The first time I experienced hypomania and depression was at the age of 14 when I experienced death for the first time. My grandfather had passed away and I was devastated. His death triggered something inside me and I started engaging in reckless and impulsive behavior. I stole my parent’s car on multiple occasions for joy rides around town. The fact I didn’t know how to drive and could barely touch the pedals didn’t phase me one bit. It looked easy enough; anyone could do it. Not surprisingly, I was caught and taken to kid jail. I escaped relatively unscathed as my punishment by the courts was to write a paper on the dangers of under age driving. And though you think spending time in court, being told I could go to juvenile detention, and realizing I could have very well killed someone would put me in my place, it didn’t. I didn’t feel guilty at all. There was a certain kind of thrill in breaking the rules. It made me feel alive. So I kept testing the waters.
In the weeks that followed I snuck out and met neighborhood friends (the ones deemed bad influences) to try cigarettes and beer. We broke into empty houses being built and practiced picking locks. And, if you remember when instant message chat rooms were popular, I became addicted. I couldn’t sleep so I would stay up all night and talk back and forth with people around the world, mostly guys because I liked the attention. Looking back and knowing what I know now it’s probable some of them were pedophiles. That gives me the heebie jeebies.
To most people it seems like all of this was just me acting out. What makes these series of events a hypomanic episode is that all of it was entirely out of character for me. I wasn’t reckless or impulsive. I never got in trouble. I was the perfect child, never talking back and always doing as I was told. I never complained. Following this series of events my Dad said, “You’re not so much the angel we thought you were, are you?”
Depression came crashing into my life not long afterwards. It was as if a storm cloud had descended over me. I began spending all my time in my room in the pitch dark, not wanting to come out. I cried a lot, usually for no reason at all. It was the first time I began having suicidal thoughts. It was when I first started self-harming – in the form of picking out my hair for the pricks of pain it caused and which I continue to do to this day (aka trichotillomania). It was the first time my mom sent me to a psychologist. And, just like I did in the years that followed, I pretended like my mom was making it all up. “Dude, I’m fine. Mom is over reacting. I am totally normal.” I succeeded. I tricked the psychologist into thinking everything was fine and he sent me on my merry way. My mom’s instincts were right but with the stamp of approval from the psychologist what else could she do.
While grief after death is normal, the mood swings I went through were not. Episodes, whether hypomanic or depressive, come and go on their own. When you experience hypomania, you crash and depression follows. Eventually the cloud of depression lifts and you have a period of normality between the next cycle. Sometimes those quiet periods can last for years but eventually it rears its ugly head. Thus, it begins again.
Every one of us has been depressed at some point in our lives. After all, grief and sorrow are normal reactions to loss. The difference between that and someone with major depression though is that major depression enters your life with or without reason and it stays there, hovering and tormenting you, for long periods of time.
I had just one other hypomanic episode but many major depressive episodes over the next 13 years. What is different about bipolar I and bipolar II is the severity of your mania and the episode you spend most of your time in. With bipolar II you spend more time in a constant state of depression than you do in the highs. Through those depressive episodes I’ve learned many lessons, which I am only now able to articulate given the medication I take to stabilize my mood. This list isn’t by any means exhaustive but which stick out to me the most.
Everyone’s experience is different
When I first started writing and publishing personal essays about what having bipolar II felt like and what it was like to be in a psychiatric ward, I didn’t imagine anyone would ever question the truthfulness of those stories or write negative comments about my experience. People commented on those articles with things like, “I call bullshit,” and “There are many flaws in this story,” and “She is making it up. That would never happen.” I make it a rule not to read any comments on my articles but inevitably someone I know reads them and asks, “Did you see what they wrote!? Those fuckers.” My curiosity peaks and I end up reading them.
Reading those kinds of comments do hurt and it makes me angry that someone would judge my experience or others’ experiences when they themselves have probably never been in my shoes. To say such a personal story is untrue is dismissive and wrong. Hospitals and psychiatric wards don’t look the same across the nation. Yet the beliefs we hold about how hospitals are run and how people are treated creates an image that we are all the same when in reality we are not. Even in the support group I attend with women who have exactly what I have, none of our stories perfectly align. Yet I believe every word of their story. When people share such intimate details of a painful time in their lives, that takes courage. We should be applauding those who speak out to bring awareness and attention to the issue, not condemn them for showing their insecurities. To do so is unkind and shows no compassion for the human condition.
It’s just as hard to articulate how depression affects me as it is for those around me to understand it
I have found major depression to be incredibly difficult to describe. In an effort to understand my diagnosis my family has asked me a lot of questions. I know early on my Dad struggled with why I couldn’t just snap out of it or perk up. He had always said you have one day to be sad and depressed. On day two you better get out of bed and get going because life doesn’t stop. Now that we have open communication about what I feel and he’s read endless books about depression to understand, I’m not sure he will ever truly get it. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t been diagnosed with what I have will truly get it. When I talk to someone who wants to know about my story and they tell me they know what it’s like to feel depressed, it tends to irritate me. Though everyone experiences a case of the blues, it is far removed from what major depression feels like. But, just as it is difficult for me to describe, it’s probably equally difficult for others to fully grasp. I really shouldn’t get upset when people say that because at the most basic level they’re just trying to show me I’m not alone. They’re trying to offer up compassion and love. That is all I can really expect and I give them major kudos for trying.
There is no magical pill to fix pain
Though medication is incredibly helpful in stabilizing your mood, it doesn’t make the pain or despair you felt miraculously go away. A lot of times you feel ashamed when you come out of the episode. You ask yourself how you could have possibly thought the things you thought or did the things you did (self-harm, attempted suicides, negative self-talk). Long term healing takes a considerable amount of work and it takes time as well. You don’t take a pill and everything becomes hunky dory. People often say that time heals all wounds but I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. Time just makes enduring pain and separating it from the events that happened in our lives easier. You never believe you’ll survive the pain, but you do survive it. Your life does go on and you continue living it to the best of your ability – day by day.
To make it out, you have to try.
The support and assistance I received from my family and friends after my breakdown was endless. It still is. It made me realize, if even just for them, I needed to embark on a path to recovery. Despite how much it helps to have them lending a hand and having my therapist, psychiatrist, and support group to talk to, I was never going to make progress until I started wanting to get better for myself. No one could walk my path to recovery except me. Though recovery doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes you think you won’t make it, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Things do get better. You get better.
May is mental health awareness month. Do you have a story to share? Feel free to comment below!