No one wants to be mentally ill, right? I’m not sure; I think I did. Or rather, I didn’t want to be mentally ill as much as I wanted to be able to explain why my own brain felt so familiar and so foreign to me at the same time. One day I’d wake certain that the world would be better off without me. I’d begin planning my own death, picturing my children at my funeral, wondering who my husband might marry. Days later I’d be awake all night, an electric surge of creativity consuming me, the feeling that the world couldn’t possibly be better.
My official Bipolar Disorder Type 2 diagnosis wasn’t a surprise; it was just a matter of putting in the file the thing we already knew. Still, even though I knew it, even though I wanted the confirmation that my pendulum of tortured feelings wasn’t normal, it felt a little like a death sentence — not just because folks with bipolar disorder are more likely to die by suicide (my great aunt being among them), but also because once you’ve got a diagnosis, you can’t really in good conscience pretend that things are just fine. Things are clearly not fine.
For many years I pretended things were fine. And the people around me went along with it. No one wants to be mentally ill; no one wants to be married to someone mentally ill. While I was pretending everything was fine, there were bipolar disorder red flags flying all around me like the goddamn United Nations. If anyone has ever asked you, “Are you bipolar?” or if you’ve questioned it yourself, this might be useful.
Here are a few of my red flags:
This is a given with bipolar disorder — after all, that’s what bipolar means. For me, it started in high school. I had a bout of somewhat mild depression, triggered by a move away from my hometown. That was immediately followed by a period of very clear hypomania (disguised as overachieving). That bout of mania was followed by another period of depression.
All of these early signs were chalked up to typical teenage mood swings. The difference was in the severity and timing of the shifts. The “average” age of onset is 25, but that number, when looked at more broadly, has a huge span from ages 15 to 30. I had my first mild depressive episode when I was 15, my first hypomanic episode at 16. And so on.
LISTEN: Author Marian Keyes shares the unusual way her depression manifested. Post continues below.
Flight of ideas
What psychiatrists and the DSM call the “flight of ideas” looks a lot like extreme creativity. For me, it looked like this:
I might be frantically sewing a quilt (I was big into quilting/sewing in the mid-90s). Mid-quilt I’d decide to make a dress. While I was making the dress, I might decide I wanted to try a complicated recipe or clean under all the sinks or vacuum for an unreasonable amount of time (that was the OCD sneaking in). Then I’d stop all of that and write in my journal for an hour, or decide I was going to be a poet, or try some new complicated craft.
This “flight of ideas” can take a few different forms, but the common thread is the rapid switching of mental gears.
Boundless energy (psychiatrists call this “hypomania”)
And when I say boundless, I do mean boundless. This isn’t like ,“I’m not very tired.” It’s more like, “I can skip sleep entirely” or sleep an hour or two and wake up feeling like I slept all night.
To be frank, this is the thing medication took from me that I really miss. A lot of my writing energy is tied to the hypomania. For a creative person, losing that energy feels really f&*king devastating. I’m using the f-word because there is no more apt way to describe it.
This isn’t something everyone experiences, but I certainly did. I might be incredibly patient one moment, and yelling at the top of my lungs the next.
This temper situation led me to do a lot of really embarrassing and potentially harmful stuff.
I yelled at my kids.
I spanked them.
I once broke a chair by hitting it on the floor.
I threw things.
I slapped my husband in the face.
This is where I offer this piece of advice: mental illness is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. Are you bipolar just because you yell at your kids? Obviously, no (hi, every mother is bipolar now! jk), but you are responsible for that behavior, whether it's connected to mental illness or not.
I was not responsible. I will not make excuses for my behavior. But I will say that bipolar disorder took over my life without me seeing it.
This can also be called loud or rapid (or both). I’m a naturally talkative person but in a hypomanic situation, I literally cannot shut up.
And I’ll talk about anything. This still happens to me sometimes. In the moment it will feel totally normal, but later I will realize how dramatically I dominated a conversation and I will feel like an idiot.
A disclaimer about mania: Mania is associated with the more severe manifestation of Bipolar Disorder, Type 1. People with mania often see and hear things. They engage in harmful behaviour — sexual, physical, or otherwise.
I prefer to think of bipolar disorder as being on a spectrum. Though my medical records have me listed as Type 2, my psychiatrist usually refers to me as Type 1.5. This is because on a couple of occasions I did things that were harmful without acknowledgment of consequence. Running until I broke my leg (and continuing to run on it broken) was the one that tipped him off.
Spending money like I was Oprah
I have maxed out every credit card, written bad checks, and robbed Peter to pay Paul — many, many times. I have been near $75,000 in debt. At one point, I went and bought a sports car. I don’t even know what I was going to do with a sports car; I had a BABY. She rode in the front seat (it was 1996 and car seat rules were different, but also I was insane).
I eventually bankrupted us, almost twice.
This is addict behaviour and can also manifest as drug, alcohol, or gambling addiction. I have had a few run-ins with tequila, but for the most part, having the foresight to see myself becoming my mother, steered clear of booze entirely.
Increased (unwarranted) confidence and sexually risky behaviour
Well, that’s just like what is sounds. My ex-husband used to call it “skinny attitude.” Not coincidentally, hypomanic episodes and eating disorder episodes tended to coincide for me.
Hypomania = eating disorder/ridiculous amounts of energy = weight loss = increased (exaggerated) confidence = making really truly terrible decisions.
It is enough to say that my marriage was at risk on more than one occasion as a result of my inability to see my incredibly problematic behavior.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’re probably thinking, “I’d only have to have take one junior college psychology course to see you were a disaster.” But the thing is, when taken out of this list and experienced individually, it was a lot easier to ignore than you’d think.
So, why did I ignore all of this?
It’s complicated, but here’s the bullet pointed version:
- I didn’t want to be like my mother.
- Mental illness was some embarrassing red-headed stepchild black sheep shit.
- I relished the energy and creativity.
- I was too young/selfish/emotionally immature to see the great potential for damage to my family.
I hope you'll join me in breaking the stigma.