My name is Mary and my current diagnosis is bipolar II disorder. What this means is that I have periods of a state that is called mania which can last for hours, days or weeks. Mania is different in everyone but for me it appears in a variety of characteristics such as bursts of energy, irritability, flights of ideas, impulsiveness, etc. Sometimes mania can actually feel fun and at other times it can be dangerous. During the energetic mania if someone asks me how I’m doing I am fabulous! I feel like a rock star who can keep a perfectly clean house, teach and take dance classes every day, soar with a home business, write a novel and maybe even solve world hunger if I have some extra time after all of that! Many people in life are energetic and driven, at the same time the difference for me with the mania is that there is a strong compulsiveness behind the energy. There is a frantic drive behind it that I can’t seem to stop.
While I have bouts of moderate depression throughout my mania, inevitably the mania does come crashing down altogether into severe depression with intense feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness and despair. I will have episodes during this time where these dark feelings completely consume every part of me and overshadow the reality of how things really are. It clouds over the parts of me that would tell me how much I have to be grateful for and all of the reasons I have in life to be happy. For those of you who are Harry Potter fans like me, it feels like you’re being attacked by one of the dementors in the books; creatures that try and steal all of the happiness from you. One of the main characters after his experience with the dementors describes that it felt like he would never be happy again.
I have been seeing psychiatrists for 15 years; exactly half of my life. Psychiatric medication is a wonderful and sometimes life-saving blessing in the lives of many, however, for me, it has typically only worked intermittently or at times has made my health worse. I feel very fortunate that my most recent medication change is finally helping after years of side effects and negative reactions. I was as the woman in the New Testament with a twelve year issue of blood who “had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse.”
To further explain what depression feels like, I imagine that I am surrounded by all of the people in my life participating in events and pursuits that all look really fun that I want to participate in. I venture out to join them only to discover that I am stuck inside a dome. The dome is made out of glass so I can see everything around me. I think that maybe if I concentrate, think positively and have a lot of willpower that I can make the glass go away. So I try again to run out to join everyone only to run into the glass and to find myself flat on my back with the discovery that the glass really isn’t going away anytime soon. I wonder when this happened & if I did something wrong to deserve it. Sometimes the dome is fairly roomy and even though I am limited, I am still able to do a lot of things and move about. Many people around me don’t see the glass and don’t see anything about me that indicate that I have limitations and they wonder why I can’t do what they’re doing. People in my life that love me want to help me break free yet they admit that they don’t know how to help and often I don’t know what they can do either. They give me all sorts of advice: nutritious eating, therapy, exercise, sunshine, journaling, meditation, trying different medications, herbs, vitamins, etc. At times this advice really does help and I am able to chip away at some of the glass, break an arm through and maybe even break through completely. But inevitably and often unexpectedly the dome finds its way over me again. Sometimes the dome closes in so tightly that I am curled up into a ball and can’t move. I feel like I can’t breathe & I am crying out for help but no one can seem to help me. The advice others are still giving me that helped when the dome was a lot bigger doesn’t help anymore. All I can do is endure and wait for the dome to get bigger again.
This dome that I live in became smaller & smaller over the last few years. I have been in the hospital both inpatient & for outpatient intensive therapy programs. I have cried out to God asking what on earth I could possibly learn when I felt like I couldn’t even move. I could not understand what God expected of me when my brain was impaired; the very part of my body that produces the chemicals that my body needs to be happy.
I feel like I have found the magic answer. You know what the magic answer is? It’s that there is no magic answer! I kept waiting for the magic pill, the magic therapy technique, the magic vitamin or natural supplement, the magic coping skill, etc. I feel like my medication is working better, at the same time even though I am more chemically balanced I have talked to my husband about the fact that I still have the habits of spending hours on the TV and Internet that I developed over the last few years and it will still take time to overcome those habits.
Sometimes when I am mentally ill I experience some limitations in control and choices. With bipolar disorder I often had an “all-or-nothing” mentality. If I couldn’t get myself to my hour long Zumba class then I sat on the couch and did nothing. I had an “ah-ha” moment when day where I thought, “Hey wait a second, I guess taking a 10 minute walk really *is* better than doing nothing!” Now, I ask myself is, “Can I exert just 5% more effort today than I want to?”
I have an app now to keep track of small daily goals that give me a sense of accomplishment such as eating vegetables and fruits, meditating for 10 minutes, just a small amount of exercise, journaling just one paragraph, etc. These tiny choices are simple to do (when you’re chemically balanced) at the same time they’re simple not to do. They seem so insignificant today, or this week or this month at the same time can you imagine the change by doing these simple acts in six months, a year or five years from now?
I have often mourned and grieved for the life I once had. I used to work full-time, could drive anywhere in the county at any time of the day and even though I always had depression and anxiety, until a car accident four years ago it never held me back from living a full and active life. Now, I am in the process of learning to celebrate achievements that were once typical every day activities. Driving by myself at night is a great success. Taking just two college dance classes 20 minutes away is a huge win. I once collapsed from stress in Costco so going to Costco by myself is a wonderful achievement. I just started working for the first time in almost two years and working 10-15 hours a week is cause for celebration. While I get frustrated that I need to go slowly I am practicing patience in my recovery. I am learning to embrace my strengths and to be gentle with myself as I walk this road a full and happy life.