Coming Clean

Making me feel better

I’ve been having big time comment problems, but I think I might have them resolved now. I miss you commentors! There was never any permission needed!

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.



  1. Kim underwood says:

    I love this! Not that you have it but that you are embracing it and figuring how to balance it and make it part of you and who you are. Thank you so much for sharing. Have you ever heard of NAMI??? You should totally look into our local chapter, they could absolutely use people like you :)

  2. Chibbylick says:

    3 time lucky for my comment?
    You are such a writer! Your descriptions of elevated mood are so familiar!
    Bi Polar II is a journey, learning to get the balance right, and learning how to be carried on the waves without crashing is an art.
    It has taken me a long time to realize that manic is no more healthy for my body and mind than depressed is. For a long time I felt like manic was normal, and anything else was a problem.
    Good luck in the journey towards getting life and meds sorted out in a way that works for you.
    Good luck too with the fertility treatment, (I've had a taste of that too) what a journey!
    Be gentle with yourself, try to choose the middle path, avoiding the extremes on either end. Much love.

  3. Sarah in Georgia says:

    What an honest post; thank you for sharing. I, too, am an over-sharer, but I believe for those of us who can share, we make a difference in the lives of others. Your thoughts, here and in the past, have helped me through my own infertility struggles, and have helped me be more compassionate. Blessings to you and your family.

  4. Thank you! Thank you for being brave, for letting us into this scariest corner of your life. The only way we'll get the world to truly understand that people with mental illnesses aren't "scary crazy" is by being this kind of brave. Thank you for being a part of getting rid of the stigma. Best wishes on your journey and kudos to sticking with therapy even after losing a therapist. Gold star on the forehead to your husband for being there with you.

  5. Well written post! I can't believe I didn't notice it years ago, reading your super active and creative and lovely outfits times, compared to the crashes. It really does make sense. Don't worry, you're not crazy. That's only the word that pops up in the 'down' times, and just remind yourself, that to be honest, the enemy in this world wants to steal, kill and destroy, right? So he takes advantage of our weaknesses. How low down and unfair is that? So you can relegate that bad word to an attack from the one that wants to destroy you. It's not true. You ARE being honest and trying to be healthy, and that's respectable! I had severe clinical PND (you can read about it on my blog) which had me low for years. And even 7 years later, I still crash harder and am more fragile than I used to be. But i have sensitivity to others and insights, and an appreciation for life that I never had before, too. I am more honest, alive, and more 'me' than ever before. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger! Huge hug.x

  6. Annamarie says:

    My mom was manic depressive (bipolar I) and the stigma from our community was so hard to cope with growing up. Thanks for your post, which I hope will help make folks realize that mental illness is an ILLNESS, just like cancer is an illness. It is NOT the sufferer's fault.

  7. Kate & Zena says:

    My mom has Bipolar II too, Tresa. My mom is a lot like you too, she has siblings that deny abuse happened in her family too, but the great thing is she can choose being among those people.

    Bipolar people aren't nuts. The vast majority aren't criminals like on TV. They are like my mom and like you; everyday people trying to live an everyday life.

    And I'll be perfectly honest with you, I break out into sweat too over trying not to steal something sometimes. That's an impulse I have a hard time controlling. I have bad impulse control and if I didn't watch it, I would probably steal every last nail polish I liked! I also suffer from Trichotillomania and that's even worse!

  8. Thank you for writing this. I'm 30s-something feminist Mormon Bipolar II just coming off my mood stabilizers to try and have a baby, so I really relate. I thought I could just power through, but it's rough! I'm sending out love to you and sending up prayers for us both!

  9. Thaliana1981 says:

    Thank you for this. I had no idea what was "wrong" with me, but after sharing your experience (vaguely) with my team of doctors, they agree that we've been overlooking the obvious. Thank you. You may have saved my life.


  1. […] can’t remember if I’ve ever written about it here, but on my other blog I talk regularly about my living with Bipolar II disorder and the changes I’ve had to make to my […]

  2. […] sometimes awesome, and sometimes decidedly not. Since I have both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Bipolar II Disorder, sometimes those things combine like the Wonder Twins and I get creativity, energy, and focus. […]

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