That’s how long it’s been since I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It’s hard to believe because it seems like I’ve lived the longer part of my life since then, but that’s because I had it for many years before the official label became part of my medical record. I didn’t know it at the time Dr. Awesomesauce pronounced the words that changed my life forever, but as I look back over my life it has been littered with episodes of one kind or another.
It all started more than 50 years ago, when I was a little girl plagued by night terrors and depression. A little later, around age 10, I had my first thoughts of suicide; at 13 I went through a year-long depression following the death of my beloved grandmother. I can’t quite recall when the mania showed up, but I do remember times in high school and beyond when I had much more energy than usual and couldn’t shut up. Once I got sent home from work because I was telling my life story to my co-workers, starting with earliest childhood; that was during the memorable summer I spent in what I know now to have been full-blown mania. I worked 14-hour days and drank Jack Daniels to go to sleep for about three hours before getting up and doing it all over again; unfortunately, my work performance was consistent with my diagnosis and I got written up, I don’t know many times, for erratic behavior and not playing well with others.
My mid-and-late 20s were also a mess, and I drank like a fish during most of those years. I drank when I was happy. I drank when I was sad. And I drank just for the hell of it. There are entire six-month periods I don’t even remember because I was self-medicating with booze. I do recall being chronically angry, however, and I think that was the driving force behind the drinking. It masked the anger and reduced the number and intensity of my mood episodes…at least, I think it did. My late husband and my kids might see it a little differently.
Then in my late 30s and 40s, hormones began to rear their ugly heads and my family thought I was losing my mind. I once quit a job and took several months to “find myself” at the expense of financial stability. (I don’t remember doing this, but Will told me it happened so it must have. He wouldn’t have made that up.) I went on birth control pills to deal with my excessive menstrual cycles, and they turned me into a psychotic bitch with a capital B. So I stopped those, and a few months later my internist put me on Paxil for depression.
I remember waking up one morning about three weeks into it and HELLO! I was manic AF. Didn’t recognize it as such, of course, but suddenly I was racing around my house and workplace with my hair on fire. My boss was delighted: “Whatever you do, don’t stop taking your Paxil!” It was the first of several that pooped out eventually, which is another sign of bipolar. Finally, after Wellbutrin made me severely manic, my doctor essentially said “that’s it, you’re going to have a psych eval before I prescribe anything else.” And on March 7, 2012, I was finally diagnosed properly.
Now, six years later, I’ve learned a great deal about what makes me tick. The process slips badly every now and then (hence the occasional tinkering with meds) but for the most part I’ve grown a lot since then. It’s true that aging brings maturity, as does loss, although I certainly could have done without that. I still have some trouble with acceptance of this beastly disease as part of me, especially since I’ve been so stable for most of the past three years; often, it’s almost as if I never had it to begin with. But I know that’s just stinkin’ thinkin’, and I can never go back to the days when I was innocent (and ignorant) of having a serious mental illness.
And it’s OK.