Disclaimer: The title… I’ve been watching a lot of Life on Mars lately. Gene Hunt is in my head and I’m totally okay with that. Also I was inspired to actually post this behemoth because of Erika’s amazing blog post on puzzles and anxiety.
Recently Bell held a “Bell Let’s Talk” Day to support mental health awareness. It raised well over six million dollars and for 24 hours it had people talking about their experiences with mental health. There is controversy surrounding where some of that money is going though, namely CAMH and Dr. Zucker and some of his practices. I won’t get into that here, I’m not equipped to talk about it but here are some links that I encourage you to read and make your own decisions. Obviously it’s too late now to take that money back if you disagree but there’s still the option of moving forward to talk about mental health. We need it when we still have people like this complete idiot from Fox News saying “bipolar disorder is a fad.” I’ve been “out” about my diagnosis for a while now. I have rapid-cycling bipolar II disorder as well as anxiety issues. I’ve been diagnosed since I was 19 and had symptoms as early as 12.
Bipolar II Disorder defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes (highs and lows), with no full-blown manic or mixed episodes requiring hospitalization that would make it type I. There is also Cyclothemia which is like bipolar II but less severe. During a hypomanic episode, you may feel euphoric, and be highly productive. You seek out high-risk pleasurable activities and have a decreased need for sleep. You talk fast but it makes total sense to you. The world seems crystal clear and all the answers are right there waiting.
Rapid cycling occurs when a person has four or more episodes of major depression, mania, hypomania, or mixed states, all within a year. Hypomania can seem pretty good and lots of people; I include myself here, don’t want to medicate at first or treat the illness and lose the “good things.” I feel very creative when I’m manic, and I feel like I can write an award-winning novel. I stay up for as long as I can and consume a lot of caffeine, “working.” First time I watched Torchwood I was manic and I watched the entire two seasons in one sitting. I suspect this is why I love Torchwood so much. Only good reason to love the cheesy bits as much as I do.
I was supposed to go to work but I didn’t. I didn’t even call in, just didn’t show up for two shifts. I almost lost my job because of it. A week later I walked out of work when I took an anxiety attack. Again no explanation but somehow I kept my job (my bosses were so understanding). I don’t see people talking about this. When hypomania turns into full-blown mania you can require hospitalization. You can believe you’re a superhero and try to jump off a building because you believe you can fly. You may run around in the middle of the night screaming how much you love your neighbours like a drunk college student, but completely sober.
You believe you are the best possible thing in the world and can take on everything. Mania is dangerous to the person and to everyone around them but people don’t talk about it. Sometimes this lasts a day, sometimes two weeks. This is often the face movies take when they show bipolar disorder. Stephen Fry made a wonderful documentary on bipolar disorder called the Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. In it he shows the realistic side of bipolar disorder as someone who suffers from it. It’s well worth the hour it takes to watch it:
Now that I’m medicated and managing the illness these episodes of both hypomania and depression still happen, but less frequently and with less severity. Often they are caused by both good and bad stress, so excitement about an upcoming convention or dreading a review at work can equally trigger an episode, and it may last a day or two instead of a week. Before I was diagnosed I had sprees where I maxed out credit cards; I quit jobs rudely in the middle of the night and I drank dangerously more than I should have. I started smoking at 21 while I was manic. I ruined friendships, and made others question my trustworthiness and loyalty. It’s not just the mania, all those ups must come down and they come down hard. I had thoughts of suicide after I came down from that manic episode where I quit my job and took up smoking. I slept for four days straight and couldn’t leave my bed without bursting into tears. It lasted for almost two weeks, one of the longest bouts of depression I have ever had. I was sure the world was ending and it was starting with me.
Part of it was because of what I had done and a large part of it was that I was depressed. It scared me into seeing a therapist. I went to two before someone identified I was bipolar not just depressed. (Anti-depressants can trigger mania in those with bipolar disorder so I’m glad I was correctly prescribed medications.) Medication doesn’t always work and bipolar patients, especially those suffering from a manic episode, have a low compliance record. Would you want to take away the wonderful, euphoric feeling you’re experiencing right now because someone tells you that you’ll crash eventually? It’s a high without drugs and often drugs enter into the picture as well. It takes numerous attempts to get the right cocktail (if it’s ever found) and then it has to be adjusted periodically. Right now I take Lithium, Lamotrigine and Propranolol. The latter is to get rid of the hand tremors caused by the first two and help with anxiety. They have done a number on my short-term memory, prevent me from taking ibuprofen, require me to drink almost twice what the daily requirement is of water and require frequent blood work. Also, I like to think they’re at least partially to blame for how difficult it is to lose weight, but they work. Doctors don’t even know how Lithium works exactly but it’s been the ‘gold standard’ for treating bipolar disorder. Lamotrigine was originally used to treat epilepsy but it also helps with brain chemistry and mania.
I’m lucky enough to have a great support team: a knowledgeable doctor who wants me to be part of my treatment, a wonderful and supportive partner who reminds me to take my meds, stands firm when I’m manic and is a shoulder to cry on when I’m depressed and friends that help pick me up when I’m down. I also have to brag a bit in that I get to work in a place where my employers know about this illness and do not treat me different for it. Lots of people can’t or won’t disclose their conditions to their employers and that’s okay too as long as they can still get the treatment they need. My job understands that some of my sick days will be used for mental health reasons. So while I’m not vomiting with a fever, I’m in no position to be at work. I’ve heard the line before; hell I’ve said it. “I can’t call in sick, I don’t look sick.” That’s the problem that mental health presents us with, we present to the world as “normal” most of the time. We don’t physically show our illness. Even when we’re so depressed we just want it all to end we can look like we’re just having a bad day. Never tell someone with a mental illness that they need to look on the bright side. So why am I bringing this up, other than to educate? Mostly, because I am routinely asked what bipolar disorder is. It’s a misunderstood mental illness, and one that is beginning to show up in pop culture in both good and not-so-good ways. TV shows are featuring main characters with it and movies like Silver Linings Playbook and TV shows like Homeland are making people aware of bipolar disorder as an illness. The problem is that no one person experiences it exactly the same as another and it can come about because of genetics, environment and experience. Most popular media also falsely assume that to get the girl or solve the problem the main character must take their meds. Medications do not always work. You should see if they are right for you, but they may not always work. There are numerous other coping strategies people use to get through life with or without medication.
Look at all the influential people that also suffer from bipolar disorder on many different levels. Some relevant to my fandoms include: Carrie Fisher, Spike Milligan, David Walliams, Tony Slattery, & Terry Hall.
Your bipolar disorder looks different. Some people are quivering messes all the time, some people have major episodes less frequently and some people get by suffering silently. Some people walk down the street and live a “normal” life and few people are the wiser.
I just want people to understand what this disease is that I live with every day. I don’t want to be treated differently because of it; I just want understanding that there will be days that I’m not like the usual Katrina. My bad days are really bad, and although my good days can be beyond excellent, they can be the cause of the horrible days. I take my medication as prescribed but I still suffer sometimes. Occasionally, I do miss the hypomania and the energy even though I know it’s bad for me. I spend a lot of time worrying that the really good day I’m having is the precursor to mania or that it’ll trigger something that’ll lead to depression.
I’m not a plot twist or a trope in a movie.
Don’t stop talking about mental health just because a company has stopped throwing money at it. Talk about it, ask questions! Only stop talking because you’re listening to someone else.