I wanted to delve a little bit more into my struggles with mental illness, and I think a good place to start is in my early 20s, about 5-7 years after I initially started (the wrong) treatment.
I was somewhere around 21 when I finally got a diagnosis of bipolar, with more to come later. At the time, I didn’t like it, didn’t believe it, didn’t care. I waffled in and out of treatment, often going unmedicated for long periods of time. I hated the idea of having to take meds for the rest of my life just to function normally. When I was on meds, I’d ultimately start feeling better, and then the side effects would get to be too much, or I’d convince myself that I didn’t need them at all, and I’d drop out of treatment and stop my meds cold turkey.
In many respects, I was very lucky. I didn’t have a major episode until I was 26 which is what spurred my butt into treatment and to stay there. But in the interim, I dealt with a number of minor episodes, none seriousness enough to get me back on the straight and narrow. Depression, mixed, hypomanic, I hit the full range. But I still refused to get treatment.
When I was 26, I had been back in school for a year and a half when I hit a major depression. I mean – I could barely get out of bed for three months. I ended up having to make up the semester, I lost my scholarships (which I ended up getting back), and my marriage almost didn’t happen because of it. I just couldn’t climb out of the hole that I was stuck in. I, quite literally, have never been that depressed in my life. I honestly think that if I had had the energy, I would have killed myself just to make the pain stop. Once the fog started to clear I quickly reached out for help, and ultimately got the help I needed. As such, I’ve been on meds for 12 complete years now, without taking myself off. I’ve accepted that this is just the way it is, and that’s all there is to it.
So what changed between my early 20s and my late 20s? What was the switch that flipped that made me realize that I could not, in fact, deal with this on my own?
I honestly don’t know. I’d like to say maturity, the scare of the depression, maybe even knowing that I could lose my relationship. It’s probably all of these things, plus some. Let’s dive in a little, shall we?
Mike once told me that as long as I was reaching out for help, he’d stick with me. If I didn’t, and let this disease rule my life that he was done. And before that depression I honestly was. I had just started seeing a new doctor, trying new meds, but obviously they did not work, even in the slightest. And I remember begging, before it got really bad, to try something different. They told me to stick it out, I had only been on the meds a few months, give them a chance to work. It got so frustrating, for Mike, too, that it was just adding to the depression. Why weren’t they working? Why was I feeling worse instead of better? You’d think that after all of that I would have washed my hands of all of it. But I didn’t, because I didn’t want to lose him. Once the worst of it started to ease, I reached out to our local psych hospital’s outpatient clinic. As it turned out, since I had no insurance and wasn’t working more than 15 hours a week, I qualified to be treated for free. Even my meds – free. I had no copays, nothing out of pocket, everything was on them. I was shocked. I had seen the doctor I had been seeing because she worked on a sliding scale – it still wasn’t cheap though. The doctor I got hooked up with at the clinic was amazing. For the first time I felt like I was being heard. We made a game plan – get on new meds, tackle the depression acutely, and then get back on an even keel. Therapy at least once a week, twice if I could swing it, and I’d see him every two weeks.
This was the first doctor I had ever seen, that actually listened to me. About how I was feeling, what I was struggling with, how the meds made me feel, etc. He asked important questions that uncovered issues that I then worked on with my therapist. It was an amazing experience, and for someone like me who had never trusted a psychiatrist because they always seemed to be pushing their own agenda and prejudices on me, it was exactly what I needed at that point in time. The whole team that I worked with was amazing. They made me feel supported, and heard. My concerns weren’t brushed off. I was never made to feel like I didn’t know my own self, that they knew better, and I just had to do what I was told.
It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re so young that you have a chronic illness that’s going to require lifelong treatment, and even then you still might fuck your life up because no one really knows what causes the disease or how it works. You treat the symptoms as they come rather than treating the underlying cause. When I was first diagnosed I was literally told that I would never lead a normal life – I’d never finish college, would never have a good relationship, would never be able to hold down a job. Do you know how nice it’s been to have proven all of that wrong? I have a post graduate degree, I have an amazing relationship, and I have a great job. I’ve travelled internationally, I’ve seen and done things that a lot of people will never get the chance to.
The doctor that I was seeing, after two years, decided to leave the clinic’s practice and move into research. I was devastated, but I hit gold a second time in that my current doc is just as great, if not greater, than the last. We meet regularly, but he’s always available by email if something is going on, or I feel like one of my meds needs to be adjusted temporarily. Same with my therapist, although we meet a lot less often (I think I’ve only “seen” him three times this year; maybe two).
So yeah, by the time that episode had started to run its course, I found a great doctor, and finally had the maturity to accept that this is how things were going to be.
Stay safe, friends.