Grief Does Not Equal Depression

A few years ago, I went through something no one should ever have to: post traumatic stress. I was always on edge, waiting for some proverbial shoe to drop. My anxiety level was super high. I’d wake up sweating from recurring nightmares. Vivid, frightening flashbacks hit me in the middle of my workday. The reason? I was recovering from a bad breakup.

My ex was an abuser. He’d isolated me from my friends and family. He’d convinced me that no one loved (or could ever love) me as much as he did. He controlled me in any way he could, including using guilt trips and intimidation. He withheld affection and sex. He wouldn’t let me leave the house without being able to keep constant tabs on me. He’d wrecked my self-esteem with constant criticism and belittling. I’d spent years in this miserable relationship but eventually, I mustered the courage to escape his clutches. 

Immediately following the breakup, I became like a sheltered kid who just arrived at college going hog-wild with newfound freedoms. Because my ex sequestered me from social activities, I made up for it by staying out late every night, drinking and dancing. My ex had made me feel guilty whenever I bought anything for myself, so I went on a shopping spree. I got cute new clothes and makeup and jewelry, all of which made me feel pretty again. I had a couple of one-night stands with strangers. Those encounters reminded me that I was, in fact, desirable. I was proving to myself that my ex had been wrong when he’d called me ugly and refused to sleep with me.

In the midst of all this, there was fighting and lock-changing. My ex threatened and stalked me. I was extremely stressed-out, but strangely, at the exact same time, I felt exhilarated. It was weird for both these things to reside in my consciousness at the same time. My mood switched from terror to fury to jubilance twenty or more times a day. I experienced every emotion except perhaps the right one for the occasion: grief for the loss of a relationship, and the loss of myself in it.

I chalked up my lack of sadness with a lack of regret, and it made sense. He was a bad person, I’d left him and I wasn’t looking back. A+B=C, right? My frenzied moods were all over the map, but in the good moments, it was akin to being high on some amazing drug. I felt better than I had in years, so each time I was bombarded with bad thoughts, I’d buy something or drive too fast or start drinking until the next jolt of euphoric energy zapped me back into a state of bliss.

At the time, I thought I was just experiencing the wild abandon and happiness that accompanies the release from a toxic situation. I didn’t understand it back then—because I have no perspective when I’m in the middle of an episode—but I was hypomanic. As it goes with bipolar disorder, hypomania never lasts. My experience with this illness is typically bouts of hypomania inevitably followed by crashes into depression. It wasn’t until I experienced a bounceback depressive episode that I realized what had really been going on. My hypomania had buried my feelings and pushed me forward too fast, to my detriment.

I know how debilitating and devastating depression is, so I try to avoid it at all costs. I’m always on the lookout for warning signs. I associate sadness with depression, so I have a difficult time discerning between grief—which is a healthy reaction to something like a breakup—and a true depressive episode. I’m afraid if I start crying, I won’t be able to stop. But crying is normal when going through a loss of any kind.

I’d developed a destructive coping mechanism for trauma and grief. When faced with loss and therefore, potential depression, I do things I know will trigger hypomania so it will “save” me. I start sleeping less. I drink too much. I hook up with strangers. I engage in retail therapy.

I’ve done this before. I’ve lost a parent, I’ve gone through two divorces, I’ve lost jobs, and each time, I start engaging in the risky behaviors I know feel good because barreling ahead at breakneck speed blurs my surroundings so I don’t have to look at them. The dopamine rush from hypomania numbs the pain. This is not a healthy way to deal with loss, or with anything for that matter.

The irony in all this is that hypomania in itself is a recipe for disaster. Just because it feels good at the moment doesn’t mean I’m not playing with fire. Once my post-breakup hypomania had run its course and worn me out (which it always does, because it’s impossible to sustain) I fell apart. All the happiness drained from my body and I was unable to get out of bed. My immune system was lowered so much that I got the flu. I became obsessed with death. Luckily, I got help and recovered, but it was a long and painful process that could’ve been avoided.

Post traumatic stress following a bad relationship is understandable. Sadness after a breakup is normal. And grief does not equal depression. If I’d allowed myself to actually process what I was going through instead of masking my anguish with quick-fix highs, I probably wouldn’t have spiraled down into that pit of despair. 

I don’t know who I was kidding. I knew better. Depression usually follows my intense highs. My long-term recovery plan shouldn’t be to avoid depression no matter what, it should be to recognize hypomania and address it by proactively reaching out for help from my treatment team, versus gleefully going along for the ride and picking up the pieces later. It’s the best way to prevent a downward spiral in the future. And it doesn’t leave a big mess for me to clean up every time.

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