The story I am about to share deals with my 2-year journey of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It has been the most challenging, terrifying, and empowering experience of my life.
The first time I was suicidal was the winter of 2016. It slowly and insidiously snuck up on me as discontent with my life turned into depression which turned into my simply not wanting to exist anymore. I was in a relationship that made me feel unhappy and trapped. I was working a job that confused me. I spent most of my time alone. I wasn’t being paid a livable wage. I wasn’t able to keep up with my bills. I was drinking too much alcohol to cope with the gaping hole in my heart. I was living with strangers from Craigslist in a city that made me feel unsafe and overwhelmed.
I was planning the different ways I would do it.
At one point I was standing in my kitchen holding a knife to my wrist wondering if it would be best to do it in the bathroom so the clean up wouldn’t be too messy.
I thought maybe jumping off a bridge would be a good idea so that my roommates or people I knew wouldn’t have to deal with the trauma of finding a dead person.
Ultimately, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t really want to die necessarily, and the violence it would have taken to end my own life is contrary in every way to who I actually am as a person and my belief system. I wasn’t myself though. And the people I was surrounded by on a regular basis didn’t know me well enough to see the signs that depression was erasing my very essence. I called a suicide hotline at one point. A young man answered the phone, and I tried to explain the vast emptiness in my heart and the desire to simply poof out of existence.
Eventually, my best friend and boyfriend intervened.
They helped me check myself into the psychiatric ward in a large hospital. I spent 4 nights there. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I hated the place, I hated the doctors, and I was terrified of all of the people that were in the hospital with me. I faked feeling better so I could get out of there because I was certain my roommate was going to smother me in the night with a pillow. She would constantly shout or mutter about Jesus and Satan, and one night I woke up to her hovering over my sleeping body just staring at me. I yelped and she looked at me seriously and said “Satan is winning. He’s coming for all of us.”
During my stay I didn’t spend a single visiting hour without family or friends coming to see me. I was one of the few people in this place that had anyone show up. Visiting hours for most patients just meant more of the same; sitting watching television or passing the time in whatever stupor the drugs to abate their mental illness put them in. Which broke my heart in a huge way, but also made me feel grateful for the amazing support system that I had.
My team of psychiatrists prescribed me a newer medication for bipolar disorder called Abilify that supposedly had a lot of success. They prescribed intensive therapy sessions and released me.
Of the 25+ times I spoke to a medical professional during my stay, I didn’t feel heard by a single person.
It was was like I was on some mental health assembly line where I took a 20 question ‘diagnose yourself’ quiz on Buzzfeed and the doctors took it from there.
I don’t have any kind words to say about the way myself or any of the other patients were treated in this prestigious university teaching hospital.
My insurance didn’t cover the medication that was prescribed to me, and one pill cost $100. The copays for visits to therapy were well beyond my means as I had been barely scraping by on the salary I had with a now $2,000 hospital bill to pay thanks to my insurance deductible. The actual four night stay in the hospital when I got the bill was over $23,000.00.
So, what did I do when I couldn’t afford the help that I needed? I just didn’t do it. I felt like I had no resources, the hospital released me on a Saturday and I took an uber to my now ex-boyfriend’s place to pick up my car. We had broken up while I was hospitalized. I got a second job waiting tables so that I could try to afford to live and pay all of my bills.
Obviously, this was not a recipe for success by any means.
But I scraped and faked my way through. I researched therapeutic activities I was able to do on my own such as writing, exercising, and trying to stick to a routine. I ended up discovering a nonprofit that offered me therapy at a rate I could afford and didn’t need to be billed through my insurance. I eventually worked up the courage to tell my boss that I was struggling to pay my bills and the company tried to accommodate me with a more livable wage.
I was able to fake it for a few months but you can’t have a mental illness and not handle it accordingly. The other side of bipolar disorder is mania. The next time I was institutionalized was 3 months later and due to a manic episode where my erratic and confusing behavior caused concern to everyone around me. My best friend again intervened, as I no longer had the boyfriend in question from the previous episode. When I was in the emergency room they wanted to send me back to the place I had originally gone because “continuing care” was supposedly effective.
I told them if they sent me back to that hellhole I was ripping out the IV and running out of the hospital.
Thankfully, with the intervention of my amazing non-profit therapist, they agreed to send me to more of a rehabilitation facility that actually helped me. The staff was kind, competent and empathetic. My psychiatrist actually listened to me and I could be honest because I wasn’t terrified. My insurance finally was like ‘okay obviously we need to pay for this girl’s shit’ and since I had met my deductible I didn’t need to pay any money for this 1-week stay. I was prescribed Lithium and Risperdal. Lithium, a very affordable medicine, is the gold standard for mood stabilization and bipolar disorder. Risperdal is more of an antipsychotic medication.
After this hospital stay, I was put on probation at work. I took my medication. I went to therapy five nights per week. I saw a psychiatrist once a month. The medicine didn’t really work though. It certainly “stabilized” my mood but mainly it numbed me and slowed me down. My normally quick wit was gone, I had more of a robotic demeanor. I had trouble thinking and paying attention. I lost my keys all the time. Eventually, the Risperdal made me start lactating (while this side effect was shocking and unpleasant to me, it’s doubly so for the men who take the medication and have the same symptom accompanied by gynecomastia). I made an appointment with my psychiatrist immediately. He told me I should take a pregnancy test to which I responded that it was impossible I was pregnant because I wasn’t sexually active. He eyed me skeptically and told me to take one anyway and took me off the Risperdal.
I didn’t take a pregnancy test because f*ck him I would know if I was pregnant.
The fact he didn’t believe me really stung, that since I had a mental disorder I wasn’t taken at my word.
And one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder during mania is “sexual promiscuity.”
Removing that medication from my system did throw me completely out of whack. I ended up collapsing at work a few days later and my boss had to call an ambulance. Turned out I had a rather severe kidney infection. I couldn’t even listen to my own body anymore because I didn’t trust myself or my brain. The nurses were surprised that I didn’t notice any pain or the rather obvious symptoms associated with a kidney infection.
My company terminated me shortly after collapsing at work. Without a job, I was forced to move back in with my parents. I lost my health insurance so I had to stop going to therapy and taking my medication. I became depressed and suicidal again. I tried applying for jobs in my area and didn’t hear back from places. I became more depressed. I didn’t have an income of any kind so I couldn’t pay my bills and I was too depressed and apathetic to do anything about it. I would sleep anywhere from 14-20 hours per day. I rarely showered. I tried to avoid human interaction at all costs. I missed the holidays with my family. I missed important milestones in my friends’ lives. Loved ones reached out to me and I never answered. This went on for months and months. Finally, I got a job waiting tables. I still wasn’t “better” or feeling like myself but at least I had an income of some kind.
Then, the person I love most on this earth was in a near-fatal car accident. It was one of the single most life-altering events I’ve ever experienced.
It snapped me so quickly out of that depression and put life into perspective with such sharp clarity it took my breath away. I started taking medication again. I reached back out to my friends. I got a job and moved out of my parents’ place.
I don’t know how coming out and telling the world that I have bipolar disorder would affect my life. However, I know many people silently struggle with mental illness just as I do on a daily basis.
My mother is bipolar and studies have estimated a 60-80% genetic heritability in regards to this disease.
If you know that mental health issues run in your family, please check in with yourself on a regular basis. I was in such denial about the potential of having anything wrong with me because I was terrified of a diagnosis of the same disease my mother has.
Denial about your mental health issues doesn’t make them go away.
Something I’ve dealt with a lot in therapy is accepting myself without judgment. I really struggled with the diagnosis at first. When I began therapy I kept referring to myself as “crazy” and was advised that judgemental language like that is incredibly harmful. I have a disease just like people who deal with diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis and with proper treatment and care we can all go on being functional members of society.
There is also a huge tendency to self-medicate with mental illness.
Alcohol was something I used regularly and to excess to try and numb myself from the pain. Substances like these only help to exacerbate the problems associated with mental illness and limited inhibitions can cause your behavior to become more risk-taking and dangerous. Conversely, taking your medicine is incredibly important and finding the right combination of medications that work for you can take a very long time. It is vitally important to find a psychiatrist and therapist that you like and trust. A lot of psychiatrists I’ve dealt with have made me feel judged, not listened to, and just threw medicine at me without considering the holistic aspects and quality of my life. But the good ones are really good, this I can promise you.
If you are friends with someone struggling with mental illness, I know it is hard to understand, frustrating and scary at times. I am so grateful to all of the friends who stuck by my side and have supported me these two years through this whole ordeal. I have also lost relationships with people I thought would be my lifelong friends. I mentioned before my boyfriend at the time I was hospitalized and I broke up while I was there. I haven’t tried dating much since the diagnosis. I am not quite sure how or when to be open and honest with someone about my illness. I am afraid of rejection and that I may never find someone who will love me in totality and help and support me through hard times.
Too often in society and especially on social media, we try to project this image of ourselves as perfect.
We are all flawed and incredibly complex human beings.
If you are struggling with mental health issues please seek help. You can’t do it alone. I know that I am on a lifelong journey with this illness. It’s only been two years since my diagnosis. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I am optimistic. The medication that I am on now, Lamotrigine, works great and has for the past year. My new job offers a generous benefits package enabling me to access the behavioral healthcare that I need.
However, I know what it’s like to struggle financially and not have access to adequate healthcare. The fact that we live in a country and society that marginalizes and does not support those with mental health issues is abhorrent. If we change the dialogue and accept and support people with mental illness we could shift perception in such a way that everyone could seek help without stigma, shame, or fear. I hope this article helps at least one person. I hope someday I can put my true identity behind a piece like this without worrying about the negative impact it could have on my professional life or relationships. I hope to be an advocate for those who suffer silently. I hope.