We move through our unique challenges with varying degrees of difficulty, and I think that’s partly because some people get better tools and directions. It makes sense; with concrete, physical obstacles, we prepare ourselves with things that can help us and guide us. It’s fair to extrapolate the logic to abstract challenges.
Like my challenge: bipolar disorder. From the time my symptoms started at fourteen until I was in college, I had neither the tools nor direction to deal with it. It put me at a disadvantage.
Bipolar disorder ripped through my life before I knew to associate myself with its name, creating mayhem, confusion, and, quite honestly, pain. As I moved through major depression after major depression, the only break being for agitated, angry hypomanias, I lacked direction. I had no idea where I was going for years.
My diagnosis came sometime in early June 2010. It was a less-than-ideal situation, but it provided something I needed if nothing else.
DIAGNOSIS = DIRECTION
I was sitting on the couch in a familiar office with my arms and legs crossed tightly in front of me, staring daggers into the overly-calm psychiatrist across from me with pen and paper in hand. He looked curious. It annoyed me.
There was steam billowing out of my ears because his apparent curiosity did not match the violent, explosive frustration that had me by the throat. I was so angry. And the anger wouldn’t loosen its grip. I’d had it, searing-red, for too long. To make matters worse, I was back in an office I hadn’t visited in months.
“Are you on cocaine?” he asked suddenly, without sarcasm. “No? Then you’re bipolar.”
The memories of my diagnosis are nonexistent except for that shocking question I didn’t understand. I don’t recall what was said after that or how I felt about it. I know I was given no information, enlightenment, or introduction into the all-consuming project that would be managing my increasingly debilitating condition. I left the office with what felt like a random label and some Abilify.
I do recall, however, that my emotions were chaotic and my reactions to them were dramatic, and the wild energy pulsating painfully in my core would often dissipate at a moment’s notice. In other words, I don’t remember the conversation I had with the medical professional in charge of my teenage mental health; I only remember being bipolar.
Things got more intense from there. By the time I graduated college, I knew my diagnosis had a more significant role in my life than I initially assumed it would. I hadn’t made it through one semester of college without, as I put it then, “losing my mind.”
But at that point, and for a long time after, I knew only the basics about what being bipolar meant. It was a mood disorder that had to do with highs and lows. My psychiatrist encouraged me not to overthink it, and he rarely, if ever, used the word. It was odd that he was so resistant to saying the phrase bipolar disorder, even more so because of the fluctuations rippling through my life with successively higher ferocity.
The complete chaos lit the way for better things, though. It showed me how to use my diagnosis as a weapon. It drove me to find a way to use the information hidden in the simple two-word label. There is power in names. I think because it helps to know what you’re dealing with.
My bipolar disorder, and its symptoms, were something that could point me in the right direction.
TOOLS THAT ALLOWED ME TO CONNECT THE DOTS
I began to explore tools like articles and books to help me make sense of my intense and frightening symptoms. Luckily, I found the idea of tracking.
It started with me logging which days I took my meds and which days I “forgot.” It was unsurprising that I found in the short-term to be moodier after missing a few doses.
Then I discovered eMoods. It almost gamified my mental illness, in a good way. Maybe that’s just because I used it as an app on my phone, but I found myself excited to record everything at the end of the day. It was almost a relief to have the ups and downs of the day all written down each night.
I was able to see that on a more long-term scale, my episodes began with insomnia. The information was all there, clearly graphed. After not sleeping for a week or so, I’d start feeling “emotionally itchy.” I noted in the bottom section of the app that I felt like I wanted to “rip my face off” and “jump out of my skin.” My thoughts would get scattered; they’d race around my mind at a million miles a minute. I’d find it difficult to latch onto just one. Painful surges of energy would crackle inside me. I’d hope to burst, to release the chaos within, but it would always give way to crippling anxiety, and I’d instead deflate into suffocating depression. I’d go from volatile and reactive to listless and empty. I watched through the graphs and data as it happened again and again.
Tracking the pattern didn’t feel like a win at first. Knowing what to expect didn’t stop it from happening. But noticing patterns meant I learned to watch out for specific warning signs. And there was power in that. I finally had a bit of control.
NOW USE YOUR MAP: KNOWING WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOUR WELLBEING
I was able to get better and finally find stability because I found guidance in my diagnosis, and then sought out tools that would help me. I am eternally grateful that I stumbled upon great apps like eMoods and learned to make sense of the disorganization of bipolar disorder.
Mood tracking wasn’t the only answer; my recovery also included lots of therapy, medication, and a hospitalization. I do, however, recognize it as a crucial part.
Now when I’m experiencing symptoms, I know what to do and I'm equipped to do it. I mark down my symptoms and input the data and take the time to analyze the results. The analysis is my favorite part because it makes me proud to use all of what I carefully tracked. It’s empowering to have such awareness, and I look forward to connecting more dots on my map.
My name is Laura, and I'm a girl trying to make sense of her brain by writing about it. And I hope to help other people in the process. I fought a crazy battle with anorexia in my teenage years and was diagnosed with bipolar shortly after. There's hasn't been much stability in regards to my mental health, but I tell myself that by putting words to the feelings that feel indescribable and the disorders that seem insurmountable, I'll create some meaning out of it all. You can find more of my writings and other projects at https://laurasantospirito.contently.com