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.