Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘bipolar type 2’

Functioning While Bipolar

Bipolar disorder is a funny thing. Mine leaves me alone part of the time. Until it doesn’t.

I have had full-blown depressive episodes, with the sobbing and the immobility and the wretchedness and everything else associated with it. I have had one major episode that lasted for three years straight, plus everything else from minor breakdowns to that vague, lingering miasma that comes when you’re untreated and you don’t know that what is really happening to you is clinical depression.

I have also had full-blown anxiety attacks, the sort that leave you twitching all over, feeling like you’re about to jump out of your skin, gasping for breath, and imagining that every driver on the road is swerving into your lane. I’ve twitched and shaken and stammered. I’ve scratched myself. I’ve hidden under the covers until I can’t breathe. I’ve taken anti-anxiety meds that did nothing at all.

Right now I am sufficiently medicated and have been relatively stable long enough that I think what I have is functional depression or maybe high-functioning depression, or whatever you want to call it. I have enough wherewithal to work part-time from home, do other writing-related projects (like this blog and my other one), and do assorted tasks like paying bills and making business-related phone calls. (Occasionally, if the phone tree is lengthy enough and the person on the other end is uncooperative enough, I have a small-scale meltdown. My voice goes up in pitch and tears start rolling down my face. My husband takes over the transaction when he notices that.)

But secretly, I know depression is lurking and can rear its ugly head again with little or no provocation – a trigger or nothing at all. So can anxiety, which is how my brain usually responds to hypomania. It’s a little like those commercials for psychotropic meds you see on TV, where the person has a little sign with a smiley face and hides behind it. Except that’s not quite accurate.

I understand that high-functioning depression is also called “smiling depression.” That’s not my experience of it. I’ve almost never been able to “fake it till I make it,” slapping on a happy expression when inside I’m dying. Besides, it doesn’t work, as far as I can tell. The depression or the sorrow always leaks out around the eyes. I’ve seen this in myself and in other people.

Before I was treated, I used to have what you’d call “resting sad face.” Once a boss of mine encouraged me to smile more (and is there anything more annoying?). I didn’t feel particularly sad at that moment, though I’m sure that I had at least a low-grade depression, like a low-grade fever. But I was at my job, and functioning even then, if not very well or cheerfully.

The phrase “high-functioning” gets used a lot to describe certain varieties of autism. I don’t have autism and I’m not an expert on it, but my suspicion is that high-functioning depression is similar in some ways. I don’t always react the way other people expect me to. I feel out of my depth a lot, especially in environments with lots of people or lots of noise. But that doesn’t stop me – or lots of other people – from carrying on with what I need to do to be a functioning member of the populace.

But back to bipolar disorder. Even if someone seems to be “high-functioning” doesn’t mean he won’t have a meltdown sooner or later. Even someone who “slaps on a smile” may let it drop once she is alone. Even someone who is “coping well” may not be coping at all tomorrow or next week or next year. Sometimes you can’t tell on the surface what someone is going through inside. Like I said, bipolar disorder is a funny thing.

How Depression Sneaks Up

I had a blog post all written and ready to go. It was about my fluctuating moods and my writing, and how they affected each other. Some of what I wrote is still true. The depression I suffered during my early years and the exceedingly depressive poetry I wrote during that time allowed me to learn something about how poetry works and something more about how depression works.

I wrote about how hypomania affects my writing, and that is still true. Hypomania pushes me to do my writing, even when I don’t feel like it. In fact, at times it pushes me into doing more writing than I can probably handle. Case in point: This week I wrote three samples for a work-for-hire outfit when I should have been writing or at least outlining my WIP (Work In Progress), a sequel to the mystery I have already written and have been sending around to agents.

And last night, that’s where I hit the wall. I figured out that I have sent out about 180 or so query letters and gotten only the most minimal results – rejections that said I had an interesting premise that was not right for them. Most, though, have received plain rejections or the dreaded “no response means no.” I am now second-guessing myself and everything about the manuscript.

Last night, the depression caved in on me. I spent the night in bed, not sleeping except for nightmares, and not wanting to get up in the morning.

Because my identity is invested in being a writer, though, I did get up (late), sent a few more queries, and got to work on rewriting my blog posts, which I had determined were wretched. In the blog post that I abandoned, I had pontificated about how keeping a schedule kept me going with all the writing projects and various other work I do. 

I had also crowed about my relative stability and how that was helping me keep that schedule, which was supposed to be keeping depression at bay. I found out that I lied. The fact that I have maintained functionality for some time did absolutely nothing to prevent the depression that hit me.

Admittedly, this is probably a reactive depression, with my lack of success being the trigger. The thing is, it’s awfully difficult to tell apart from endogenous depression. In fact, I have known the first to melt into the second. At first you have a clear cause that would depress anyone, then you find it clinging to you long after what would seem to be reasonable. (This is subjective, of course. What is the “right” length of time to be depressed over 180 rejections?)

What’s left? Self-care, of course. Trying to sleep if I can, and squeezing in a nap if possible. Eat something, even if it’s only some guacamole and chips or a bowl of soup. Take my meds religiously. Try to cling to that schedule even when I don’t want to.

But the truth is, I’m running out of agents to submit to. I’m running out of energy to try. And I’m running out of the frame of mind to keep me functional. I’ll be okay, I know, but it may be a long, hard climb. 

All Mixed Up

Leigh-Prather/Adobestock.com

As I mentioned a few posts ago, my psychiatrist and I are working on a medication change that will, I hope, pull me out of bipolar depression. The medication that we changed was a mood-leveler, which sounds like a productive way to start.

We’re increasing the dose, which means it shouldn’t take the time it would for the old drug to “wash out” of my bloodstream (and/or brain) while we’re waiting for the new one to kick in. I’ve been that route before, and it’s miserable.

While I haven’t noticed my moods becoming exactly stable since the change, I have noticed certain effects. I am able to get through the minimum of what I need to do each day, though nothing more. And I have noticed that I am getting irritable. This does not happen so much when I’m depressed. When I’m depressed, I don’t care enough about anything to be irritable.

In fact, irritability is one of the ways that hypomania manifests for me, before I get to the euphoria/super-productive/reckless spending stage. I get snappy with my husband about all his annoying habits, like never giving me a straight answer to a simple question. (What are you watching? A movie. What did you get at the store? Food.) I think he thinks he’s being funny, but I find it frustrating. Not that I don’t have annoying habits too, especially when I’ve either depressed or irritable.

So, I guess in one way, the irritability is a good sign. It doesn’t mean I have level moods yet, but it seems to mean that I’m not totally stuck in the depression. (I explained to my husband what was happening with me, and he seems to understand more. Though it remains to be seen if he’ll answer simple questions informatively.)

I think what I’m experiencing is a phenomenon know as mixed states. If to be depressed is to care about nothing and mania is to care about everything, a mixed state is some hellish combination of the two. Imagine being immobilized and jumpy all at the same time. That’s what it’s like, paradox that it is.

I haven’t had mixed states too often in my life, though I have had emotions that swerve drastically from happy to depressed in an instant (which is an extreme version, I think, of what’s known as ultra-rapid cycling). This is something different, though.

Now, I use up all my spoons early in the day and nap, or I stay up but go to bed at around 8:00. Ordinarily, if I went to bed that early, I’d read for a couple of hours, but these days half an hour or 45 minutes is it, tops.

Still, I think (or hope) that this mixed state of affairs is a step along the way to level moods that are higher than the numbness and not-caring of depression. It’s not comfortable to go through, but then neither is depression or mania, even hypomania.

It’s been about six weeks since the change in my medication. Within another four to six weeks, it will likely become apparent whether the change, once set in motion, will have an outcome I can live with. Until then, I need to spend my spoons as wisely as I can and try to remember not to snap at my husband, even when he’s being annoying.

A Letter From the Future to Bipolar Me

by sosiukin via adobestock.com

Dear Me:

You’re 13 years old now, and there are a few things you should know.

You have bipolar disorder. No one knows this, not even you. But a lot of people notice that you act “weird” at times. You have decided to embrace your weirdness, which is fine, but what you really need is psychological help. And medication.

Don’t pass up any chance to get that help. Your high school will recommend to your parents that you get counseling. When your parents leave the choice up to you, take it. It will not go on your permanent record, and you will still get into a college. A very good college, in fact.

I know that at times you sit alone and cry. Other times you laugh at things no one else finds funny. This is not just “weirdness.” This is a mood disorder, called bipolar disorder, type 2. Your mood swings will make it difficult for you to make and keep friends. Keep trying. The friends you will find are worth it and will stand by you when you really need them. You will not be alone in dealing with this.

Your choice to go to college out of state will be a good one. There you will have a variety of experiences that will make you grow in unexpected ways. Your mood disorder will go to college with you, though. Leaving Ohio will not mean you will leave bipolar disorder behind. You will still feel the mood swings, and most of them will be depression.

It’s a good idea to take that year off between freshman and sophomore year. I know it will feel scary, but at that point you will be in no shape to carry on with academics. Instead, you will get a job which, while not great, will introduce you to more new people and new ways of life. At least one of those people will stick with you till you are old and gray.

Returning to school will be a good decision. Your parents will support you in that decision. They won’t object to your year off, because they know you will go back. It still won’t be easy, but you will have a core group of friends that accept you, even though you are different from them.

Your bipolar disorder will follow you back to college. It will make you miss some opportunities and choose others that will not be good for your mental health. You will be unhappy most of the time, but you will find that music helps you through it.

Try not to self-harm. I know you will feel numb and want to feel something else, but cutting yourself is a bad decision and will not help. You will carry those scars forever.

When you meet Rex, though, you will be encountering a problem too big for you to handle, and the relationship will leave you scarred as well. It would be best if you were to steer clear of him altogether. But then again, you will find some true friends in his circle, and it would be a shame to miss them. Try your best to hold yourself together, remember what I said about self-harm, and don’t give up on who you are. You are not your disorder, and you will get through this, despite everything.

I know you never gave a thought to marrying, but you will meet a man and in a few years you will marry him. This, I assure you, is a good decision. He will stick by you no matter what and help you find help.

Going into the building that says “South Community Mental Health” will be a good decision. Whatever you will be feeling at this point – most likely misery – it’s not mentally healthy. This will be the place where you will start to climb out of the hole you have found yourself in.

At last, a doctor will tell you that you have bipolar disorder – most often depression, but also anxiety. He will work with you to find a combination of medications that will help you. When that happens, you will become reacquainted with your brain and relearn how to function in the world at large. Your brain will function in a new way, one with fewer out-of-control feelings. You will experience life more fully and be glad of your new outlook.

It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy, but you will have therapists, and friends, and work, and love, all of which will help see you through. You will have bipolar disorder all your life, but it will not be your life, though it seems that way now.

Reach out for help whenever and wherever you find it. Cherish your friends. Keep trying, even when you want to give up. Better times are on the way.

I promise.

Love, me (older and maybe wiser)

Bipolar Conversation

This morning a podcast called Bi-Polar Girl was uploaded, and I was the interviewee. (You can find it on Apple, Amazon, and other podcast sources.) Here’s a look at what was like.

  • Prepping. Before we recorded the podcast, my anxiety kicked in, and I tried to overprepare. I bombarded the hosts with emails asking what I should be prepared to talk about or what questions they were going to ask me. Basically, they told me we were going to “wing it” and have me tell my story.
  • History. The thing we talked about most was when I started showing signs of bipolar and when I was diagnosed. I explained that I was showing signs of it as early as my high school years, how I decided to seek treatment after college, and how I was mistakenly diagnosed with major depression for years before receiving the proper diagnosis and medication.
  • Meds. We discussed medication in some detail – pill-shaming, how every person reacts to meds differently (so it’s useless to “recommend” a particular drug to friends or support group members). We talked about the side effects of various medications, including the fact that the most-feared one seems to be weight gain. One particular point of discussion was how many people are afraid that taking medications to treat their disorder will stunt their creativity or turn them into “zombies.” Snowflake (one of the hosts) and I agreed that our creativity and ability to work were actually improved while on medication, because it enabled us to focus and do more creative work.
  • Family. We also talked about the fact that I have no children and my reasons for that. (We also introduced some of our pets during the Zoom call, or they introduced themselves. Just try to keep an animal out of a Zoom call.) I shared that I felt it would be unfair to a child to have a nonfunctional mother, that I was afraid of going off antidepressants while pregnant, and postpartum depression afterward. Snowflake shared her story of medications, potential side effects, pregnancy, and postpartum depression.
  • My publications. I talked about my blog and my books, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us. In particular, we discussed gaslighting, which features in my second book, and how people with bipolar are more susceptible to it. Both Snowflake and I shared how we had encountered gaslighters in our own lives.
  • Groups. Chacoman, the other host, questioned me about whether I was involved in any local or regional support groups, and I had to admit that I’m not. Now, during the pandemic, group meetings are problematic at best, but I don’t react well to groups at any time, due to my anxiety (which is how my hypomania manifests). In my case, outreach is limited to my blogs and books, and membership in online support groups.
  • Miscellaneous. We got off topic a number of times. I don’t want to make it sound like the interview was all serious or grim. We also talked about our pets, positive relationships, college memories, and even politics.
  • Plans. I talked about how my next book will be a mystery, with a bipolar main character, and received positive feedback on the idea.

All in all, it was a good experience, worth overcoming my anxiety for. I had only participated in a podcast once before, a not-altogether-successful interview about my first book with an interviewer who had obviously not read it and was more interested in whether any of my family members were also creative. (It was supposed to be a podcast about first-time authors.)

This was not the same sort of thing at all. I told my story, as the hosts had recommended, and we had a genuine, far-ranging conversation about not just my own experiences with bipolar disorder, but with how others cope with it as well. Actually, I learned a lot about myself, from how much my anxiety – and especially social anxiety – still affect me, to how much my teen years illustrated my journey into depression.

So, here’s a big thank you to Snowflake and Chacoman for the opportunity to share with them and their audience. I would absolutely do it again. It helped me step out of my comfort zone and, I hope, will help the listeners as well. It’s a form of outreach that I had never considered, but one that I found valuable – and just plain fun!

 

 

My Hypothetical Baby

By pololia / adobestock.com

Having bipolar disorder was one of the reasons I decided not to have children. Really, it was having major depression, which was what I was diagnosed with at the time.

I wasn’t so much concerned with passing my condition on to any potential offspring, since, at the time when I was contemplating motherhood, the genetic links were not yet that firmly established. Now that I know more about it, I think that might have been another deterrent. My parents had no idea what to do with me when bipolar symptoms started happening, and there’s no guarantee that I would have done any better. I’d like to think I would, but there’s no telling, really.

No, what I feared was having to go off my medication while pregnant (and breastfeeding, should it come to that). I was terrified of being unmedicated and I knew that psychotropic drugs were not good for pregnant women or their developing babies. Once I had discovered the benefits of Prozac and other mood-regulating meds, I knew I never wanted to be without them again. I never wanted to again fall into the pit that I had clawed my way out of. (In truth, that pit was waiting for me anyway, when I experienced a major depressive episode many years later.) 

Postpartum depression scared me too. I had heard the horror stories of women killing their children and/or themselves while suffering from the illness. I knew how out of control I could get with just plain ol’ garden-variety depression and anxiety. Adding postpartum hormones to the mix could be a really bad thing.

But the main reason that I decided my bipolar disorder made it unwise to have a child was that it would be unfair to the child. How to explain to a toddler that mama couldn’t get out of bed today or that she burst into tears for no apparent reason? How to explain weeks or months like that? How to deal with a child jazzed up on mama’s sudden hypomanic jag, who would then be let down when she crashed? How to soothe a child’s anxieties when mine were making me jump out of my skin? How to take care of a child’s essential needs, when I suck at taking care of my own?

Is that selfish? I know there are people who would say it is. That when the time came, I would suck it up and do the best I could. And I might. But would that “best I could” be good enough? I’ve heard it phrased that I was too involved with giving birth to myself – a relatively stable, reasonably happy, mostly functioning self – to give birth to someone else. And I think there’s some truth in that. It’s been a struggle, filled with despair, misery, hard work, setbacks, immobilization, dangerous thoughts, and living too much in my own head. To do the work of bringing myself to some baseline of functioning while trying to nurture and bring up another person daunts me.

I do understand that there are women with bipolar disorder and even postpartum depression who have children and that those children can be happy, healthy, and as well-adjusted as any modern child ever is. I don’t know how they do it, though. I was fortunate that I had a choice of whether or not to have children. I know that not all women do, and that many are delighted with their choice – whichever way they decide. I know that there are those who desperately want children and are unable to have them. I was fortunate that my husband didn’t push the issue, despite the fact that he would have welcomed a child.

I also had irrational thoughts about that potential child. I imagined that if the child were a boy (which run in my husband’s family), Dan (whose inner child is, shall we say, close to the surface) and the little boy would be natural allies and I the odd one out. He would be the fun dad and I the not-fun mama. And while that’s somewhat irrational, it also might be partly true. It took a long time for me to learn how to relax and have fun and share it with another person.

The one time I was open to having a child was when my father was dying a slow death. I thought that if he was going to see his grandchild, I’d better produce one promptly. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. I later realized that that was a really poor reason to bring a new life into the world.

What I’m saying is that the decision is not – was not – an easy one. Having a mental disorder makes it even more difficult.

 

What’s the Difference Between Anxiety and Mania?

kues1 from adobestock.com

Ha!, you say. That’s an easy one. I know the answer to that. It’s like the difference between walking on pins and needles and walking on eggshells. For me, anxiety is the pins and needles, while mania is produces the eggshells. Pins and needles hurt more, but eggshells are easier to break. Anxiety causes me more pain, but mania has me treading carefully on a fragile edge.

Anxiety and Mania

I know more about anxiety than mania. My diagnosis is actually bipolar 2 with anxiety disorder. As such, I never really experience true mania. Hypomania is about as far as I get. And believe me, that’s enough. 

First, let’s start by admitting that anxiety and mania have a lot in common. At least they do in my life. Both of them make me frantic. Both of them make me obsessed with money. Both disrupt my eating habits. And both of them make me very very twitchy.

Frantic. Both anxiety and hypomania make me feel frantic, like there is something that I need to be doing to alleviate them. I know this isn’t true, that they are out of my control, but it feels that way. I get all revved up inside, a nagging, prickly feeling that jangles my nerves and irritates my brain. I try desperately to think what it might be that would calm the feeling, but there is nothing this side of an anti-anxiety pill, which might or might not help.

Obsessed with money. With anxiety, I obsess about the bills and how I am going to pay them. With mania, I obsess about what money I do have and how I can best spend it. Since this is, after all, hypomania, I tend not to go on wild spending sprees, but I have been known to buy myself or my husband presents, telling myself that the costs are comparatively reasonable and that at least I have limited myself to a non-extravagant amount. (Which may be the anxiety and the hypomania arguing with each other.) With anxiety, I try to anticipate all possible bills and juggle their amounts, due dates, and relative necessity (power cut off or trash removal cut off). I take on extra work, not because I think I have the wherewithal to do it, but because I want the extra money, no matter what it costs me in terms of physical and emotional energy.

Eating habits. Both anxiety and hypomania make me eat too much. With anxiety, no doubt I am trying to fill an existential hole or find something to distract me from my worries. With hypomania, I crave the relatively safe sensations of rum raisin ice cream; cinnamon Danish; or salted, buttery popcorn.

Twitchy. Both anxiety and hypomania can cause the shakes, tremors in my hands and arms and legs. Alas, not for me the euphoria of true mania, but the inherent sensation that I’m doing something wrong at some level. I can’t even enjoy hypomania without guilt.

There are differences, however.

Anxiety leaves me immobilized, in a way that hypomania just doesn’t. You’d think with all that nervous energy vibrating around my body and brain, I would hyper myself into a frenzy. Instead, all the jitters cancel each other out, leaving me with no place I can go to escape. My fears leave me paralyzed. The money worries leave me unable to decide what bill to pay first. I can’t decide whether it’s better to stay awake and try to read (if I have enough ability to concentrate), or take that anti-anxiety pill and try to rest, if not sleep.

Mania can make me productive, in a way that anxiety can’t. When I’m hypomanic, I can write, or at least put words on the screen. (Whether they’re any good or not is anybody’s guess.) But at least I have the illusion of motion, the impetus to create. That extra energy seems more focused, at least in comparison with anxiety. When I hit a hypomanic jag, I sometimes try to get ahead on my blogs, or at least jot down titles and ideas that I hope I can decipher and develop later.

Neither state of mind is preferable. Anxiety is the more painful and hypomania the more fragile. Anxiety is more familiar to me and hypomania more rare and even exciting. But I can’t choose. I can’t say that I like hypomania more than anxiety, although it does seem to have more benefits. But I know that it can be destructive and futile, promising things that it can’t fulfill.

Given the choice, I’d rather not walk on pins and needles or on eggshells. Level ground is fine with me.

 

How I Became a Mental Health Blogger

Of course, blogging didn’t exist when I started writing. It was quite a journey ending up where I am today. Even mental health services were a big blank to me when I was young, something that no one I knew experienced or even talked about, except to make jokes about going to “Wayne Avenue,” the location of the nearest insane asylum (as we called it then).

But it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t write. Childish poems fueled by voracious reading. Hideously depressive poems fueled by burgeoning bipolar disorder. (I still commit poetry from time to time, writing sonnets and villanelles about bipolar disorder.)

But before I returned to poetry with more structure, I indulged in free verse – unrhymed, unmetered verse that relied on the juxtaposition of images rather than formal style. I studied creative writing in high school and college. But the bipolar disorder was undeniably with me, influencing the topics I wrote about: “Two Ways of Looking at the Same Pain” and “Whiskey on the Knife,” a poem about self-harm, are two examples.

As my poetry developed, it started reading more and more like prose, strung out in sentences that relied on line breaks with twists and jarring pauses to create poetic effects. Eventually, I gave up on poetry and simply gave in to prose. I made my living doing prose, and nonfiction at that, writing for magazines about education, technology, child care, and even martial arts.

Bipolar disorder took that away from me. After being diagnosed with clinical depression for years, I finally was identified as having bipolar 2. It was treatment-resistant for many years and during that time I was often unable to write.

My mental health blog, which you’re reading now, grew out of a journaling exercise. I began by listing what I did each day – not much, as I was stuck in a major depressive episode and not able to do much. But once again, what started as something else turned into prose. And by that time blogging was a thing.

I started blogging largely as an exercise for myself, to explore bipolar disorder, its symptoms and treatments, and my particular version of it. I set myself the task of posting once a week, a schedule that I still keep. I wrote short essays and longer pieces, whatever I was thinking about at the time. Hardly anyone read the blog. I sometimes wonder if the title “Bipolar Me” was a turn-off, but really that summed up my knowledge about bipolar – my own experiences.

Slowly, I started finding my voice. and finding things to say with it. Things other than what was inside my own head. Oh, I still wrote about my symptoms and my meds and my coping mechanisms, major depression and hypomania, mood swings and roller coasters. But I also started approaching the wider world of bipolar. Bipolar in the news. Bad science reporting about bipolar. TV commercials about bipolar meds. Bipolar disorder and gun violence. All of this was still through the lens of my own experience, as I have no degree in psychology, counseling, or biochemistry, for that matter.

And I started reaching a wider audience. My writing appeared in The Mighty, Invisible Illness, IBPF, Thought Catalog, Medium, and as guest posts on other bloggers’ sites. Eventually, I had enough material to make Bipolar Me into a book of the same name. And then a sequel, Bipolar Us. Both are still available on Amazon and through other outlets.

I know I’m not in the same league with mental health bloggers like Pete Earley and Gabe Howard. They are true activists and influencers, as well as terrific writers. Their work reaches thousands of people with information, analysis, inspiration, and more impact than I will likely ever have.

But I won’t give up blogging just because I’m not the best. I’ll be here every Sunday, posting my bipolar thoughts and opinions, sharing my bipolar experience, and chronicling my bipolar life.

Caution: Wide Mood Swings

imageBroker – stock.adobe.com

Mood swings are universal. Everybody has them at one time or another.

Bipolar disorder is not just mood swings. Not everyone has moods that can last for months or years at a time or moods that are so extreme that they interfere with one’s daily life. The depths of despair and the rocketing highs are not what most people experience – and they should be glad they don’t. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness (SMI). It can be more or less severe, and it can be well or poorly controlled with medication and therapy, but the reality is that bipolar is a mood disorder, an illness, and a curse. 

Of course, the mood swings of bipolar disorder don’t always last for months or years. Sometimes you go spinning out of control every few weeks. This is called “rapid cycling.”

But even rapid cycling doesn’t describe the lightning-quick mood changes that can happen within a day or two. That’s called “ultra-rapid cycling,” and it’s like being whip-sawed by your brain. Those valleys and peaks come so closely together that you don’t even have time to catch your breath between them.

I think that the official criteria miss the mark on this. Many of them define rapid cycling as experiencing four mood swings within a year. Ultra-rapid cycling seems not to have a specific definition, but I and a lot of other people with bipolar disorder experience moods that swing not over the course of months, but over the course of weeks, or even days.

Ultra-rapid cycling blurs the lines into mixed episodes. Those are occasions when high and low moods occur at the same time. For many bipolar sufferers, this means simultaneous exaltation and despair, which is a terrible combination and a bitch to experience. For me, a person with bipolar type 2 whose hypomania expresses most of the time as anxiety, a mixed episode is a frightening blur of defeat and nervousness, a simultaneous feeling that the worst has already come and that it is about to descend to even lower levels. It’s like ricocheting off the insides of your own skull.

What to do at a time like this is a puzzle. Do I try the things that soothe me when anxiety strikes? Do I try self-care for depressed moods? Do the two strategies cancel each other out, leaving me swinging helplessly? Do I try to suppress both moods, knowing that the consequent numbness will make it all the more difficult for me to feel “normal” moods again? Once those walls are built, they are hard to tear down.

Ultra-rapid cycling and mixed episodes may be handy jargon to describe mood swings that don’t fit the common mode of bipolar disorder.  But they’re hell to live through. And since mood levelers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds generally take a while to build up in the bloodstream enough to have an effect, there is little in the way of pharmaceutical help. An anti-anxiety pill may relieve the jitters and racing thoughts, but may also leave you more susceptible to the inevitable lows.

I don’t know if there’s much research going on regarding rapid cycling and mixed episodes. It seems like they’ve barely been named, much less defined or studied. And it’s true that there is a lot about plain old garden-variety bipolar disorder that remains to be understood and treated.

But for those of us who don’t fit the mold of months-long or years-long mood states, rapid cycling can be an uncomfortable way of life. When I was undiagnosed and unmedicated, I experienced those long, interminable lows. They did last months, years, until the depths of hell were all that I could see. The jags of ambition seldom visited me, but the creeping, lingering anxiety could easily take over. Now that I’m no longer subject to those excruciating extremes, I still am subject to the quick-change, rapid-fire series of moods. My mood levelers do work, in the sense that they reduce the peaks and valleys, but they never seem to put me on a totally even keel.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect. I’ll have to admit that I prefer a life of rapid- or ultra-rapid-cycling bipolar to the monotonous despair of long depressive cycles. At least now I have a firm conviction that the moods will end, or at least shift, to something more tolerable, and that that will happen sooner rather than later.

Given the choice between the lingering depths and the more rapid changes, I’ll take the one that doesn’t leave me in misery for years at a time.

 

Hitting the Plateau

Back in September, I wrote about my bipolar disorder being in remission and how much I loved that feeling. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m not in remission. I’ve had significant setbacks, though not long-term ones. At one point I felt broken, but when that lifted I felt jazzed. Maybe I’m on a baseline and never wander too far off it. Maybe I’m stuck on a plateau, halfway between mental illness and mental health.

I ask myself, will I get any better?

It’s like when I had my second back operation (micro-laminectomy). When I went for a follow-up visit to the surgeon, I was no longer in pain. But I was slow and uncertain when walking and felt keenly that my physical capacities were diminished. “Will I get any better, or is this it?” I asked.

“You’ll improve,” said Dr. West. “It will take a while, but you’ll feel better.” And he was right. I did. But I still have some pain at times and sometimes I walk with a cane. I may be better, but I’m clearly not totally well. I’m not bitching (much). I know that once your back goes out, it never gets back to 100%. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t suffer the excruciating pain of a bulging disk and a pinched nerve.

My bipolar disorder is like that. I am no longer suffering on a daily basis. My meds are working and haven’t changed much in years. My mood levelers are doing their job. But I still have symptoms. There are still things I can’t do, or do only with great mental effort. I’ve never been at 100% and don’t ever expect to be. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t have the in-the-depths lows, the ever-edgy anxiety, for more than a few days at a time.

But I wonder, am I stuck on this plateau forever? Is this as close as I’ll ever come to mental wellness? Or maybe, I think, mental health is an illusion. I can’t remember a time when I was unaffected by my disorder. The plateau itself may be an illusion. Maybe I am still improving, in such tiny steps that I can’t see the change. Maybe a new medication or treatment will come along and remove more of my remaining symptoms. (I’m not counting on that, though.)

My bipolar disorder feels like it’s running a low-grade fever. I can get done my work and my blogs, but little more. I don’t feel in the least joyful. It may be that this is just real life getting me down –  the weather, politics, the endless details and frustrations I have to deal with while we’re rebuilding our house. Perhaps this is just a normal mood swing like everyone gets or a reactive depression to the aforementioned stressors.

That’s one of the constant worries once you have bipolar disorder – not trusting your feelings or your feelings about your feelings. Every setback scares me that I’m teetering on the edge, ready to plunge off that plateau. Realistically, I know that I am as stable as I’m likely ever to be.

My superpower seems to be overanalyzing. I may really be in remission.

Depression lies. Anxiety lies. So, perhaps, does the plateau.

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