I just read some disturbing news the other day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate in the United States is at a 50-year high. If that weren’t concerning enough, I’m also seeing multiple news outlets reporting that more than half of the people who died by suicide in 2016 had no known mental health problems. The trend in reporting is attributing the dramatic rise in the suicide rate mainly to opioid addiction and overdose.
Let me preface this by saying I’m not a health care professional, so I’m not an expert. Nevertheless, as someone who struggles with mental illness, I keep asking myself the same questions. Why are so many people getting hooked on opioids? Why are so many of the people dying by suicide not known to have mental health problems? Why is the discussion around substance abuse disconnected from the discussion around mental health? Are we missing some key information here? It’s possible many of these people who died by suicide just had never been diagnosed with mental illness.
My eating disorder started in high school, but it really got into full swing after I split from my fiancé of four years in 2009. It was a rough breakup and I was devastated. I withdrew from people around me, ignored phone calls and cried constantly. I lost the spark that makes me who I am. My body felt like a balloon with the air let out, lying limp and sad on the ground. I was in a depressive episode. Everything tasted metallic and bland at the same time. I’d sit down to eat, take a few bites and lose my appetite. “Why bother eating?” I’d think to myself, “What’s the point? I just want to die.” Yep, that’s depression alright. So of course, I lost a lot of weight. My clothes got baggier, and it seemed like every other day I was buckling my belt one notch tighter.
And something strange happened. People around me began saying things like “You’re so skinny, you look different. You look so pretty!” Friends I hadn’t seen in years were asking me what my secret was, how I lost so much weight. I’ve never been overweight, but when I went from a size 8 to a size 2 I got attention like I never had. Men were flirting with me (something I’m not used to) and women were showering me with flattery.
I grew up with a bipolar dad who committed suicide when I was 24. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years after he died, when my delayed reaction to his suicide triggered my first depressive episode. Before my diagnosis, I struggled with unexplained racing thoughts, impulsive behaviors, and conflicted relationships. I always knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t until I had a psychological evaluation, underwent therapy and found the right mood-stabilizing medication that I was able to finally find peace within myself. I’m thankful to finally have an answer as to why I made so many bad decisions. Here are five reasons I’m grateful for the insight my bipolar diagnosis has given me.
- I can explain my behavior.
From sleeping with strangers to getting arrested for shoplifting, I struggled with impulsive, destructive behaviors for years. I’m not saying my bipolar disorder was an excuse, but it’s given me an explanation as to why I compulsively made so many mistakes that hurt myself and those around me.
I have bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed in 2002. It wasn’t easy, but I learned to accept my diagnosis so I can stay healthy. I take my medicine every day. I get enough sleep, I exercise, and I do my best to avoid triggers.
I also try to pay attention to what’s going on in my head. You’ll notice I said “try to” there. That’s because with bipolar disorder often comes a stunning lack of insight. Sometimes I can barely hear my own thoughts, especially when I’m getting hypomanic. Ideas whiz around in my head so fast I can’t catch them. So I’ve learned to look for other cues. There are things I and others see on the outside that can indicate what’s going on inside my head.
I watched the documentary God Knows Where I Am on Netflix last night. For those of you who haven’t seen it [spoiler alert] here’s the description from Rotten Tomatoes:
“Linda Bishop was a loving mother, a well-educated and happy woman. Then her body was found in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse, marked by cold and starvation. What was once Linda Bishop had quickly become a mystery, accompanied by her diary that documents a journey of starvation and the loss of sanity. For nearly four months, Bishop, a prisoner of her own mind, survived on apples and rainwater during one of the coldest winters on record. Waiting for God to save her. As her story unfolds from different perspectives, including her own, we learn the heartbreaking reality about a systemic failure to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
I’m so saddened and moved by this film. Much of the movie is someone narrating her diaries, and I really felt what it must be like to be inside her head. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar, bipolar with psychosis. Whatever it was, her words resonated with me. I felt what it must be like to lose one’s mind.
I can’t believe I ever wanted to die. But then again, things right now are really good. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it felt like to be so hopeless I was willing to end my own life. But that’s why the saying “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” makes so much sense. Just because one day, one week, even one year or more of your life is rough, that doesn’t mean things will be that way forever. Death is forever. And you can’t take it back.
I have bipolar disorder, which means I’m vulnerable to emotional stresses that can trigger a manic or depressive episode. My dad—who also had bipolar disorder—committed suicide in 1998. I was numb until four years after his death, when I crashed, suffering my first major depressive episode. I felt like I was encased in a black slimy ooze that slowed my mind and body. I cried constantly. Completely unable to function, I went on disability from work. My mom (who is a therapist) sent me for a psychological evaluation and after six hours of testing, I was given a nine-page document. Laid out in black and white, there it was: I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I was horrified to learn I had the same disease that killed my dad. Would I end up committing suicide too? At that moment, a bipolar diagnosis seemed like a death sentence. I started seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist. I tried antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants and mood stabilizers. The struggle for chemical equilibrium in my brain was grueling, but I finally found a cocktail of medications that helped even out the intensity of my moods.
Be yourself. That’s a pretty universal piece of advice. Whether you’re applying for a job or going on a first date, it’s something we’ve all heard at one time or another. When everyone can see the real you, the relationships you build are authentic. But because I have bipolar disorder, I have a hard time even knowing who “the real me” is. Am I the bubbly, energetic go-getter who’s the life of the party? Am I the sensitive, introspective person who sometimes cries too often? Or are those behaviors expressions of my bipolar disorder?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been outgoing. I was the kid who made friends with everyone. By the time I was 11 years old, my parents and teachers noticed my seemingly endless energy and my inability to sit still. I could be disruptive to class and exhausting to my parents. In my twenties, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So was I just an energetic kid? Or was I hypomanic?
For those of us who have bipolar disorder, second-guessing your true nature comes with the territory. I don’t always recognize the person staring back at me when I look in the mirror. I was 22 the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. I came out on the extreme end of ENFJ, with an emphasis on the “E” for extrovert. Does the big “E” mean I’m really an extrovert, or is that my hypomania? Hypomania can be subtle. It can look to everyone (and sometimes even me) that I’m just someone with a lot of friends who loves to participate in social activities. But that’s also what an extrovert is. Sometimes it’s difficult to detangle my authentic self from all these labels.
Someone once asked me if I could get rid of my bipolar disorder, would I? My answer was no. No matter what I’ve been through, or how I’ve gotten to where I am now—whether it’s my bipolar disorder or my personality—I’m happy with who I am. Does that mean I ignore my illness and don’t take care of myself? Of course not. I recognize that I have a lifelong illness that needs lifelong care, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. I take my medication; visit the doctor regularly; get enough sleep, food and exercise; and try to keep things in perspective. I surround myself with a strong support network of friends and family who can tell me if they see me start to go off the rails.
I’m really lucky the meds I started in 2009 are still working like little champions to curb my mania and depression. Not everyone finds a drug cocktail that works. Wellburtin and Trileptal have been my saviors.
I’ve tried so many antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics it’s been hard to keep count.
So let me see if I can remember all the meds I’ve taken and what they did for me:
Neurontin (when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder).
Result: I stopped taking it because I didn’t notice a difference.
Concerta (my doctor thought I may have ADD – I was diagnosed ADD when I was a kid).
Effects: I was cracked out, like I had taken speed.
Result: Since my doctor only gave me 1 pill as a test to see if I had ADD, and I reacted the way I did, he deduced that I didn’t have ADD, so I only took that one pill, once.
INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: I’ve heard from both doctors and people who suffer from bipolar that bipolar kids are often misdiagnosed with ADD/ADHD.
Result: Stopped taking it under my doctor’s supervision because it did literally nothing.
Effects: It just made me really sedated and sleepy, and I gained fifteen pounds. I can’t put up with weight gain. I get so upset that I’ve gained weight (hello lifelong eating disorder) that I just refuse to take the meds. It helped my mania a teeny tiny bit but not enough to make me OK with gaining fifteen pounds.
Result: Stopped taking it under my doctor’s supervision.
Effects: I was suuuuuuuppppppeerrrr slow and sedated on it and I gained weight. So nope.
Result: Only took it for 2 weeks and then stopped on my own.
Photo by Thomas Iannaccone/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock (6908974a)
Designer Kate Spade with a handbag of her own design on March 13, 1998 in New York
It’s such a terrible tragedy that we’ve lost Kate Spade. I was driving with NPR on and the moment I heard she’d committed suicide, my first thought was (and I even said aloud) “I’ll bet she had bipolar disorder.” I do that a lot, and too often, I’m right. Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and far too many more that you and I don’t hear about on the news because they’re not mega-famous. As someone who struggles with bipolar, I was deeply affected by Kate Spade’s death.
This is an old diary entry of mine from 2009, and it really captures what’s going on in my mind when I’m hypomanic:
I went out to a club last night where a friend was DJing. I had a blast but forgot to take my anti-mania meds. I also had a flask full of vodka that I poured into the $3 cokes – 3 of them.
I did have a great time and lucky for me, only drank that vodka and it was good quality. So last night was a nice, clean drunk with no blackouts and no hangover today.