More than a Diagnosis…#worldbipolarday
*World Bipolar Day (WBD) is celebrated each year on March 30th, the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed as probably having bipolar disorder.*
Written By Anya Trybala
Trigger Warning: this article covers mental health and suicide
“So is it kind of like Carrie from Homeland then?” asked a friend to whom I’d revealed that I was being treated for Bipolar II disorder.
She was visiting from overseas and wasn’t privy to the happenings of the previous year. I was feeling fairly fresh that day, after slowly clawing back to some sort of normalcy after the big fall a few months before. I was actually out at a bar in Melbourne, a huge leap forward compared to the perceived safety of the bed sporting my crappy pyjamas and sallow eyes.
“Well, kind of. Not quite as extreme in the ups and mania, but yeah, kinda, I suppose.” I said.
I kind of feel like Bipolar II is like a ‘softer’ version of Bipolar Disorder, although it has been found in a number of studies that there are higher instances of suicide ideation and attempts amongst Bipolar II patients (24%) compared to 17% in Bipolar I patients and 12% in major depressive patients so maybe not quite as ‘soft’. It’s a tricky one to explain.
Maybe it’s because the symptoms are harder to diagnose? The mania isn’t quite as obvious as assessed in those with Bipolar Disorder (it’s referred to as hypomania) but the depression can linger on, so the condition can be cloaked and missed in earlier attempts at diagnosis, often mistaken for depression or other anxiety disorders. It’s a complicated spectrum and many fall through the cracks and don’t come out alive.
So, how did I get here?
The psychologist who I was seeing for about six months before the big fall didn’t quite pick up on it. She assessed me as suffering from General Anxiety Disorder and we kept up the cognitive behavioural treatment for a few months. Me coming in, telling her about my fears, my strange ideas, the growing anxiety and she would then refer me a text, an author to read and other methods. She said I really needed to leave my job, it was toxic for me.
In anything I did, I always over-promised due to my ‘big-picture thinking’ and always under-delivered due to the lack of confidence and crushed self-esteem – a vicious cycle.
I was also a massive perfectionist, which added to the messy mix. It was impossible to finish anything and be content with it. I was also incredibly restless and didn’t know how to calm down and relax, always a scatter of ideas and things to do but with no real order.
The job was getting more and more stressful, or maybe it was the condition finally taking over? One feeds the other I suppose! One day I finally snapped and left citing health reasons. My HR rep dismissed my claims initially and even rolled her eyes when I mentioned depression.
“But you have such a great energy!” she said.
People with this condition will often be high functioning until a stressful situation causes them to come undone.
After I turned up to the GP the following day in a zombie state, absolutely catatonic, my GP, after the recommendation of my psychologist, gave me a dose of Lexapro, hoping for the best. She told me to keep coming back every few days to check-in.
One week later I felt amazing.
Three weeks later I was suicidal.
If a patient is displaying suicidal tendencies, send the patient to a psychiatrist. It’s what they are trained to manage and perhaps can find a combination of medication that just might be able to help, not potentially lead to suicide. It’s what would be done with other specific health disorders – send them to a specialist! Got a problem with your lady bits, see a gynaecologist. A strange growth on your foot, a podiatrist. A suspicious mole, a dermatologist. What make mental health any different?
Perhaps the root of the problem is the fact that Australia has a scatty system when it comes to mental health, a kind of ‘luck of the draw’ and a non-defined way of managing mental health disorders?
I visited a different GP and I found an excellent psychiatrist, clinical and thorough, who made a two hour assessment and decided to try a combination of Lexapro and Valproate, which is traditionally used for epilepsy but also successful in Bipolar II disorder, which is what he suspected I might have been dealing with.
He wasn’t certain it would work but my lord, did it work! It was like a mental switch was turned off overnight and I stabilised over the following weeks. I could breathe again, leave the house, not be crushed with fear and feel ‘normal’ for the first time in my life.
Some things I did after I was diagnosed.
- Accepted my diagnosis. While a scary prospect of facing a lifetime condition, management and informing myself was a good start and it was actually a bit of a relief to have a name for what I was feeling all those years. I treat Bipolar II as a condition – not the fact I am bipolar II, but that I have bipolar II – like someone who has diabetes or has high blood pressure. I was also comforted in reading and hearing about other people’s experiences, including Stephen Fry in his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive by Stephen Fry, my friend, Honor Eastly who is a mental health advocate who isn’t afraid to share her feelings and experiences (www.honoreastly.com) and Tony ‘Jack the Bear’ Mantz who is a fantastic booster and realist, especially for creative folk.
- I got myself a mood tracker app on my phone. This gave me a chance to check in on a daily basis, see the stats on what was triggering my mood changes and use fun emoticons to display my progress. It made me realise that yep, some days are going to be terrible, but with a bit of sleep, things are usually better and it makes me focus more on the current moment, rather than what might happen in the future.
- Get sweaty! I treated my sweat beads as little bits of anxiety bubbling out and tried different types of activities. Contemporary dance, lifting weights and getting a bit jiggy were my favourites. The next day, my mood always feels more stabilised and I can think with a clear head.
- I set myself deadlines and listed all the stuff I wanted to do. As a perfectionist, I often started lots of projects but couldn’t complete them as they weren’t good enough. I thought the only way to finally finish a song (from my collection of about 100 half-finished projects sitting in Ableton Live on my computer) was to enter a competition (Tropscore in 2014) which motivated me to get busy and finish it. This process started a flow of confidence and now I’m in the process of releasing an EP, launched a boutique record label championing women in electronic music (Synth Babe Records) and started performing again – some of my most soothing places is in my headphones and on stage. I think finding that comfort really helped distract from any low moods I was experiencing.
- Got a second opinion. Well, if I look back on my history I would say it was a fourth opinion as I had seen psychologists before and they said it was post-traumatic stress and other stuff but when it came down to it, what was happening at the time of the big fall showed a situation where the people were not helping – so I sought a different opinion, through recommendations.
- Realised that suicide ideation is a symptom of the disorder, which makes it easier when those kind of thoughts flurry past, the guilt of it all subsides. I just grab a hold of them and try and let them go, or distract myself with something that makes me feel good (like making music!)
- When I was in that raw, post-diagnosis stage, I would make sure to have my headphones handy each morning and when I woke up, would listen to something soothing to calm my mind. This made such a difference to the day to day!
Looking back. A bit of history…and symptoms.
I always had outlandish and creative ideas, terrible mood swings and extreme, obsessive fears, something I thought was just part of my personality, which obviously flared up in my adolescence, a crummy time to have a mental health disorder.
In actual fact, what I was dealing with was an underlying mental health condition that had been plaguing me for almost 30 years. As I read more about this condition and absorb stories from others dealing with this condition, memories from my childhood have been coming back in spades.
‘You were a strange child’ my mum commented recently. She was right, I totally was. A comment like that a few years ago would have sent me into a defensive spiral, but today, I can laugh at myself a bit more and just chalk it up to the condition.
The over-sensitivity led to the most awful mood swings. When I was finally diagnosed, my younger sister was like ‘Oooooh, it all makes sense now!’ I hope she can forgive me for using her as an emotional punching bag for all those years.
But two years after my initial diagnosis, I feel like at least I can identify my triggers and deal with life with a more measured approach. I am on a lower dosage of medication to what I was initially on, which is good. If medication is needed to feel stable, then so be it! It’s a daily battle to maintain balance, but I think it’s important to share stories, so this is mine.
What are your stories? Email me at [email protected] to share, ask questions, whatever! You can also contact Lifeline, Headspace or the Black Dog Institute in Australia if this piece has brought up discomfort or you have further questions.
My EP Town of Two Hundred launches on June 19, exploring spectrums of life and feelings, out through Synth Babe Records, recorded, mixed and mastered at Sound Machine Studios.
Anya is a musician performing her alternative electric sounds under the name Ninoosh. She also contributed a track to our Wake Up Rosie app last year!
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