You Don’t Look Bipolar.
A somewhat incomplete reflection of life with a mental illness.
I remember the first time that I thought “perhaps my thought processes are not healthy”. I was 19, in the passenger seat of the car, my partner driving me to my summer job. I looked up at the sky through the windscreen and said, without emotion, “we really don’t know when an asteroid is going to come crashing into the earth, killing us all”. This isn’t the first time I’d had that thought — in fact, I had been thinking almost exclusively about asteroids destroying the planet for the three weeks leading up to this. It was surprisingly easy to do that, living on 2–3 hours of sleep per night and existing on coffee and the occasional toasted cheese sandwich while working 12 hour shifts during the “holiday season” in Australia. At this point, my long-suffering partner had tried in so many ways to support me and ease my mind. It had gotten to the point where he would look at me, say “I love you”, and occasionally wipe the tear welling in his eye away.
Prior to this revelation, I had done an excellent job of convincing myself and those who I came in contact with (apart from my partner) that I was a high-functioning university student who was also working a full-time job. In fact, I was doing great! People were commenting on how fantastic I was looking (I had lost around 15kg due to a diet consisting primarily of living in a constant state of anxiety and dread). I managed to remain extremely social, going out most nights of the week, able to diminish my thoughts of earth’s impending doom by drinking copious amounts of alcohol. I would channel the extreme amounts of energy I had into creative pursuits — at the time, I was studying classical music and performing in various orchestras and chamber ensembles. I had also taken a liking to fine art and sewing, and would stay up for hours finishing intricate pieces and projects. Obviously, I couldn’t maintain this facade for long — very shortly after the car realisation, I crashed.
I essentially shut down. It was as though my mind and my body had decided that they were, finally, exhausted. Although not sleeping much at night, I had taken to skipping classes to sleep during the day, emerging from my bed only to have the occasional toasted cheese sandwich (I WAS a university student, after all), work my department store job and occasionally see friends. Despite the complete shift in energy, the thought processes did not stop — as well as the asteroid fear, I was convinced I had cancer, despite numerous scans and doctor’s consultations telling me otherwise. I also started to get what I referred to as “negative thoughts” — essentially, it was self-talk which was trying to convince me that I was a burden on my loved ones, that they would be better off without me. All of these thoughts plagued my internal monologue relentlessly, I couldn’t stop them, no matter what I tried. I eventually began to think that the only way to stop the ongoing pain was to end my life. It was incredibly ironic, as I was so fearful of death — but, at this point, the internal battle I was fighting was worse. Around this time, I was driving home from a work shift, when all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe. “This is it”, I thought. This is the end. I pulled over to the side of the road, clung to my chest and then started hitting it in order to begin breathing again. The air came back, and I reached for my phone and called my partner. “I’m dying”, I told him. “I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what to do”. At this point, he was two hours away for work, but he drove right over to me. On his arrival, I told him “I need go to the doctor. I can’t do this anymore”.
Walking into the doctor’s office, I felt vulnerable, scared and tired. I didn’t know if this person would be able to help me at all, but I needed to try something.
“Hi Mia, what’s going on today?” the doctor asked. I then responded with some sort of word regurgitation that may or may not have made any sense at all, interspersed with tears. He listened the entire time, and when I had finished, he responded with “I’m so sorry. Let’s figure out how we can help you”. I left the office with a script for Xanax, a referral for a psychiatrist, and a very slight sense of hope.
Two days later, I walked into the psychiatrist’s office. She was an accomplished woman, who had opened up her practice with her husband, he too a psychiatrist. After a brief discussion, she diagnosed me with “probably bipolar disorder but maybe just depression”, placed me on an initial dose of Zoloft, and a return appointment. She made me sign a personal contract that said if I had any thoughts of self-harm I would immediately call emergency services or get a loved one to take me to the emergency room. I agreed, but I didn’t return for the next session. Instead, I linked in with my general practitioner who had a specialty in mental health. She monitored my medication, while referring me to another therapist. This new therapist helped me to identify my periods of high energy, irrational thoughts and destructive behaviours as “mania” and my periods of exhaustion and hibernation as “depression”. We worked as a team to stablise my moods through a combination of prescription medication, therapy and self-care.
People often ask me how long I have had Bipolar for. To be honest, I haven’t done enough reflection or research to pinpoint exactly how long I have been living with the condition, but I have been able to recognise some symptoms of mental illness in my childhood. I remember being a young child, around eight years old, and asking my mother and aunt (who was living with us at the time) about the risk of dying in one’s sleep. This was not an unusual question for the ever-inquisitive young Mia, but it was an addition to recent behaviours that were both confusing and concerning. Not long before this, I had been caught by my parents in the act of “cutting” the soles of my feet. As this behaviour was only happening at night in the confines of the home, and wasn’t affecting my educational achievement/socialisation/extra-curricular achievements (and with the fact that it was the year 1992), professional help was not sought at the time. I stopped the cutting for a brief period, resuming when I was old enough to stay at home alone so that I could release my anxieties and insecurities in the only way that I knew how — looking back, I had no vocabulary to describe or articulate what I was feeling. I don’t know if my parents realised what I was doing. If they did, I give them credit and thanks for not amplifying and shaming the behaviour.
We had a grand total of one discussion in my home regarding mental health and mental illness, and zero in my six different primary and high schools. During this time, a family friend had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia. I asked my mother what that meant (obviously, this was before the days of Google, otherwise I would have gone straight to the search engine and diagnosed myself with it, along with a brain tumor, alzheimer’s and crohn’s disease). I was met with a response of “if <friend> is on his medication, he is fine. But sometimes, he doesn’t want to take his medication, so he has to go to hospital for his safety, and sometimes other people’s safety”. I also knew of one person, a friend of my brother’s, who was diagnosed with clinical depression. According to his peers, she had tried to take her life and was placed in a psychiatric facility, but “nobody could tell if it was actually real or just attention-seeking”. Reflecting on this and relating it to my own experience, I link the “attention-seeking” comment to some of the shame I felt around telling people what I was going through. On more than one occasion, disclosing my diagnosis was met with comments of “what on EARTH have you got to be depressed about?!?” and “you don’t look like you have Bipolar — are you sure you’re not overreacting?”. Rather than tell people when I struggle, I will sometimes retreat into my home and ignore all outside influences. It’s better than feeling judged and shamed.
Living with Bipolar Disorder has taught me so much about myself and my relationships. Through reflection and introspection, I have been able to connect my history, environment and lived experiences to my thoughts and feelings, and have gained understanding and clarity around my behaviours. Since the initial diagnosis, I have seen another two psychiatrists for medication adjustments (both of whom confirmed the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder Type I), experienced periods of hypomania (or “pre-mania”), struggled with periods of stress and high anxiety, and am constantly aware of various things that could trigger unhelpful thought processes. I have also become a social worker and therapist myself, and have gained an understanding and appreciation of support networks, and have learnt to love myself BECAUSE of the way my brain works instead of despite it. I may look like I have it together, I may not look like I have Bipolar (which, for the record, is the most ludicrous thing someone could ever say to a person with Bipolar). But little things in my everyday life remind me that I do — incessant picking at my fingers, extremes in my motivation, thought and actions, urge to make ridiculously impulsive decisions, sudden creative inspiration. And despite needing to judge whether these things are helpful or unhelpful, I honestly wouldn’t change them being in my life.