Misunderstanding. Misdiagnosis. Chemistry experiments. Intensive therapy.
Weight gain. Weight loss. Depression. Mania. Suicidal thoughts.
Accompanying anxiety. Substance abuse.
Living with bipolar disorder is fraught with a load of obstacles. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects about 5.7 million people in the U.S. alone.
I am one of them.
I was truly interested in seeing the film for a variety of reasons but #1 on the list is that about two years ago, my psychiatrist began to suspect that my treatment plan had not been working because of an incorrect diagnosis. I had been living for almost 15 years believing I had major depressive disorder, as well as anxiety. My chemistry experiments of medications over the years took me through several SSRIs and other atypical antidepressants that just never seemed to balance things out.
I had no idea–and no doctor ever mentioned–that bipolar disorder often begins with only symptoms of depression. Mania can show up later. And for that reason bipolar is often misdiagnosed initially. To top it off, the treatment of bipolar is completely different from the treatment of depression, and antidepressants alone can often make symptoms worse.
As I sat and watched three people candidly share their experiences with bipolar in the 45-minute AFSP film I flashed back to 2002/2003.
A PR manager in Los Angeles, I had thrived professionally for several years, but on the inside I was a mess. I threw myself into working and partying to hide from my growing pain. I was actually quite successful at my job and made my clients happy. I even fooled myself into believing I was happy too. But there came a point where it just wasn’t working anymore.
My pain had come to the surface. I was getting physically sick all the time, my immune system was shot. I was starting to be late to work more and more. I was missing days. I ended up in the clinic with scarlet fever of all things. At this time I also started to want to hurt myself. Not kill myself (yet) but give myself physical pain to somehow help me deal with the emotional pain.
I banged my head repeatedly on a hard dresser’s edge. I really did. Looking back I can hardly believe I did that.
There came a point where I was having suicidal thoughts.
A good friend from New Orleans, where I went to college, came for a visit. I’d have to ask him why he did but I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming he was worried about me. We talked a lot. And it was after his visit that I asked for help. (Thank you Brian.)
I went to my boss, and my bosses boss. I had worked there successfully for five years and we were like family. I was very lucky to have that going for me. Somehow I found the courage to tell them how much I needed help. I admitted to them what had been happening to me. Its a testament to them that I trusted them. Stigma of mental illness is so real. This could have gone so wrong for me professionally. But it didn’t. They helped me look into the Family Medical Leave Act and I was able to take a partially-paid leave of absence and return to my parents in my Florida hometown to seek intensive therapy and psychiatric treatment.
My parents had no idea what they were getting when I arrived on their doorstep. I had never confided in them about so much of my pain. But they welcomed me with no questions until I was ready and I began seeing an amazing therapist. I also saw my Grandmother’s psychiatrist. (Yes, mental illness runs in my family as mental illness often does.)
The problem was that everyone was under the impression that I had depression. I got on Effexor and it rocked my world. I had intense insomnia for days and my whole body began twitching repeatedly. It was torture.
As I sat and listened to one of the people in the film describe having the exact same experience (also with Effexor) I sat shocked. Of course! I was being treated for the wrong illness. I wasn’t just depressed. I was also manic, and taking the antidepressant only exaggerated my symptoms. If I only knew then what I know now.
Thankfully my therapist was brilliant and got me back on my feet after a few months. My medications were probably still out of whack but thanks to hypnotherapy and regular ‘ole talk therapy, I was feeling more balanced than I had in a long time. I returned back to Los Angeles and continued on my path to recovery…or so I thought.
I met my husband right after that time in Florida. Right. After. Seriously, about two months later. We quickly fell in love and knew we would marry within just a few months. I was happy, but still having issues with my mental health. Yes, that’s correct. I was “happy” but still not balanced. John lived through a few medication changes before we were even married. He had never had experience with mental illness, but he was there for me and supportive through it all. I knew I had a great guy on my hands.
We married in LA in 2004, then quickly moved up to the Seattle area with more new doctors for me. We all just kept moving forward under the same old assumption of depression, even though I wasn’t nearly at my best.
Flash forward through a year of infertility, fertility treatments, pregnancy, new momhood, further fertility treatments, then second momhood, and postpartum depression hit me hard. Its very common for those already suffering with mental illness, and I’m sure the infertility, and hormones of pregnancy, plus pregnancy-induced hypothyroidism didn’t help either.
Now I didn’t just have me to take care of, I was responsible for the two little lives we had created. When my daughter (my second) was only 10 months old my dear lifelong friend Dina died by suicide. To say that I handled it badly is an understatement. I started this blog, which seemed a good outlet at the time. But it quickly became a part of my mania. I became obsessed with blogging. I could hardly sleep or take care of my family. And it was then that my current doctor began to question my diagnosis.
She “suspected a mood disorder.” It was scary to hear but it started me on a path to better treatment–the right treatment for me. The right treatment for bipolar disorder.
The “Living with Bipolar Disorder” film reminded me of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come. How bipolar disorder, with proper diagnosis and treatment, doesn’t have to ruin my life.
Film narrator Dr. Joseph Calabrese, professor of psychiatry at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, walked us through the complexity of bipolar, from diagnosis to treatment to recovery, including the important steps each individual took to improve their lives.
It was good to know I’m not alone.
AFSP Medical Director Dr. Paula Clayton said, “By introducing real people living with bipolar disorder and showing that they can live happy, productive lives with treatment and support, we believe this film will encourage those who are struggling to seek help.”
I agree completely. I wish I had seen it much sooner in my journey. I probably would have realized things weren’t working, but that I could find my way.
The “Living with Bipolar Disorder” film will be available for purchase on June 1 from the AFSP Store.