It’s Not a Shackle, It’s Just a Definition

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.

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13 Responses to It’s Not a Shackle, It’s Just a Definition

  1. samatwitch says:

    Thank you for the strength and courage to share this, Eric. I’m sure it will help others who may be wondering what is wrong with them, be it bipolar, depression or other. I’m glad that you are getting help so that you feel more ‘yourself’. I can’t imagine what it must feel like not to feel yourself.

    Good luck with continued improvement.

  2. Rachel says:


    That’s really all.

  3. Sporks says:

    I think the best description of depression I ever heard–can’t recall where anymore–was that it feels like having your fingers caught in the car door. All the time.

    Meds have been helpful for me in some respects, but I would disagree that they are the “easy” way out: they are kind of a terrifying crapshoot all on their own. If later on you decide to try them, I would strongly recommend you keep the talk part up as well. Illness has a way of making you lose all perspective and having someone outside of yourself to tell you, “hey, your thinking is fucked up,” is incredibly useful.

  4. Eric says:

    Thank you, Sporks. And no, meds are not easy. Are, in fact, scary. I may not have been clear enough in the post, but I did go on medication and have been for about 6 weeks. I’m going to talk about that separately, in another post, because it was its own Thing. Short story: I’m glad I started taking them, and I’m just as glad I’m continuing the talk therapy.

  5. Bevin says:

    It’s funny how you can feel more like yourself after something clicks into place like that. Nothing else may have changed, there’s just a term you’ve found that helps you understand yourself a little better than you did before. Good on you for having the self-awareness to recognize it wasn’t going to get better without help and thanks for deciding to share your experience.

  6. Brian says:

    Thanks, Eric. Your ability to make the incomprehensible accessible is a testament to your writing skill. Your strength in facing this challenge and writing about it continues to amaze me.

  7. Laynie says:

    Very brave. Proud of you, Eric. Like you said, nothing has changed but adding a name and definition has made all the difference… and not just for you, but for your loved ones as well, I’m sure. Somehow, it allows for deeper understanding on all sides. And now, in the immortal words of Dora: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” She’s a plucky fish, that one. *hugs*

  8. Mere says:

    If medication is “the easy way out” according to your first therapist, I’d *really* like to see that therapist take “the hard way out,” i.e. electroconvulsive therapy or a frontal lobotomy — except I’m pretty sure after saying something something so *incredibly* stupid and insensitive, the therapist has already had the lobotomy. What a (sorry, but I’m going to use the linguistic “easy way out” here) total fuckbag. I’m really proud of you, E. It takes ALL THE BALLS to talk about this stuff, and you’ve progressed in that so much faster than I ever did. I admire you for not only taking control of your moods and life, but for sharing your story so openly. (Oh, but this doesn’t mean we’re “friends” or anything. Just so you know, I still hate you. Like, A LOT. <3)

  9. Fox says:

    This is a really excellent post. You are incredibly brave for putting it out there, but you have also explained things in such a reader-friendly way, that I can imagine your thoughts and experiences helping someone else who is going through a similar experience and stumbles upon this (to say nothing of the fact that I hope it’s helping you to talk about it as well).

  10. jlweinberg says:

    I love you. That’s all. Having a label for the symptoms just means that it can be treated more precisely, with the right therapy and medications. It doesn’t define all of you. All of you being: wonderful.

  11. Lauren says:

    I was on antidepressants for about two years, and did talk therapy through four (essentially through my you-know-who festival years.) I would probably not have gotten through my first two years of you-know-who festivals without that therapist. And while I was embarrassed about it at first, eventually I realized that I was just succumbing to the stigma. I finally told my coworkers I was late every Wednesday morning because I had to go talk to a professional about how stressed out I was, and it was a huge relief. After that, I started jokingly offering my therapist’s number to them when things were really ridiculous. (And after enough jokes, one of them finally took me up on it.) All of which is to say, it takes guts to tell people that you aren’t ok all the time, and we as a society desperately need people to take that risk.

    Re: the meds, from my experience, they should make you feel MORE like yourself, not less like yourself. If you feel less like yourself, they’re the wrong ones. Sometimes people who haven’t been through a mood disorder can’t understand feeling like your emotions belong to someone else, and so it’s hard for them to grasp how taking meds for your mood is actually a very sound way of eliminating emotions that actually don’t need to be “dealt with” or “worked out.”

  12. Moi says:

    Well stated, and you are clearly on the right path. I could say more, but it all comes back to the first sentence.

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