
of 1993, I finally heard the words spoken--spoken by a medical professional--words that I had always known were true. I had
Bi-Polar Disorder. In my heart, I had known this for almost 10 years, since high school. But for various reasons, it was never
confirmed, never diagnosed, never treated. I was living a life without hope, and then hope was given back to me.
My life has been punctuated by extremes. There are no commas in my life. Or even periods. My life is either a series of
long-winded run on sentences. Or it is short sentences followed by exclamation points.
As a teenager, I lived with the belief that something was intrinsically wrong with me. No one could possibly have the kind
of thoughts I was having. This is to some extent a developmental stage that teenagers go through. They do believe that they
are the only ones who think like them, who feel like them. Its usually not true. Most teenagers have pretty universal feelings.
It was only slightly true for me. In many ways, I had thoughts that were unique. But I discovered many years later, and almost
too late, that other people did think like me. Their minds were not "normal" either.
It was more than typical teen angst or depression. I was more than just sad. I remember feeling this incredible need to
destroy things, or hurt myself. For most people, there is a strong instinct for survival, for self-preservation. For me, it
seemed to be the opposite. I had a strong instinct to self-destruct, and it took all my energy to be alive and in one piece
at the end of the day. I had strong urges to crash into things, run off the side of roads or cliffs, drive into walls. It
was horrible. I would get these images in my head of what it would look like, feel like, and it was all I could do not to
follow the path set forth by the image. Its near impossible to capture the essence of these urges with mere words. It was
completely impossible to make it through unscathed. I had many times when I cut myself. It was like I had no control. I would
have a knife or scissors in my hand, then next thing I knew I was cutting my arm or leg, slicing the blade across my skin.
I wanted to feel physical pain, because that made more sense to me. I could explain it, I could treat it. But there was also
this need to see myself bleed. Its strange. Sometimes it makes so much sense, other times, it doesnt make sense to me at all.
I am grateful that during this time, I did not want to die. I knew even then that the depressions that would settle on
me like a fog would always leave. And I knew I could survive them. But what I also knew, is that they would always come back.
I think that was the worst part of it. I would never be free.
One night in college, after punching a wall and hurting my hand, my roommate took me to our campus health center. After
coming home, I just couldnt handle it anymore, I couldnt process any more of the world. I curled up in a ball on the sidewalk.
I shut down. It was 1 AM and I was curled up in a ball on the sidewalk, semi-catatonic. I stayed like that for at least 20
minutes, before getting up and going to bed. I just couldnt deal with the world and needed a break.
I also had a few experiences with the other end of the spectrum. Times when I could not sleep, had no interest in food,
was up all night with restless energy. Times when I did crazy things without thinking of the consequences. Sometimes, these
manic episodes felt great, I was happy, high, full of energy. Other times, I could feel the frenetic energy inside of me.
I couldnt sit still. Nothing satisfied me.
I lived in this constant turmoil for many years. Finally, I was in my last year of college. I was so excited to only have
a year left. I was in a good mood. Life was going well. Then (and it really did happen just like this), I was driving home
from school and I was stopped at some railroad tracks. Im singing to the radio, having a good time. The sun shined on my watch
and cast a glint into my eye. At that moment, I had the most powerful urge to drive in to the speeding train. It happened
that quickly. I was back in a depression. I had this one class at school in a small windowless room. The whole class I would
sit there freaking out and wanting to escape. Anxiety attacks took over my life. I would want to get up and run from the room,
but wouldnt want to embarrass myself. I would spend the whole class at war with myself. I wasnt learning a thing. I knew that
I couldnt screw up my last year at school so I made an appointment with a psychiatrist. That is when I was finally diagnosed.
It was a gift.
Bipolar disorder (AKA Manic Depressive Illness, Mood Disorder) is quite common and is twice as likely to occur in women.
The onset of bipolar disorder often occurs between the ages of 15 and 19. The diagnosis of Bipolar disorder often occurs in
the late 20s or even later. Early diagnosis can help.
There are different forms of Bipolar disorder:
- One or more manic episodes
- Usually numerous major depressive episodes
- One or more major depressive episodes
- No manic episodes
- One or more
Mixed or dysphoric bipolar disorder
- Both manic and depressive episodes that occur nearly every day. People experience rapidly alternating moods, such as sadness,
euphoria, and irritability, along with other symptoms of depression and mania.
Rapid-cycling bipolar disorder
- More than four episodes of mood disturbance in the past 12 months
There is also an illness known as Major Depressive disorder. It is similar to Bipolar disorder in that there are cycles
of depression, but there are no manic episodes in between.
The depression experienced by an individual with Bipolar disorder or Major Depressive Disorder are different than what
someone might experience in response to some life event or situation.
In situational depression, there is a specific cause, circumstance or event that occurs and precipitates the depression.
Its as if, in the journey of life, your car has broken down, the scenery has turned ugly or the freeway is filled with potholes.
In bi-polar or major depressive disorder, the car runs fine, its a brand new road with no pot holes and the scenery is
breathtaking. But a thick fog has settled in and you cant see your way through.
Bipolar disorder causes extreme moods, from feeling overly energetic (mania) to feeling very sad or having low
energy (depression). Common symptoms of these mood swings are as follows:
Symptoms of mania may include:
- Feeling extremely happy (elated or euphoric) or very irritable.
- Thinking very highly of yourself or your abilities (inflated self-esteem).
- Not needing as much sleep as usual (may feel rested after three hours of sleep).
- Talking more than usual.
- More active than usual.
- Having a hard time concentrating due to experiencing too many thoughts at once (racing thoughts).
- Easily distracted by sights and sounds.
- Acting impulsively or doing reckless things, such as going on shopping sprees, driving recklessly, getting into foolish
business ventures, or having frequent or indiscriminate sex (sometimes without protection).
Symptoms of depression may include:
- Slowed thoughts and speech due to low energy.
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions.
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits leading to too much or too little eating or sleeping.
In addition to changes in moods, some people with bipolar disorder also have symptoms of anxiety (such as worrying,
not sleeping, or having difficulty concentrating), panic attacks, or symptoms of psychosis.
I used to be afraid to share with others what I have gone through. I used to think I was the only person who thought the
way I did, or felt the things I did. Its more common now to hear about someone who cuts themselves. They even have a name
for it "cutters". I couldnt imagine that there were other people who did this. It stopped me from getting treatment for many
years. I thought "I cant tell people what Im thinking, what Im doing, theyll think Im crazy". But I wasnt. I was suffering
from a medical illness that slowly destroys the mind. Its not my fault. Its okay to get help.
In California, a law was passed providing parity (or equality) for mental illnesses. Now there are no restrictions on the
treatment of certain mental illnesses. They are recognized as legitimate medical problems. This law has changed many lives
here in California. I am grateful for this legislation. If you are reading this and feel some kind of connection with what
I have gone through, I encourage you to get some help. Contact me, Ill be happy to help you out any way that I can.