What I learned from reducing my medication

My family went to Costa Rica a couple months ago and I forgot to take my medication with me.  Such a rookie move!  I took my bedtime dose the night before our trip and then forgot to put the container back in my bag.  I don’t have a great packing track record:  last year we went to Whistler and I forgot pants.

As I’ve written about before, the medication I take works fairly well as a mood stabilizer, but also causes a major reduction in my blood sodium level (called hyponatremia, a.k.a. what marathon runners get if they don’t drink Gatorade).  It’s very dangerous and I’ve been hospitalized because of it.  If you want immediate admission to an ER tell them, “My sodium level is 123.”  BAM!  You’ve got a room!

In order to prevent this from happening again, I take a massive amount of sodium via salt pills to maintain a safe sodium level.  I also have to be careful not to drink too many liquids, which I find really difficult to do.  I love the coffee, the Diet Coke, the water, the wine, the protein shakes… all of it.  What- you CAN’T drink 64 ounces of fluid by 10 am?  Weirdo.

After we got back from Costa Rica, I went in for a blood test and my sodium level was in the “normal” range for the first time in years.  Yay!  This was a direct result of being off my medication for a week. I decided to lower my dose of my mood stabilizer on my own.  (Warning bells should be going off right now.)  My psychiatrist was not thrilled with this decision.  She understood my frustration with the sodium issue and the constant monitoring, but was concerned about my moods becoming less stable.

From September to November, I slowly started to feel more agitated.  I exercised a lot to burn off nervous energy.  I had trouble sleeping.  My children’s voices became louder.  The house felt messier and more crowded.  My mind started running circles around the same questions over and over again.  Basically, I felt like I used to feel in my 20s and 30s before diagnosis or treatment.

I scheduled an appointment with a fancy, famous, expensive doctor because I thought maybe he would know about a new medication with fewer side effects.  Fancy doctor was not magic.  In fact, fancy doctor was kind of a jerk and suggested I switch to an older medication that causes extreme weight gain, kidney damage and potentially uncontrolled bleeding.  He brushed aside my concerns about such major physical problems and ushered me out the door.  So much for a magic doctor with a magic cure.

I went back to my regular psychiatrist.  We agreed that my current medication is my best option and that I should go back to my regular dose.  I did and I already feel better.  I have some headaches and tiredness, but the volume in my head feels turned back down to a more manageable volume.

This whole experience taught me a couple things.  

1.  First, this experience reminded me that bipolar disorder is incredibly real.

Mental illness is very obvious in times of crisis.  Nobody doubts that the guy on the corner talking to himself has a mental illness.  When I was diagnosed, I was in a very hypomanic state and was clearly experiencing a bipolar episode.  The diagnosis could not have been clearer.

As I’ve gotten my condition under control, though, it’s become far more subtle.  This is a good thing!  The whole POINT of treatment is to achieve a more normal mood state on a regular basis.  Taking my medication, trying to eat a healthy diet, attending support groups, journaling, exercising, reducing my stress, making sleep a priority, meditating…. THEY ALL WORK.  I stop feeling really bipolar when I do all the things, because all the things work.

Reducing my medication reminded me how quickly things can go downhill, though.  Bipolar disorder is kind of like diabetes, in that it can either kill you or it can just be an annoyance, depending on how well you manage it.  Some people die, but others live productive, normal lives because they take the disorder seriously and have the resources to do so.  Both outcomes are entirely possible.  In fact, my dad actually did die from unmanaged diabetes and a lifetime of unmanaged mental illness.  So, I got that memo.  Take it seriously.

2.  This experience reminded me how lucky I am.  

I may be unlucky in having bipolar disorder, but I’m very lucky in the tools I have to deal with it.  I’m lucky to have a compassionate, knowledgeable psychiatrist who I can afford and who provides me with great care.  I’ve lucky that I have medication that works and that doesn’t poison my body, even if it is annoying to deal with.  I’m lucky that I can afford childcare, which keeps life manageable.  I’m really lucky to have a supportive, wise and loving husband.  I’m lucky to have the time to take care of myself.  I’m lucky that I’m in otherwise good physical health.  I’m lucky to have a good support system of friends and family.

3.  This experience reminded me to have compassion for myself.

In a weird way, it’s actually really comforting to be reminded of the seriousness of bipolar disorder.  It reminds me that I’m not being self-indulgent or dramatic in taking good care of myself.  Self compassion changes my self-talk.  Instead of saying, “I’m an unemployed lawyer who can’t even take care of her own kids” (what I used to say), I say, “I’ve created a wonderful life with what I’ve been given”.  Yay, therapy!

All of this leads me to want to connect with and support others who deal with mental illness.  I do this by writing this blog, attending local support groups, listening to and reading mental health content online and in books, donating to mental health causes, being an active member of the mental health community and doing what I can to help reduce stigma.

I don’t know what the future holds for me, but for now I’m okay with being a mom, taking good care of myself and doing my best to shout out into the void, “Hey!  Over here!  I deal with this too, and you are not alone.”  Mental illness is real, it is everywhere, and there is no reason for anybody to go through it by themselves.

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On Taking Psychiatric Medication: It’s harder than it sounds

Back when I was a public defender, I represented people being committed for involuntary psychiatric treatment.  I used to get kind of annoyed with the bipolar people, because the story was always the same.  The person took medication, felt better, decided they no longer needed their medication, went off of it, and then when off the deep end.  I used to ask myself, “Why can’t they just stay on their medication?  HOW HARD IS IT?”

When I found myself diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 2, therefore, I believed strongly in the importance of medication.  I also thought that treatment would be easy.  All I needed to do was take some pills, and I’d be totally normal, right?  Three years after diagnosis, I still believe in the benefits of medication, but my opinions are much more tempered by experience.

By the time I was diagnosed, I was pretty hypomanic.  My brain was not at all working properly and I knew it.  I began a very commonly prescribed mood stabilizer, but one which causes a potentially very dangerous rash in a small percentage of people.  Guess who got the rash?  I did.  So, I had to stop taking that medication.

A month later, my doctor prescribed a second medication.  This medication can cause a dangerous lowering of sodium levels (called hyponatremia), so I started getting blood tests to monitor my sodium level.  Eight months later, my husband and son and I went to Kauai for vacation.  The night we arrived, I felt incredibly disoriented and dizzy.  We went to the emergency room, where it was discovered that I had a sodium level of 123.  A normal level is 135-145.  Anything below 120 and I could have slipped into a coma.  So, we spent our first night of vacation in the E.R. with me getting an I/V of sodium fluid.

After the experience in Kauai, my doctor and I realized we needed to constantly monitor and manage my sodium levels.  I take EIGHT salt pills a day to replace the sodium that my medication flushes out of my system.  My husband makes fun of me because I carry around a little pill divider in my purse LIKE I’M EIGHTY.  I get a blood test every two to three weeks to make sure my blood sodium level is safe and I have to constantly monitor my fluid intake.  It turns out I’m also sort of a water addict, so I have to make sure I’m not drinking too much, because that can lower my blood sodium level.  That’s right, I have a drinking problem because I drink too much water.

So with this sodium issue, why not just take a different medication?  The problem is that every medication has side effects.  Some cause changes in metabolism, which can increase the risk of diabetes.  Some are extremely hard on the kidneys.  No medication is perfect, so I take the one with the least adverse affects.

Despite dealing with the side effects, taking medication is still worth it for me.  The medication I take really helps me.  I don’t have the dramatic swings in energy that I used to deal with on a regular basis.  I miss the productivity of being a little bit manic, but my life demands that I be stable and productive every day.  I haven’t been severely depressed since I started medication, which is pretty great.  I still have some days when I feel extremely productive, and I still have days when I just want to lie in bed and eat cookies, but my mood changes are more within the normal range.

Maybe someday I won’t need medication, but that day is not today.  Maybe I will take medication for the rest of my life.  Who knows.  Either way, I’m okay with it.  I’m committed to taking things one day at a time, in consultation with my doctor.

Because of my experience, I’ve also been dissuaded of the delusion that medication would “cure” me.  Thankfully, bipolar disorder is a very manageable illness, but it doesn’t manage itself.  Medication only does about 30% of the job.  Therapy, regular sleep, a good diet, exercise, and stress management are all things I must focus on to be healthy and stable.  I work every day to take charge of my life, rather than letting my moods take charge of me.

I really miss being a lawyer and some day I hope to work with the mentally ill population again.  In the meantime, though, my own experiences give me a lot more compassion for other people dealing with mental illness.  I occasionally help to facilitate a mental health support group, and I’m a lot more patient now when people vent about the challenges of finding the right medication or dealing with side effects.  I will never again wonder, “How hard is it?!”, because I know that it can actually be very hard.

My experiences have also motivated me to become involved in mental health advocacy.  I recently agreed to serve on the board of my local NAMI chapter, which is my first quasi-professional activity in years and which I am extremely excited about.  Access to great psychiatric care is just one of the things I’m passionate about.  I’m lucky to have access to a great doctor, and not everybody does.

We don’t choose our battles in life, but we can learn from them.  Hopefully others can learn a little bit from my experiences, too.

On God and Psychiatry

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M101 (the “Pinwheel Galaxy”), a spiral galaxy located 21 million light years away, as photographed at the Stanford Student Observatory.  
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Jupiter, as photographed at the Stanford Student Observatory.  

During my first quarter at college, I enrolled in an observational astronomy class at Stanford.  Every Thursday night, a few of us rode our bikes in the dark up to the Student Observatory, where we looked at various celestial objects through the telescope.  I remember looking at Saturn and its rings and thinking that it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.  The photos above were taken at this observatory, and while far better images exist, I love their grainy, far-away quality.  They give you the sense that you are peering into the dark, endless expanse of the universe.

The more I know about our universe, galaxy, and planet, the more I realize how our tiny brains can never comprehend the vastness of it all.  Orca whales swim in unison to create waves large enough to knock seals off floating sea ice.  Honeybees perch outside the hive and fan their wings to suck out the hot air for the good of hive.  The human eye is an intricate ecosystem working with our brains to give us the gift of vision.

I believe in something bigger than our tiny human lives on earth, something from which all goodness and creation flows.  I call this thing God.  Others can disagree about the accuracy of my conclusion, and that’s okay, because I’m at peace with my own beliefs.

I’ve experienced God in nature, but also in music, church, friendship, and in the kindness and love of others.  My first real experience with God came during a typical “altar-call” at a Christian camp during my teenage years.  While I no longer attend an “Evangelical”-style church, my experience with God was real and nobody can ever convince me otherwise.  I believe that God exists, that He hears us, that our lives have meaning, and that above all else, God is good.

After the much-anticipated birth of my first child, I became severely depressed.  For an entire year, I tried everything to make myself better.  I literally ran five miles almost every day (exercise is supposed to make you happy!), I went to church, I tried to make new mommy friends, I went back to work (twice), I quit work (twice), I journaled, I ate a healthy diet, and I did everything I could to “cure” myself.  I thought I just needed to be stronger, try harder and be more faithful.

After a year of doing everything “right”, though, I still felt full of despair.  Finally I acquiesced to trying medication.  Within a few weeks of starting medication, I felt better.  I still felt completely like myself, but it was as if somebody turned down the volume in my head.  I could cope.  I no longer felt paralyzed with terrible feelings.

Much is made of the “conflict” between faith and science.  I believe this conflict is largely overblown, much like the “working moms vs. stay-at-home moms” conflict, but there does exist real hostility towards modern psychiatry in certain faith communities.  The feeling of “you must just be doing it wrong” prevails.  I can partially understand this feeling, because the lines between faith, the soul, the body and the mind are fuzzy.  It’s easy to think that what worked for one person should work for everyone else.

And without a doubt, sometimes there is a place for spiritual discovery.  Sometimes, we need prayer.  Sometimes, we must summon the better versions of ourselves.  Sometimes though, we need medical help.

The hard part is knowing when we need God and when we need a doctor.  I’ve accepted that I need bothSpiritual struggle has a purpose, but suffering does not.  I believe in a God who wants me to be the healthiest, fullest version of myself.  I believe God has a plan for my life, and that in order to fulfill this plan I must be well.  Taking medication and working with a psychiatrist help me stay well.

The best psychiatrist in the world cannot tell me who created Saturn, why I am on this planet, or what it all means.  This is where faith comes in.  My church provides me with community, common purpose and tools for nurturing my spiritual life, all of which enhance my mental health.

The best pastor in the world though, cannot pray away a broken leg or psychosis.  This is where medicine comes in.  Things get complicated with mental illness, because mental illness takes place in our brains, but mental illness is just like other illness.  Tellingly, you don’t hear diabetics agonizing about whether taking insulin conflicts with their faith.

Accepting my mental health diagnosis, working with a psychiatrist and taking medication do not take the place of my spiritual life.  They do make me a healthier, happier, fuller version of myself, and thus closer to who God wants me to be.  This is my faith.

What it’s REALLY like to be bipolar

I love this picture because, a) it’s hilarious, and b) there’s so much truth to it.  As its name suggests, bipolar is an illness of extremes.

Thanks to an accurate diagnosis, medication, therapy and lifestyle choices, I don’t experience as many of the typical highs and lows as I used to.  However, I still get a little manic (literally!) about things sometimes.  I often have to tell myself to slow down when I start getting super into organizing the closets or some other activity.  Sometimes it will dawn on me after I’ve done 17 tasks that perhaps it’s time to stop and rest.

Because of the “bi” in “bipolar”, depression is also very much a part of living with bipolar disorder.  Bipolar Disorder Type 2 people never get fully manic (thankfully), but we do tend to spend more time on the depressive end of the spectrum.  I’ve learned that all I can really do during these episodes is to keep chugging along and avoid self sabotage.  Thankfully, it always passes.

Bipolar disorder is so much more complicated than the two extremes, though.  For me, having bipolar disorder means that I get easily overwhelmed.  The bipolar brain is a more sensitive brain and actually looks different on brain scans than normal brains.  (Footnote 1.)  Bipolar brains “light up” in ways that normal brains do not.

A bipolar brain also feels things very intensely.  When my daughter yells from the bathroom, “My pee is lellow!”, my whole body smiles.  When I snuggle my puppy, I am immersed in her soft fur and her sweet puppyness.  When I hug my husband, I smell his skin and fully feel his presence as my companion and best friend.  When my son feels full of despair after getting in trouble, I also experience his despair.  When I step outside after the rain, I inhale the fresh air and marvel at the unbearable beauty of God’s creation.  When the kids are fighting and screaming, my whole body is filed with anxiety.  Medication helps “turn down the volume”, so to speak, but it isn’t a cure. Being bipolar can be many things, and it is often overwhelming.  I take a lot of naps.

When I keep my life manageable and take care of myself, though, my moods remain fairly stable and I feel pretty good.  The minute I overschedule myself, though, it’s like somebody starts turning up the volume in my brain.  Sounds are louder, smells are stronger, and colors get brighter.   I feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop and want to cover my ears shouting, “SHUT UP!  SHUT UP!  SHUT UP!”  My mind hops on the hamster wheel of useless thoughts and it becomes harder to let things go.  I became more reactionary and less patient with everyone.  I lose perspective and feel anxious about everything.  In essence, I start to feel a little crazy.

There is a definite bright side to learning to live with this disorder, though.  I am very clear about my priorities.  My health always comes first (or at least it should), because without my health, I’m useless.  After that, I make time for my husband, my children, a few VERY good friends, a couple things that bring me joy (like my puppy, this blog, church, nature, etc.), all the necessary tasks of daily life, and that’s about it.  I say no and sometimes people are disappointed, but I can’t afford for the wheels to come off my mental bus.  Having bipolar disorder forces me to make intentional choices about how to spend my time and energy.

Learning to embrace my disorder, further, has been a very empowering experience.  Once I started attending a mental health support group and met other people like me, I started to realize that it’s okay to be me.  Being okay with what I am helps me be okay with what I’m not.  After all, I believe that God made me, and God doesn’t make mistakes.

——

Footnote 1:  http://www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/news/20041130/new-brain-scan-may-diagnose-bipolar-disorder#1

Recovery

After the shock of being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 2 and the mental gymnastics of accepting it, I actually felt overwhelmed with relief. Imagine living with symptoms that no one can see, but that you feel acutely.  You observe the behavior of others and know you are different, but you don’t know why.  You doubt yourself and the reality of your experiences and assume you must just be weak or flawed.  However, you never get any answers about why you do the things you do or feel the things you do.

Suddenly, a doctor tells you that what you have has a name.   Medical textbooks specifically describe symptoms you assumed to be unique to yourself.  You meet other people with stories eerily similar to yours and say, “Me too!”.  Best of all, there is medication to help you feel better!  There are tools and skills to help you cope with your symptoms.  This, my friend, is the world of recovery.

The past two years of my life have been all about recovery.  Recovery isn’t like surgery- you don’t go in for the procedure and come out fixed.  Recovery is a process of trial and error- an ebb and flow of good days and harder days, learning periods and coasting periods, testing out of new skills and unlearning of bad habits.  Recovery is life.

My recovery includes some very basic elements, which my therapist calls the “legs of my chair”.  If I take away one of the legs, the chair falls down.  When the legs of my chair are strong, I live a full, productive and joyful life.

One of the legs of my chair is medication.  Bipolar disorder is like a big spectrum, with suicidal depression on one end, mania on the other and lots of variations in between.  Because I have bipolar disorder Type 2 and not Type 1, I never end up in full-blown mania.  Thankfully, I’ve also never had suicidal depression.  However, my natural range of moods is too wide to be healthy or to allow full functionality.  Medication narrows my range of emotions and helps keep my moods stable.  I have good days and more difficult days, but I can usually still function during the depressive days.  When I can’t, I do my best to slog through, ask for help, and not make it worse with self sabotaging behavior like oversleeping, overeating and thinking bad things about myself.

Another pillar of my recovery is sleep.  I go to bed every single night at 10 pm and hopefully sleep until 6 am.  I rarely attend evening events, as they usually make it harder to fall asleep on time.  My sleep is sometimes interrupted by children, but I do my best to protect it.  I also lay down every single afternoon for an hour or so to rest and mentally “re-set” my day.  I make an effort to relax, to focus on my breathing and to clear my mind. I always get up better prepared to tackle the rest of the day.

In addition to sleep and medication, keeping my life manageable is by far the biggest aspect of my recovery.  This is why I don’t currently work as a lawyer.  As the primary caregiver of our children, homemaker and family logistics coordinator, I have plenty to keep me busy.  I think long and hard about taking on new responsibilities, and usually discuss them with my therapist.  I say no to a lot of invitations I would prefer to accept.  Some chores don’t get done.  Some hobbies languish.   I only make time for the things I really need or want to do and sometimes I don’t even get to those.  This is the price of wellness.

Seeing my therapist twice a month is another huge part of my recovery.  She is my sounding board, one of the people who holds me accountable, my medical expert and my recovery skills coach.  I attend a mental health support group, which has been hugely significant in helping to see my condition as separate from myself.  I journal and makes notes about my moods just about every day, which helps me stay mindful.  I go to church and make an effort to get outside, where I most strongly feel God’s presence.  I nurture the relationships that provide joy and companionship, like my relationship with my husband and a few very good friends.

Learning to control my relationship with food also helps keep my moods stable and positive.  I attend Weight Watchers every single week, which helps me stay motivated and inspired to make good food choices and to take care of my body. I try to avoid high-sugar food, which can trigger a food binge and consequently, a depressive episode.  Making good food choices and taking care of my body play as big of a role in my recovery as taking medication.  It took a long time to figure this out and I still am.

Recovery isn’t about being “cured”.  Recovery is about living the healthiest, most joyful, and most productive version of my life.  Sometimes I get frustrated at all the things I can’t do because of my condition.  However, I’ve also gained wisdom, friendships and strength through learning to deal with it.  Every day is a journey in recovery.  I am proud of how far I’ve come and am excited to see what the future holds.

Accepting a mental health diagnosis

Back in my public defender days, I worked for a time in various psychiatric units representing people being involuntarily committed for treatment.  As I listened to clients describe their delusions, I often thought, “How can you not realize that this is CRAZY?!”  The government implanted tiny listening devices in your ears to spy on you?  REALLY?!  The entire experience left me with one overriding impression: this shit was real.  Sit alone in a room with someone talking to their imaginary friend and you’ll believe in mental illness, too.

Despite the obviousness of their symptoms to everyone else, denial was common.  This is understandable.  After all, what reality do we know other than the one we experience?  How would you feel if you were Neo and Morpheus tried to tell you about The Matrix?  This is probably what it feels like to be told that your delusions aren’t real.

I quickly learned that the most common problem with bipolar disorder is NOT that there aren’t effective treatments, because there are.  The most common problem is that people refuse to believe they are bipolar and refuse treatment.  After all, why take medication if there’s nothing wrong with you?

In my opinion, bipolar disorder uniquely lends itself to denial.  Here’s the thing about bipolar disorder:  you’re normal, and then you’re not.  A bipolar person can go long stretches of time with a normal mood, and alternative explanations can always be found for the not-normal moods.  Typically, it takes six years for a person to be correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  (Footnote 1.)

Despite my education and experience, I still struggled to wrap my brain around my diagnosis of Bipolar 2.  People are complicated, which makes mental illness complicated.  While it was so easy to see my clients’ mental illnesses, seeing it in myself blew my mind.  I was probably hypomanic in college, but college is a crazy time for a lot of people.  I became severely depressed after the birth of my first child, but many new moms gets depressed.  When I became very hypomanic, my basement had just flooded with sewage and I had two little kids.  Who wouldn’t be stressed out?

The line between mental illness and personality, character, choices, life events, etc. can be very fuzzy, but there is still a line. I’m a social person and I love people and parties.  This is my personality.  Sometimes hypomania can make people very social.  Hypomania isn’t a personality type, though, hypomania is a medical condition.  Can you see how it gets confusing to distinguish between the two?  It helps that I’ve met many types of people with bipolar disorder.  We are all different, but our symptoms are the same.  This helps me see my condition as a condition, not as my personality or my character.

Ultimately, acceptance is a choice and I choose to accept my diagnosis of Bipolar 2.  I go lawyer on myself about it.  I say, “Two separate psychiatrists diagnosed me with this condition.  My dad was bipolar, and there is a strong genetic component involved.  I’ve experienced both depression and hypomania, which is all that is required for a diagnosis.  The evidence that I have bipolar disorder is compelling.  Therefore, I choose to accept this diagnosis.”  Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.

While acceptance is very humbling and forces a re-orienting of one’s reality, it’s also very liberating.  Finally, I don’t feel alone in trying to untangle the knots in my brain.  Finally, I have a name for why I always felt so different.  Finally, I am getting the proper treatment.  Finally, I am taking proper care of myself.  As a result, I feel so much better now!   I’m more at peace and content than I’ve been in years.

I didn’t choose to have bipolar disorder, but I do choose to accept the diagnosis, and doing so is turning out to be one of the most empowering, enlightening experiences of my life.  There’s something very liberating about facing your worst possible fear and living through it.  We don’t choose our struggles, but we do choose how to respond, and who knows-  you may even come out stronger on the other side.

Footnote 1.  https://psychcentral.com/news/2016/07/26/nearly-6-year-delay-found-between-onset-diagnosis-of-bipolar-disorder/107687.html

Diagnosis

In December of 2014, I sat in my psychiatrist’s office as she asked me questions like, “Does it feel like your thoughts are racing?”, “Do you have a hard time focusing?” and “Are you sleeping?”   Were my thoughts racing?  OF COURSE THEY WERE!  Doesn’t everybody’s?  Did I have a hard time focusing on one task at a time?  Obviously!  I am a very busy person!  Was I sleeping?  I slept until 4 am every day, when I spontaneously woke up and starting thinking about my to-do list.  In addition, my senses were heightened.  Colors were brighter, sounds were louder and smells were stronger.  It felt like my brain was on fire.

My doctor’s next words were, “This concerns me.  I think we might be dealing with bipolar disorder”.  I burst into tears.  (Side note:  It’s never good news when your psychiatrist says, “This concerns me.”)  She clarified that she thought I had Bipolar Disorder Type Two, a diagnosis later confirmed by my current psychiatrist.    Bipolar Disorder Two is characterized by periods of depressed mood alternating with periods of hypomania (less than full mania), often with long periods of normal mood in between.  (Footnote 1.)

I’ve always experienced periods of intense productivity and energy, when I feel connected to the universe, can work tirelessly, am excited about life and feel full of hope, creativity and plans for the future.  I’ve also experienced periods of real depression, instability and extreme agitation.

My life story was unusual, though, so it seemed natural that my moods would be extreme.  I was born into an established, upper middle class family in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  We enjoyed a beautiful home, a country club membership, nice cars, trips to Vail and the Bahamas and an extended network of family all within a few miles.  We were happy.  Through bad luck, a downturn in the economy, and most likely an undiagnosed mood disorder on my dad’s part, though, my dad lost his business and we lost everything.  When I was eight, we sold our possessions and moved to California with nothing: no money, no family and no connections.

The next several years were a struggle and weren’t happy ones for my family.  My mom kept a roof over our heads with her teaching job, and my sister and I worked hard to get scholarships to college.  I loved school and was highly motivated to succeed.  Some caring adults took my under their wing, and I got lucky.  I got into Stanford and received enough financial aid to attend.

As a result of these circumstances, I viewed my life in terms of survival.  I was born into wealth, a large extended family, and a happy life.  Then we lost everything and it all fell apart.  My family fell apart.  Through hard work and determination, though, I had fought my way back to the top.  My life had been bipolar.  Who wouldn’t have had some extreme moods in these circumstances?  I had fucking made it.    

By the time I sat in my psychiatrist’s office at age 35, though, I suspected that I was different, and not just in terms of life circumstances.  My life was very stable by that point, but my moods were not.  I was happily married, we were financially stable, I had great family and friends, and my life was generally pretty great.  Despite this stability of circumstances, though, I still had “on” days and “off” days.  During the “on” days I could care for my kids, eat healthy food, exercise, do errands, engage with others socially, get all sorts of things done, and felt excited about life.  On the “off” days, though, I felt no joy about anything and just wanted to sleep.  I wasn’t able to care for my kids without hiring help, and this caused me endless shame.  I couldn’t reconcile my “on” self with my “off” self.  How was it that I had run a fucking marathon, but couldn’t function?

It was obvious to my psychiatrist on that fateful day in 2014 that I was in the middle of a full-blown hypomanic episode, triggered by being on an antidepressant.  This is a very common fact pattern:  person with latent bipolar disorder gets depressed, seeks help, is incorrectly diagnosed with simple depression, is put on an antidepressant, gets hypomanic (or manic) as a result of the antidepressant, and is correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  (Footnote 2.)

I knew my brain felt out of control, and started to wrap my mind around the idea that it had a label.  For the first time, I considered the possibility that my extreme moods weren’t normal.  My doctor immediately started weaning me off the antidepressant, and started the process of putting me on the correct medication.  Recovery began and it was official.  I was bipolar.

Footnote 1.  www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/guide/bipolar-2-disorder#1

Footnote 2.  www.psychiatrictimes.com/bipolar-disorder/switching-mood-depression-mania-antidepressants

Why I started this blog

When I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type Two in December 2014 (more on that later), I felt full of fear and despair.  I feared that being “bipolar” destined me to live a life of being an unstable, unreliable crazy person.

For the first year of my diagnosis, I didn’t tell anybody about my diagnosis other than close family and friends.  I didn’t want people to think of me differently or think I was crazy.

I felt desperate to connect with people who understood what I was going through, though.  I started attending a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) support group in my town, and through this group, met countless other people with bipolar disorder.  These people came from all walks of life:  dads, young women, older people, workers, professionals, and people from every race and socioeconomic class.  Despite their differences, all these different people shared the same symptoms.  I began to view my condition not as my character or personality, but as a condition.

Over two years later, I am in such a better place than when I was first diagnosed.  Receiving a correct diagnosis turned out to be an incredible blessing.  Finally, I had an answer as to why I had always experienced both incredible periods of productivity but also periods lost to the murky fog of depression.  I always knew I was different but I didn’t know why.  So much made sense now!

The best part of being diagnosed, though, is that I could finally receive proper treatment!  Finally, I could take the right medication, which has greatly improved my quality of life.  Finally, I could start to address my condition with therapy and lifestyle changes.  Diagnosis rocked my world, but the life I’ve rebuilt is far better.

As I’ve come to accept my diagnosis and learn how to manage it, I don’t feel ashamed anymore.  I view my diagnosis as just another medical condition to be managed, like diabetes.

I started this blog because I want to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health conditions and to provide hope to others who struggle with these issues.  I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, I want to show that it is entirely possible to live a full, rich and rewarding life with bipolar disorder and other mental health challenges.

Being open about my disorder is also my way of expressing gratitude for the bounty of my life.  I have an incredibly supportive spouse, access to excellent medical care, a schedule which allows me to take care of myself, and a supportive village of family and friends.  I have bipolar disorder, and yet, I still live an amazing life.  Not everyone has this, though.  All we ever hear about bipolar disorder are the terrible stereotypes.  If people like me don’t provide an alternate narrative, who will?

Further, what is the point of having struggled with this illness if I can’t turn it into something good?  My life looks different than I expected it to look, but it is a wonderful and fulfilling life nonetheless.  My condition gives me access to people and opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have, fills my heart with gratitude for the simplest things, and has given me hard-earned wisdom and perspective.  As a person of faith, I believe that I have this condition for a reason.  I believe God has given me both my struggles and my gifts for a reason.  This blog is my way of saying, “I too struggle through this.  Let’s build something beautiful together.”