Sometimes a different me comes out. It’s like I’m a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. If you were to see me from a friend’s perspective, they’d describe me as somewhat different, maybe even revved up or more fun.
She’s not your average everyday Iris. She doesn’t sleep that much, yet she wants to do a dozen things at 4 a.m. She chatters without stop and is more than ready to take unnecessary risks. She thinks no one notices when she sneaks off and hooks up with a different guy each night. There’s talk of developing apps and changing the world with a fabulous new idea. Actually, that’s pretty typical when she’s like this. She has a lot of bright ideas, starts doing them, then leaves them half done to start on something else. She drinks a lot and wants to go dancing at 9 a.m. She looks okay, but there’s something that’s not quite right. You ask if she’s on something, but she smiles and says, ‘I just haven’t felt this good in a long time.’
A lot of times, friends and loved ones have shrugged their shoulders and thought, “Well, at least she’s happy, I hate when she’s depressed.”
What they’re describing is hypomania, and it is a symptom of Bipolar disorder. I have Bipolar 2, which is marked with more highs and lows that Bipolar 1. When I’m unmedicated, I cycle through depressive episodes and episodes of hypomania continuously. I’ve done incredibly stupid and dangerous things without a second thought while hypomanic because I’m not in my right mind. It’s a bit like being on a roller coaster that has a faulty safety bar. Some days, I’m just holding on for dear life, whereas other days, I just want to get off.
What do my depressive episodes look like?
Generally, when I have a depressive episode, I push everyone away. I isolate because I don’t want anyone to know and can’t handle the interaction. Only my family members, very close friends, or significant others have seen me like that. I’ve scared away many a boyfriend when an episode comes on.
The first sign that I’m aware of is brain fog. It feels like a very dense cloud enters my skull, then just sits there. I can’t think around it or push it away. Lord knows I’ve tried everything from coffee and exercise to Adderall and throwing myself into work to make it go away. It never works. It feels like there’s nothing I can do anything about it.
The first thing that others notice is me moving slowly. I’m not a fast walker, by any means, but I move with purpose. When the fog rolls in, I drag my feet and can be caught staring into space, unseeing and unhearing. It’s like I’m a deflating wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.
From there, my entire psyche crumbles. Without warning, I’m exhausted and sleep for hours at a time. Tears come for seemingly no reason. I won’t shower or brush my teeth. My bed and comforter become this cave that I cocoon myself in with just a small vent to breathe. I can’t eat, or I bring a ton of food into my cave and munch between naps. I’m irritable and snap at people via text, while simultaneously very anxious about everything.
What usually scares people away?
I want to die.
Yes, you read that correctly. I want to die. Not the, Hmm I wonder what it would be like to be dead, sort of preoccupation with death. It’s a full-on, I have to escape this feeling. There’s only one way out, and I’m taking it kind of thought about death.
I remember a panicked ex saying, “You don’t value your life at all,” while I looked at him dead-eyed and waiting for the breakup shoe to drop. Spoiler alert. It dropped. Not that I blame him, it’s a scary thing to see someone you love not feel human anymore.
But here’s the kicker. The fog will lift without warning, and I’m neither hypomanic nor depressed. I’m normal. There’s nothing particularly special about feeling normal for neurotypical folks, I suspect, but for me? Feeling normal is like, “Oh shit, I hope I can hold on to this feeling for a while so I can function.”
Getting diagnosed with Bipolar 2
I got my first mental health diagnoses in the fall of 2014, when I was hospitalized for a severe depressive episode a few months after arriving at my second duty station in Florida. Bipolar was nowhere to be found on the list of things that doctors said I exhibited. I was on a truckload of medications and stayed depressed for months, with some good days sprinkled throughout. In the spring of 2015, I inexplicably started feeling better. Way better. I was taken off all of my meds and proceeded to go up and down repeatedly. But I didn’t tell my doctor because I didn’t want to get hospitalized again (which of course, happened frequently. Be honest with your doctor, folks!).
It wasn’t until 2017, when I started watching the TV show Shameless, that I realized I behaved similarly to one of the characters. Ian Gallagher. Although the behavior he exhibited was that of a person with Bipolar 1, I related to his ups and downs. It sent me to Google, which sent me to a doctor with a printout of check-marked symptoms and a lot of questions. Soon it became clear that I had Bipolar 2.
Another reason that it was difficult to diagnose Bipolar 2? I rarely, if ever, went to my therapy appointments if I was hypomanic. My therapist only saw me when I was in the deepest depressions. I skipped my appointments and stopped taking my medications (Warning: Do not do this. Bad idea!) when I was feeling up.
Initially, I was started on Lithium to manage my mood. I didn’t react well to it. It turned me into a zombie that couldn’t participate in conversations or react to anything in a timely manner. It felt like the fog was back in my brain and rather than being depressed, I couldn’t feel at all. Soon after, I was put on the anti-psychotic, Seroquel, which has been a godsend. There’s a meme floating around the Internet that says, “Seroquel: You can’t be manic if you’re asleep.”
I can’t help but chuckle and agree. When I was first put on Seroquel, it surprised me. Usually medications take a few weeks to build up in the bloodstream. Seroquel worked in a few days. One morning I woke up, after sleeping a whole night, feeling the coveted and rarely felt “normal”. I was shocked. There were no racing thoughts and my hands weren’t trembling with anxiety. It was the closest thing to a miracle that I’ve ever experienced.
Living with Bipolar now that I am properly diagnosed and medicated is a lot easier. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been magically cured, but I am much more able to handle my triggers and mood swings. I still experience bouts of depression. If I’m presented with a very stressful situation, hypomania will still creep up. I know to tell someone immediately and go to a doctor or therapist straight away when an unexpected stressor appears. Quite typically these visits result in a medication change and more monitoring so that I don’t spiral out of control.
The moral of the story here is to keep asking questions when dealing with your mental health. It’s weird to think that if I hadn’t seen bipolar portrayed realistically instead of colloquially (when people are like, “The weather’s so bipolar today!”), I wouldn’t have known that I had it. Keep track of your moods and changes or let those close to you know your red flags. And last but not least, embrace who you are! Mental illness is not a sign of weakness. We are who we are.
Sending good vibes to get you through the rest of the week.