This is actually a draft of a paper I’m writing for my abnormal psych class. Enjoy.
My Experience with Bipolar Disorder
Over the years, I’ve known several people with bipolar disorder. Most of them were men. Joe is a research biologist who had a psychotic break in college that resulted in being fished out of a tree on the quad in nothing but his underwear. He now takes almost the lowest possible dose of lithium that even doctors don’t agree is therapeutic but if he misses a dose, he feels like he’s losing touch with reality. Pete was a musician with a tender heart who chose electro-convulsive therapy, known as ECT, to treat his bouts of debilitating depression. This is a rather extreme therapy that involves running electrical current through the brain. Doctors are not entirely sure why this works but in some percentage of cases it’s very effective. Jim was my ex-husband. He did not take his medicine regularly and this past fall he committed suicide. I wonder if he felt this would make things better for the rest of us or if he just got tired and overwhelmed, and wanted to rest. I think the difference would be whether he was manic or depressed at the time. There is one woman I know through work named Mary. Mary takes her medicine and lives alone with her 2 dogs. She comes into work daily and has what appears to be a normal if solitary life.
And then there is me. Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I treat it with medicine and therapy. I have never been depressed enough to be suicidal and I do not have the extreme mania where I lose touch completely with the everyday world. I do have long stretches of time that feel hopeless and stuck combined with more energetic periods of little sleep and poor decision making. I believe part of the reason this wasn’t noticed when I was younger is that it follows a school schedule. I tend to be depressed during the summer months, which I find too hot in way that saps energy. The energetic period generally runs during the holiday season, from about my birthday in the beginning of November until sometime in January when Christmas shopping probably hides the true extent of retail therapy in which I engage. The rest of the time, I am what I consider to be normal. I am not sure my understanding of normal is correct so it’s hard to be definitive about it.
I had originally planned to look at the individual diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 and talk about what those look like in my life. I think that may be beyond the scope of this short paper. Suffice to say, I was surprised to find out that things I thought were, I don’t know, charming or quirky were actually signs and symptoms. Apparently eccentric is a good way to describe bipolar II and it is a description that’s been applied to me for most of my life.
I take Prozac and Abilify. The Prozac makes me a bit jittery and I need to watch my eating with it. I need to be sure both that I eat enough and regularly, and that I don’t eat too much. It’s not that I’m hungry so much as that I tend to interpret other problems like tiredness as needing to eat. The Abilify I take at night and usually I’m asleep about a half hour after taking it. Good sleep hygiene is also very important for me, things like maintaining regular hours even when on weekends.
What I have learned in my brief research is how lucky I am. I have been more or less functional until into my 50’s so I really am not hugely afflicted by this disorder. I was born at a time when medicine is available to treat my struggles, which is really only since the mid-1950’s, about 10 years before I was born. I have a small experience with other bipolar people whose lives can be object lessons of what to do and what not to do. The great strength of people like Pete, Joe, Mary and even Jim remind me of our common resilience and simple human weakness. I have options for support groups if I feel like I need one, and a therapist who knows me, who is capable of letting me know if I’m heading into mania often before I realize what’s going on. That’s important to me because I find the mania harder to manage than the depression.
I am still learning to navigate this strange and amazing disorder. I am learning to build a life that makes me happy and takes into consideration that I am very changeable over the course of a year. My guideline is not “what is normal?” so much as “what is healthy?” In a world full of choices, I choose to pursue health.