Monthly Archives: February 2014

What is Bipolar Disorder? – Depression

The first thing they tell you after you’re diagnosed is to do as much research on BP is you possibly can. This is wise advice, but harder than it sounds.

When excitedly making a list of things that I would like to write about, this topic completely slipped my mind. The reason being that there are SO many souces out there giving definitions and criteria about the symptoms of BP.  And many sufferers like myself don’t find it helpful at all. All the sources give you the same list of DMS criteria that in theory makes perfect sense, but practically mean nothing. I remember going through that list and feeling so confused, because I wasn’t sure if I had delusions of grandeur. I am a pretty awesome person after all, how am I suppose to know whether or not I think I’m TOO awesome? And I don’t know if my sex drive is abnormally high. I mean, what is the ‘norm’ for this anyway?

It was all very confusing and I just kept thinking, yes, I have Bipolar Disorder, but I’m not really as Bipolar as other people. Only after coming out of various hypomanic, depressive and mixed states could I look back and recognise my distorted thoughts, ungrounded emotional reactions and actual abnormal physical sensations caused by a malfunction in my brain. But right when you’re diagnosed, you cannot look back with 20/20 hindsight and wisdom, which is what I hope I can provide here.

I do not want to use this post to give the definition of Bipolar Disorder. As I said there are many sites out there that do that, and you can find a very thorough one here. What I do want to do is explain the illness to you from an experiential point of view. It’s not an easy thing to do in a few sentences, so I will break it up, starting with depression.

Depression

I had my first bouts of depression when I was about 15 (although looking back I’m convinced it started during early childhood already). I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I knew that something was very wrong with me. It was only in my early 20s that I figured out what it was. I would cry myself to sleep pretty much every night, if I could sleep at all. I’d think that I had reasons for being sad, when really I didn’t. What I realised was that the emotion was first, followed by the experience. It’s simple logic. I am sad, therefore I must have experienced something that made me sad. But sadness doesn’t come anyway near to defining depression. It’s a constant heavy feeling, like everything is too exhausting and just too much. You’re always tired. You feel like you’re wading through mud while carrying around a ton of bricks. I felt like I had a cloud in my head. Like I was somehow disconnected from the world and my mind (a friend of mine recently called it the bell jar effect, which I like). My brain would slow down to a near halt and it would take me twice as long as usual to take anything in. You move through your days while the only thing that gets you mildy excited is counting the hours until you can go to bed. I would go out with friends, and on a conscious level know that I was having a good time, while looking at my watch  wishing I could go home. Or just not go out.

While living by myself, my depressed weekends looked like this: I easily went almost three days without uttering a single word. And then I only left the house and spoke when I ran out of cigarettes. When I didn’t have food in my house, I just didn’t eat. I wouldn’t shower or get out of my pajamas. I’d drink whatever booze I had but not care when I ran out. If I wasn’t sleeping I was watching series, so I didn’t have to think. Other activities included contemplating suicide and listening, listening to depressing music and sometimes crying my eyes out.  Come Monday I would somehow force myself to leave the house and go to work, putting on my happy face and crying in the toilets at least twice a day. At some point you don’t live anymore, you just function. Survive. The world looks strangely drained of colour. Even though you can see the colour with your eyes, it gets translated to grey in your head. Everything is numb except for the excruciating pain you feel on the inside. Obviously not a physical pain, but somehow you can physically feel it. The worse part is feeling like that feeling will never go away, like that is what the rest of your life will be like. Like there is no joy in the world and there never will be again. You forget what it ever felt like to be happy. I felt worthless and like a waste of space. I lost all my confidence and was anxious about everything, all the time.

Very few people know exactly what I went through when I was depressed, because I would completely isolate myself, or pretend that I was fine. I didn’t want to burden anyone with my negativity and sob stories. I felt completely and utterly lonely. Even when I would talk to people, it felt like I was irritating them or that they just didn’t understand. Me and my boring ‘sadness’.

Being chronically depressed is absolutely terrifying, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I wake up every morning thankful that I don’t spend every day wishing I was dead. Contrary to popular belief, depression is not something you can snap out of. It is a life threatening illness and takes years to recover from.

The great (said sarcastically) thing about Bipolar Disorder is that this is only the one side of the coin. More on mania and hypomania in the next post.

Can you relate to any of these symptoms of depression? If you have more to add, please do so. Somewhere someone will have an ‘oh wow, I though I was the only crazy person who felt like that’ moment.

I AM not Bipolar

Personally I have never had a problem with being labelled as Bipolar. In fact, being able to give myself labels gives me a sense of comfort and control. I guess because things in my head can be so chaotic, I need to have labels that in a way ‘ground’ my identity. I know that this is not the case for everyone. Some people despise being called Bipolar. I understand that too; it can be particularly damaging in certain contexts.

At the support group I go to, we go around the circle giving our names and why we’re attending. Personally I just say “Name, Bipolar”. Others say “I have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder”, “I have bipolar disorder” or even “According to my doctor I am Bipolar”. Very rarely does anyone say “I am Bipolar”. If you think about it, why would anyone say that? Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, a real illness, but an illness does not define your being. No one says “I am Cancer” or “She is Diabetes”, so why are we so quick to say “I AM Bipolar”?

People with BD think about it all the time. Some people think that focusing on it so much does more damage than good, but the fact is that since it is a chronic illness that affects every aspect and every day of your life, you can’t not think about it. Just taking your medication first thing in the morning and last thing at night reminds you; how could it not? Then there are the visits to psychiatrists and therapists, adjusting dosages to find the right mix, charting your moods and side-effects of medications.

It is easy to completely disappear into this ‘thought commitment’. Your live starts revolving solely around your illness. Your crazy racing thoughts become all about your crazing racing thoughts. Or whether or not your thoughts are actually crazier than usual. You get back into the vicious cycle. And then, without noticing, you lose yourself and become Bipolar.

But Bipolar Disorder is a treatable illness. Chronic, yes. But treatable. Allowing your whole identity to become wrapped up in it, would be a mistake. Unfortunately since it is not a physical illness but a mood disorder, it is often difficult for sufferers to distinguish normal from ‘not’ normal. It becomes confusing to figure out what your real emotions are and when you are overreacting. And people who don’t have Bipolar Disorder find it even more difficult to understand.

As long as we remember that having Bipolar Disorder does not define us. We are mothers, fathers, workers, children, brothers, teachers, writers. We are PEOPLE, first.

How do you feel about your ‘labels’?