Spin Your Story : Beyond Bipolar

Guest post by Roxann Shook.

After countless sleepless nights, no energy and an inability to get out of bed most days, I finally turned to the college student health center for help to ease the persistent, deep sadness that had settled within me.  I saw a counselor weekly, and at his urging consulted a doctor.  Diagnosed with clinical depression, I was prescribed Prozac and a medication to help me sleep.

I told no one in the initial months of treatment.  I lived with my grandmother, but our strained relationship made it impossible to confide in her.  I didn’t want to talk to my parents about “it”.  I continued counseling and took the medications, but little improved.  Sleep continued to evade me and my moods crept lower.  I believed it was my fault that the medications weren’t helping.  I feared I was a failure, because even Prozac – the wonder drug that made life so much better for so many people – was not helping me.  I was ashamed to tell my doctor that I wasn’t getting better, so I pretended to be fine.

No one guessed I was struggling so much.  I was sunny-on-the-outside, always cheerful, always helpful.  I appeared perfectly well, but in reality I was falling apart.  Towards the end of the semester I finally told my parents that I was seeing a counselor and taking antidepressants, but I downplayed the seriousness of it all and waved it off as a temporary stumbling block that I would get through in no time.

I spiraled lower over the next five months.  I was hospitalized twice due to suicidal ideation.  It didn’t help that I still wasn’t sleeping.  My doctor tried countless new medications, but each one failed to give me the relief and the rest that I so needed.  Finally, a year after I had initially sought treatment, a combination of medications started to improve my mood and allowed me some uninterrupted sleep.  For the first time in years, I felt a little bit lighter, and finally a sense of optimism and possibility.  With the help of a wonderful new therapist, I began to make gradual but steady strides in the right direction.

I was fortunate that the medications began to help, because 2006 was a year full of changes for me.  I met and began dating Kyle, an amazing man who would become my husband.  I dreaded telling him about the depression and being hospitalized for it, but he listened and simply said, “We’ll do what we need to do.”  I was dumbfounded – I couldn’t believe he was so willing to look past the illness and see me, the person.

I continued to beat myself up over depression.  I had a decent upbringing, and good parents.  Despite major financial hardship, I was getting the education I had yearned for.  What did I have to be sad about?  I couldn’t see that depression was a serious illness, no different than diabetes or heart disease.  I could no more wish myself well than a diabetic could wish himself of insulin, but I couldn’t accept the fact that my depression was not a major character defect, but rather a serious disease.

Kyle and I decided to marry.  I finished my last year of college and graduated with honors.  The next day I moved back to my home state and into Kyle’s house and spent the remainder of the month preparing for our wedding which was three weeks away.  Two weeks after our wedding I had a new full time job and life was going well.  All too soon, though, I began having difficulty at work, and then familiar heaviness of depression crept back in.

Once again I began the trial and error process of finding the right medications.  After a couple of months, my doctor suggested I was experiencing bipolar disorder.  She believed this because my depression was treatment resistant.

the getaway by Kylie / Somewhere Lovely

I had an idea in my head of what bipolar disorder looked like.  I imagined someone in the midst of the highs that come with the manic phase of bipolar disorder, and I thought, “That couldn’t be me!” I never really had highs, anyways.  I always just seemed depressed.  The doctor encouraged me to think about it for the time being, adding that there was no rush to judgment about what we would call it.  She did tell me, though, that bipolar disorder required a different kind of treatment.  We would leave the antidepressants, or at least minimize their use, and lean more towards mood stabilizers.

I was so sick of trying this new med and that new med, but I wanted to be well.  In my mind, being depressed was bad enough; I couldn’t imagine having to admit that I was bipolar.  What would people think?  At the time, the bipolar diagnosis meant that I would be just that – bipolar.  It would define me and it would predetermine who I could be.

Oddly, I didn’t look down on other people with bipolar disorder.  I saw them as capable people who could do anything they set their minds to.  But I couldn’t see myself that way.  I was sure that a bipolar diagnosis meant I had failed at something – though I didn’t know what.  I felt that I was less than others, and somehow unequal. I didn’t want to be “crazy” or “mentally ill”.  I didn’t want to take a medication in a class of drugs known as mood stabilizers – that made me sound crazy, too.  I just wanted to be “normal”.

Over the course of this past year, I’ve faced many challenges.  I took 18 months off work, even though I had just completed a Masters Degree.  I couldn’t be around other people because my anxiety and self-doubt were so overpowering.  I left home for six weeks for treatment in Texas.  I had many hard days and hard nights dealing with the types of issues that most people easily deal with in the course of an average day.  I struggled to figure out why it all seemed so much harder for me.  I experienced my first real manic episode.  After weeks of racing thoughts, little or no sleep, hyper-focused behaviors, heightened emotions and shopping binges characteristic of bipolar disorder, I was terrified, depressed, and worried.  I feared I would ruin my marriage, and I faced considerable debt, yet I had nothing to represent the thousands I had spent.  Where had it all gone?  I had no idea.

I had to admit what I had been trying to ignore for six years – maybe I was bipolar.  Maybe I did need mood stabilizers.  Maybe it wasn’t just depression.  But maybe, just maybe, that didn’t make me crazy.  Maybe it just made me, well – me.  And maybe, by owning it, it would slowly cease to hold so much power over me.

I had to admit what I had been trying to ignore for six years – maybe I was bipolar. Maybe I did need mood stabilizers.  Maybe it wasn’t just depression.  But maybe, just maybe, that didn’t make me crazy.  Maybe it just made me, well – me.  And maybe, by owning it, it would slowly cease to hold so much power over me.

I’ve made many positive gains in the past several months.  I take my medication more regularly than I have in six years.  I attend weekly therapy sessions.  I smile a little more.  I laugh a little louder.  I don’t hesitate to write “bipolar” on paperwork when I see a new doctor, and I don’t think of myself as crazy.  I now blog about my experiences, hoping that other people with this disorder can find comfort in their similarities to me.  I go to a weekly support group.  The incredible part?  I’m the group founder, and now, president.  I finally admitted that I needed some support, but I couldn’t find any local groups, and so I became determined to start one.  I know how isolating and frightening this disease can be, but I also know how empowering it can be to slay those dragons that used to breathe fire into my soul.

When I open the meeting each week, do I admit that, like millions of other people, I have bipolar disorder?  Absolutely.  Do I allow it to define me?  Not a chance.  I may have bipolar disorder, but I am so much more.

Roxann Shook is a twenty-something writer, crafter, wife and part-time educator in Wyoming.

(If you’d like to Spin Your Story get the specs here, I’d love to have you!)

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