Bipolar Disorder: the euphoric, the shocking and the hideous
Party girl, adventurous, obsessive, volatile. But at what point is unacceptable behaviour pathological?
The day I was diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder, I wasn't feeling particularly bad. I had been taking an antidepressant for a couple of years, and up until recently it had been making what ranged from generic boredom to absolute, confusing depressions recede into the background of a life rich with family, friends, parties, and work. Life hummed along nicely until my volatile mood swings reached such appalling heights that it could no longer be blamed on depression or teenaged hormones.
Somewhere along the line I had lost grasp of happiness, sleeping immensely long hours and withdrawing from social interaction. People and activities that usually filled me with joy, now barely dented the fog of depression that surrounded me.
"I had just assumed she would snap out of it like usual" was the standard comment from friends and family. However this time the depression only deepened to the point where I spent the majority of my time in pajamas.
"Your skin turned a terrible grey shade", my mother said, "It was as though the life had been drained out of you." A visit to my doctor held no answers: a modification of antidepressant and some lifestyle suggestions. Nothing changed.
One morning I awoke to my heart pounding in my ears and the heaviness that had been crushing me for weeks absent. The sunlight that had poured through the blinds every other morning to no effect whatsoever now invigorated me to the core.
In the days that followed, I began to feel well again, perhaps better than well. This is the point in the bipolar story at which you're supposed to book a first-class ticket to
But the reality is that nothing of the sort happened—I simply felt smarter, funnier, cooler, prettier, better than I had before. I had fabulous concentration, was undistracted by any edge of competition or envy, and found that I could function easily on four or five hours of sleep.
I went out to parties often, dressed in tight figured hugging outfits to the delight of my male companions. No one was saying no to me; "no" was not an acceptable answer.
I recall breaking the heel off my shoe in a nightclub at 2 a.m., and when I took a taxi back to my house twenty minutes away to change into another pair of shoes the cabbie wouldn't wait.
Of course I did the only reasonable thing I could think of – I called the police on my mobile. When the police arrived 25 minutes later they let the driver go, then waited for me to change and escorted me back to the club. I was invincible.
"You lied and flirted your way into the good graces of the cops, convincing them to drive us back to the nightclub," my companion told me later, "I was pretty drunk, but even I knew you'd gone too far."
I'd always thought that my explosive episodes as I had come to call them were a release valve for my unpredictable hormones. A truck driver once screamed some hideous profanities at me out his window, so I picked up a garbage can threw it at the cab of his truck.
"She had always been volatile and moody, often crying and screaming at us one minute, then smiling and affectionate the next." My mother said. "At first we thought it was teenage hormones. Then one morning we woke up and realised she wasn't a teenager anymore."
The first therapist I visited informed me that my behavior was not only immature but perhaps also a symptom of an illness associated with romantic poets, a bullfight-obsessed writer and an artist who cut off his ear.
"When the therapist diagnosed you with Bipolar Disorder and prescribed all sorts of mood stabilizers and antidepressants it was excruciating not to be able to ‘fix' you. You were in a world of your own by then." My boyfriend at the time told me.
All at once, what I had considered garden-variety depression was recast as something far more sinister and mysterious, a balance beam of an illness where the upper pole was as much at issue as the lower. My ups were now called hypomania, marked by less sleep, less patience, more travel, more talking, more narcissism, more sex, and more shopping.
With hypomania, one might engage in "excessive involvement in pleasurable activities with a lack of concern for painful consequences, as well as inappropriate laughing and joking" my first therapist told me.
"One might also have a certain temperament, characterized by a tendency for attention-seeking, coupled with a nagging fear of being noticed. An impulsivity that alternated with a fear of acting on what spontaneity had sowed. An inflated sense of self-importance combined with profound feelings of neediness."
I couldn't argue with that.
Somewhere along the line my behaviour changed. It wasn't that I was whore but if I was drunk, I'd do pretty much anything.
A friend told me, "I have memories of the shower strip teases you performed for three guys at a party we went to, naked spa parties you'd attended; you modeled a g-string for some guy just because he said he'd buy it for you if you did." At the time it seemed like a fun thing to do.
Unfortunately my hypomania meant that I'd eventually go off my medications - which always led to mania and psychosis and has begun to escalate to attempted suicide.
The fast ideas are far too fast, and there are far too many; overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Everything previously moving with the grain is now against—I become irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of my mind.
It was when I plunged into those caves of my mind that I would finally stop. I needed to sleep fifteen hours a day. I needed to cancel all the plans I had made and stay in bed with a book and my journal. My phone was disconnected because I didn't pay the bill – I didn't notice for two weeks.
The only upside to this manic depression was that I found my creativity when it hit. I'd write for hours, words forming in my mind faster than I could write them down.
I'd cry and cry over the injustice of my world and beg a god I didn't believe in to make the pain stop. Usually the pain would well up in my chest, more exhausting and excruciating than any physical pain I'd ever felt. And the only way to relieve this emotional pain was to bring some physical pain about to mask it. Those were my lowest moments.
What I couldn't understand was that my life was, for lack of a better word, perfect. Good private school, good friends, good family, studying for a communications degree, steady part time work. I can remember times when my parents would say things like: "you can be such a kind, generous, loving girl and then all of a sudden you become this…this…monster."
Luckily for me through the endless support of my family, friends and my therapist (not to mention my good friends Lithium and Luvox) I've managed to attain some sense of a normal life. The downward spiral my life had begun has (for the moment) been hindered.
Now if a man yells profanity out the window, I ignore him. If a man offers to buy me anything but only if I model it, I put my arm around my friends and tell them I'm unavailable with a polite but distant glance. And when I have my heart stomped on or lose a close friend, argue with a loved one or simply have a bad day - I cry and tear up photos, eat ice cream with my friends…and eventually move on.
As my therapist says: "There will always be bad days. You simply have to allow yourself to have that bad day. Own your bad day. Lavish attention on yourself and indulge in your favourite pastimes. Because a bad day means a good one is right around the corner."
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