Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘mental illness diagnosis’

Another Kind of Depression – Dysthymia

Of all the types of depression that get discussed – major depressive disorder, exogenous depression, endogenous depression, bipolar depression – there’s one type that isn’t talked about very often: dysthymia. The word comes from Greek, where it is made up of dys (bad or ill) and thymia (mind or emotions). But in clinical terms, dysthymia has a more exact meaning than “ill humor” or “bad mood.” I had always assumed that it came along a scale of severity that ranged from major depression through dysthymia to stability to hypomania to mania. It could be that I was mistaken.

Johns Hopkins Medical has this to say: “Dysthymia is a milder, but long-lasting form of depression. It’s also called persistent depressive disorder. People with this condition may also have bouts of major depression at times.” So, it’s milder, but long-lasting, persistent, and may occur in people with major depression. Not very specific, is it?

Johns Hopkins also notes that to diagnose dysthymia, “an adult must have a depressed mood for at least 2 years (or one year in children and adolescents).” The Mayo Clinic also refers to it as “Pervasive Depressive Disorder.”

Dysthymia seems like a “squishy” diagnosis, as the signs and symptoms overlap so greatly with major depressive disorder.

Garden-variety depression or “Major Depressive Disorder,” again according to the Mayo Clinic, “affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living.” The risk factors and symptoms of the two disorders are virtually the same.

However, major depressive disorder, according to multiple sources, must last around two weeks, while dysthymia lasts for two years or more. Personally, I can’t see how this is called “milder.” Alternating between the two conditions is sometimes referred to as “double depression.”

I have thought of dysthymia as milder, and perhaps it is what I have now that my depression is pretty well controlled by medication and therapy. I no longer have extreme symptoms such as the self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Then again, one of my major depressive episodes lasted three years or more, with no visible letup. Was that relatively mild? It sure as hell didn’t feel like it.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what you call it. The experience of the disorder seems to me more important than the label put on it. I haven’t looked the conditions up in the DSM (I don’t have a copy). But all my life I have been diagnosed with depression or major depression (before my diagnosis was changed to bipolar type 2 with anxiety, and it seems pointless now to call myself dysthymic. Maybe I’ll ask my psychotherapist when I see her next week if she can shed any light on this confusing nomenclature. Maybe she’ll have a handle on which of these I technically have.

However you want to name it or frame it, though, I have – and probably have had since I was a child – some version of the disorder, and have applied the treatments for it (meds and therapy for both), and now experience occasional episodes of the “milder” version, though they certainly don’t last two years.

In a way, I wish the various authorities would make up their minds and quit changing the labels. In another way, I don’t care what the labels are (unless they affect insurance companies and what treatments they allow). I experience this disorder in the way that I experience it. Most of the time I simply call it depression, and I don’t see how it helps to subdivide it. When I hit rock bottom, I call it a major depressive episode. When I’m relatively stable, I call it “in remission.” These may not be the technically correct terms, but they’re what make sense to me.

I don’t know whether other people with bipolar disorder make these fine distinctions, or simply think of their shifting moods as lows and highs, depression and hypomania or mania, or whatever.

But do we really need more labels? Isn’t lived experience good enough? Does the definition affect how our doctors treat us? Are there going to be more subdivisions in the future (a trend which seems particularly rampant right now, as with autism, Asperger’s, high-functioning, low-functioning, and more and more variations)? Does what we call it really help anyone get better?

Maybe I’m wrong here, but I don’t think so.

Diagnosis and Dickinson

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
Emily Dickinson

I ran across this poem in a book called Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry (about which more some other time) and it made me think.

Dickinson was, by all accounts a recluse. She seldom went out and, when visitors came, she sometimes sat behind a screen while she talked to them. She never dared to submit her poems for publication. Less than a dozen were published in her lifetime, and those only because someone else submitted them without her knowledge. Her wealthy, loving family sheltered and nurtured her so that she never had to face the outside world.

Emily Dickinson had Social Anxiety Disorder.

And Abraham Lincoln suffered clinical depression. So did Charles Dickens.

Bipolar sufferers include Beethoven, Schumann, and Isaac Newton.

Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, and Nikola Tesla were all obsessive-compulsive.

Autism, dyslexia, and various learning disabilities affected Einstein, Galileo, Mozart, and even General Patton.

And Van Gogh! Let me tell you about Van Gogh. He had epilepsy. Or depression. Or psychotic attacks. Or bipolar disorder. Or possibly some combination thereof.

I call bullshit. I’m not saying none of those people had assorted mental disorders. My point is that we can’t tell from this distance in time.

In none of these cases, as far as I know, did any of the aforementioned people see a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, or even a phrenologist. None were diagnosed with any psychiatric condition, and no record of such a diagnosis has come down to us from any reliable source. Some even lived before psychiatry was invented.

People – mental health workers, but also art and literary critics, biographers, and the general public – have looked at these extraordinary people’s lives and work and decided that their behavior and their art look like those of a person who might be bipolar or obsessive-compulsive or psychotic. (They also like to retro-diagnose physical conditions there is no record of or only vague names for. King Tut, Henry VIII, and Napoleon are particularly good theoretical patients.)

Why the tendency to ascribe mental disorders to famous people? I can see two reasons, beyond the thrill of solving a mystery and feeling clever.

The first is the old saying about there being a thin line between madness and genius. These historical figures were geniuses, so they must have been mad. Or as we say now, suffering from mental disorders.

The other is the need for role models and inspiration. If Van Gogh could become one of the most famous artists ever (though not successful in his own lifetime), you too may rise above – even use – your disorder to accomplish greatness.

It’s possible, I guess, but it’s not likely. Certainly those with mental disorders can aspire to and achieve rich, full lives, satisfying relationships and jobs and artistic pursuits. These are the ordinary accomplishments of ordinary people, both with and without mental illness, and it’s a small miracle that people can achieve any one or more of these. Not everyone does – again with or without mental troubles or psychiatric diagnoses.

And for me, at least, it’s enough.

Can the spark of imaginative genius strike a person with a mental disorder? Of course. Can that person succeed and achieve lasting fame? Maybe, though the odds aren’t good. Is a person saying, “Look, I can be Van Gogh!” likely to fall short? Almost certainly. Can that failure to achieve greatness make a person feel worse about himself or herself instead of better? You tell me.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, and nothing that says a person with a psychiatric diagnosis can’t do just that. It’s a good idea for anyone. (As one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s characters says, “Aim high. You may still miss the target but at least you won’t shoot your foot off.”)

But pinning your hopes on a similarity with a non-psychiatric, perhaps non-existent, diagnosis of a genius may not be the best way to get there.

Better to look in these geniuses’ work for insights that can help you understand your own condition or pull you through tough times. Here’s another of Emily Dickinson’s poems that has always spoken to me about the experience of a depressive crisis and its aftermath.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round —
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —

This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

Was Emily herself depressed? We’ll never really know. And as long as we have her poems, I don’t really care.

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