Today is my birthday. It's been 39 years since I experienced my first depressive episode. I was a college freshman and it was triggered by "life events." I picked the wrong school and I didn't know how to ask for help or admit that I'd made a mistake.
It's kind of amazing that no one was able to diagnose my illness for 25 years. Once I graduated from college, every year I experienced two six-week depressions; one in April and one in October. For most of my life, they weren't that bad. I knew I didn't feel well but I was still able to work and live my life. Over time, the episodes became more painful and disruptive and I went into long-term therapy to see what changes I needed to make in my life.
In hindsight, these depressions may have been SAD (seasonal affective disorder) or they might have been caused by the "anniversaries" of the event. As a mid-semester graduate, I started college in April although the fall semester began in October.
Despite the common wisdom about the advantages of early detection, a part of me is glad it took so long to receive a diagnosis. Since I am so opposed to the classification of this illness as a "mental illness," I'm not sure how I would have coped with such a stigmatic label when I was only 18 years old. It seems to me that unless a person is harming themselves or others and needs immediate hospitalization, it's quite a burden to carry through life.
When I was young and trying to figure out who I was, what I aspired to, what dreams I wanted to fulfill, what the possibilities were--I think that wearing the yoke of this illness on my shoulders would have been limiting. During difficult times, I wonder whether I would have stopped trying because I was "sick." Would I have married and had a child (truly my greatest joy) if I had known I could pass my illness on to him? Would my husband have taken the risk if we had foreseen all the difficulties we would encounter on our journey?
Psychiatrists define manic depression as a lifelong "disease." Although it may need to be treated throughout a person's life, what if it just were considered to be a personality trait? What if we looked at the strengths it affords us rather than the weaknesses and devastation it can cause? In celebration of my birthday, I would like to write about what I consider the best aspects of this illness--for me.
In a hypomania I feel a kind of aliveness and joy that I think few "normal" people ever experience. When I'm hypomanic and I walk outside and feel the sun on my face, it literally warms my heart. When I look at trees, I notice the color and texture of their bark and leaves. When I walk around the park, I hear the birds chirping, the whack of golf clubs hitting golf balls, the scratching sound of squirrels climbing trees. When I'm with people I care about, I feel a love that is so pure and full that my heart feels like it might burst with happiness. When I am hypomanic, I feel a level of energy that is truly blissful.
In a depression (once the bad part is over but I'm not yet ready to rejoin the world), I have the time to reflect on my life. I ask myself why this recent episode happened? Was I straying from my path? Am I meant to move in another direction? Is this a message of some sort? What was the trigger? What does it mean? What changes do I need to make? How can I make use of the quiet time to replenish myself? Was I listening to my inner voice before this happened?
I often wonder if we who are bipolar--as long as the symptoms are controlled, our behavior isn't harmful to ourselves or to others, and we have developed coping mechanisms and/or skills that enable us to temper the hypomanias and reduce the severity of the depressions--aren't the luckiest people? Who else can feel so fully or so deeply? Who else can experience the entire spectrum of feelings? Who else must explore the very essence of who they are--while there is still time to change things?