Trigger warning: This article covers mental health and suicide.
“So is it kind of like Carrie from Homeland then?” asked a friend to whom I’d revealed that I was being treated for Bipolar II disorder.
She was visiting from overseas and wasn’t privy to the happenings of the previous year. I was feeling fairly fresh that day, after slowly clawing back to some sort of normalcy after the big fall a few months before. I was actually out at a bar in Melbourne, a huge leap forward compared to the perceived safety of the bed sporting my crappy pyjamas and sallow eyes.
“Well, kind of. Not quite as extreme in the ups and mania, but yeah, kinda, I suppose,” I said.
Yeah, I kind of feel like Bipolar II is like a ‘softer’ version of Bipolar Disorder, although it has been found in a number of studies that there are higher instances of suicide ideation and attempts amongst Bipolar II patients (24%) compared to 17% in Bipolar I patients and 12% in major depressive patients so maybe not quite as ‘soft’. It’s a tricky one to explain.
Maybe it’s because the symptoms are harder to diagnose? The mania isn’t quite as obvious as assessed in those with Bipolar Disorder (it’s referred to as hypomania) but the depression can linger on, so the condition can be cloaked and missed in earlier attempts at diagnosis, often mistaken for depression or other anxiety disorders. It’s a complicated spectrum and many fall through the cracks and don’t come out alive.
So, how did I get here?
The psychologist who I was seeing for about six months before the big fall didn’t quite pick up on it. She assessed me as suffering from General Anxiety Disorder and we kept up the cognitive behavioural treatment for a few months. Me coming in, telling her about my fears, my strange ideas, the growing anxiety and she would then refer me a text, an author to read and other methods. She said I really needed to leave my job, it was toxic for me.
In anything I did, I always over-promised due to my ‘big-picture thinking’ and always under-delivered due to the lack of confidence and crushed self-esteem – a vicious cycle.
I was also a massive perfectionist, which added to the messy mix. It was impossible to finish anything and be content with it. I was also incredibly restless and didn’t know how to calm down and relax, always a scatter of ideas and things to do but with no real order.
The job was getting more and more stressful, or maybe it was the condition finally taking over? One feeds the other I suppose! One day I finally snapped and left citing health reasons. My HR rep dismissed my claims initially and even rolled her eyes when I mentioned depression.
How do you look after your mind? Post continues after video…
“But you have such a great energy!” she said.
People with this condition will often be high functioning until a stressful situation causes them to come undone.
After I turned up to the GP the following day in a zombie state, absolutely catatonic, my GP, after the recommendation of my psychologist, gave me a dose of Lexapro, hoping for the best. She told me to keep coming back every few days to check-in.
One week later I felt amazing.
Three weeks later I was suicidal.
I believe that my GP should not have prescribed me antidepressant medication. In some cases and mental health disorders, medication doesn’t help, but that is what needs to be thoroughly assessed in the first place before handing out scripts for potent, and sometimes lethal, medication.
Perhaps the root of the problem is the fact that Australia has a scatty system when it comes to mental health, a kind of ‘luck of the draw’ and a non-defined way of managing mental health disorders?
When my partner, who is Swedish, called up the CAT team (who are a team of psychologists who come to your house to help in crisis) to come and help us in the depths of crisis, the first question they was asked was “Does your girlfriend have private health insurance?” It freaked him out, as he thought we couldn’t get any help. How could this be in a country like Australia? They did send a team and I was temporarily sedated and then monitored. It got worse though, and my GP just kept saying to contact the CAT team and they should be able to help.
The only reason I got the correct help I needed was we had a family friend who is a top psychologist who then recommended me to the woman who then went on to pretty much save my life. She had one session with me and said, “I think you have a mood disorder. Please find a psychiatrist as soon as possible through your GP and we’ll get through this together.”
I visited a different GP and I found an excellent psychiatrist, clinical and thorough, who made a two hour assessment and decided to try a combination of Lexapro and Valproate, which is traditionally used for epilepsy but also successful in Bipolar II disorder, which is what he suspected I might have been dealing with.
He wasn’t certain it would work but my lord, did it work! It was like a mental switch was turned off overnight and I stabilised over the following weeks. I could breathe again, leave the house, not be crushed with fear and feel ‘normal’ for the first time in my life.
Some things I did after I was diagnosed.
1. Accepted my diagnosis. While a scary prospect of facing a lifetime condition, management and informing myself was a good start and it was actually a bit of a relief to have a name for what I was feeling all those years. I treat Bipolar II as a condition – not the fact I am bipolar II, but that I have bipolar II – like someone who has diabetes or has high blood pressure. I was also comforted in reading and hearing about other people’s experiences and reached out to other people in my network going through similar things who were open about it. This documentary really gave me a good insight – The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive by Stephen Fry and my friend, Honor Eastly, is a mental health advocate who isn’t afraid to share her feelings and experiences, something I felt was comforting – www.honoreastly.com. This guy is also a fantastic booster and realist, especially for creative folk – Tony ‘Jack theBear’ Mantz Thanks guys, you helped me through some tough shit!
2. I got myself a mood tracker app on my phone. This gave me a chance to check in on a daily basis, see the stats on what was triggering my mood changes and use fun emoticons to display my progress. Eventually I stopped using it, but in the thick of things, I found it super helpful. It also made me realise that yep, some days are going to be terrible, but with a bit of sleep, things are usually better and it makes me focus more on the current moment, rather than what might happen in the future.
Watch Mia Freedman talk about her battle with anxiety. Post continues after video…
3. Get sweaty! I treated my sweat beads as little bits of anxiety bubbling out and tried different types of activities. Contemporary dance, lifting weights and getting a bit jiggy were my favourites. The next day, my mood always feels more stabilised and I can think with a clear head.
4. I gave up alcohol – fully for the first three months after my diagnosis and then really limited my consumption. When summer came along I drank more and saw a stark decline in my mood and those niggly dark thoughts coming back, so I really try to stay off the booze, although I do really love to have a drink, so it’s a massive battle anytime the opportunity comes up.
5. I set myself deadlines and listed all the stuff I wanted to do. As a perfectionist, I often started lots of projects but couldn’t complete them as they weren’t good enough. I thought the only way to finally finish a song (from my collection of about 100 half-finished projects sitting in Ableton Live on my computer) was to enter a competition (Tropscore in 2014) which motivated me to get busy and finish it.
6. This process started a flow of confidence and now I’m in the process of releasing an EP, launched a boutique record label championing women in electronic music (Synth Babe Records) and started performing again – some of my most soothing places is in my headphones and on stage. I think finding that comfort really helped distract from any low moods I was experiencing. Craft projects are also very good! My favourite was making jewellery out of FIMO – that colourful clay you might have used as a kid, mould and then bake in the oven. Super satisfying.
7. Got a second opinion. Well, if I look back on my history I would say it was a fourth opinion as I had seen psychologists before and they said it was post-traumatic stress and other stuff but when it came down to it, what was happening at the time of the big fall showed a situation where the people were not helping – so I sought a different opinion, through recommendations. I’m privileged enough to get this type of access and hate to think what happens to those who don’t have easy access. Mental health services definitely need to become more affordable, easy to access and more systematic in the initial diagnosis.
8. Realised that suicide ideation is a symptom of the disorder, which makes it easier when those kind of thoughts flurry past, the guilt of it all subsides. I just grab a hold of them and try and let them go, or distract myself with something that makes me feel good (like making music!)
When I was in that raw, post-diagnosis stage, I would make sure to have my headphones handy each morning and when I woke up, would listen to something soothing to calm my mind. This made such a difference to the day to day!
Looking back. A bit of history…and symptoms.
I always had outlandish and creative ideas, terrible mood swings and extreme, obsessive fears, something I thought was just part of my personality, which obviously flared up in my adolescence, a crummy time to have a mental health disorder.
In actual fact, what I was dealing with was an underlying mental health condition that had been plaguing me for almost 30 years. As I read more about this condition and absorb stories from celebrities and others dealing with this condition, memories from my childhood have been coming back in spades.
At the age of 10, I saw a TV program Ancient Prophecies about a a guy called Nostradamus who predicted the end of the world, so I became obsessed with finding information about him, warfare and what he had seemingly predicted, which in my mind was absolute DISASTER!
Thinking the end was nigh, this led to my obsession with atomic bombs and all those wars I kept seeing on SBS World News. Back then, my sources of information were limited to library text books, newspapers and trusty fat encyclopaedias full of information, anywhere I could find the word ‘Nostradamus’. Scary to think what would have happened if I had access to the information you can get today! That would have been a disaster!
At the age of 12, we were visiting family in Poland in the winter and I was convinced, after hearing flurried reports on the radio about the amount of deaths on the roads, that mum and dad would be killed in a car accident when they went anywhere and waited at the window until they returned, panicked if it got too late and convinced they were trapped in a twisted car somewhere. Pretty grim for a 12-year-old.
‘You were a strange child’ my mum commented recently. She was right, I totally was. A comment like that a few years ago would have sent me into a defensive spiral, but today, I can laugh at myself a bit more and just chalk it up to the condition.
The over-sensitivity led to the most awful mood swings. When I was finally diagnosed, my younger sister was like ‘Oooooh, it all makes sense now!’ I hope she can forgive me for using her as an emotional punching bag for all those years.
But two years after my initial diagnosis, I feel like at least I can identify my triggers and deal with life with a more measured approach. I am on a lower dosage of medication to what I was initially on, which is good. If medication is needed to feel stable, then so be it! Maybe they should rebrand antidepressants? Just the name carries a bit of a stigma. It’s a daily battle to maintain balance, but I think it’s important to share stories, so this is mine.
My EP Town of Two Hundred launches on June 19, exploring spectrums of life and feelings, out through Synth Babe Records, recorded, mixed and mastered at Sound Machine Studios. I chose this date as it’s my dad’s birthday – a guy with excellent taste in music and who was a big influence on my music who has always supported me, especially in those truly dark times.
I’m launching two singles on March 30th. You can support an independent artist by purchasing your copy of the Palms // Fears of Life at my Bandcamp page. You can find more from Anya Trybala on her Facebook.