In October, I was diagnosed as bipolar, previously known as manic-depressive. It was a long journey to get the diagnosis, starting in childhood, with a slide into depression when I was entering University and a crisis that almost took my life at 21. I’m 25 now, almost 8 years after I remember telling my mom that I was first experiencing symptoms of depression.
I’m still not quite sure how to deal with the diagnosis. It’s something that some of my family and I have thought might be true for a long time, but when you hear a doctor say that you’re bipolar, it’s a shock to the system. It was one of those moments you see in the movies. Your eyes glaze over. You can’t hear what doctor is saying. There’s a loud ringing. I was participating in that moment in real life. A minute later, it was done.
It has taken a long time to figure out this cloud that has had such a massive impact on my life. In the end, it was so brief and anticlimactic it was hard to process. It is a relief to understand that there is something that doctor’s know about, something that can be treated, and something that people can still live a happy life with. The way I live is going to have to be a lot more stringent than most people, but in a lot of ways, I already love the lifestyle that has been bestowed upon me.
There are a lot of things that people don’t know about bipolar, including myself. I know that before going through a lot of the things that I went through, that bipolar to me was an extreme, devastating, mental illness that most often ended up in a debilitating life or a painful, self-inflicted end.
My First Episode To Now
My first episode was in 2013, but in late 2016 and throughout almost all of 2017 I started to feel symptoms that were beyond my control. There were patterns of moods and behaviours that at first seemed to have no rhyme or reason. One week, I would be balanced, navigating through life like most people, relatively happy and confident in my abilities to deal with what the world threw at me. The next week, I would be broken, with any critical comment or feedback crushing any hope that the next 24 hours would be okay. I would spiral into a pit of darkness with barely any capacity to handle a situation. I was crying for no apparent reason. The week after that, I’d be abnormally energetic and grandiose, overly happy and confident with wild ideas and reckless disregard for the day-to-day responsibilities I had.
Sometimes, these cycles would be even shorter. Sometimes day-to-day, hour-to-hour, or even minute-to-minute, my mood was constantly reacting to the stimulus, situations, and problems in my life. This is called rapid cycling, and it is horrible. I became more and more aware of these symptoms and I began to seriously suspect I may be bipolar. I knew I struggled with depression, but this felt like something more than that.
When I was in those lows, I was also feeling these grandiose episodes where I was talking too fast, feeling constantly overwhelmed, had little impulse control, and was only operating on a couple hours of sleep every night. I am now aware this is a mixed affective episode, a mixed state condition during which symptoms of both mania and depression occur simultaneously. I was experiencing this a lot and it was really starting to scare me.
At the time I didn’t know that, but I knew I had to start taking better care of myself and find a way to figure out what was happening to me. After a particularly devastating start to 2017, I knew I could not do it on my own and I started to explore my options. One of the things the mental health system needs the most improvement in is helping people define the problems they are having and the paths for them to solve those problems. There are a lot of factors that tailor someone’s situation, and over and over again I have heard how difficult it is for people to find the proper support.
During this time, there were some dark, dark moments. After seeing the stress and pain my suicide attempts caused in 2014, I vowed that I would never let it get that far. But, many times in 2017 there were fleeting thoughts of those options that entered my head. I couldn’t entertain them though. Suicide is no longer an option for me. But honestly, sometimes, that made it even worse. In 2014, at least I thought I had an exit. In 2017, I was trapped, suffering with no way out.
It was a dangerous time. Not only was I struggling with this almost every moment of my life, I had an actual business to run with real paying clients, a growing team and a lot of work to do. So, I persevered. A lot of it was horrible and in many ways I will look back on 2017 in terms of my business as a write-off. Some days I could barely put a sentence together, and I was watching projects that I took on when I was having a good week fall apart in the bad ones that followed. I did my best and I thank anyone who worked with us for their patience and support as I ran and grew my business through almost 10 months of near-crisis.
In a lot of ways, the business is what kept me going. With SixFive, I could work from home one day if I couldn’t face my team, clients, or people in our building. It was a sad time and to this day I feel shame for my inconsistency.
I was desperate, often waking up sick to my stomach with the amount of stress and pain I felt. After a long search, I found a path through Thames Valley Family Services, which has a walk-in clinic for people struggling with mental health every Tuesday. That walk-in clinic saved my life, and I continue to access their services.
The problem with the walk-in is you see a different counselor every time. You need to establish your backstory and context for 30 minutes before you can even dig into the problems you are facing that day. The consultation is only 60 minutes, and some days, it is so frustrating to feel like you are just about to break ground and then the time is over.
But, I didn’t care. The talking helped, and even the smallest insights from the counselors made me feel like I was making progress. I would write down notes, suffer through the next week, and come back the next week to a new counselor, explain my story, and try to build upon the last consultation. I must have seen almost every single person in that building.
These months were devastating, but I finally was able to get in with a person through Thames Valley consistently. It is the same person for each session now, and she knows my story and helps guide me through my biggest problems in the present with an understanding of my history.
This is another person I owe my life to. She went out of her way to help me out and book me an assessment with the Hospital doctor who ultimately diagnosed me with bipolar. Without her support and insights, I may be as lost as I was in 2014.
What Is Bipolar Like?
For anyone who is not bipolar, it honestly is hard to explain. I was going through life and constantly looking at people, and I would be questioning how and why are they happy, how are they so balanced. It just didn’t make any sense. The ups and downs I was facing on a day-to-day basis were so overwhelming I started to feel embarrassed of myself. The shame and guilt would cause more negative thoughts that turned to more shame and guilt and then more negative thoughts.
It is not pleasant. It wears you down and takes control over your life. It impacts the people around you. It is inconsistent and unpredictable.
After the realizations, after the counseling, I knew I needed a change. The counselor connected me with the hospital. I was introduced to a psychiatrist who quickly and confidently made the diagnosis. He gave me options for medication including lithium, a mood stabilizer. However, with lithium, you have to get some pretty extravagant bloodwork and I wasn’t interested in that.
So, I chose Lamotrigine, a mood stabilizer that doesn’t need bloodwork like Lithium that is also used for seizures. It was scary to start on medication again. The last time I started medication I gained almost 100 pounds and it has had effects on me to this day. It also has the possibility to create a rash that can kill you (highly unlikely). You take a chance at a better life or a chance at no life at all. And I did.
I’m just over two months in now. I had a couple itches, but besides that, everything has gone smoothly. I feel clearer. I feel happier. I don’t fall into the negative spiraling thoughts I usually do, even with some very stressful moments I’ve had to tackle during this time. Maybe it is the medication. Maybe it is just placebo. But, I am here. I am happier than I have been in a long time.
Self-care is important. Don’t forget that. More than just medication, you need to create a lifestyle that supports your mental health. Over the last several years, as I have worked relentlessly to find peace and happiness for myself, there are a few things that I have found really make an impact on your mental health:
- Creating a strict schedule. Wake up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time every night.
- Eat healthily. Some of the darkest mornings I had were when I had eaten badly the day before and consumed a lot of sugar and processed food.
- Work out regularly. Working out has provided not only a healthier body but a healthier mind. Exercise has a massive impact on your brain’s functioning.
- Practice meditation and mindfulness. It doesn’t have to be a full formal practice. I often meditate in the sauna after a workout, or even more informally when I am walking, eating, or stuck in traffic (known as “tail light meditation”). This practice has helped immensely, bringing me more into the present moment, helping me understand that thoughts are just thoughts that pass through, and to give myself more compassion.
- Talk to people. Be open to how you are feeling. Find a person or a group of people who are willing to have open, authentic discussions with you. So much of the stress that comes with our problems can dissolve when we can talk out the issues we are having.
- A cold shower. This one sounds weird, but, I find a cold, intense shower in the morning prepares me for the rest of the day. It has something to do with the cortisol stress response we feel. If we trigger it early in the morning, it allows you to tackle stress from our day-to-day activities.
- Audible. I am an avid audiobook person (despite at one time dismissing people who listen instead of reading books). Some of the greatest insights and lessons I have had have come from books on Audible. There are books on mental health, mindfulness, cognitive behaviour therapy, and wonderful stories by inspiring people who help you understand that everyone has problems and there are ways to face and rise above them.
- Enjoying your work. I am fortunate to love what I do. Not everyone is as lucky. But, if you can figure out something you love and do that every day, it makes life a lot better.
- Budgeting. A lot of the stress people face is financial. I put a lot of work during 2017 to budget better, start investing and saving, and get myself in a better position to have and make money. Money is primal. It threatens our survival. When you are in survival mode, it is hard to live healthily and be happy.
- Love. Whether it is a spouse, significant other, your family, or even a pet, everyone needs to have love in their life. It’s our greatest driver for happiness and without the love and support from the people around me, I don’t know where I would be.
Let me know if you have any things that work for you and should be mentioned here. I will continue to add to the list as I explore and test different ways to increase my standard of living and find peace within. Thank you for reading and being here with me.
All the best,