It’s been longer than I intended. I meant to follow up my last post on the state of my brain much more quickly. I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. I was too afraid of saying something that might turn out to be wrong. Or I was just afraid to put into text, in public, that I’d been diagnosed with a mood disorder. I had a mental illness. It still unnerves me a little to see that written out.
When I brought up my mood issues, my depression, and my family’s history of mental illness to my last therapist, she told me, “You might be anxious, depressed, or a little bipolar, but medication is the easy way out. If you really want medication, you can decide that and talk to your PCP.” Even as scared and confused as I was, it was hard not to feel icky about the disconnect in her words. I might have a little chemical problem in my brain, but if so, it was on me to go to my doctor to beg for the “easy way out”. Unfortunately, I was about to go on vacation and couldn’t deal with any of it until I got back. I packed my bags and hoped for the best.
Chemical problems don’t accept vacation requests. The depression hit a week into my trip. I did what I always did. I tried to deny it was there. Denial never works. My depression is rhythmic and relentless. It rolls in, wave after wave, wearing down whatever meager relief that strength and resolve can provide. At lunch on the third day I used the last of my strength to hold myself together on the walk from our table to a bathroom stall so I could cry in private.
My first therapist was right about one thing. Medication sounded a lot easier than that. Crying in a bathroom stall on an otherwise wonderful vacation drove home how seriously I needed to take getting healthy. I lined up a new therapist from my hotel in San Francisco. I started mood charting; noting, day to day, the elevation or depression in my mood, how anxious and irritable I was, and how much sleep I was getting. Finally, I went to see a psychiatrist.
I don’t want to write the next part, and I don’t know why. Some of my friends already know. It’s not something I’m ashamed of or embarrassed about. I just don’t want to do the part where I say, “Here’s what’s wrong with me.” I want to write the posts after this one. The ones with the information I really struggled to uncover. To do that, I need to push ahead. Let’s push ahead.
I’m bipolar. Specifically, I’m probably cyclothymic. Cyclothymic disorder is a less severe but faster cycling form of bipolar disorder. What does that mean? In bipolar I you get severe depression and full-blown mania. If you have major depression but a lesser form of mania (hypomania, meaning “below mania”), you’re bipolar II. If you have hypomania but your depressions don’t qualify as major depression (meaning they never, ever last more than two weeks) you’re cyclothymic.
Rapid cycling doesn’t mean you’re angry in the morning, elated at lunch and depressed by dinner. The diagnostic definition for cyclothymia is that you’re never symptom free for more than two months. For me, it’s meant my moods shift at least once a month, often more. My mood chart for March started with the tail end of my week of vacation depression, stabilized for a week and a half, pushed up into euphoria for a few days, then crashed back down into depression by the end of the month.
Frustratingly, cyclothymic disorder is often described as a “mild” form of bipolar. While technically true, that wording sends a bad signal if you already worry you’re making something out of nothing. The fact of bipolar is that being “a little” or “mildly” so isn’t something you should ignore. Nearly half of the people diagnosed cyclothymic are eventually diagnosed bipolar II. Bipolar progresses. Bipolar gets worse. Unless you get treatment.
It took weeks of research before I found an article that really nailed how I felt. When you’re cyclothymic, it said, you can still function. You just don’t function well. I wasn’t spending my depressive weeks in bed. I could still sort of work. It was just hard, and it hurt, and every bit of energy I burnt to stay up at work was energy I didn’t have to keep myself from being an awful human being in every other way. I wasn’t functioning well. In fact, I was doing an increasingly worse job of managing that much. That last sentence is what scared me the most. It was getting worse.
I have a mood disorder. It’s easy to be dramatic, to say it’s a prison sentence and that there’s something broken in me that will never be fixed. I could look at the medication – and yes, I am now on medication – as a shackle from which I’ll never be free. That’s not the truth of it.
I’m not changed. I’m not different. This is who I’ve been my entire life. My ups and down were here for as long as I can remember. It took me a decade and a half to put a name to it, but that doesn’t make me a different person. I’m still Eric. Eric simply knows that one of the problems he faces has a name. All the psychiatrist did was define a problem I already had and give me the means to treat it. I don’t feel trapped. I feel like myself. Myself is the best feeling I’ve had in years.