"Bipolar II... It's what Mariah Carey and I both have."
It's not a sentence that Beth thought she'd ever write, but the universality of mental illness can be surprising.
It took Mariah Carey 17 years to go public about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Take a minute to think about that. Living with a mood disorder while the international media labels you as an irrational, unstable diva. Not sharing that, for 17 years of your life, for fear of losing your career. Stigma and fear of a mental illness is often based around lack of understanding. The media creates such a specific image of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and most psychiatric illness. Let’s start this then, with a quick rundown of what bipolar actually is.
Originally called manic depression, bipolar is a mood disorder. For this, think of mood as a scale, one that runs from 0 to 10. For ‘ordinary’ people, 4-6 is their range of mood. 5 is feeling normal, average, just getting on with things. 6 is a good day and 4 is a rough one. With bipolar you can ricochet from 0 to 10, between suicidally depressed and euphorically psychotic, completely unable to stay focussed on reality.
There’s more than one type of bipolar. You’ve probably heard of Bipolar I. In this form, you have more manic episodes, more intensely lively, euphoric, overblown moments that the media loves to show. It’s these episodes that get noticed, the ones where people spend loads of money, disappear for weeks at a time in a drug or alcohol haze or occasionally believe that they’re a divine being.
Bipolar II is kind of the opposite. It’s what both Mariah Carey and I have (not a sentence I ever thought I’d write). With bipolar II, you experience more severe depressive episodes compared to manic. And if you do ‘go up’ it tends to level out at a hypomanic – one step down where you’re unfocussed, erratic, socialising more, sleeping less, but you’re not in a full blown manic episode.
With me so far? There’s a few other flavours of bipolar. Cyclothymia is the middle ground of I and II. You experience both depressive episodes and hypomania without hitting the extremes of the scale. Another form bipolar can take is called mixed state: a hypomanic or manic state but with depressive tendencies. I’ve had a few of these in my time and the best way I can describe them is a weird destructive energy. It’s like OH YES I HATE EVERYTHING LETS GO PLAY IN TRAFFIC WAHOOO! You know?
The best part of my bipolar though, is that it’s rapid cycling. For most people a manic episode can last between a few weeks to four or five months, while a depression can be several months. When you have rapid cycling however, all that’s nonsense. Your mood can change from day to day or even within a few hours. It’s honestly exhausting. Going from being unable to sit down, having been up all night because you have just too much energy to lie flat, to suddenly wanting to die because your whole life is collapsing around you. Irritability is a common feature for me in my transitional periods because I can feel my brain shifting and there’s very little I can do about it.
Now, let’s add PMS to all of that. Subject switch but bear with me. Imagine trying to explain to someone that your mood feels all over the place, that you’re irritable and one minute everything is fine and the next you hate everyone. How many times do you think I was told it was just my hormones. How many women, ever, have been told that. It can take years for people to be diagnosed with bipolar. It’s often misdiagnosed as other psychiatric disorders – depression, psychosis, borderline personality disorder are favourites. How many women had this but with PMS thrown into the mix too?
It took me 7 years, 8 antidepressants and one trip to the hospital for me to get diagnosed. I was originally diagnosed with depression at 18. I rolled with it for a year, things were going fairly well, I was getting ready to come off my meds. And then my mum committed suicide. She had bipolar, diagnosed very late. She was in and out of hospitals throughout her life, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder when I was 9 and only finally diagnosed with bipolar aged 48, after telling her doctor about our family history of it.
I spent the next few years terrified that was my destiny. Onset for bipolar tends to be in someone’s early 20s and as I finished uni I started getting mood swings, serious episodes of depression and realised that my meds weren’t working. In my final year I asked a psychiatrist whether I could be following in my mum’s clinical footsteps. I was shot down, told that it was likely hormones, grief and stress from finals.
Looking back, I want to hit that psychiatrist, gently, with my diagnosis. On a clipboard. It took some very rough years and some seriously questionable medication to be taken seriously. My current psychiatrist took one look at my symptoms and family history and slapped me straight on mood stabilisers. Getting diagnosed has been a perseverance test. It’s meant going back again and again and again to doctors and psychiatrists, with them telling me my gut feeling was wrong, and it’s felt like banging my head against a wall.
It's been 8 months since my diagnosis and this is the first time I’ve talked publicly about it. Like Mariah Carey, I’ve been afraid to share it, scared of what people are going to think of me. I’ve not made peace with my diagnosis myself, let alone what other people are going to think of it. But, it’s coming up to Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. And my fear may help someone else who’s going through the same thing. Maybe something I’ve written will give someone else the courage to go to their doctor and question their diagnosis. And if it makes someone feel less alone in their bipolar, even better.
Beth Saward is as 23 year old writer from Oxford. She got her start writing for her student newspaper and has become increasingly vocal about mental health advocacy, sex positivity and LGBT representation in media over the years. For more of her writing, visit The Norwich Radical or her blog on the Huffington Post.
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