I am not bipolar. I have bipolar.
Trigger warning: suicidal ideation and attempt, mental illness
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder this year. After two unbearable months, with moments I could not leave my bed and a later suicide attempt, I asked for professional and medical help. Something was off: as the intensity of my symptoms increased, one night I’d have a perfect evening with my crush and the next I’d do something that led to the police pounding on my door and my best friend confiscating all of the medication and sharp objects in my apartment.
After a discussion and screening with my doctor, he booked me an appointment to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist asked me most of the same questions as my doctor and asked me to elaborate on them. By the end of the appointment, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and given a prescription for Abilify, an antipsychotic medication for mood disorders.
Great. I had another thing “wrong” with me that made me feel even more inferior to every other living being. Never mind that I was familiar with mental illness and already on antidepressants, suddenly I felt like I was the most mentally broken person on the planet because of the stigma around mental health. I thought this was a life sentence, that no one would want to be around me anymore. I thought this meant my whole life was about to change.
Except none of this was true. The biggest hurdle to reducing mental health stigma is getting past what you think a particular mental illness looks like, and seeing its reality.
It sounds scary, and at first it was. All of sudden, I discovered I had a brain chemistry problem that meant I would rely on a little green pill for the rest of my life to keep me from either blowing thousands of dollars in a spending spree or trying to fit out of my little 11th floor apartment window. But once I learned more about what having bipolar meant, I became more open to talking about it.
Yes, I have bipolar. But I’m not bipolar.
It is not uncommon for those diagnosed with bipolar to be misdiagnosed with depression. When people with bipolar only look for help during the lows, they might find the treatment ineffective because their illness was misdiagnosed. This was me for years. I thought I was just moody. Everyone is happy at times. I just need to deal with the lows. It turns out, this thought process comes from stigma conditioning. I was taught nothing about mood swings except that they happen in puberty. No one talked about mental health in health class.
I remember my doctor bringing up bipolar disorder when I first brought up these lows and I shut the idea down. I didn’t see myself as someone who would have a mental health issue so foreign to me. I couldn’t see myself telling my family about this unknown diagnosis if he was right. Instead, I was diagnosed with depression. But when I had that five-star evening followed by a day full of police and a potential psych ward admission, I realized it might be more than depression. That’s when I finally called up my doctor and said, “Hey, let’s revisit that bipolar idea.”
Bipolar is a big, scary condition that many people don’t understand. Following that appointment (and a few others) I started to learn more about what is physically happening to make me this way. Bipolar means your brain isn’t dealing with neurotransmitters in the way that it should be, resulting in both manic and depressive episodes. There are two types of bipolar: bipolar I disorder is more intense, with longer manic episodes that sometimes include hallucinations, while bipolar II has many of the same bouts of weeks-long depressive episodes and episodes of being extremely elevated.
More importantly, I am learning to accept this diagnosis. Mental health is not something to be ashamed of. One in five Canadians
experience a mental illness in any given year. This comes in varying degrees of severity at varying stages of diagnosis and treatment. Some are just starting their journey to mental well-being; others have been honing their coping mechanisms and finetuning their medications for decades. Still others are joining their loved ones as advocates, supporters and caregivers. Someone experiencing bipolar I symptoms might be admitted for psychiatric treatment for a period of time, whereas someone with bipolar II might just think they can’t control their emotions.
Luckily, the police deemed me lucid enough not to need a trip to the psychiatric ward and, now that I’ve asked for help, I also regained trust (and therefore also regained possession of my sharp objects). Hopefully I’ll never have to cut chicken with a spoon again.
I have apps and books that help me manage any mood swings that get through my medication barrier and, through therapy, I have learned more effective ways to deal with cognitive errors. Though I am open to talking about it—and I appreciate it when people ask about it from a place of sincerity—it does not control my life.
As medical advancements continue and diagnoses are made with more accuracy, mental health needs to become a commonplace topic of conversation. I grew up in a place where sharing your flaws or problems was looked down on; those that live in small farm town communities tend to keep themselves to themselves. Image is important and you don’t want to give anyone gas to burn your barn down.
Instead, I have learned to embrace the way my brain works and to be open about it, because sharing my experiences has helped me help others. When people find out I’m on meds or that I have a mental illness, they often open up about their own struggles.
Of course, others may not understand what it means to be mentally ill. Some people question my diagnosis because there is no physical thing to point to that says for certain this is what I have—I’ll admit, it would be nicer if there was some physical measurement we could point to. Some think I’m lying or being dramatic because of the stigma around this condition. Some think certain diagnoses are a pharmaceutical ploy to sell more drugs and some just don’t believe in medication. Most of these critics, however, haven’t been around me enough to see how bipolar II affects me and my behaviour.
The best thing you can do to understand someone’s experience is to ask them about it. If they don’t know the answers, it becomes a chance to learn with them. I have come to a place where I can joke with my partner and siblings about being a “psycho,” which, to me, says that I’ve grown to a point that it is a passive element of my life. While I recognize that this term may not be beneficial or true to others’ experiences with bipolar, it is a term that is comforting for my present personal experience. This humorous acceptance by my support group happened because of all the other serious and open conversations we have had about my mental health; they understand that what I have and who I am are different things.
And I am not bipolar.
- Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642—If you’re having thoughts of suicide ideation or know someone who might be.
- First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310—If you’re having thoughts of suidcide ideation or know someone who might be.
- The Bipolar II Disorder Workbook—this one is good for those learning to support a loved one with bipolar as well as for those learning about their diagnosis.
- Time to Change—be sure to check them out to hear from a technical and personal side about BP.
- eMoods bipolar tracker—this is great for people with bipolar disorder to help track moods and find connections.
- MoodSpace—great for anyone who wants to think healthier and get rid of cognitive errors. I highly recommend the paid version to get the tools you need.
If you have any questions about your mental health, talk to a trusted medical professional that you feel safe with. Talking to someone that you trust can help. I promise.