Whenever something hard happens in my life, I normally make a few inappropriate jokes, and then come here to process it. I kind of pride myself on how open I am because I believe that none of us needs to feel like we’re alone, me as much as anyone, and the more I share the more I learn that. And show it to other people. But this year I haven’t been my usual transparent self. This year I’ve been struggling with something big and scary and I’ve kept it to myself because for once I didn’t know if I could bear the consequences of having it out in the open. My abusive childhood, fractured family relationships, infertility, chronic illness, sex life, I’ve written about all of those things without batting an eye. But this one upended everything about how I saw myself, and made me question how I wanted the world to see me.
I’ve long been open about having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It has greatly affected my life, but not in any way that I felt threatened my credibility. Even at my worst, when the compulsions were driving me so mad I’d stand in the aisle at Wal-Mart and break out into a sweat over the need to steal a lipstick – not buy it, I had to take it – and then hide in the sporting good department while I stashed it in my purse, I always viewed my compulsions as eccentric. The only one who really suffered was my husband, when he had to run all the errands because I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. The costs of a few compulsions were rewarded with order and motivation, and except for the worst times, I called it my superpower.
But last year I started feeling things slipping away from me. I was plagued by fears of losing control, of inflicting harm, of ruining everything we had built. So I went to the psychiatrist for some help. My superpower had become too much for me.
I started taking Zoloft and plunged into the deepest, darkest, most terrifying depression I had ever seen. My actual thoughts were changed overnight. I couldn’t write, I had no energy, I laid on the couch and huddled under a blanket for days. That psychiatrist fine tuned my meds and brought me away from the brink, but I had a new awareness of just how close disaster was for me. When she left the practice I had to start over again with a new psychiatrist. The thought was exhausting, explaining everything from the beginning, starting over at square one, but with the specter of that darkness in my peripheral vision, I went.
We talked, and as we talked, she seemed interested in things my previous therapist hadn’t been. She was much more interested in hearing about the times I’d been depressed, and then when I started talking about my superpower – how it fed my productivity, how creative I felt, how I was pushed to work and create and do more, how happy and full of love I felt – she burst my bubble. None of those feelings were from OCD. She said, “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder wouldn’t make you productive. It would be the opposite. Your compulsions would keep you from doing what you needed to do.”
As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. That inner fire I felt to work and create was not the same thing as the vibrating need to wash my hands or arrange patterns or make even numbers or pick pick pick at something. That inner fire was something else, mirrored by the darkness that the medication amplified, but didn’t introduce. That darkness had been with me since childhood, grew during my teen years when my mother started giving me pills to cope with it, and pulsed throughout my adult years, growing and receding with the seasons.
I started crying in her office, with recognition. She was explaining my whole life to me.
I have Bipolar disorder.
Specifically I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder, which is a different animal than Bipolar I, which is what you usually see depicted on TV. Which is why I never even imagined I would have it. I don’t have breaks from reality, I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I don’t act out or engage in self-destructive behavior, I don’t act crazy. What I have are periods of intense depression, and then I have periods the experts call Hypomania – a version of mania that doesn’t reach the destructive or fanciful heights of Bipolar I. Instead I am energetic, creative, full of love for the world, a cauldron of ideas and motivation and enthusiasm. I feel amazing. Until I don’t. Eventually I crest over the top of the climb and race downhill, irritated at the slowness of everyone else, compelled to keep going, faster and faster, despite what I want to be doing, despite my need for sleep or my desire to be still, until I crash back down into the darkness.
Anti-depressants without an accompanying mood stabilizer aggravates this condition. Which is what happened when I started Zoloft. Unfortunately, the mood stabilizer that would be most appropriate for me is better not to take during pregnancy, which we’ve been actively trying to achieve for years now. Going on them and then immediately getting off after pregnancy could be worse than just not starting them. So I’m taking care of myself, paying attention to the rhythms of light and sleep and exercise that are so crucial to governing my moods, asking for help, riding the cycles, being aware.
Many people with Bipolar II disorder prefer to remain untreated. The risks are high – Bipolar II is just as high a risk factor for suicide as Bipolar I – but the rewards are great. When I’m hypomanic, it’s like I have access to a whole other part of my brain. I feel brilliant and expansive and I have so many ideas I can barely get them all down on paper. I’m happier, more loving, and in touch with a creativity that feels divine. And then I have to pay for that. But if I can take care of myself enough to avoid the highest highs and the lowest lows, then the benefits might just be worth it.
I cried when I discovered this, in part because I recognized my life, and in part because I didn’t know what this meant for me. Was I really crazy after all?
My family thinks I am. I’m the only one who identifies as an abused child. My siblings make excuses and justifications, saying ‘things shouldn’t have happened’ or ‘they were angry’ and never getting to the heart of the dynamic. I’ve been accused of being melodramatic, oversensitive, crazy, a liar, because I am seeking health and honesty in my relationships. And then there’s the whole question of God. I feel Him in my life. I’ve had my prayers answered, I’ve dreamed dreams and seen things that I couldn’t explain any other way. Was this God after all? Was it a delusion?
I couldn’t bear to be public about any of this until I’d figured it out for myself. After study and counseling and meditation and prayer, here’s what I’ve determined:
I am not crazy.
I am not delusional.
I have a mood disorder that makes me have highs and lows I have to pay attention to and be careful with.
I have days where I will be more productive than anyone except a member of the military, and other days when I need to waste time playing puzzle games on the internet.
And both are all right. Both feed the other and make the other possible. Both have to be honored and paid attention to and in return I will be rewarded with creativity and light and love and an inner fire that warms me and pushes me to do more. And the darkness will keep that fire safe.
The darkness gives me empathy, connection, stillness, depth. The fire gives me energy, boundless creativity, enthusiasm and love. My job is to keep them balanced.