We just posted that May is Mental Health Month, and so we wanted to help raise awareness by getting the patient perspective out there. PatientsLikeMe member Eleanor (redblack) first experienced bipolar II as a young woman, and she’s been managing her mental health with the help of her family and psychiatrist ever since.
She shared about her journey in a three-part interview series, and we’ll be posting one part each month. In this first edition, Steubenville talked about how twinkling Christmas tree lights gave way to thoughts of loneliness, how life in a convent seemed like the right plan, and how she learned to recognize oncoming depression and mania. Read on for her full interview and keep an eye out for part two in June!
Navigating the ups and downs of a diagnosis
Although I was diagnosed with bipolar II well into adulthood, I feel I experienced it very early in life. On a particularly joyous Christmas Day when I was about twelve, as the dusk fell early on a typical western New York winter afternoon, I stood alone, gazing at the twinkling Christmas tree, and suddenly thought, “This is how it will always be: cold, and dark, and lonely.” This is symbolic of the way I may still cycle during a single day, many times for no apparent reason. At that time, even on happy, fun-filled days, something I may have heard or seen might plunge me into a very dark place and hurl me into a struggle to hold back the tears.
Spiritual highs, melancholic music, lyrics of hymns and the all-encompassing silence of five years in the convent seemed to fit me like a glove. Bouncing from the precious fellowship of the sisters to sad reflection on the passion of Christ seemed normal to me, and I felt I had found the life I’d always craved. Later, when one of my four children whined, I’d reply, “Remember, the world is cold and life is sad,” words I’d often sung as a nun and always felt were such an apt description of life.
Besides the frequent cycling, I’ve experienced other unwelcome features of bipolar such as periods of irresponsible spending and lack of judgment in relationships. So often I found myself standing aside and observing a self who repeatedly cast aside her values and self-pride to pursue an elusive and imaginary gratification.
It took years of therapy and the patience of a saintly psychiatrist for me to begin to understand I had frequent mood shifts caused by mixed up brain circuits – and not existential, undisputable thoughts. First, the universe was amazing, full of possibilities, and anyone who disagreed was to be pitied. Then, suddenly, all roads led to hell. I was totally worthless and no one valued me. I could prove it!
My psychiatrist of thirty-seven years, Jon Betwee, helped me understand that when I was hypomanic, I could not remember depression. When deep depression took over, I was convinced all was lost forever, and the best way to spare others and myself further pain was to die. I tried – four times.
Now, when I see myself feeling a little too “high,” and I think I am funny, have brilliant ideas to share, and life cannot move fast enough, I tally these signs as being hypomanic and put the brakes on. No, I am not happiness and wisdom personified. I put in place some deep breathing, a quiet time of reading, or long conversations with my supportive, knowledgeable husband. Triggers can be too hectic or too frequent and demanding. Eliminating some social gatherings and frenetic activity helps.
I now recognize the approach of depression when I re-play sad and tragic DVDs, cry over everything or imagine hidden and antagonistic messages beneath the conversation of family and friends. Triggers may be letting myself get very fatigued, ruminating about past hurts, making mental lists of all my mistakes and weaknesses. Now I make myself get up, start a task that will absorb and re-direct my attention, and review “What would Jon suggest I do?”
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