May is Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and after much deliberation, I thought I’d share some ramblings. I have a mental illness that is currently stable thanks to medication, therapy, and lots of great support from my family and friends. Three years ago I would have told you without hesitation that I had depression, officially diagnosed at least 5 times, including twice with postpartum depression. But in 2015 I had an alcohol-induced breakdown, attempted suicide, and was hospitalized (both in a regular hospital and in a mental hospital to stabilize on new medication). And I had a new, much less socially acceptable, more stigmatized diagnosis: Bipolar 2 Disorder.

It took me more than a year to learn more about accept this diagnosis; I only heard the Bipolar part of the diagnosis and my immediate thoughts went to the mother of one of my best friends in high school who was diagnosed as manic depressive (aka Bipolar Disorder). She tried to kill herself, not for the first time, following what must have been a manic phase – I vividly remember my friend telling me she had started to wash the living room ceiling but didn’t finish; the mania ended and she attempted suicide before finishing, the two-toned ceiling told the story. Also, one of my grandfathers, who was somewhat distant with us grandkids (or perhaps my exposure was just limited) was diagnosed as manic depressive. My mother suspects that it was caused by the brain tumor that would kill him, but I have my doubts. And then I had heard stories, both fiction and non, about Bipolar Disorder – the soaring highs that made people think they could do and be anything that sometimes entered the realm of psychosis, the spending sprees, and then the opposite – people unable to get out of bed or even take a shower.

I wasn’t like that at all. Life wasn’t a mood roller coaster for me; I spent most of my time feeling depressed and anxious and just … other. (I still feel “other” but am, I guess, more comfortable with that and know that lots of people feel that way also.) I was never so down that I didn’t get out of bed or shower, but there was that period just after college when I was jobless and couldn’t leave the house and, one day in an attempt to feel safe and secure, spent an afternoon in a closet (with the door open). And the period that preceded it, when it felt like everyone was looking at me.

When I wasn’t feeling depressed and anxious, I sometimes had periods of great productivity. I vividly remember spending most of a day in the university coffee shop writing what I thought was the best essay of my life (and it was good), feeling like the words were flowing through me onto the page with no effort; I was in the zone, but it was more than that – it felt like I could do anything that day. One night years later, after having two kids and recovering from post-partum depression a second time, I started cleaning the kitchen and foyer floor on my hands and knees at 9pm after the kids had gone to bed. I didn’t finish (or exhause my energy) until 3am. One time I polished my stainless steel flatware (um, it’s called stainless steel for a reason, but I could still see flaws and an imperfect shine). There were so many other similar times – I polished a friend’s heavily aged copper kettle, I organized all my books following a system of favorites and size – that I had thought were just how normal people felt when they were functional or at worst, what people did when they needed to work through something. But I had no out of control spending sprees, no over-inflated ego trips, no psychotic episodes.

After denying the diagnosis for more than a year, I finally started to research Bipolar 2. Unlike Bipolar 1, people with Bipolar 2 spend most of their time being depressed (check), with periods of normalcy and periods of hypomania – hypo meaning beneath or below, so a mild mania (check). In Bipolar 1, the mania is much more pronounced, the mood swings more severe and a little more even. I joined a bipolar forum on http://www.psychforums.com/ and other people’s problems, symptoms, stories, and medications really resonated with me and the more I read, the more I accepted that this disorder best describes what’s wrong with my moods.

I have always been open with my children about my mental health and my experiences, just as my parents were with me, warning me about a pre-disposition to addiction and never depression, exactly, but just to be on the look out for something, just in case. I have been telling my boys the same thing: be wary of being dependent on any substance and if you’re overwhelmed or need help with anything, ask. I realize now that relying on a depressed person to ask for help is silly; the last thing I want to or can do when I’m depressed is ask anyone for anything, I just hunker down and hope it passes.

I missed the signs in one of my boys and wish that I had followed my hunches and forced him to get help earlier than I did, but I hope I’ll do better next time and with my friends and extended family. It’s hard to notice when someone has withdrawn, not because I don’t miss them, but because there can be so many reasons (new job, problems at a job or at home, obligations, etc.) for not seeing or talking to someone as often as I used to – I know it’s the same for lots of other people, but it’s important to reach out to the people you care about to make sure they’re doing okay. If something seems off, reach out – the worst that can happen is an awkward conversation and the best is that you’ll help a friend who really needs it.

After the breakdown that led to the Bipolar 2 diagnosis, a lot of people told me that they wished I had called them or told them something was going on instead of trying to solve a temporary problem with a permanent solution on my own. The truth is I had been reaching out in subtle ways but I didn’t know that I needed help or, if I did, what type of help I needed. Ultimately, I don’t think I would’ve gotten the help I needed without things happening the way they did. I’d still have the more inaccurate diagnosis of Major Depression, I probably wouldn’t have gone into the hospital, and I don’t think I would feel as good as I do now. I guess the point I’m really trying to drive home is to reach out and keep reaching out until you know that someone is in a better place mentally.

I have much more to say about mental illness, particularly the stigma around it and the biases people have against those of us with it. But I guess I’ll just end by saying that I think of Bipolar 2 as being kind of in remission, that I’m more functional than I have been in years, and that I’m very grateful for the support of my family, friends, and those complete strangers who are brave enough to speak/write about mental illness: this is for you.